Canberra Croatia claimed their 25th league championship crown with a 2-1 win over Gungahlin United at Deakin Stadium in a testing encounter that saw both teams reduced to ten men, Croatia temporarily, the Gunners permanently.
The visitors went down to ten men in the first half when goalscorer Philippe Bernabo-Madrid was sent off after being adjudged to have led with an elbow into a challenge with Croatia defender Daniel Subasic, whilst the hosts were also depleted in number when Nik Taneski was sent to the sin bin for dissent.
There was plenty of good football between, and before, the incidents with Canberra Croatia taking the lead in the 28th minute with a well-taken goal. Stephen Domenici got away from the Gungahlin defence, rounded Jacob Quinn in the goal and composed himself before tucking into the far corner.
Gungahlin’s response was almost immediate, handball given against Subasic inside the area, allowing Bernabo-Madrid to score his second goal of the season at Deakin, and his fifth of a disrupted campaign.
After the sending off, Gungahlin actually played some bright football, but the killer blow was landed with nineteen minutes left to play. Domenici sprung the offside trap and burst into the penalty area. Drawing a defender and the goalkeeper to the near post, he cut the ball back for leading scorer Daniel Barac to volley home.
It was Barac’s 14th league goal of the season, extended his lead in the Golden Boot race and, rather more importantly, sealed the silverware for Croatia with three rounds to spare. A superb achievement from a side that has been the perfect blend of silk and steel and youth and experience.
A brace from Greek forward Nikos Kalfas allowed Monaro Panthers to move into second place, eleven points behind the new Champions, as his double saw off O’Connor Knights 2-0 at the Riverside Stadium.
Kalfas was introduced into the fray from the bench just past the half-hour mark, on for the stricken Sebastian Woods, and it was to prove to be the difference as his two goals after the break secured the three points.
The first arrived eight minutes after the resumption from a Panthers corner. The Knights only half-cleared the ball which fell to Kalfas. He hardly battered it goalwards, but it had enough pace and direction to sneak through a crowd of players and find it’s way past a wrong-footed Jack Miller in goal.
Knights hung in the contest until deep into stoppage time when they conceded a second, preventable, goal. A free-kick from wide out by Gabe Cole was allowed to float into the Knights box where Kalfas snuck in on the blind side of his marker to despatch a diving header past Miller and secure the win.
At the other end of the table West Canberra Wanderers and Tigers FC played out a 1-1 draw at Melrose Synthetic, earning a point each which leaves the Wanderers one point behind Belconnen United and four behind their immediate opponents.
It could well have been even better for the home side who went in front after 23 minutes. Blaise Vlazlovski fed Jackson Paesler who cut infield and unleashed a strike at goal that went straight at Jakob Cole, but somehow eluded the grasp of the Tigers custodian who was unable to keep it out.
That looked likely to be the difference in the opening half, but Tigers had other ideas and managed to draw level with a priceless goal two minutes into stoppage time at the end of the half. Roko Strika sent over a free-kick which was met by the head of Sam Whithear, the midfielder diverting it past Jakeb Wiseman for 1-1.
There were chances for each team after the break, but neither could find the breakthrough, and both needed to settle for the point.
At O’Connor Enclosed Canberra Olympic eased into the top four thanks to a 4-0 drubbing of Belconnen United, a result that leaves the Blue Devils still very much in the scrap for relegation but sent Olympic fourth ahead of the Knights whom they’d defeated in the catch-up game in midweek.
Olympic had this one by the scruff of the neck aby the ninth minute having established a two-goal advantage. Lucas Florez, who grabbed the winner at Gungahlin Enclosed on Wednesday, opened the scoring in the third minute, driving infield to fire a low effort beyond the reach of Alex Connell.
When Dave McCarron got on the end of a cross to head in a second six minutes later, Olympic were in cruise control. The Blue Devils could muster no reply and the points were sealed when Florez darted into the area to head home his second of the match.
A fourth, beautifully crafted and neatly executed by Simon Rohan-Jones, his third NPL goal of the season, ended the contest on a high for Olympic who have their sights firmly set on a top four finish.
Saturday 20 August
West Canberra Wanderers 1 (Paesler 23’) Tigers FC 1 (Whithear 45+2’)
Canberra Olympic 4 (Florez 3’, 64’, McCarron 9’, Rohan-Jones 72’) Belconnen United 0
Canberra Croatia 2 (Domenici 28’, Barac 71’) Gungahlin United 1 (Bernabo-Madrid 31’, (p))
Monaro Panthers 2 (Kalfas 53’, 90+5’) O’Connor Knights 0
|1||Canberra Croatia (c)||18||14||3||1||+36||43|
|8||West Canberra Wanderers||18||3||5||10||-11||14|