The Brisbane Strikers’ hopes of chasing down a top-two position in the NPL received a setback tonight as Redlands United won a tense battle of wills to run out 3-0 winners at the Cleveland Showgrounds.
3-0 is a scoreline that indicates a comfortable win for the home side, but such was not really the case at all. A Redlands team restored to near top strength was forced to work all the way by the Strikers who, while not at their most fluent going forward, were a resilient and determined unit who had their chances to gain the ascendancy but were eventually beaten by a team who capitalized better on a limited number of scoring opportunities.
The Strikers went into the game with one forced change to their starting eleven – that being the inclusion of Corey Hooper at centre half in place of Andy Callaghan, who was ruled out of the contest with an ankle injury. But the youthful Strikers back four of Hooper, David Roby, Scot Coulson and Alistair Quinn did their job superbly in the first half to give an experienced Redlands forward line barely a sniff of goal.
Redlands, who desperately needed three points to avoid the danger of slipping outside the top four for the first time this season, fielded all of their attacking big guns with Reuben way spearheading the forward line and the flying midfield trio of Graham Fyfe, George Barbarouses and Jheison Macuace looking to supply the ammunition.
But Redlands were effectively shackled in a first half that offered plenty for those who admire a tactical battle for surpremacy and feisty midfield competitiveness, but little for those who prefer their action in the penalty areas. That said, the Strikers could easily have taken a lead in the first minute of the game when they attacked out wide on the left and midfielder Michael Angus picked out winger Jonti Richter with his cross. But Richter’s scuffed volley from ten yards went tamely into the arms of Redland goalkeeper Mitch O’Brien before the game settled into an arm wrestle, with Redlands having most of the ball but the Strikers having perhaps the better of the chances.
The Strikers conjured a half-chance after their former skipper Nick Robinson, now playing in the Redlands back line, gave away possession inside Redlands’ defensive third allowing Strikers skipper Chay Hews to deliver a teasing cross to the edge of the home team’s six-yard box. But with the Redlands’ defence opened up and O’Brien exposed, Josh McVey’s desperate attempt to get a touch on the stretch failed by inches and the chance disappeared as the ball ran beyond O’Brien’s back post for a goal kick.
Another half chance went begging for the visitors when a corner taken on the left midway through the half went beyond O’Brien’s back post and was headed back intelligently by Roby towards Angus, whose first-time half volley flew across the face of goal without testing O’Brien.
The pattern of the first half had now been established, with Redlands having perhaps the majority of possession but finding themselves blunted by the efforts of the Strikers’ back four, who were well shielded by Angus and Hews.
So effective was the Strikers’ defending that it took the home side thirty minutes to get a shot on goal. When that arrived it was a speculator from twenty-five yards by Macuace that flew straight into the hands of Strikers goalkeeper Willem Rockett, whose only anxious moments up to then had been in dealing with a spate of corner kicks won by the home team which were defended capably by the visitors.
At the other end, though, Strikers centre forward Josh Taylor was cutting an increasingly isolated figure, doing a lot of thankless running ,with only the occasional long ball out from defence aimed in his direction giving him anything he could get his teeth into.
As the fist half went into its last ten minutes the game began to open up a little. Way went within centimetres of scoring the opening goal after an exchange of several passes with Redlands left back Keiran Purcell got the home team out of a tight space on its left flank and sent Way running towards the Strikers’ penalty area with three defenders for company. As the attacker’s space ran out and a cul-de-sac threatened to engulf him near the edge of the Strikers’ penalty area Way went for broke, unleashing a shot that flew over Rockett but, unfortunately for Way and the home team, also over the crossbar by a coat of paint.
A much better chance, however, was to fall to the visitors five minutes before the half time break when Taylor’s willingness to compete for a long pass from Hews almost paid dividends. Taylor chased the ball down towards the left side of the Redlands penalty area and won a tussle for possession about ten yards out from the byline before picking out McVey near the penalty spot with a pass. But the attacking midfielder’s attempt to finish with power rather than placement flew over the crossbar without testing O’Brien, who had been exposed and must have been expecting to at least be forced into a save.
So it as 0-0 at half time, with the Strikers having had the better chances to score while the home team, for all its possession, having failed to create a chance inside the visitors’ penalty area.
