Canberra Croatia advanced to their 31st Capital Football Grand Final with a nail-biting 3-2 success over Gungahlin United in an action-packed and eminently watchable Qualification Final at Deakin Stadium.
The top two went toe-to-toe in an absorbing encounter in which the tenacious Gunners came from behind twice to force the Champions to dig deep and, in the end, it was their leading scorers Daniel Barac and Stephen Domenici who did the business, scoring the goals to send Croatia through.
Croatia got off to a perfect start when Domenici was afforded time and space inside the penalty area, always a dangerous proposition, and he adjusted his feet to crash a shot into the Gunners net.
Gungahlin responded magnificently. Badreldin Abbas broke down the right flank and cut the ball back for Samuel Habtemariam who coolly finished across Sam Brown and into the far corner.
Parity was short-lived, Croatia restoring their lead just past the half-hour. Nik Taneski, a first minute substitute for Luke Pilkington who was forced off after suffering a heavy challenge, was up-ended in the area and Domenici slotted home the resultant spot-kick to restore the lead.
But Gungahlin weren’t going away, and they levelled for a second time with a wonderfully worked goal of their own ten minutes into the second half, a second for Samuel Habtemariam who danced his way into a shooting position before rolling his eighth of the season beyond Brown for 2-2.
The Champions thought they had won it with just less than twenty minutes to play when Nik Taneski broke clear and squared for Barac to tap into the empty net, only for the goal to be disallowed for a marginal offside decision.
Incredibly, they did win it less than sixty seconds later and it was Barac who got it. The Golden Boot sweeping home with the trusty left-foot at the end of a superb move that scythed through the Gungahlin defence, Barac curling home a strike that gave Jacob Quinn no chance and sent Croatia through.
Gungahlin will get a second bite of the cherry in the Preliminary Final against Monaro Panthers after the Panthers saw off a battling and determined O’Connor Knights in the early morning kick-off, two headers, one in each half, seeing them home 2-0.
David Jenkins had only ever scored one NPL goal in his entire career prior to this match and it was at Deakin Stadium, in an early morning kick-off at the home end of the stadium. And, rather incredibly, as if scripted, he repeated the feat to break the deadlock five minutes before the interval.
Josh Calabria swung a corner into the danger area where Jenkins got clear of his marker and thundered a bullet-header past Jack Miller into the net proving that lightning does indeed strike twice.
O’Connor, who felt aggrieved that they weren’t awarded a free-kick early on when Phakedi Manda appeared to get clear of the Panthers defence, kept plugging away and, whilst they didn’t overly threaten Jordan Thurtell in the Panthers goal, they carried enough menace to make sure that Monaro weren’t comfortable.
They needed a second and got it with eighteen minutes remaining. Two substitutes combined to send Panthers through and eliminate the Knights. Sebastian Woods took a pass into stride and exchanged a one-two with Andre Carle before slinging over a delightful cross that was begging to be finished.
Michael John, who had replaced the stricken Nikos Kalfas in the 31st minute, rose unchecked to send a perfectly placed, unsavable header, into the corner. The Panthers into the Preliminary Final, the latest chapter in the story of their season perhaps entitled: A Tale of Two Headers.
Saturday 17 September
Canberra Croatia 3 (Domenici 17’, 31’ (p), Barac 74’) Gungahlin United 2 (S. Habtemariam 23’, 55’)
Monaro Panthers 2 (Jenkins 40’, John 72’) O’Connor Knights 0