Round 15 – Sean BurkeRound 15 – Joe FenechThe Brisbane Strikers sit seven points clear at the top of the QSL table today after surviving a first half onslaught from a desperate Capricorn Cougars team to once again finish over the top of worthy opponents with a 4-0 at Jardine Park in Rockhampton yesterday.
The Strikers had to battle hard before establishing supremacy, but in the end it was the combination of their defensive solidity and composed finishing that made the difference as Matt Thurtell scored a brace, Chris Di Sipio one goal and Sean Burke (pictured) at last broke his scoring drought that had spanned eleven games, all the way back to last year’s first semi-final, with the goal that broke the Cougars’ backs midway through the second half.
With their closest challengers, Sunshine Coast Fire, four points behind and having the bye this weekend the Strikers flew to Rockhampton knowing that a win would open up a seven-point gap. But standing in their way was a Cougars outfit who, despite having proven their potency in attack this season, had slipped off the pace in the race for a top-four spot and sorely needed a win at home to reignite their challenge.
As the match began under a burning mid-afternoon sun on a well-grassed but uneven Jardine Park pitch, the Cougars wasted no time in showing they were up for a real contest and the Strikers, in contrast, seemed not to have shaken off the effects of their travel.
Twice within the opening two minutes the Strikers underhit passes across their backline which were swooped upon by a hungry Cougars forward line which was determined to press as high as possible. On the first occasion, fullback Lorenzo Sipi made one of the very few serious errors he has made all season in leaving his pass to centre half Alex Henderson short, and Chris Swain toed the ball into the Strikers’ penalty area to bear down on David Chambers’ goal only to find acting Strikers skipper Nick Robinson coming to his team’s rescue with a superb sliding block just as Swain pulled the trigger.
Then Burke, dropping back deep from his wing position to help out as the Strikers tried to play the ball across their back line, repeated Sipi’s sin and when the Cougars pounced again the ball was once more played to Swain, whose shot was parried by Chambers. The goalkeeper still on the turf as ball rebounded to Swain, whose shot from fifteen yards at the empty Strikers goal was rushed and went high over the crossbar as defenders chased back in cover.
The Cougars continued to swarm over a Strikers team who struggled with their intensity, and Dutch import Sander Waterland was the next Cougar to create problems for the visitors, dribbling past Henderson on the left side of the field to reach the Strikers’ byline and direct a low cross towards the near post where right winger Jordan Miller arrived first. But, under heavy pressure from Robinson, Miller was unable to direct his volley on the stretch at the target and Chambers was this time relieved to watch the ball pass a couple of yards wide of his right post.
The ferocity of the Cougars’ onslaught continued unabated as the Strikers, uncharacteristically over-run in the midfield, struggled to get out of their own half or to string four passes together. Next, a lofted pass straight down the middle of the park from the Cougars caused the ball to drop into that awkward area between the centre halves and Chambers, forcing the goalkeeper to gamble and come out of his penalty area to sweep. Chambers got to the ball just ahead of Swain, but his clearance went to Miller who became the second Cougar to try to force the ball into an empty goal only to lack composure as he skied the ball high and wide.
The Strikers were painfully aware by now that they were in for a difficult afternoon if they could not rouse themselves to greater efforts, and it took until the twentieth minute for them to carve out their first scoring opportunity. This came from a thirty-yard lofted pass from holding midfielder Chay Hews, who spotted a run from winger Greg King. King got to the ball ahead of the retreating Cougars defence but, running at full tilt, he could only stab at the ball on the stretch as Cougars goalkeeper Tim English spread himself in coming out of his six-yard area to make a smothering save.
With Robinson, Henderson, Sipi and Jack Boxell beginning to look more composed in their defending and distribution the Strikers began to stem the home team’s tide, but the visitors still looked ill at ease in trying to play the ball through the midfield and it was noticeable that the Cougars’ back four of Troy Ruthven, Dylan Kussrow, Jan Urban and Matt Sauer were rarely tested as Burke, King, Di Sipio and Thurtell were fed on poor quality service that did not enable them to turn and face the Cougars goal. Time and again Ruthven and Kussrow were able to drive through in the tackle and distribute to their wide players as the visitors became noticeably frustrated with their inability to get at the Cougars’ defenders.
But right on the stroke of half time the visitors played their ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card as Hews once again went the direct route with a lofted pass that caught the Cougars back four flat-footed for long enough to enable Thurtell to win the race for the ball as English came off his line. Thurtell toed the ball away from English to the ‘keeper’s right and, as the ball ran away towards the byline to the left of the Cougars goal, centre half Ruthven gave chase and tussled with Thurtell. The blond striker kept his feet but Ruthven went down and, as the Cougars screamed for a free kick and referee Adam Kerslake ignored them, Thurtell chased the ball down, spun around and arrowed a left footed shot from a very tight angle into the Cougars’ goal off the inside of their far post.
The home side fumed and protested to no avail before storming back into the Strikers’ half from the kick off and forcing a corner kick on the left. The ball was headed clear by the Strikers but only as far as the unmarked Swain, stationed inside their penalty area to the right, who struck the ball with a full-blooded volley from twelve yards only to find Henderson throwing himself in the way to take the ball flush in the face and prevent Chambers from having to make what might have been a very difficult save. That action capped a fine first half from Henderson who was, on numerous occasions, the immovable object at the heart of the Strikers’ defence who stood between Swain, Sanderland and the Strikers’ goal.
Cougars coach Joe Fenech looked a decidedly irritated man as the teams left for the half time break, no doubt cursing the fact that his team had given the half their best shot only to come up empty before conceding a soft, disputed goal.
On the evidence of the second forty-five minutes the Strikers did some of their best work in the dressing room at half time in sorting out their problems, while the Cougars were simply unable to repeat their first half intensity.
