Canberra Croatia are just two matches away from a return to the Australia Cup national stage after reaching Round 6 of the local qualifying competition, the Federation Cup Semi-Finals, after a 2-1 win over the cup holders Monaro Panthers at the Riverside Stadium.
In front of a large crowd at the Queanbeyan venue, goals in either half from Stephen Domenici and Daniel Subasic prized Panthers fingers off the trophy and keeps Croatia on course for a first appearance in the Cup Final since they were beaten on penalties by Tigers FC in the 2019 edition.
Both teams had realistic claims to be genuine contenders to take the place in the last four and the cagey opening forty-five minutes was probably a reflection of that. Chances were limited, and goalmouth action at a premium, with defences on top and the crucial midfield battle even.
Canberra Croatia gradually began to exert their authority on the match and made the vital breakthrough after 25 minutes. Domenici pounced on a loose back pass and drove at the heart of the Panthers defence before being bundled off the ball by a challenge from Robert Tkatchenko.
The referee adjudged the contact to have been a foul and, from the resultant spot-kick, Domenici, despite Jordan Thurtell diving the right way, rolled the ball nonchalantly into the bottom corner to give the visitors the advantage, a lead they held up until the half-time whistle.
Both teams began the second stanza with a greater intent, Croatia almost doubling their lead when ace sharpshooter Daniel Barac stole into the area to get on the end of a low cross and force a superb reaction save from Joran Thurtell between the posts for the home side. However, there was little Thurtell could do as Croatia doubled the lead.
An in-swinging corner in the 55th minute was flicked on at the near post by Domenici to the far post, where central defender Daniel Subasic arrived unopposed to send a smart header back whence it came beyond the reach of Thurtell and into the back of the net.
Panthers could sense their cup ambitions unravelling and must have known their luck was out when they almost reduced the arrears but were denied by a combination of post and bar. Christian Kreskas floated a cross-shot into the danger zone, the ball eluding Sam Brown in the Croatia goal but cannoning off both crossbar and upright.
Even then the loose ball might have been turned home by one of either Jack Ellwood or substitute Jenno Ceruti, but Brown dived bravely amidst the maelstrom of boots to snuff out the danger.
Monaro did set up a grandstand finale by pulling a goal back two minutes from time. Ellwood rampaged down then left flank where an attempted clearance ricocheted off the young full-back falling perfectly for Kreskas who thrashed his shot past Brown from the edge of the penalty area.
That gave Panthers a glimmer of hope, but Croatia professionally saw out six and a half minutes of stoppage time to deservedly book a semi-final place.
Monaro Panthers 1 (Kreskas 88’) Canberra Croatia 2 (Domenici 25’ (p), Subasic 55’)