The Brisbane Strikers’ seemingly endless quest for the point that will take them to the NPL semi-finals will go down to the last game of their season on Saturday after Moreton Bay United Jets inflicted their third successive defeat, by a 2-1 scoreline at Wolter Park last night.
But in contrast to the Strikers’ disappointing performance at home to Northern Fury on Sunday, last night’s performance offered hope that they still have it in them to secure that vital point. Only a mixture of bad luck, poor finishing and inspired goalkeeping from Moreton Bay goalkeeper Rado Radovanovic prevented a rejuvenated Strikers outfit from securing the point they more than deserved.
The small, hardy crowd who braved the cold for this midweek catch-up fixture were treated to a thriller – but had the Strikers been wearing their scoring boots the contest could could have been all over within fifteen minutes.
The eleven players who came roaring out of the blocks in the Strikers’ all-blue away strip bore no resemblance at all to those who had labored for 180 minutes of scoreless football against Sunshine Coast Fire and the Fury. In normal circumstances they would have hit the front in the first minute, when Jonti Richter (pictured) and Clark Bradford exchanged passes wide on the right to release Bradford to the Jets’ byline and Bradford’s low cross took Radovanovic out of the play to fall for Josh Taylor at the back post. But Taylor is just not in normal circumstances at the moment, as he battles his own demons in front of goal, and the forward’s touch deserted him as he failed to get a solid contact on the ball and glanced it wide of the open target.
Within seven minutes, with Richter, Bradford, Kyle Luetkehans and Chay Hews running the show for the Strikers they had forced four corner kicks as the Jets struggled to deal with a succession of crosses raining in from the flanks. Radovanovic almost spilled behind him a twenty-five yard thunderbolt from Hews, falling on the ball at his second attempt, before another chance at the back post went begging for the Strikers as Michael Angus, playing his first game for three weeks, failed to connect cleanly with another cross from Richter.
Moreton Bay were generally chasing shadows, but they were able to offer the occasional threat on the counter-attack, with Jonathan Marraiya getting in their first shot at goal in the fifteenth minute from twenty yards without troubling Strikers goalkeeper David Chambers, who was perfectly positioned to gather it in.
Three minutes later, however, the home team hit the front with a somewhat scrappy and dubious goal when they broke away down their right touchline to deliver a high cross into the Strikers’ goalmouth. The Jets had numbers in the right area but so did the Strikers, and Chambers appeared to have the cross under control. But as the bodies piled in Chambers appeared either to miss his jump or was impeded, and suddenly the ball was bouncing for Jets centre half Mitchell Schumack to react quickest and nod the ball over the line.
There were protests from the Strikers, and Chambers was yellow-carded for his, but referee David Wiebe allowed the goal to stand and, against the run of play, the Strikers once again found themselves behind.
Five minutes later came further frustration for the Strikers when Hews, who was playing like a man possessed, opened up the home side’s defence with a pass that anticipated perfectly a well-timed diagonal run from Taylor. The forward’s first touch as a good one, taking him around Radovanovic to open up the goal on his right foot, but then his finish let him down as he skewed his shot from ten yards into the side netting.
That was let-off number three for the home team. Number four came only minutes later when Taylor, having drifted out to the left, accepted a pass and put on the afterburners before squaring the ball for Greg King, who let fly from twenty yards and had Radovanovic beaten pointlessly only to see the ball bounce back into play from the underside of the crossbar. Then came number five, with a header off the line by a Jets defender after a corner taken by the Strikers on the left side of the pitch.
Radovanovic then made the first of several brilliant saves, leaping spectacularly to tip a twenty-yard piledriver from Hews over his crossbar after King had picked Hews out with a corner kick.
In the thirty-eighth minute the Strikers did find the back of the net after Radovanovic had spilled a high free kick and Kyle Luetkehans pounced to volley the ball home, only to find the offside flag of an assistant referee rubbing out his debut goal for his new club.
If this had been a boxing match the home team would already have been counted out. Unfortunately for the Strikers, however, football is infinitely more forgiving of outpointed opponents who have not been dealt a killer blow and the Jets were able to take a lead into the interval and then to play twenty minutes or so of better football after the break.