This was not evident, however, straight from the restart as the Cougars bombed forward again to find Miller and Swain linking together on the edge of the Strikers’ penalty area. As the Strikers’ defence struggled to deal with Miller he passed inside for the second time to Swain, who then skipped around Robinson to close in on goal and unleash a shot that flew past Chambers only to rattle his crossbar instead of finishing in the net.
And with that a change came over the match, almost abruptly, as the Strikers suddenly found their passing rhythm and began to build momentum going forward. English was forced into a two-handed save diving to his right to pull down a shot on the stretch from Di Sipio as King found him with a cross from the left and then, in a counter-attack of almost surgical precision Di Sipio found Burke from the centre circle with a pass out wide to Burke, hugging the touchline. Burke spotted Thurtell breaking into the Cougars’ penalty area and immediately swept a low cross straight to Thurtell’s feet that the striker clipped first-time past the prayer-less English only to see the ball clatter into the base of an upright and bounce away to safety.
The Strikers’ disappointment at not converting this attack was to last for only one minute because, from their next attack, they were to double their lead. As the Strikers played the ball through the middle of the field towards the Cougars’ penalty area Hews caught the home team’s back four on their heels, poking a short pass through for Di Sipio to run on to. The wiry little attacking midfielder is in such good scoring form lately that, presented with a one-on-one against English, he was unlikely to waste the opportunity and he duly despatched the ball high to the goalkeeper’s left to bulge the back of the Cougars’ net.
At 2-0 the visitors began to find a swagger in their step and, completely in contrast to the first half, they soon strung together spells of possession lasting a dozen passes or more as the Cougars became the team battling to stem the tide. English now became a busy man, saving at the feet of midfielder Josh Searle after Di Sipio’s delicately weighted outside-of-the-foot pass had opened up the Cougars’ defence again. And English was soon back in the action again to produce a reflex save when Thurtell volleyed a cross from King.
As the Cougars struggled to stay in the contest it became apparent that another goal from the league leaders would probably kill them off. That goal was to come in the sixty-fourth minute as a Cougars attack broke down and the ball was played to Hews in the centre of the field. The midfielder spotted Burke wide on the right as the Cougars back line was caught square just inside its own half, and timed his pass in perfect unison with Burke’s run. The Cougars had played the offside trap well until then, but this time the trap was sprung and after a somewhat half-hearted appeal to the match officials, the Cougars belatedly gave chase as Burke zeroed in from the touchline to reach their penalty area. English came off his line but Burke, who has struck more woodwork than Woody Woodpecker this season, finally had his moment as he followed Di Sipio’s earlier example by lifting his shot high to English’s left to make the score 3-0.
That was the cue for Burke to be enthusiastically mobbed by delirious team mates who ran from all corners of the ground to enjoy the moment with him. The Cougars probably wondered what all the fuss was about, and they were to have one further moment of encouragement for themselves eight minutes later as a determined, barging run by Urban created an opportunity for midfielder Jarrod Lancaster to live right up his name by launching a bomb. Lancaster’s shot from twenty yards was a screamer that was headed straight into the top right corner of Chambers’ goal, only for the goalkeeper to produce the save of the match to leap high to his left to palm it around his post with both hands.
There remained time for the Strikers to create a couple of half-chances, thanks largely to the industry of substitutes Chris Maher and Michael Angus, which came to nought before they finished the game in style in stoppage time with a deftly lobbed goal to Thurtell after Hews and Angus had combined to again unlock the tired Cougars defence.
Burke admitted after the warm-down that he was relieved to finally break his scoring drought and said that the key to his team’s win had been a more organised and focused second half.
“They (the Cougars) probably caught us a little bit by surprise (in the first half)”, Burke said. “They just came out firing, and at half time we just sort of got the organisation under control and they maybe ran out of legs a bit and we dominated, and it paid dividends in the end so it was quality”.
Cougars coach Joe Fenech, while obviously disappointed that his players had nothing to show for their efforts, said he was far from disappointed with them and that the Strikers’ extra experience had got them home.
“I thought that goal that we conceded just before the half time break…was a little harsh for the effort that we put in” Fenech said. “And the difference between the experienced Strikers and the youthful Cougars is that, when the Strikers get in front, they know how to control a game. With us, often when we get in front we just keep playing, and we don’t have that experience. I think the main difference between the two teams was that exactly, and it showed in the second half when the Strikers were just controlling the game”.
Capricorn Cougars 0 Brisbane Strikers 4 (Thurtell 45+1, 90+1; Di Sipio 54, Burke 64).
Capricorn Cougars: Tim English (gk), Matt Sauer, Jan Urban, Rudi Mozr, Troy Ruthven (c), Dylan Kussrow, Jordan Miller, Sander Waterland, Jarrod Lancaster, Chris Swain, Edmar Goncalves. Substitutes: Tim Zimitat (Swain), Sean Kasperson (Goncalves), Bryce Ruthven (Lancaster)
Brisbane Strikers: David Chambers (gk), Lorenzo Sipi, Alex Henderson, Nick Robinson (c), Jack Boxell, Chay Hews, Josh Searle, Chris Di Sipio, Matt Thurtell, Sean Burke, Greg King. Substitutes: Michael Angus (Boxell), Jordan Mason (Sipi), Chris Maher (Searle).
Shots on goal: Cougars 9, Strikers 11
Shots on target: Cougars 3, Strikers 8
Crosses: Cougars 9, Strikers 5
Crosses into dangerous areas: Cougars 2, Strikers 2
Corners: Cougars 2, Strikers 4
Fouls: Cougars 16, Strikers 16
Offsides: Cougars 0, Strikers 4
Yellow cards: Troy Ruthven, Lancaster (Cougars); Burke, Di Sipio (Strikers)