In the north/western Sydney derby on Saturday evening hundreds of travelling fans had nothing to take home with them as Parramatta Power bounced back confidently 3-0 to the top of table (at least overnight) with a clinical execution (via two goals from Ante Milicic) of the young battling visiting Northern Spirit.
It is strange to say that the Spirit keeper Paul Henderson had little to do other than pick three balls out of the back of his net, but really Power squandered a number of good opportunites. With only four shots on target, three of them went in - and none of them 'Hendo's' fault. At the other end the Power defence marshalled by Alvin Ceccoli kept the rather impotent Spirit attack well under control.
Parramatta was at last at home where it hasn't lost for over 12 months, after surprisingly losing twice away, and had Simon Colosimo back. Spirit had Stewart Petrie back from suspension but were without an injured Ian Ferguson and Alex Tobin, plus Alex Wilkinson and Mark Milligan. The factor identified for Spirit's top 6 chances at the start of the season, no proven goalscorer, haunted them in this game as well as their young side's lack of experience.
Spirit started the match with an aggressive approach, closing Power down rapidly, and trying to counter. In the 5th minute this worked with Stewart Petrie getting up on the left, and his cross rebounded dangerously off the back of Michael Beauchamp and into danger however Power 'keeper Clint Bolton raced to grab the ball. The first of the four chances for Power came in the 11th minute when a ball in from the left got caught in a melee, a clearance cannoned off Milicic and Henderson was forced to palm the ball around the left upright for a corner.
Lucas Pantellis was proving a handfull on the left for Matthew Hunter, getting a good cross in and then under severe pressure from Wayne O'Sullivan shooting just wide of the right post.
At this stage the Parramatta Park Trust had issued a 'camping permit' for Power, as they pinned Spirit back to their own half, who to their credit were looking to get forward. Parramatta's first goal came in the 19th minute after sustained pressure when the ball was played into John Buonavoglia directly in the middle of the pitch and some 30 metres out. Beating one man he laid a pass to Gumprecht and he flicked the ball forward to Elrich on the edge of the area. Before the Spirit defence knew what was on, Elrich played a back heel for Milicic, and the experienced marksman deftly side-stepped two markers and slotted the ball clinically inside the right-hand upright.
By the 39th minute Northern Spirit at last started to break their shackles with former Power star O'Sullivan seemingly all over the park. Petrie got up on his favoured left side, to the line, and his cross was met by an airborne O'Sullivan but alas he couldn't direct a shot on target as Pantellis covered.
In the 41st minute a Power defender clattered into John Hutchinson in the penalty area, and despite Hutchinson having lost the ball well before, referee Ben Williams pointed to the spot. The many Spirit fans sat at the edge of their seats as no-one seemed to be going to take it but as dead-ball specialist Vuko Tomasevic was directed forward, Dylan Macallister grabbed the ball. His spot kick was a shocker, so high Bolton just watched it sail into the heavens.
After half-time Power snatched their 2nd goal, with John Buonavoglia having switched to the right crossing superbly from there in the 46th minute, over the defence to an unmarked Milicic whose forcefull header slotted home inside the left upright.
Spirit to their credit didn't drop their heads but continued to press forward looking for a glimmer of hope, but that allowed Power more space that they didn't use well. In 10 minutes Elrich and Milicic twice shot side wide. In the 78th minute Spirit had one of their best chances when two former Power players combined. First substitute Adam Kwasnik made a run on the left, getting to ball in to O'Sullivan, whose header was wide. Spirit had now applied for the 'permit' as their substitute boosted attack made raids through Kwasnik, Petrie, and Brent Fisher.
As five minutes of stoppage time was played Spirit desperately tried to gain something from the game, with Kwasnik and Noel Spencer butchering chances, and even Julian Watts hit the side netting from inside the box. A quick ball played out by Parramatta soon arrived at Elrich, unmarked on the left, and his shot left Henderson no chance to get a glove to it.
An important win for Parramatta who were just too good, and more points lost for Spirit who are slipping back down the table - with their reach for the top 6 spot getting problematic. Ante Milicic took his season tally to 10, all of which have come in the last seven games.
Best for Parramatta were Alvin Ceccoli, Ante Milicic, Michael Beauchamp, Lucas Pantellis, John Buonavoglia, and Ahmad Elrich. For Northern Spirit Wayne O'Sullivan, Stewart Petrie, Matt Osman, and Julian Watts contributed well.
The crowd figure of over 3000 was encouraging, with many hundreds of nearly local Spirit fans in evidence, but it is hard to know what otherwise helped - the local derby, the fine weather, end of the Rugby, the quality of Power's play filtering through, the free tickets handed out at Castle Hill by joint shirt sponsor Champion? An exciting game may tempt some of them back. We can only hope. It was still short of the 10K derby crowds of a few seasons ago although that says more about Spirit's problems than Power. Some suggested we were watching the core fans of a new franchise north western Sydney team next year - but let's hope we don't have more clubs folding!