IT'S THE battle of the cream of the top half of North Island this morning in the playoffs of the annual youth football tournament in Napier.
Leading the way in the semifinals of the Lotto-sponsored, Napier City Rovers-hosted under-19 boys' tourney are defending champions Birkenhead United, Western Springs, Waitakere City and Hamilton Wanderers in the main section of the competition.
In the 9.30am kick-offs, Birkenhead will face Waitakere City on pitch 3 while Western Springs will lock horns with Hamilton Wanderers on the adjacent pitch 4 to earn the right to claim the bragging rights in a midday kick off at the Rovers' premier home ground of Bluewater Stadium.
Out go quarterfinalists Bay Olympic (Auckland), who succumbed 2-0 to Birkenhead, while Western Springs pipped Petone (Wellington) 1-0 and Hamilton Wanderers ensured no capital presence in the semifinals when they edged out Lower Hutt City 1-0.
In the other last 16 playoffs, Waitakere City got over the line against Ellerslie with a solitary goal.
As predicted, hosts Napier City didn't have things their way and failed to make it out of their pool B.
The Phil Dol-coached Blues won only two matches in their pool games.
They beat Three Kings 3-1 in their opener on Saturday morning but lost by the same margin to Waterside Karori before bowing out with a commendable 1-0 to top qualifiers Western Springs.
Yesterday Napier City lost 1-0 to Bay Olympic in the morning but eked out a 3-2 victory over Wellington side Stop Out in the afternoon.
Guest player Billy Jones, of Auckland, finished with four goals, including a hattrick against Stop Out, in the tourney as the top scorer for the hosts despite Dol using him as a defensive midfielder.
In the match against Stop Out, Jones drew first blood early for the Blues when the opposition goalkeeper fouled Shae Bauerfiend in the 18m box.
Kurtis Maney had found the net again a few minutes later but the referee rightly disallowed it because the player had pushed a defender in the back to gain ascendancy.
In the 19th minute, Napier City returned the favour when a defender hacked down Stop Out striker Danny Degans who got up to coolly slot the ball from the penalty spot past goalkeeper PJ Goodlett to make 1-1.
But in the 23rd minute Degans struck again to put the Wellingtonians 2-1 up from a crisp worm burner from about 25m out.
However, their celebrations were in vain because not long after second resumed Jones equalised 2-2.
The Logan Bensemann-captained Blues had sewn up the game when Jones deftly headed in a cornerkick from Aiden Ivares-Pratt in the dying minutes.
A philosophical Dol said the tourney was ideal exposure for his troops as they didn't have much experience at that level and didn't have ample time to train as a unit due to other representative commitments.
"We had a very tough pool against big clubs who have youth academies," he said in his first year at the helm as coach after he was manager last year.
Dol said that when taking into account their narrow losses to pool opponents the story could have been different had they found themselves on the right side of the ledger.
In the lower-tier satellite section, Napier Marist beat Waiuku 2-0 and Pukekohe 2-1 as well as drawing 1-1 against Beachlands but didn't make the playoffs.
Porthill United managed only one victory, 2-0 over Kapiti Coast, and like Marist failed to get out of their pool.
About 1500 people have descended at Park Island and are relishing the balmy weather.