How can HFX Wanderers beat Forge FC in the CPL Final?
Neutralizing Forge's midfield may hold the key to HFX victory
How do you solve a problem like Forge FC?
The CPL champions don't lose often. That's… uh… why they're the champions. Just one team has managed to get the best of them in 2020, and that's 905 Derby rivals York9 FC, who won 3-2 on Aug. 26 at The Island Games.
Actually, York9 also holds the title of the second-most recent team to beat Forge as well, having earned a 4-0 win last October.
So, since HFX Wanderers FC coach Stephen Hart surely won't be divulging his master plan for beating Forge in Saturday's CPL Final, we turned to the next-best option: somebody who's done it already.
York9 midfielder Joe Di Chiara graciously spoke to CanPL.ca on Thursday, trying to shed some light on what Forge does best, and how his side has neutralized them in the past.
The key, he says, is in the middle.
Can't let Bekker feel comfortable
"Just beating their midfield. That's why we do have some success, I think we just match up in their midfield," Di Chiara said.
"A lot comes from [Kyle] Bekker, [Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson], [Elimane] Cisse, [Paolo Sabak]. I think if you take that away from them, you can have a real upper hand on beating their squad."
He added: "If you give Bekker a lot of time on the ball, he can pick out passes. You let him feel comfortable, he'll hurt you. Like any good player, if you give them time and space on the ball it allows them more time to think, more space to be creative. If you get on him, if you make him feel uncomfortable, let him get out of his comfort zone, then that's probably where you can exploit them the most…
"Let 'em know you're there in all moments during the game. Put pressure, win your tackles, and see where you go from there."
In Forge's group stage finale on Tuesday against Cavalry, the Cavs did try hard to take the midfield away, with Elijah Adekugbe and Elliot Simmons putting pressure on Bekker in particular. It didn't quite work out for them, though, as they were punished once and then couldn't score to make up for it.
Still, Di Chiara is sure it can be done, and HFX could well be the team to do it.
"If you look at both the squads, talent-wise perhaps Forge has the upper hand, but where Halifax has found success throughout the tournament — and just going back to the game we played against them — I think they work very hard," Di Chiara explained. "They stayed compact to just grind out that point against us. It probably was a huge turning point in the tournament so far for them."
HFX drew 1-1 with York9 late in the opening round, with Omar Kreim scoring a 91st-minute equalizer to salvage a point. As they often do, they won two-thirds of the duels in that contest, working to pressure Di Chiara himself as well as Manny Aparicio.
Bekker and Achinioti-Jonsson both had fewer than 40 touches of the ball in that game against York9, which is well below their average; Bekker's 33 touches that afternoon was tied for his lowest at The Island Games. His passing accuracy in the attacking half was just 71.4 per cent, and Jonsson's was 62.5.
'Lock down that midfield'
Part of the reason it's so crucial to shut down the Forge midfield is that, really, it's the only thing an opposing side can fully prepare for. Bobby Smyrniotis' side has started a different front three in every single game so far, with 11 different players taking a crack at an attacking job.
None of that matters, though, if you cut off the service.
"You can't really prepare for their strikers or their attack because they always change," Di Chiara said. "That's why their midfield is kind of their constant. Bekker will always start. Achinioti-Jonsson, he'll always get in there. The Sabak guy, he looks to have held down a spot in that midfield…
"Who knows who'll play on the weekend? [Anthony] Novak might jump in, maybe [Mo] Babouli will get another start, you don't know. If you can lock down that midfield, that's probably your best chance of having success against them."
This sort of weakness could work out well for HFX, who have definitely proven capable of taking away space in midfield and pressing good players. Aboubacar Sissoko and Andre Rampersad, the likely double pivot, are athletic and physical, so they'll be hoping to cover Bekker no matter where he is on the pitch.
HFX's counter-attack can be lethal, so the margin for error will be tiny for Forge. If the Wanderers can make Bekker ineffective, and force an error or two from the midfield, then they could get their hands on the North Star Shield.
Charlie O'Connor-Clarke is a digital content editor at CanPL.ca