By Russ Gibbs
Tigers FC 1 (Popovich 90+1’) Yoogali SC 0
There was utter heartbreak for Yoogali in the Semi-Finals as their brave run in the FFA Cup Qualifying tournament ground to a halt at the penultimate stage.
A goal thirty seconds into stoppage time from Tigers FC striker Nic Popovich was the deciding moment of a classic cup encounter at the AIS, sending Yoogali back to Griffith beaten, but not bowed, and with their heads held high after an extraordinarily gutsy effort against the NPL1 high-fliers.
Popovich slid home the match-winner after an astute pass form Josh Gulevski split the Yoogali defence at the end of a flowing counterattack following a Yoogali corner. It was a devastating blow from which the underdogs had no time to recover and meant Tigers progressed to a fourth FFA Cup Qualifying Final and with a chance to defend the crown they so ably won in 2019 before COVID-19 disrupted the 2020 version forcing its cancellation.
Yoogali had their moments in a ninety minutes that was dominated, both possession-wise and territorially by their higher-ranked opponents, a team second in the NPL1 ladder at that stage and having come into the fixture on the back of scoring sixteen goals in their last three matches. The inclusion of striker Danny Roche for Yoogali, who in true Cup tradition had worked a 12-hour overnight shift ending at 9am before jumping on the bus for the five-hour drive East, was a massive bonus for boss Luke Santolin, as his ten goals in 2021 up to the last four clash was a team best.
Predictably, it was Roche who had the most presentable opportunity for Yoogali midway through the second half. A Calvin Roddie free-kick whizzed across the face of the Tigers goal and Roche got a piece of it, but not enough to divert it the right side of the post, with Tigers stopper Jakob Cole stranded.
In fairness to Cole, he was largely untroubled throughout, but the same could be said of his opposite number, Michael DiPaoli. Only twice was the Yoogali custodian flustered, once when he fumbled a looping header from Popovich, before recovering, and the second time, a heart in mouth moment when substitute Tony Maddafari mis-hit a cross that DiPaoli pushed onto the crossbar. Outside of that, Jay Kelly’s curler that clipped the outside of the post, was the closest that Tigers had come to breaking the deadlock.
For Yoogali, centre back Andrew Vitucci was monumental, clearing everything aimed at his team’s penalty area and generally being a rock at the back. However, not even he could stop Popovich stealing in late to win it. Deserved for the Tigers? On balance, definitely, but they had been made to work for it. And didn’t they know it.