Jets centre forward Royce Brownlie found the fingertips of Chambers denying him a goal about ten minutes into the second stanza after Brownlie had chested down a pass to swivel and lash in a volley that Chambers touched onto his crossbar, but then Radovanovic was back in action to tip another Hews shot around his upright as Hews swooped on a layoff from Luetkehans to try his luck from twenty yards.
More bad luck visited itself upon the Strikers as, in the sixty-third minute, Richter was found with a pass fifteen yards in from touch and took his fullback on, rifling in a cross-cum-shot that smacked against a goalpost before bouncing away to safety.
Four minutes later, as the game began swinging from end to end, Chambers rescued his team with a superb double save from two close range shots as the Jets exerted pressure around the Strikers’ goalmouth. But no sooner had he performed these heroics than the Jets launched an attack down their right touchline that stretched the Strikers’ defence beyond its comfort levels. When the cross came in it eluded stopper Tim Walsh, who did not appear to have sensed Brownlie arriving behind him, and the experienced striker did the rest, tucking a shot past Chambers from close range to put the home team 2-0 up.
If things had been urgent for the Strikers prior to this, the situation was now an emergency and they threw everything they could muster at the Jets over the closing twenty minutes. Substitute Scot Coulson blasted a shot a yard wide of the target and Bradford fired a yard over from eighteen yards, before Chambers again covered himself in glory with a save after Marraiya had initially rounded him as the Jets exploited the Strikers’ shortage of numbers at the back.
Radovanovic was back to foil the luckless Hews yet again with a flying save after a well-worked free kick routine between King and the Strikers’ skipper had opened up the opportunity for Hews to shoot from eighteen yards. Then the match erupted into controversy when referee Wiebe banished Strikers coach David Large from the touchline as Large protested that the match officials were not dealing with what he considered to be time-wasting tactics by the Jets from every restart of play.
With six minutes remaining Richter put an end to two hundred and fifty-four minutes of goalless football for his team when he dribbled inside his fullback to work the ball on to his left foot for a pulverizing strike from twenty yards that not even Radovanovic could get near, as the ball smashed into the top left corner of his net.
Richter’s strike cued six minutes, plus stoppage time, of frantic efforts from the Strikers to get the equalizing goal that would take them into the finals, and of attempts by the Jets mainly to work the ball into the areas around the Strikers’ corner flags.
The Strikers were desperately unlucky not to get a second goal. Firstly King, who had given his opposing fullback a real working over subsequent to the introduction of Coulson, got to the Jets’ byline to cross to the six yard box where Luetkehans, on the stretch, half-volleyed the ball wide of the target. And then Chris Roulston, who had come on only minutes earlier, forced another fine reaction save out of Radovanovic as he swiveled on a pass at the edge of the Jets’ penalty area to unleash a shot that was flying into the corner of the net before the horizontal Radovanovic got his fingertips to it.
It just wasn’t to be for the away team. The Jets clung on to the death and took the three points to finish their season on thirty-six points, just three behind the Strikers who now must haul themselves into a last-chance encounter with Brisbane City on Saturday if they are to force their season into the semi-finals.
Large, however, made it clear in his post-match comments that he was much happier with his players last night and that he still believed they could secure a finals spot on Saturday.
“I’m absolutely rapt, to be honest – I think that’s the best football we’ve played for probably two months”, Large said.
“I let the boys know that at half time and I think that they went on and continued that. The intensity was fantastic, the commitment was there – everything you could expect from them, especially for a team that’s been low on confidence and struggling a bit. I thought they turned up tonight and I’m really, really pleased.
“I think we can give it a shake against City. It’s always difficult when times are tough to know how you’re going to respond. We obviously put a fair amount of work into tonight to try and keep that intensity and that might have taken a fair bit out of us. I’m just hoping that we can recover well in such a short turnaround and give it that one last shot.
“I think we’re capable. I think we showed that tonight. We dealt with most of the things they threw at us and I don’t think City will be any different. So we’ll go out there, get our heads up and give it our best shot”.
Large also had some encouraging words to say about the debut of Under-18s player Bradley Savage, who he threw into the right back position. Savage played with great composure in the circumstances to hand in an impressive performance.
“For a seventeen-year-old boy I thought he did exceptionally well”, said Large. “It was tough for him, but these young boys have got to learn very, very quickly how to play senior football. The opportunity came tonight just to have a look at him and see where he’s at in preparation maybe for next year and I thought the boy didn’t do himself any harm whatsoever”.