On Saturday night it was time to go back to the Gabbie Stadium corporate box for the NPL 1 game between Blacktown City and Manly United. Blacktown were coming off an excellent away win against Sydney Olympic, but Manly had a much tougher schedule – this was their third game in six days, after a 3-3 draw with Rockdale the previous weekend, followed by an FFA Cup penalty shootout loss to Hakoah on Anzac Day. Despite the heavy workload, Warren Grieve did not rotate his squad too much, and seven outfield players started all three of these games.
Before the game really got going Manly forward Matthew Fletcher suffered a very unfortunate injury when he appeared to injure his knee just before colliding with the fence, and had to be carried off the field. It took a few minutes for the stretcher to arrive (as Fletcher was on the opposite side of the field to the dressing rooms), which is nobody’s fault because at this level there isn’t anyone dedicated to that role. Sometimes I wonder if stretcher bearers could be made mandatory for NPL 1, as is the case with the A-League, W-League and National Youth League.
Blacktown had the better of the first half, and deservedly took the lead 20 minutes in after a Joey Gibbs free kick. Manly keeper Dylan Mitchell was unsighted and fumbled the ball, with Danny Choi reacting first to poke it home from close range. There weren’t too many chances created in the opening stanza, but it was entertaining to see the players get increasingly frustrated at referee Katie Patterson, who didn’t call many fouls and was quite happy to let the game flow. (I was unsure about the refereeing, but others were firmly in favour.) Demons continued their dominance of the game in the second half, and doubled their lead after a piece of magic from Danny Choi. After showing great technique to control a cross-field ball from Roberto Speranza, he nutmegged Daniel Saric before smashing the ball past Dylan Mitchell with the outside of his boot.
James Andrew was brought on for Choi with about 20 minutes left, and he appeared to make the game same soon afterwards, getting on the end of a through ball from Joey Gibbs before curling the ball past Mitchell. However, just as in their previous game against Olympic, defensive lapses would mean a nervous finish for Demons. With ten minutes left, the Blacktown defence failed to intercept a diagonal ball from Sam Wilson, and Nikola Taneski did well to hold off Grant Lynch before firing past Blacktown keeper Tristan Prendergast. Then with four minutes left in regulation time things really got interesting as Manly’s sheer persistence got them a second goal. The Blacktown defenders and Prendergast managed to deny Taneski, Scott Balderson and Brendan Cholakian in quick succession, but when the ball feel to Leigh Egger he curled it past Prendergast with the outside of his foot. At this stage Manly were well on top, and they could even have snatched a very unlikely draw in stoppage time, but Taneski’s touch let him down when he otherwise would have been one-on-one with Prendergast.
There are plenty of positives for Blacktown: they got another win using the back three that Mark Crittenden was trialling throughout the preseason, and Danny Choi seems to be slowly returning to the form that saw him signed by Adelaide United. However, they have failed to properly kill off their last two games, and they can’t always rely on the opposition starting slowly. Blacktown’s next game is a top of the table clash away at Rockdale, a fixture that for the second consecutive year has had its kickoff time changed due to a clash with the A-League Grand Final.
Blacktown City 3 (Choi 21’ 54’ Andrew 78’)
Manly United 2 (Taneski 80’ Egger 86’)
Sunday afternoon brought a game that I’d been looking forward to for a while – APIA v Sydney Olympic at Lambert Park. For the first time I watched the game from the Lambert Park media box, meaning that I didn’t encounter the usual problem of having my view obstructed by the fence on the grandstand side. Watching the game from the media box also gave me the perfect position to see interim Olympic coach Peter Zorbas blowing up at the officials.
After an impeccably observed minute’s silence to mark one year since the passing of former Olympic player Marco Stefan Petrovski, we were underway. It wasn’t long before Olympic were in front, as a precise cross from Radovan Pavicevic was headed home by an unmarked Yu Kuboki. Chances were few and far between in the first half, and the contest looked more like a battle than a football game at times. Despite the lack of chances created, Olympic headed to the dressing rooms with a two goal lead. With about ten minutes left in the first half, Pavicevic doubled his side’s lead with another free header after getting on the end of a pinpoint free kick from Max Burgess (who has been impressive in the games that I’ve seen).
If anything, the game got even more physical in the second half, and it was somewhat surprising that both teams finished this game with 11 players still on the field. At this stage APIA hadn’t done much at all to trouble Olympic, but with twenty minutes left they pulled a goal back thanks to Corey Biczo, who reacted first to the rebound after Paul Henderson parried a shot from Tasuku Sekiya. APIA were dominant from that point on, but Olympic managed to hold firm despite seven minutes of stoppage time.
Olympic needed a good result after a disappointing loss to Blacktown (well, disappointing for them anyway), and they have stayed in touch with the leaders. Next up for them is a massive home game against Sydney United, who despite a very poor start are only two points behind Olympic. APIA, like Manly the previous night, never really got going until it was too late, and coincidentally those two sides meet at Cromer Park in the next round.
APIA Leichhardt 1 (Biczo 71’)
Sydney Olympic 2 (Kuboki 9’ Pavicevic 36’)
On Wednesday night I went to Popondetta Park to watch the FFA Cup 5th Preliminary Round match between NPL 2 side Mt Druitt Town Rangers and State League outfit University of NSW. Blacktown City would face the winners of this game, so I had mixed feelings: a UNSW win would have been nice as Blacktown would then have an easier game (in theory), but on the other hand I’m a UTS graduate, so I really wanted to see UNSW lose.
Mt Druitt rested a few key players, and their replacements didn’t really live up to expectations as they started poorly. UNSW maintained a high defensive line, restricting space for Rangers and almost daring them to play balls over the top. Despite the extra space in behind, Rangers tended to rush things while in possession and they played too many aimless balls forward.
Midway through the first half Rangers took the lead thanks to a penalty, but UNSW actually had more shots in the first half (although these were mainly from distance and didn’t really trouble the keeper). UNSW also caused a few problems with direct play, but Mt Druitt were able to clear their lines on each occasion.
Rangers were better in the second half, but they didn’t make the game safe until about 25 minutes left, when they scored twice in three minutes. They didn’t even manage to keep a clean sheet, as UNSW scored a consolation goal with five minutes left. Mt Druitt will travel to Gabbie Stadium to face Blacktown City in the 6th Round, and they will need to play much better than they did here if they are to cause an upset.
Mt Druitt 3