By Russ Gibbs
Monaro Panthers upset the form book to secure an FFA Cup Qualifying Final showdown with Tigers FC with a heart-stopping penalty shoot-out win over Canberra Croatia in a tense, exciting and action-packed semi-final encounter in Queanbeyan.
Football can be a fickle beast at the best of times, but when it comes to a cup semi-final, it can often be hard to explain. Form is thrown out of the window and previous results count for absolutely zero. How else could you explain the improbability of a team dead-last on the league table, struggling for form and rhythm, suddenly rediscovering their mojo and downing the league champions? Under the blood moon at the Riverside Stadium, Monaro Panthers withstood an early red storm to play, arguably, their best ninety minutes of the season, clawing their way back into a contest that threatened to be taken out of their reach before the clock had ticked past ten minutes.
It took Canberra Croatia ninety seconds to assert their superiority in this semi-final, charging out of the blocks and looking a different outfit to the one that couldn’t break down Gungahlin United at the AIS three days previously. Amilio Kista, who has a liking for this venue having netted the winner in the NPL encounter at the home of the Panthers earlier in the campaign, swung in a free-kick from the left that eluded Evan Alexandrow-Ridley in the Monaro goal, flashing in at his near post.
If the Panthers custodian was culpable for that goal, then he more than made amends later in the match, keeping his team in the game with two world class stops in extra-time. Nik Taneski must be still wondering how his deft header didn’t find a way past Alexandrow-Ridley, the ‘keeper dextrously throwing himself to his right to claw the ball away from the goal-line with a big right paw. Seconds later, he was at it again, plunging in the same direction to beat away a fiercely hit shot from distance from Croatia substitute Nikos Kalfas.
The teams found themselves at that stage, dragging tired minds and limbs through an extra half-an-hour, because the Panthers had negated Kista’s earlier set-piece with a leveller before the interval. An uncharacteristically loose pass from Canberra Croatia midfielder Ryan Keir was seized upon by the effervescent Jeremy Habtemariam and, for once, a lunging tackle from Matt Grbesa couldn’t save his team, the ball ricocheting fortuitously off the shin of the elder Habtemariam and back into his path. Presented with a glorious chance, Habtemariam gleefully slotted under the advancing Sam Brown for 1-1.
Habtemariam may have won it in extra-time for the Panthers, latching onto a stunning long-range pass over the defence from Monaro replacement Ben Basser-Silk, only for the pressure from the covering Luke Pilkington to force the midfielder out of his stride, the effort rather scuffed at Brown from twelve yards. By then, Croatia had shuddered the woodwork as another substitute, sixteen-year-old Matej Busek showed a glimpse of his undoubted talents, his quick feet created half a yard of space and a bullet-strike from outside the box cannoned back off the frame of the goal.
It seemed harsh that one team should lose, but one had to, and penalties resolved the issue. Daniel Colbertaldo was the unfortunate fall guy, his spot-kick arrowing over the crossbar allowing youngster Seb Woods the chance to win it. Belying his tender years, but with the precociousness of youth, he confidently rammed the ball home to send his teammates into ecstasy, the home crowd into delirium and the Panthers into the FFA Cup Qualifying Final.