The Strikers began the second half brightly, with Quinn going perilously close seven minutes in with a left-footed drive from twenty yards after an exchange of passes with winger Jonti Richter wide on the right.
But then, somewhat against the run of play, Redlands rocked the Strikers as they grabbed the opening goal from an attack that swept from left to right and produced a cross that was firmly headed out by the Strikers towards Redlands midfielder Zac Bratten, positioned about twenty yards out from goal. Bratten steadied himself as the ball came down and, although rather cramped up as he shaped for the volley, he was able to drill in a low, right-footed shot that clattered against the inside of Rockett’s right upright and finished in the opposite corner of his net to the joy of the home team and its supporters.
The Strikers responded well, forcing the pace and gaining the ascendancy for in the middle of the park for a while. But again they were let down by their finishing, or were denied by desperate defending when it counted, as Taylor’s back post header from a cross delivered by King and Hooper’s blistering drive from a corner kick delivered low to the edge of Redlands penalty, were both deflected wide of goal.
Midway through the second half the Strikers’ best chance to get level went begging after McVey’s smart, volleyed pass from inside the centre circle sent Taylor racing down the left touchline, with the Redlands back four in full retreat. Taylor’s cross cut out several players in the Redland’s eighteen yard box to find Angus in space, but with time to pick his spot Angus became the next Brisbane Striker to miss the target, belting his shot from ten yards high over the crossbar.
That was the last chance the Strikers were to have to score an equalizer. Shortly afterwards Redlands coach Matt Chandler replaced Way with Ramone Close and Strikers coach Graham Harvey, standing in for the ‘flu-stricken David Large, gambled and brought on tall defender Alex Henderson for Coulson, sending Henderson forward to add his height to the Strikers’ attacks while opting for a three-man backline.
Redlands exploited this situation with deadly precision, and Close’s understanding with Macuace and Barbarouses as the Strikers threw bodies forward in search of an equalizer was to prove decisive. With nine minutes remaining Redlands broke away down their left flank, where Macuace was able to draw a defender before finding Close with a pass only ten yards out from goal. Close then expertly finished, taking one touch to control the ball before dispatching the ball past the exposed Rockett into the bottom right corner of his net to give the home team a two-goal buffer.
Three minutes later the home side picked off the Strikers’ understaffed back line again. As another attack by the visitors broke down Redlands hoisted a high ball towards Close who, just inside the Strikers’ half, leapt high to glance a header in the direction of Barbarouses, who in turn had anticipated well with a diagonal run from inside the centre circle. Once he had chased down the ball and brought it under control, the fleet-footed Barbarouses was able to outpace the tiring Strikers defence and bear down on goal at Rockett’s near post before unleashing a drive from eight yards that gave the goalkeeper no chance.
The Strikers continued to press forward in search of a consolation goal but it simply wasn’t their night and, when Richter’s attempted drive from twenty yards dribbled tamely into O’Brien’s gloves it rather summed things up for them. While their execution was sometimes lacking the defeat was certainly not down to lack of effort from the men in yellow and blue – a factor acknowledged by Harvey in his post-match summing up.
“We were quite happy coming in 0-0 at half time”, Harvey said, “and I thought the boys had worked themselves into quite a nice little pattern before half time. In the second half I thought the first goal was crucial. Obviously they (Redlands) got it and in the last ten minutes I just took a chance and changed the shape and tried to go for a goal – I wasn’t happy sitting back and taking a 1-0. So I took a chance and it didn’t work tonight, so I take responsibility for it.
“I thought the boys were magnificent all the way through and, in the last ten minutes, the change of shape has probably killed them”.
Redlands United: Mitch O’Brien (gk), Hayden Eames, Jamie Saul, George Barbarouses, Jheison Macuace, Reuben Way, Graham Fyfe (c), Scott Bow, Nick Robinson, Zac Bratten, Keiran Purcell. Substitutes: Ramone Close, Nick Danicic.
Brisbane Strikers: Willem Rockett (gk), Alistair Quinn, Corey Hooper, David Roby, Chay Hews (c), Michael Angus, Jonti Richter, Greg King, Josh McVey, Josh Taylor, Scot Coulson. Substitutes: Ben Harrison, Alex Henderson.