Canberra Croatia will represent the Capital Football region in the Australia Cup Round of 32 following a 4-2 success over great rivals Canberra Olympic in a thrilling Australia Cup Qualifying Final at Deakin Stadium.
The reigning League Champions may have been suffering a loss of form in the local National Premier League competition, but they rediscovered their form at precisely the right moment to take down the current NPL League leaders off the back of a sensational opening forty-five minutes.
A three-goal blitz in ten first-half minutes gave them a platform from which they never appeared likely to relinquish their hold on the Federation Cup despite a spirted and characteristic fightback from Olympic after the break, that was ultimately stymied by the reduction in numbers as Nathen Megic saw red for a second bookable offence.
The combative Olympic midfielder might have given his team the lead early on meeting a cross into the area with a bullet header from the top of the six-yard box that thundered back off the Croatia crossbar with young goalkeeper Jason Matesa beaten. Matesa would later make excellent saves from Callum Smith and Thomas James as Olympic looked to close the deficit.
But it was Croatia who took the lead in the 21st minute with a real rarity, a Franc Greco header. Marco Gayer sent Lukman Ahmed-Shaibu in behind the defence and the American forward curled over a magnificent cross that Greco, stealing in unchecked, nodded past the exposed Sebastian Usai from six-yards.
Having taken the lead Croatia doubled their advantage just three minutes later. A simply exquisite pass from Ryan Keir, after a series of rat-a-tat passing was lofted over the back of the Olympic defence for Ahmed-Shaibu who, having broken the Olympic offside trap, placed a first-time finish past Usai.
If that wasn’t enough just past the half-hour it was three. Daniel Barac again broke the Olympic defence and beat Usai to the ball, the Olympic ‘keeper upending the Croatia forward for a clear penalty. Stephen Domenici wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity and confidently scored from the spot to increase the lead to 3-0.
By this point, Olympic had lost leading scorer Nik Popovich and full-back Adrian Macor through injury, Alen James and Elie Darwich summoned from the bench, both going on to make a real difference as Olympic looked for a route back into the fixture.
They found it early in the second half, Luca Florez afforded far too much time and space inside the area to meet a cutback from Callum Smith, after brilliant approach work from Darwich, and ram home a first-time finish to give his team a glimmer of a chance to claw their way back into it.
Even after Megic was sent off Olympic wouldn’t buckle in their pursuit of another and, with four minutes to play, netted again. Alen James floated over a magnificent corner which was met by a meaty header from Max Mellick who charged through the crowd to reduce the gap to one.
Usai was doing his best to keep his team in contention, saving superbly from Greco and Ahmed-Shaibu, but he was helpless as Barac sealed Croatia’s passage in stoppage time. Greco and Keir combined before the latter exchanged a one-two with Ahmed-Shaibu and slid in a perfectly weighted pass for Barac. The ace marksman did the rest and Croatia were back on the national stage.
Saturday 3 June 2023
Canberra Croatia 4 (Greco 21’, Ahmed-Shaibu 24’, Domenici 31’ (p), Barac 90+1’) Canberra Olympic 2 (Florez 52’, Mellick 86’)
Canberra Croatia: 23. Jason MATESA, 2. Marco GAYER, 4. Matt GRBESA, 6. Ryan KEIR, 8. Kaz PATAFTA, 10. Lukman AHMED-SHAIBU, 14. Daniel SUBASIC, 15. David SESELJA, 18. Franc GRECO (11. Keegan VUCETIC 90+4’), 21. Stephen DOMENICI (9. Noah VANDERPOL 66’), 22. Daniel BARAC
Substitutes not used: 1. Sam BROWN, 12. Jack LEVERETT, 19. Sam VIZY
Canberra Olympic: 1. Sebastian USAI, 3. Lasse OLRIK, 8. Adrian MACOR (11. Elie DARWICH 35’), 9. Nik POPOVICH (30. Alen JAMES 35’), 10. Thomas JAMES, 12. Callum SMITH, 14. Nicholas SUBASIC (32. Kofi DANNING 65’), 15. Luca FLOREZ, 16. Max MELLICK, 21. Luca MACOR, 23. Nathen MEGIC
Substitutes not used: 2. Cale BROWN, 19. Gabe TAURASI
Discipline: Yellow Cards: 18. Matt GRBESA, 2. Marco GAYER (Canberra Croatia), 21. Luca MACOR, 10. Thomas JAMES, 16. Max MELLICK, 3. Lasse OLRIK (Canberra Olympic)
Red Card: 23. Nathen MEGIC (Canberra Olympic)
Player of the Match: 18. Franc GRECO (Canberra Croatia)