The Brisbane Strikers made it third time luck over the Sunshine Coast Fire and forced their opponents to wait at least one more week before they can claim the 2010 Hyundai QSL championship with a hard-earned but deserved 1-0 win at Perry Park last night.
The Strikers, searching for their first win over the Fire this season, dominated probably two-thirds of the game. But poor finishing threatened to undo all of their good work before substitute Jordan Mason who, by his own admission, has not made the most of his rare scoring opportunities this season, decided the contest in favour of the home side with just six minutes remaining as he thrashed home a goal entirely of his making.
Things didn’t start off so brightly for Mason, who found himself benched to make way for Matija Simic in the only change that Strikers coach David Large made to his starting eleven for the game. Simic played on the left of a three-man back line composed also of Ben Griffin and Jason Shade as Large went for a five-man midfield in an attempt to counter the renowned work rate of the Fire’s engine room.
The Fire had the better of the opening quarter of an hour, with Tyson Holmes combining well with right-sided midfielder Yuta Gonai, in particular, and placing the home side’s defence under early pressure.
The visitors went close to scoring in the fifth minute when Holmes delivered a free kick, taken from wide out near the Fire’s right touchline, high towards the Strikers’ penalty spot. Josh Taylor anticipated best and jumped high to direct a powerful header at the Strikers’ goal, and the ball would have gone just under the crossbar if not for an athletic leap from goalkeeper Seb Usai, who palmed the ball over his crossbar for a corner kick.
The Fire’s aerial threat was again demonstrated shortly afterwards when centre-forward Shaun Blackman easily outjumped the Strikers’ defence to get his head to a high ball struck from around the centre circle by Fire fullback James Stinson. But again Usai was up to the task, palming Blackman’s well-directed header away for a corner.
The Strikers were taking their time to settle but were suddenly in the contest in the eighteenth minute when midfielder Matt Christensen opened up the Fire’s defence with nothing more than a simple twenty-metre pass played forward from a free kick in the middle of the pitch. The pass found centre-forward Matt Thurtell, having peeled away from his marker, on the gallop into the Fire’s penalty area. Thurtell saw Fire goalkeeper Antony Hall sprinting off his line and fired in a low shot that Hall might have got a touch on to slow down the pace of the ball as it went past him, which allowed stopper Alex Henderson to sprint around behind Hall to clear the ball away just before it crossed the line.
From this point in the game the Strikers began to wrest control and created most of the scoring chances in the remainder of the half, only to spoil them with shots and headers that failed to draw a save out of Hall. Twenty-three minutes in Burke ran on to a long ball down the Strikers’ right touchline and laid it back for Myles Carseldine, whose first-time cross went over the head of Henderson and allowed Thurtell a free header that he steered a metre over Hall’s crossbar from ten yards.
The Fire hit back two minutes later, with striker Greig Henslee pouncing on a headed clearance to drive in a volley that forced Usai to dive to his left and pull in a two-handed save. Henslee then should have done better in the thirtieth minute when a high ball from the Fire’s productive right touchline looped over both Blackman and Shade to find Henslee unmarked beyond the far post about ten metres out from goal. But Henslee’s first touch was too heavy and the ball ran too far ahead of him, allowing Usai to race off his line and spread his body to smother Henslee’s attempt to chase the ball down and shoot from close range.
Five minutes later Christensen missed the perhaps the best chance of the game to that point when, having received a low cross from Carseldine inside the Fire’s penalty area, Christensen shimmied to the right to beat a defender and earn himself the time to pick a spot in the yawning target in front of him. But Christensen’s shot again failed test Hall, sailing half a metre over the crossbar from about ten metres.
As Hall’s goal continued to exert some kind of anti-magnetic repulsion Sean Burke became the next player to miss the target from close range. Burke did the hard work well, sprinting to run down an incisive pass from the centre circle and then beating a defender to race towards the left corner of the Fire’s six-yard box with the defender giving desperate chase. Burke’s pace kept him ahead, and Hall was drawn off his line in front of his near post, but as Burke saw him coming and clipped his right-footed shot low to Hall’s left the striker and the home side’s plentiful supporters were left gasping as the chance passed narrowly wide of the far post with Hall beaten.
As the Strikers’ grip on proceedings tightened with the game heading towards the half time break Carseldine added his name to the list of inaccurate finishers after a lung-bursting run by left-sided midfielder Brad McDonald was finished with a clever pass that played Carseldine in behind the Fire’s defence. But once again, with the target beckoning and Hall having to come off his line to close down the shooting angles, Carseldine lifted his shot over the top, leaving Large clawing in frustration at his greying hair in the Strikers’ dugout.
The plethora of missed opportunities might have been causing consternation in the Strikers’ camp, but it must have been causing more at the other end of the field for Fire coach Aston Bell, because it was serving only to underline that the Strikers were now the team creating the opportunities after weathering the visitors’ fifteen-minute opening burst. This was to continue, and perhaps become even more pronounced, in the second half as the Strikers went about driving home their superiority.
Only a brilliant sliding interception two minutes into the half from Henslee prevented Thurtell from having a free shot just six yards out from goal as a persistent run from Burke carried him to the byline to roll a pass back that was taken off Thurtell’s toes by Henslee’s defensive heroics. A minute later, Hall was at last forced to make a sharp save as Burke turned and blasted in a stinging shot from twenty-five yards after receiving a Carseldine pass. Hall flung himself sharply to his right to get a glove on Burke’s shot and deflect it away for a corner.
