The Brisbane Strikers notched consecutive home wins tonight, and kept their unbeaten record at Perry Park this season intact, when they prevailed 1-0 over the Melbourne Knights in a gritty encounter that answered as many questions about the home side as last week's 4-2 win over Parramatta Power.
While last week's performance was achieved with a dash of panache over a visiting team who played open, attacking football and, in doing so, allowed the Strikers room to play, tonight's win over the less adventurous Knights owed more to patience and hard-nosed professionalism.
The decisive moment in a hard-fought game came in the sixty-fifth minute when Brisbane midfielder Warren Moon brought the home crowd to its feet when he lashed a left-footed volley into the Knights' goal after a spell of concerted pressure by the Strikers. It was a perfectly struck shot which was as worthy a match-sealer as you are likely to see in a 1-0 scoreline.
While the visitors tried to lift themselves to get back on level terms after that, they were kept at bay by a Brisbane side for whom the defensive trio of Karl Dodd, Adam Webber and Josh McCloughan held firm, ably assisted by industrious midfielders Louis Brain, Peter Grierson and Shane Stefanutto and even, on occasions, players such as Luke Morley who earns his reputation at the other end of the field.
The first half was a largely sterile affair in which Brisbane took a long time to get going. The Knights began with Anthony Pelikan and former Brisbane Striker Kris Trajanovski up front and, as expected by the home side's coaching staff, Andrew Marth marshalling a back line of himself, Antun Kovacic and Rod Vargas.
The Knights began with more purpose than the home side and dominated the first ten minutes, forcing a number of corner kicks. Their best moment in this period came when Nikola Sabljak, who was their most creative and dangerous player throughout the match, rattled Brisbane goalkeeper Scott Higgins' crossbar as the Knights broke away after the Strikers gave away possession cheaply near the half way line.
Trajanovski, doubtless out to prove a few points tonight to the club who let him go at the end of the previous season, looked particularly sharp early in the game. In the eleventh minute it was his through-ball which released Bill Natsioulas into the penalty area, but the midfielder's shot was blocked and went out for a corner which was defended successfully by the home side.
The 'travelling' visiting team's supporters (from the local Rocklea soccer club) were getting plenty of encouragement as the home side struggled to keep possession in the first fifteen minutes. However, the Brisbane players gradually began to piece their teamwork together, with skipper Peter Grierson getting more involved and feeding David Pilic and Louis Brain down the right side and Josh McCloughan and Shane Stefanutto down the left. Stefanutto, in particular, was played into some promising positions deep down the left flank, but the quality of his crossing was generally not of a standard that the player himself would have been happy with.
With Brisbane gradually gaining the lions' share of possession, the visitors were getting nine or ten players behind the ball, but defending so far up the pitch and so successfully that the Strikers barely got into their penalty area in the first thirty-five minutes. The home side were playing with patience, holding possession and trying to drag the Melbourne defenders out wide, but could produce few telling crosses.
After fully thirty-seven minutes, however, that particular drought was broken when Stefanutto managed to produce a knee-high square pass from the left to Luke Morley, who brought it down well and fired a volley a metre or so to the right of the Knights' goal. Goalkeeper Tommi Tomic was sufficiently concerned to launch himself to his left, but saw it go harmlessly wide.
A few minutes later, though, it was the visitors who found themselves with an opportunity to take the lead. Trajanovski was played into space inside the Brisbane penalty area and pulled the trigger as Brisbane goalkeeper Scott Higgins advanced. However, he reckoned without Brisbane's left back Josh McCloughan who pulled off a copybook sliding tackle to block Trajanovski's shot and send it out over the byline. When McCloughan's coaching staff sit down to review the tape of this game, this virtuoso piece of defending will surely loom large in their analysis of why their team got full points tonight.
Brisbane answered this foray in the forty-first minute when Stefanutto, working with McCloughan, produced another square pass to Louis Brain whose fiercely struck volley sailed about a metre over Tomich's crossbar. The contest was hotting up before the teams went into the break, but in truth neither goalkeeper saw much serious action in the first forty-five minutes.
