Strikers v Souths

Playoff report by Alan Clark
Brisbane Strikers v South Melbourne

South Melbourne cruised into the Minor Semi-Final with a two-one win at Brisbane Strikers' Ballymore Stadium in the second leg of the Elimination Final on Sunday afternoon for a four-one aggregate victory.

South Melbourne talisman Con Boutsianis scored just after the half-time interval when he sidefooted home after following up a Vaughan Coveny penalty, blocked by Strikers' goalkeeper Jason Kearton.

Then with a quarter of an hour still to play, Nick Sabljak - who had only entered the pitch four minutes previously as a substitute for Boutsianis - was himself able to sidefoot into the net after Robert Liparoti had stormed through the centre, exchanged a pass with Joe Bacak, and loosed a shot which Kearton could only touch onto the post from where it rebounded into Sabljak's path.

Fernando Rech was able to give the vociferous home fans a late consolation goal with a sparkling drive from 25 metres to complete the scoring.

The win advances South to a Sydney showdown with Olympic Sharks, although - as the Brisbane game was played earlier in the day - South's opponents had not yet been determined as the South players left the Ballymore pitch.

Asked whether he'd prefer to face Sharks or Melbourne Knights, South coach Eddie Krncevic replied "I don't really care. We're just getting on a plane to get home. I don't care - I have no preference."

"We got as far as we deserved to get," said Strikers' coach John Kosmina after the game, reviewing the end to Brisbane's season. "It's as simple as that."

At the outset of the second leg, both teams' targets were clear - Brisbane's was to win by three, South Melbourne's was to keep Brisbane scoreless. The easier role is to defend, as all it requires is to destroy rather than create. South always had the upper hand.

The first half provided few opportunities for either side. Liparoti - returned to the starting eleven to fill in for the injured Steve Panopoulos - was given the job of marking Strikers' danger-man Rech. That Rech's goal came only after Liparoti had been substituted, and after Liparoti had set up South's second following his storming run - is testament to how well Liparoti responded to his recall.

"(Liparoti) did an excellent job'" said Krncevic. "He hasn't played for a long time, and he did well on Fernando Rech. He obviously ran out of legs towards the end, but he did well."

Kosmina had expected another marker for Rech. "I thought (Krncevic would) play (Kisnorbo) in midfield on Fernando. (Liparoti) had a physical presence that made life difficult for (Rech)."

Rech was unable to provide the platform for Strikers, so tightly was he marshalled by Liparoti. Rech's main opportunities came from free-kicks around the edges of the penalty-area. Just after the quarter-hour, Steve Iosifidis fouled Paul Foster to give Rech his first chance to work his magic.

Rech cleverly shot low under the wall he anticipated would jump, and it took a deflection on its way through. Michael Petkovic, in goal for South, surely saw the ball very late, but managed to get his foot to it as he dived to cover the initial trajectory, and diverted it around the other post for a corner.

"Petkovic made a great save," said Trimboli. "That really settled us. If that had gone in, then you never know what's going to happen."

"I think we weren't positive enough (in the first half)," said Kosmina. "We gave them too much respect."

Rech had an early chance in the second half with the game still scoreless from a similar distance and angle. This time his shot hit the wall and rebounded to Steve McLaren who shot over.

But the game turned when sustained South pressure just a minute later found Murdocca at the edge of the area get in the way of a clearance from the Strikers' defence and for the rebounding ball to fall neatly to Paul Trimboli. As Trimboli was about to shoot, Kearton crashed into him, sending the South captain sprawling in the box and giving referee Brett Hugo an easy decision.

Boutsianis was quickest to respond to Kearton's penalty-save block from Coveny's spot-kick to side-foot home from seven yards out.

Kosmina was upset at last week's penalty award to South which started South's ascendancy in the tie, but this week was more accepting.

"No doubt about it this week," said Kosmina. "You're clearing a ball like that, the referee can't give a handball can he? How do you get your arm out of the road when the ball's volleyed at you."

But with South's opening goal, the Strikers' already daunting task - to net three times - became impossible. No side has scored four times against South Melbourne this season - not even during the team's darkest period in the first half of the campaign - far less four in under forty-five minutes.

Liparoti's adventure into the forward zone which resulted in the chance falling to Sabljak merely confirmed this was South's game, and that South's remarkable season would continue at least for one more week, when it seemed dead and buried in January.

Rech's late consolation would not have dimmed South's delight at the change in fortune.