As the Strikers found their shooting boots Hall was back in the action again only a minute or so later to parry a twenty-yard drive from Chay Hews, and Strikers fans were again left groaning in disbelief as the ball popped up waist-height to Thurtell, whose off-balance attempt to steer the rebound past Hall ended with the ball dribbling away just wide of his unprotected goal.
The Fire were now finding it tough to get forward at all, but left winger Ryan Delahunty briefly raised their hopes in the sixty-second minute when, as the Fire counter-attacked, he found himself faced by Hews as a ball played behind Carseldine gave Delahunty room to run. Hews forced Delahunty wide as the winger outpaced him, but Delahunty’s deep cross had Usai backpedalling anxiously before he leapt up to tip the ball on to the roof of his net.
The match then entered a ten-minute lull in which the goalmouth action dried up and an intriguing battle for superiority in the midfield developed, the outcome of which seemed likely to decide which of the two teams would stake a claim for the three points in the last fifteen minutes of the match.
The Fire forced a couple of corner kicks that almost produced dividends for them – with Henslee missing the target with a header to substitute Aaran Brazendale’s corner kick, and Holmes drawing another acrobatic save out of Usai with a twenty-yard piledriver from a half-clearance that was bound for the top corner of the goal if not for Usai’s flying leap.
But one factor that was becoming apparent, and which might have given the Strikers’ dugout cause for optimism, was that in general play Shade, Simic and Griffin’s body language was determined and dominant as they dealt efficiently with Blackman and Henslee, and the forward probings of the dangerous Tyson were being swarmed upon by the likes of Angus and Hews before they could do any of their customary damage.
Perhaps emboldened by these signs, Large made a double substitution and changed his 3-5-2 formation to a slightly more attacking 3-4-3 with twelve minutes remaining as he brought on Dylan Goodman and Mason for Christensen and Hews respectively. Goodman went into the front line alongside Burke and Thurtell, while Mason went into the centre of midfield as the Strikers made their pitch for victory.
The double substitution was to have a definite impact on the contest. Almost immediately, Goodman found himself inside the Fire’s penalty area for his first touch, striding on to a short pass that cut the visitors’ defence open. Hall was out like a flash as Goodman went for the first-time finish, the goalkeeper spreading his body and making it long enough to have his trailing leg deflect the unfortunate Goodman’s shot up and on to the roof of Hall’s net.
But it was the other substitute, Mason, who was destined to have the biggest impact. As the Strikers hemmed the Fire inside their defensive third Mason won a tussle for possession with the Fire trying to play the ball out from the back, and then drove forward into left side of the Fire’s penalty area. Mason tried to work the ball on to his favoured right foot but was prevented from doing so by a defender’s persistence as Mason used his body strength to hold the defender off, heading for the six-yard box. Again Hall was drawn off his line, but he could do nothing on this occasion as Mason rammed a low left-footed shot past Hall to his left to nestle the ball into the bottom of the far corner of his net to herald pandemonium amongst the Strikers players and supporters at the southern end of the ground.
The Strikers then set themselves for a finishing burst by opponents who have become renowned this season for their ability to score goals late in games, but were not seriously troubled to preserve their lead despite four minutes of injury time being played. In fact, it was the Strikers who came closest to scoring again when McDonald, who some time ago had conquered the threat of Gonai in what had been an intriguing match-up, strode on to a pass from Griffin to lash in a shot from eighteen yards that flew into Hall’s side netting.
Referee Chris Beath’s final whistle soon confirmed the Strikers as winners over the Fire for the first time this season. It also confirmed that the home side had made certain of second position on the league table, kept alive their hopes of delivering on a pledge to win their last seven games, and left them reflecting on a performance from which they can probably draw great heart as a semi-final against the Fire looms. The win confirmed the growing belief within the club that its young team, almost like a large puppy, is at last growing into its skin as the finals approach. The Fire, meanwhile, will need to win one of their last three games to clinch the championship.
Brisbane Strikers 1 (Mason, 84) v Sunshine Coast Fire 0.
Brisbane Strikers: Seb Usai (gk), Brad McDonald, Michael Angus, Matt Christensen, Chay Hews (c), Matt Thurtell, Ben Griffin, Sean Burke, Matija Simic, Myles Carseldine, Jason Shade. Playing substitutes: Dylan Goodman, Jordan Mason, Rylan Sadler. Non-playing substitutes: Jordan Farina, Brayden Nielsen (rgk).
Sunshine Coast Fire: Antony Hall (gk), James Stinson, Jai Cross, Greig Henslee, Shaun Blackman, Tyson Holmes, Sam Knight, Yuta Gonai, Ryan Delahunty, Alex Henderson, Josh Taylor. Playing substitutes: Aaran Blazendale. Non-playing substitutes: Jonathan Rose, Chris Bacon, Sam Nicholls (rgk).
Shots on goal: Strikers 18; Fire 11
Shots on target: Strikers 5, Fire 5
Crosses: Strikers 5, Fire 9
Accurate crosses: Strikers 2; Fire 2
Corners: Strikers 5, Fire 10
Fouls: Strikers 12; Fire 13
Offsides: Strikers 1; Fire 4
Yellow cards: Shade, Carseldine (Strikers); Delahunty (Fire)
Red cards: None