Successful teams are constructed on a solid defence. This seems to have been the major off-season revelation for the Brisbane Strikers, who scored their first home win of the 2003-04 season at Perry Park tonight.
A 2-1 win over highly ranked Newcastle United took the Strikers momentarily to third place on the table, equal with three other sides on 11 points.
A goal each in the first half to their strikers, Luke Morley and Royce Brownlie were the means by which Brisbane secured the win, but the transformation from last season (second worse defence in the NSL) to this season (only four goals conceded in six games) seems complete.
Karl Dodd (Brisbane Strikers Supporters Association player of the match tonight) and Josh McCloughlan were both nearly faultless at the heart of the Strikers defence tonight. Newcastle¹s strike-force of Esala Masi and Ryan Griffiths looked lonely and unsupported throughout the first half, and though their side got on top in midfield possession in the second half, the Strikers¹ defence held firm.
Brisbane began much the quicker of the two sides, and dominated long periods of the first half. Newcastle sat deep when defending, allowing the Strikers back three plenty of room, but trying to stay tight on Grierson, Pilic and Moon in the midfield. This meant lots of long balls played over the midfield to the front pair, mostly with little success.
Newcastle coach Ian Crook said after the match that neither side looked like breaking down the other in attack, and it seemed that the visitors¹ tactics were paying off, as the Strikers did not create a clear chance in the first half hour.
But in the 36th minute the game came to life. A quick diagonal pass forward from Pilic found Luke Morley pulling away from his marker on the right with space to control and shoot. Perosh deflected the shot onto the post, but the follow-up ended up in the net.
After going a goal up, the Strikers seemed well on top coming towards half time. Assistant coach Luciano Trani was probably already in the dressing shed, cutting up the oranges, when the home team went ahead by two.
Luke Morley (my choice as man of the match) dispossessed Keegan Wolfenden and had a clear run on goal. He drew Perosh and slid a pass square to Royce Brownlie, who will never in his career score an easier goal at any level of football.
Newcastle coach Ian Crook was glad to get his side into the dressing room to talk through the first half, because the visitors made a much better fist of it when they came out for the second half.
Newcastle¹s increase in possession was measured mostly in corners won. Mitchell Johnson¹s in-swinging corners from the left were Newcastle¹s most potent attacking option. Several times the ball flashed across the goal, only needing a well-placed foot or head to put Newcastle right back into contention.
The Strikers were only dangerous on the break in the second half. Brownlie seemed the most likely to add to their score, but twice his touch let him down in promising positions and once he blasted over from about eight metres out after being set up by Stefanutto.
Damien Brown¹s pace was causing Stuart McLaren no end of problem down Newcastle¹s left flank, but his final pass was always cut out by Dodd or McCloughlan.
Newcastle continued to grow in possession and dominance, and in the last 10 minutes gave the Strikers real headaches. Only a point-blank reflex save by Jason Kearton denied Brown the goal his performance deserved.
Then, right on the stroke of full time, Johnson curled in one last free kick. Peter Tsekenis so anonymous until that moment that his name doesn¹t appear in my notes rose at the far post and headed down powerfully. A textbook goal, but it was too late as in the next minute James Lewis blew for full time.
Strikers¹ player-coach Stuart McLaren professed himself delighted with the win and the first half performance. He gave Newcastle credit for their second half fightback. Newcastle¹s goal, he said, happened because the defence was dead on its feet after being ³under the hammer for large parts of the second half².
³It was important for us to get the three points tonight, as it keeps us in touch with what¹s happening at the top end of the table, rather than getting sucked back down toward the back end,² he said.
Newcastle¹s Ian Crook didn¹t seem too disheartened by the loss. Brisbane was a hard place to come to, he said, and he had brought a very young side. Playing a double header the previous weekend had taken a lot out of his side, and the bye next weekend might be a chance to freshen up some of his young players.