Like it or not, the Napier City Rovers versus Miramar Rangers Central League match in Napier today was always going to double up as a dress rehearsal for the Chatham Cup quarterfinal against Albany United at Park Island on Sunday next week.
That the Thirsty Whale-sponsored Blues lost 2-1 at Bluewater Stadium in the round 16 encounter meant the defending champions have pretty much lost their grip on the league crown to Western Suburbs but the much-adored national knockout cup is still up for grabs.
Admittedly the hosts will have to play much better than they did today against the Aucklanders if they are to progress to the semifinals.
In their defence, the Bill Robertson and Stu James-coached Rovers were without Karan Mandair, Kaeden Atkins and Sam Wall who were all sick. The Blues had played substitute goalkeeper Kyle Baxter in place of Joshua Hill so as not to exceed their overseas quota of eight players on the park.
In another dress-rehearsal look, the hosts had played in their away white strips in a reciprocal arrangement against the opposition after the Rovers away black kit had clashed with Miramar's blue-and-black colours in the May clash.
Nevertheless, what can the Rovers take from the game apart from the red and yellow cards today?
"We've had a few boys out there who aren't feeling that well so that's been a factor but we don't want to make any excuses although we're, obviously, a very changed side today," said Robertson, revealing a bug had got hold of mostly their Bay boys in the squad.
The centreback felt veteran Miramar goalkeeper Phillip Imray, who Rangers coach Scott Hales dragged out of retirement, should be the man of the match for denying the Blues time and again.
Apart from a 10-minute spell when the visitors had scored twice, Robertson said his men had dominated and he was pleased with their performance bar that lapse.
"It's disappointing because I don't think the result offers a true reflection with the chances we've had," he said. "Maybe it should have been a draw but it is what it is so we've got to focus on the cup now as it'll be a massive game for the club."
While the league looked gone, Robertson still wanted to finish second in a memorable season.
He said rotation of players was pivotal in injecting Baxter rather than dropping Hill.
Blues captain Fergus Neil drew the first blood — after centre-mid Gavin Hoy fed him a through ball along the rib of the park — drilling it past Imray for the 1-0 lead in the 11th minute.
Rangers player Blake Weston picked up a yellow card from referee Peter Linney — who had retired midway through the half for assistant Martin Roil to take over the whistle — for a foul on Jonny McNamara in the 16th minute although the centreback claimed the Englishman had been tugging on his shirt.
From the ensuing free kick left wing back Liam Schofield had latched on to the ball on his flank, just inside the 18m box to unleash a cracking curling shot but Imray was equal to the occasion with a diving parry.
The visitors had equalised 1-1 from a crowd-silencing goal from former Wellington Phoenix player Joel Stevens who had curled the ball from about 20m out on the left flank from an oblique angle to catch Baxter on the hop in the 25th minute.
The Rovers were still bleeding from that cut when home boy Angus Kilkolly drove a dagger in the heart with the Rangers pushing the ball into the box, relaying it between three players to find the striker who casually tucked it into the net on the far post for a 2-1 lead in the 27th minute.
Neil had a speculative chance to level terms from the right side of the box but his shot sailed past the far upright in the 35th minute.
However, Kilkolly should have extended Miramar's lead in the next passage of play from the left flank but he didn't do justice to a Stevens cross with his head, the ball clipping the upright and ricocheting back into play.
The Wellingtonians continued to mount pressure with Baxter parrying a cross from their left flank as right back Jamie Wilkinson looked sluggish in closing down the foragers' space and time.
It was the Rovers' time to agonise when Andrew Abba surged into the box from the right flank and drilled it towards the goal. Imray fumbled but neither Neil nor midfielder Sho Goto could capitalise before ref's assistant, Max Laurisden, raised his flag for offside in the 42nd minute. McNamara had also howled in the direction of the heavens above when Imray frustrated with another parry just before halftime.
Wilkinson collected a yellow card from Roil just two minutes after play had resumed in the second spell when he got tangled with Sam Dewar near the sidelines. The ref had already awarded a free kick to Miramar after the Englishman had fouled Stevens near the halfway mark.
McNamara had a great chance to equalise soon after, on receiving a nicely timed cross from Canadian midfielder Patryk Misik, but the redhead miscued the ball outside the upright from 12m out in all the excitement.
A few silly antics kicked in the second half from both sides but to the detriment of the hosts. Kilkolly got a yellow card when Roil took exception to his choice of words in the 68th minute.
Substitute midfielder Joshua Stevenson, in for Misik in the 80th minute, had unleashed a pile driver a minute later but Miramar had parked too many bodies in front of their goalmouth.
However, Miramar substitute Maximilian Batchelor had a less memorable scant-minute entry when Roil saw red card in the 88th minute when the player had grabbed Stevenson around the neck. It was something Stevenson, a Bay police officer, could have arrested him for in the streets.
But the rush of blood to the head wasn't over. Wilkinson went off the park in the ref's time after another crude tackle on Stevens.
Hales hailed the character of his defenders, considering Miramar were without national league class in Napier-born Andy Bevin, Taylor Schrivers and Jake Williams but also lauded his troops' speed on attack.
"I thought we had caused Napier a lot of problems today although I was a little surprised they stayed with their back three after halftime considering the weapons we've got out wide," he said, against a slick Blues but felt Miramar had deserved three points.
He labelled Imray "superb".