The Brisbane Strikers will be forced to walk a tightrope towards the NPL semi-finals.
That is the reality of the task ahead of them as a result of this afternoon’s visit to Stockland Park, where a grimly-determined Sunshine Coast Fire grafted their way to a 2-0 win over a lethargic and uninspired Strikers, who once again proved their own worst enemies in conceding two very silly second half goals to hand the contest to their arch-rivals.
No Brisbane Strikers team has ever gone to Stockland Park and brought home even a single point by doing anything less than sweating blood. That particular lesson of history when unheeded today by a Strikers team that was perhaps still feeling the exertions and disappointments of Wednesday night’s flogging by the Brisbane Roar.
The opening ten minutes were tense and strangely subdued, given that the Strikers had expected their opponents to open up at a hundred miles an hour. The anticipated onslaught simply failed to materialize, but the Fire did threaten first when centre forward Nicholas Bechar fired a shot across the face of the Strikers’ goal in the ninth minute when perhaps a cross might have been a better option.
If that was a fortunate moment for the Strikers, better fortune was to arrive in the fifteenth minute when the Fire won a direct free kick twenty-five yards out from the Strikers’ goal. Fire midfielder Paul Arnison beat the Strikers’ defensive wall with his shot and left Strikers goalkeeper David Chambers completely deceived and motionless on his goal line, only to see the dipping ball hit the foot of Chambers’ left upright and roll across the Strikers’ goal before being cleared to safety by a defender.
The Strikers hit back with an attack down their left flank that saw winger Greg King whip in a cross towards the Fire’s near post that drew a somewhat awkward save from Fire goalkeeper Antony Hall. From Jonti Ricthter’s subsequent delivery the Fire headed the ball away from goal only to see King thump it back again with a full-blooded volley that sent the ball a metre over the crossbar.
That shot was on King’s weaker right foot, but he got his next one– with the left foot – on target as the Strikers counter-attacked in the twenty-fifth minute. The ball was played to King in centre-field who, with fullback Scot Coulson arriving on the overlap, let fly from twenty-five yards to force Hall into a flying save high to his right as he palmed the ball away from the top corner of his goal. Once again the resulting corner kick was taken by Richter, whose inswinger was millimetres away from connecting with the lunging head of centre half Alex Henderson as the ball flew across the Fire’s six-yard box and out of play.
As the first half wore on the Strikers looked the dominant team, earning the majority share of ball possession but without creating much in terms of goalscoring opportunities. That said, they were perhaps unlucky not to receive a penalty from referee Alan Milliner as a well-worked exchange of passes succeeded in releasing Strikers’ skipper Chay Hews into the Fire’s penalty area. Hews’s attempt to cross the ball towards the Fire’s six-yard box struck Fire full back Takanori Sato high up on his body, leading to loud shouts of “handball” from the Strikers’ players and bench, but Milliner and his assistant were unmoved – much to the fury of Strikers coach David Large, who was left with arms splayed in exasperation.
There was little for either team’s supporters to get excited about in the remainder of the first half, which produced in its closing ten minutes only one scoring opportunity as Fire left back Alex Barlow dribbled past Strikers fullback Andy Callaghan to miss the target with his ambitious shot from an acute angle.
The half finished as an arm-wrestle in which the physical aspects of the game and the intense rivalry between the two clubs played came to the fore. Yellow cards were earned by players from both sides in a spate of rash tackling and for one spiteful behind-the-ball incident in which Arnison – not the most popular Fire player in the Strikers’ camp – displayed a surprising obsession with the testicles of the opposing team’s skipper with a lunge that finished with Hews doubled up on the touchline.
The Strikers might have been reasonably pleased with holding the hold team at bay until half time. But if so that pleasure was to be short-lived as the Strikers’ capacity for self-destructing in front of their own goal – which has shown itself on several occasions this season and never more so than on Wednesday night – made an untimely reappearance.