Whatever Luciano Trani and Stuart McLaren said to their players at half time seemed to produce more effect than what Ian Dobson said to his. Attacking the goal at the southern end of the ground where its noisiest supporters gather, the home side came out with more purpose and intensity. Within five minutes Warren Moon had a shot from about fifteen yards well saved by Tomich after collecting a pass from Stefanutto, who was now having his best spell of the match.
While the pressure from the home side was mounting, the visitors produced one of their better moments five minutes later when Higgins was forced to make a save low at the foot of his right post to keep out a curling direct free kick from Sabljak.
In the sixty-first minute McLaren made his first substitution, bringing on Steve Fitzsimmons in place of Pilic on the right side of his midfield. Fitzsimmons' pace and vision soon began to cause problems for the Knights' defence, which found itself being tested down the right as well as the left.
It was a run through the inside right position by Louis Brain, however, which probably should have led to the opening goal. Brain carried the ball from the half way line to almost the edge of the penalty area, under heavy attention from Melbourne defenders, before slipping an excellent through-ball into the area to put Luke Morley into a one-on-one situation with Tomich. But Morley's first touch, as the keeper threw himself at Morley's feet, was too heavy and took the ball out over the byline with the goal begging.
In the sixty-fifth minute, however, the game's pivotal moment arrived and it was the pace of Fitzsimmons which created it. Fitzsimmons broke free down the right and sent a cross into the heart of the Knight's penalty area. It was headed out only as far as Moon, on the edge of the area, who had time to chest it down and line up the sort of left-footed volley that earned him his reputation in the State League. Moon's sweet connection sent the ball rifling into the left corner of Tomich's goal, with the 'keeper having no chance to keep it out. The spectacular goal was greeted with a cacophonous roar from the increasingly boisterous home crowd, as Moon celebrated his second goal in consecutive home matches.
The Knights tried to push forward for an equaliser, but were finding it increasingly tough going as Brisbane continued to make inroads down their left flank. Brisbane were unlucky not to go two goals to the good when Fitzsimmons, by this time making a real nuisance of himself, was released on a counter-attack. Kovacic and Vargas tried to keep pace and close him down
But the speedy winger (and about 500 hundred home supporters) looked up and saw Luke Morley unattended in the middle. Fitzsimmons' cross towards Morley unluckily struck the hand of one of the Knights' defenders, which slowed its journey to Morley just long enough to enable Tomich to get out and smother Morley's shot, and a goal went begging. The home supporters bayed for either a free kick for handball, or the referee's blood, but in truth the official had little choice but to play a much reduced 'advantage' and allow Morley the opportunity to get his shot in.
Brisbane continued to press for a second goal, with shots going over the top from Brain and Grierson as McLaren went to his bench for further attacking inspiration. McLaren brought on last week's two-goal hero Josh Rose in the eightieth minute for Moon, who had played his heart out.
With the home side dominating possession and running down the clock, the Knights almost snatched a point from the game when they broke into the Strikers' half and Razov ghosted onto a long ball from the right to smash a half-volley only inches over Higgins' goal from about twenty metres. But, by this time, an equaliser probably would have been rough justice on the home side who, in any case, soon fashioned a move which brought the save of the match out of Tomich to deny Rose. The energetic substitute's left-footed volley from a Luke Morley cross produced a flying leap from the 'keeper to touch the ball over the bar when a second goal seemed almost certain.
This was the last meaningful action of the game before the final whistle was blown to confirm the Strikers' third home win of the season, to the appreciative and raucous applause of the home crowd who were savouring the prospect of their team entrenching itself in the top six.
The Strikers now face the prospect of journeying south on Friday night to play the resurgent Wollongong Wolves, but do so in the knowledge gained over the last two weeks that they can grind out results or play open, attacking football as the occasion demands.