Canberra Croatia secured their 25th League title for a second time after claiming a point against Belconnen United following the deduction of three points in midweek, as Monaro Panthers fell to West Canberra Wanderers, sinking Belconnen United to the foot of the table with two rounds to play.
After a difficult week, Canberra Croatia re-enforced their Champions credentials with a gutsy draw in the always traditionally tough affair with Belconnen United at McKellar Park, although they were made to battle incredibly hard by a Blue Devils side that played with ten men for over an hour.
With points at a premium for the hosts, the home fans were in jubilant mood early on as Maxx Green stole in behind the Croatia defence to confidently stab a finish under Sam Brown and put the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons, but it was a brief moment of elation as, less than a couple of minutes later, Christian Kreskas was shown a straight red card.
Croatia struggled to break down the ten men, but eventually forced an error in first half stoppage time, a foul inside the box allowing Croatia to equalise from the spot as Stephen Domenici did the honours with the minimum of fuss.
That point moved the Champions seven points clear of the chasing pack ahead of the Panthers fixture against West Canberra Wanderers in the early evening kick-off at the Riverside Stadium where only a Panthers win would stop Canberra Croatia hoisting the trophy for the second time in a week.
There was plenty for the West Canberra Wanderers to play for in that fixture and, thanks to a goal two minutes from the end of the contest from leading scorer Jenno Ceruti, they hauled themselves off the foot of the table at precisely the right moment, condemning Monaro Panthers to just a third defeat of 2022.
In truth, this was a match that failed to hit any heights, some sloppy and wayward passing from both teams meaning the match was a fractious affair, but with two teams committed to trying to gain the victory this was still an engaging watch,
Chances were few and far between, the best for Monaro coming when a poorly placed pass from Connor Bill was seized upon by Nikos Kalfas who rounded Jakeb Wiseman but inexplicably appeared to dawdle, allowing the Wanderers to recover and the chance to go begging.
The Wanderers hung in there and made their opportunity count with time running out. James Driscoll drove at the heart of the Panthers defence and laid off a pass to Ceruti who hit a low shot from the edge of the area that took a slight nick before nestling in the bottom corner.
It was a vital goal. One that could shape the season for the Wanderers and those around them, and the way in which the visitors celebrated the strike indicated just what it might mean for them in the final shake-up.
Tigers FC meanwhile aren’t immune from the relegation dogfight as they drew a scarcely believable tenth match of the season, coming from behind to earn a 2-2 draw with Canberra Olympic, a result that leaves them only four points off the drop.
The 2021 League Champions have suffered a major hangover in their title defence, unable to turn stalemates into victories and, ultimately, paying the price for that inability to do so, ten draws being a Capital Football NPL record.
And yet, they are still only four points off a potential Finals place such is the topsy-turvy nature of this most erratic of competitions.
The Tigers were ahead inside three minutes of this match, Josh Gulevski adding his seventh of the season, curling in an effort from just inside the penalty area, but Olympic led at the interval after a brace of goals within two minutes of each other.
Aisosa Ihegie rammed in the equaliser in the 26th minute, but that was just a prelude to the goal hit by Alen James two minutes later. The midfield playmaker took aim from well outside the area, clumping a left-footed thunderbolt that was still rising as it flew past Jakob Cole and crashed into the top corner.
Tigers regrouped and were level by the break as Kofi Danning netted his first goal for the club, turning in a Roko Strika strike from close range after superb approach work from Tony Madaffari out wide.
Gungahlin United moved back into second place in the league table with a convincing 4-1 when over O’Connor Knights at O’Connor Enclosed, a result that could have been more had Bernard Rene not seen his twice taken penalty failed to beat Jack Miller late on, his first effort saved, his second striking the post.
It mattered little in reality though as, by then, Gunners were already 4-1 up and good for their advantage which they built in a one-sided first-half that saw the visiting team head to the changing rooms 3-0 in front.
Skipper Jack Green put his team ahead with a well-taken individual effort after eleven minutes and when Will Roberts controlled and spun to fire the Gunners two-up a quarter of an hour later, the writing was already on the wall for a depleted Knights whose ranks were further diminished by the loss of Gabriel Ayuel to injury.
A stunning free-kick from Misko Naumoski close to half-time, the midfielder rolling back the years to strike a superb effort from range that nestled into the Knights net, had Gungahlin well in command of the match.
Substitute Riley Angelosante pulled one back with a header from corner and Connor Mynott-Smith perhaps should have reduced the arrears further, but a penalty from Jeremy Habtemariam sealed the win as the Gunners finished in ominous style.
Saturday 27 August
Belconnen United 1 (Green 26’) Canberra Croatia 1 (Domenici 45+1’ (p))
Tigers FC 2 (Gulevski 3’, Danning 41’) Canberra Olympic 2 (Ihegie 26’, James 28’)
O’Connor Knights 1 (Angelosante 68’) Gungahlin United 4 (Green 11’, Roberts 27’, Naumoski 38’, J. Habtemariam 74’ (p))
Monaro Panthers 0 West Canberra Wanderers 1 (Ceruti 88’)
|1||Canberra Croatia (c)||19||14||4||1||+36||41*|
|7||West Canberra Wanderers||19||4||5||10||-10||17|
*Canberra Croatia deducted three points