A solitary goal from ex-Panthers’ striker Stephen Domenici was the difference in the top-of-the-table meeting at the Riverside Stadium as Canberra Croatia moved clear of their nearest challengers Monaro Panthers with a 1-0 win in a closely fought contest.
The Panthers were forced to play most of the match with only ten men as midfielder Amilio Kista was sent off for the second time in the 2022 National Premier League campaign, seeing red for retaliation after he was fouled by Croatia full-back Marco Gayer.
By then though Croatia had already made the breakthrough, starting the match in exhilarating fashion and opening the scoring with a beautifully constructed goal in only the fifth minute. Matej Busek, who was in fantastic form throughout, burst through the Panthers midfield and sent a weighted pass behind the defence where Domenici stretched to fire past Jordan Thurtell.
The home side responded well to adversity and could have grabbed an equaliser in the second half only for Nikos Kalfas to see two presentable efforts go to waste, the first denied by a brave bit of ‘keeping from Sam Brown, the second go awry due to an errant touch. As it was Croatia, as they usually do, did enough to gain a massive win to take control of the title race.
Gungahlin United took advantage of the Panthers slip-up as they defeated Belconnen United 3-0 at the AIS on Sunday afternoon, a result that whilst very much deserved, also owed much to some unfortunate luck for the Blue Devils in the final third of the pitch.
Belconnen struck the woodwork twice in the first-half, Luke Vallone with a neat back-heel flick that came back off the base of Gunners’ ‘keeper Jacob Quinn’s right-hand post, whilst Christian Kreskas thrashed a venomous shot off the crossbar. Later, Vallone headed wide from less than two metres as the visitors went looking for a way back.
By then they were two behind. Samuel Habtemariam gave the Gunners the lead, tapping in from close range at the end of a wonderfully fluent attacking move, before the in-form Will Roberts bagged his third goal in three matches, drilling an accurate shot beneath Alex Connell just before the break.
There was a third in the second half, Jeremy Habtemariam finishing off a scything move from one end to the other, fellow substitute Nico Abot feeding the elder Habtemariam who brilliantly cut inside to slide home.
At the other end of the table there was a second point of the season for West Canberra Wanderers but, yet again, they may ultimately feel they should have come away with the maximum return as they twice led against Canberra Olympic only to end with a share of the spoils in a 2-2 draw.
Jenno Ceruti, who has been in great form in recent weeks, gave them a seventh minute lead, just as he had done at McKellar Park in Round 9. His sharp finish inside the area was his fifth of the season and the big striker could easily have had a second at the other end of the half, being denied by a brilliantly one-handed save from Olympic custodian Seb Usai.
At that stage the score was already two apiece as Olympic replied to early setback by levelling just past the half-hour. Aisosa Ihegie broke the Wanderers offside trap, playing Luca Florez onside in the process, before drawing Jakeb Wiseman and allowing Florez a tap-in from two yards.
Wanderers flourish was excellent, and they regained the initiative when Thomas Barbatano arrived unmarked at the far post to slide in and restore the lead, only for a needless handball to present Alen James with the chance to level again from the spot only three minutes later, a chance he did not waste.
A brace of goals from Patrick O’Rourke within 62 seconds of each other in the first-half put O’Connor Knights on the way to a 3-2 win over Tigers FC and a place in the top-four where they sit with a game in hand on those around them in the table.
O’Rourke’s double took him to seven for the season and a spot at the top of the Golden Boot charts with both goals scored in differing circumstances. The first was a real poacher’s effort, scrambled in from a couple of yards in the 36th minute as a corner caused panic in the Tigers FC defence.
Barely a minute had passed before it was two, Phakedi Manda’s outrageous rabona pass freeing O’Rourke who lifted his lob over the advancing Jakob Cole as the Knights took a form grip on proceedings. That grip become a stranglehold ten minutes into the second stanza as Noah Steinacker bundled in his first senior goal from close range for a three-goal cushion
The Tigers finished with a wet sail, a double-salvo, an own goal from O’Rourke and a strike from Nik Popovich in the 89th and 91st minutes, the second from the penalty spot, but it merely papered over some glaring cracks in the Tigers FC performance. For some reason the reigning champs can’t find their mojo, and to make the finals, they’ll need to rediscover it soon.
Saturday 18 June
West Canberra Wanderers 2 (Ceruti 7’, Barbatano 39’) Canberra Olympic 2 (Florez 33’, James 41’ (p))
O’Connor Knights 3 (O’Rourke 36’, 37’, Steinacker 55’) Tigers FC 2 (O’Rourke 89’ (og), Popovich 90+1’ (p))
Monaro Panthers 0 Canberra Croatia 1 (Domenici 5’)
Sunday 19 June
Gungahlin United 3 (S. Habtemariam 24’, Roberts 42’, J. Habtemariam 63’) Belconnen United 0
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