The second stanza was only three minutes old when Strikers centre back Tim Walsh conceded a free kick metres in from both the touchline and the Strikers’ byline. As Chambers and his defenders peered into the sun, which by this stage was hovering low over the roof of the Fire’s grandstand, Barlow came over from the opposite touchline to take the free kick. Barlow knew exactly what he was doing, and whipped the ball in towards the six-yard box right into the trajectory of the sun. As Barlow’s free kick came in it was too high for everyone except Chambers, who appeared to have a comfortable take in the offing but completely missed it, allowing the ball to pass between his hands and into the net much to the delight of the home team and its supporters, and to his own despair.
This was a disastrous way to concede the opening goal and release the pressure on the home team, for whom three points were vital. The Fire began to play with a little more freedom and Strikers midfielder Kyle Luetkehans (pictured) was soon forced to come to his team’s rescue, throwing his body in the way of a shot from Bechar, who had been released for a shot at Chambers’ near post after another free kick had been nodded down. The resulting corner kick was glanced over the Strikers’ crossbar by midfielder Leon Dwyer’s header.
Dwyer’s miss was not to matter for the home team because, only four minutes after conceding the first goal, the Strikers’ unwanted propensity for quickly following up one defensive mistake with another came back to haunt them.
An attempt by Walsh to pass the ball out from the edge of his own penalty area went straight to Bechar, who set off with the ball at his feet. Having taken the ball back into the penalty area Bechar attempted to dribble around Henderson, who put in a poorly-timed, lunging tackle that brought Bechar down and conceded a penalty. Barlow again stepped up to take charge of the dead ball and, with a little stutter at the end of his run-up to committed Chambers to move to his right while. Barlow then placed his shot the other way and it was 2-0 to the home team.
That was all the invitation the Fire needed to put up the shutters – a task to which their miserly defence is perfectly suited. With centre halves Greig Henslee and Ryan Smith running the show and denying Strikers’ centre forward Josh Taylor even the faintest of sniffs at goal, and the Fire’s renowned defensive shape choking the life out of the Strikers’ misfiring midfield, the visitors did not at any stage look like scoring a goal that might give them some hope of snatching a point from the contest.
Only the livewire Richter offered any kind of threat at all to the Fire’s back line, but even the best attempt at goal that he could come up with – a left-footed drive from an ineffectively-cleared corner kick – struck his own team mate Taylor in the back a few metres out from goal to virtually sum up a dismal afternoon for the Strikers.
Indeed, the Strikers faded out of the contest over the last fifteen minutes as they repeatedly turned over possession to put themselves under pressure. Had the Fire been in better form themselves they might have made more of this, but in reality they were no better than they needed to be to defeat a Strikers team who had already proved capable of beating themselves.
Hews insisted after the game that his team had been fully attuned to what was required of them but said that the midweek exertions against the Roar might have taken their toll.
“Wednesday was a real tough workout for us, and obviously wasn’t a good result for us, but we were focused coming into today”, Hews said.
“I thought in the first half we did okay, it was a pretty even contest. And then maybe we ran out of a bit of steam ten minutes into the second half and gave them a really cheap goal and that just seemed to give them the extra energy”.
Hews also acknowledged that the loss of striker Josh McVey had blunted his team’s attacking edge.
“Players keep dropping like flies at the moment, and we even lost ‘Gussy’ (Michael Angus) right before kick-off today”, Hews said. “The guys coming in, I think they’re doing a good job, but Josh was in some good form and was really dangerous on the ball.
“I thought Josh Taylor worked hard today but they’ve always been solid at the back and they don’t really concede much, and they don’t give away any space behind them, so they are really hard to break down. But it was a bit concerning today, the lack of shots on goal”.
Without a doubt the Strikers lacked the spark this afternoon that is normally associated with their game going forward. They are going to have to rediscover that spark quickly – and also to jettison their self-destruct button – if they are going to win their last three games, which is now the only way that they can now hope to finish in second position.
Fortunately for the Strikers, Redlands United’s 2-1 loss to premiers Olympic FC today did them a favour, keeping Matt Chandler’s team four points behind the Strikers who also have a game in hand.
But finals football is not assured just yet for the Strikers. They now have the relative luxury of a week to prepare for their next assignment, against Northern Fury at Perry Park, before they close out the season with two games within the following six days.