Canberra Croatia have moved to within a win of the League Championship after a thrilling 2-2 draw with Monaro Panthers at Deakin Stadium, a point that moved them nine points clear at the top of the table.
The leaders were forced to come from behind to gain a point however as Monaro Panthers overturned a one-goal deficit to go ahead in the second half and ended the match with ten men as centre-back and skipper Matt Grbesa was dismissed for a second bookable offence late in the second stanza.
Daniel Barac gave Croatia the perfect start, stealing in at the near post to steer a Davide Seselja cross underneath Jordan Thurtell after only eight minutes. And Thurtell was called into action again moments later as he was forced to flip a sliced Seb Woods clearance over his own crossbar.
The Panthers response in the second half was bright and they drew level with a terrific goal from Michael John. Andre Carle and Darren Bailey linked up for the latter to weight perfect pass to John who, celebrating his 100th NPL appearance, clattered a low finish beyond the reach of Sam Brown.
The visitors then went ahead as a cross from the wing was diverted into his own net by Matej Busek under pressure from Ben Basser-Silk, but Croatia hit back as Barac took advantage of a slip from Kyle Senior to clump home his thirteenth league goal of the season and draw parity.
Grbesa was then sent off, adjudged to have baulked the run of Carle and receiving a second caution, but neither side was able to find the winner and the match ended honours even.
Canberra Olympic pulled themselves away from the relegation zone for at least a week, keeping alive their hopes of a top four place in the process, and plunging West Canberra Wanderers back into the mire with a 2-0 win on a sticky surface at O’Connor Enclosed in National Premier League Round 17.
The Wanderers, who had leapt to sixth on the back of a win over Belconnen United at Melrose Synthetic suddenly were left occupying the relegation zone as news filtered through of the Blue Devils upset win over Gungahlin United.
Olympic, who also have a game in hand, could move to within two points of the finals’ places with a win over O’Connor Knights in midweek, took the lead in this tense encounter with a goal eight minutes before the interval. Luca Florez played in Alen James who was halted in his tracks only for Nik Popovich to pick up the loose ball and pass for James to strike.
The killer second arrived eight minutes the other side of the break as Luca Macor struck for the first time in 2022. Cale Brown charged down a clearance with James then latching onto the ball and squaring for Macor to crack a low effort beyond Jakeb Wiseman and into the far corner to seal a crucial three points in the fight to avoid the drop.
Belconnen United netted once in each half to spring an upset win over Gungahlin United, downing the team who went into the weekend occupying second place in the table, with a 2-0 success at McKellar Park.
The Blue Devils, whose inconsistency is perfectly showcased by their ability to gain a point against Monaro Panthers and beat the Gunners either side of losing away to West Canberra Wanderers, started exceptionally brightly in this encounter in front of a noisy set of home supporters.
Gungahlin gave a debut to young goalkeeper Dylan Peraic-Cullen and the young stopper was unfortunate to be picking the ball out of his net after just seven minutes. Christian Kreskas was too quick for Stefan Vucic and, after Peraic-Cullen saved his first shot, the winger stabbed in the rebound.
Izach Clements saw Peraic-Cullen tip over his looping header in the first half whilst Blue Devils ‘keeper Alex Connell was called upon to make a couple of routine saves from Gungahlin strikes from distance.
A second was needed and it came in the 66th minute. Beau Harvey, who has struggled to gain a start since transferring from West Canberra Wanderers, broke away from the visitor’s defence and, as Peraic-Cullen changed his mind about coming, poked his shot underneath the ‘keeper and into the net.
Jack Green fired a late effort wide of goal when well-placed, but Belconnen were deserved winners and moved up to seventh, two points clear of the Wanderers with four matches remaining.
A remarkable denouement at Hawker Football Centre saw O’Connor Knights strike twice in stoppage time to salvage an unlikely looking draw in a 2-2 thriller with Tigers FC. Michael Adams levelled in the 99th minute after Phakedi Manda had reduced the arrears seven minutes prior in a sensational ending.
There was little warning of the conclusion to come as Tigers FC took command of the match as they aimed to reduce the deficit to the Knights in fourth and keep alive dreams of making the top four and a chance to claim Grand Final glory.
The visiting team had gone ahead in the sixteenth minute with a beautifully crafted goal. Antoni Timotheou drilled a long pass over the defender for Josh Gulevski who was able to cut inside, draw his man, and lay the ball into the path of Sam Whithear. Whithear had time to take a touch and finish low into the corner.
It was the same combination that doubled the lead in the 56th minute with a far more straightforward goal. Gulevski swung over a pinpoint corner which Whithear met with a thumping header that flashed past Jack Miller in the Knights goal, leaving O’Connor with much to do.
They were handed a lifeline when an uncharacteristic defensive blunder from Roko Strika, the ball getting stuck under his feet, allowed Phakedi Manda to pounce in the 92nd minute and drill a shot past Jakob Cole.
Mere consolation? The Knights thought not as they went looking for more, Daniel Roberts and Gabriel Ayuel combining for the latter to cross into the box where Michael Adams met it on the volley to slide a finish into the net and rescue a point much to the chagrin of the Tigers.
Saturday 13 August
Belconnen United 2 (Kreskas 7’, Harvey 66’) Gungahlin United 0
Canberra Olympic 2 (James 37’, L. Macor 53’) West Canberra Wanderers 0
Tigers FC 2 (Whithear 16’, 56’) O’Connor Knights 2 (Manda 90+2’, Adams 90+9’)
Sunday 14 August
Canberra Croatia 2 (Barac 8’, 79’) Monaro Panthers 2 (John 57’, Busek 68’ (og))
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