Pre-season title favourites Parramatta Power closed to within three points of the lead in the National Soccer League at Hamiltonıs Waikato Stadium on December 28, but made hard work of their 2-1 victory over the bottom-of-the-table Football Kingz in doing so.
The visitors engineered any number of openings throughout the match, but failed to make the most of their creativity. Twenty-two shots on goal tells its own tale, and that doesnıt even take into account the number of inaccurate crosses and final passes which brought a premature end to numerous other raids.
Unsurprisingly, given their undoubted attacking prowess, Parramatta tore into their task with a vengeance from the first whistle, but Ante Milicicıs first shot on goal - a fifth minute twenty-yard drive which sailed over the crossbar and out of the ground - proved to be indicative of the inaccurate finishing which was to plague their performance.
Milicic, the leagueıs leading goalscorer, was keen to make amends, but found Ross Nicholson punching the ball off his head five minutes later, following a Simon Colosimo corner headed on by Ahmed Elrich.
The combination of Colosimo - a colossus in midfield - and Elrich, with his right-wing raids, was the undoing of the Kingz on many an occasion, the ball-playing midfielder frequently threading defence-splitting passes for the fleet-footed flyer to run onto.
But what Elrich boasted in abundance with pace was countered by his inaccurate delivery of the final ball - how Power coach Nick Theodorakopoulos resisted the temptation to withdraw the speedster for this frequent failing defied belief! Had Elrichıs crosses been of better quality and accuracy, the visitors would surely have won by a far more comfortable margin.
As it was, Elrich was responsible for Parramattaıs next two shooting chances, a curling twenty-yard effort which crept narrowly wide of Nicholsonıs right-hand post, followed by a lobbed effort which looped over the crossbar, both openings having been engineered by Colosimo.
Come the twentieth minute, the visitors finally broke the deadlock, thanks to the ever-industrious Andre Gumprecht. Kingz defender Espen Schjerven made an absolute meal of a clearance, directing the ball straight to Sasho Petrovski near the half-way line.
The striker didnıt need a second invitation, and speared goalwards, the fast-running Milicic providing an intelligent diagonal off-the-ball run which took defenders away from his team-mate.
At the same time, Gumprecht was charging forward from midfield, and received a slide-rule pass from Petrovski which he took on in his stride before angling a shot through the legs of the retreating Schjerven and beyond the despairing dive of Nicholson, the ball rolling in by the far post.
It was the cue for the Kingz to come out of their shells and take the game to Parramatta, who were somewhat stunned at the tenacity of the leagueıs cellar-dwellers. Within seconds of going a goal down, it was only a goal-line clearance by Matt Thompson which prevented the home side from drawing level.
Harry Ngata - leading by example as ever - turned up on the right wing and fired in a cross to the far post which Paul Harries headed back across goal. Tallan Martin pounced, but the defender stood firm.
Ten minutes later, Thompson was involved in another incident which left the Kingz fuming. Chris Jackson - another solid performance - won possession in midfield and found Martin on the right. His cross picked out Harries, whose shot was blocked by Thompson, the defender using his arm to divert the ball to safety.
All eyes turned to referee Craig Zetter, who had timed his run to imperfection, as at the moment of truth, he was unsighted by a retreating Parramatta defender. What you canıt see, you obviously canıt give, and the Kingz were left to rue their ill-fortune once more.
Fortune favours the brave, however, and to their credit, the home team kept plugging away. A rasping twenty-yard drive from David Rayner fizzed narrowly past Clint Boltonıs right-hand post in the 32nd minute, after Ngata had prised open Powerıs defence.
Two minutes later, woeful defending by the visitors gave Schjerven the perfect chance to atone for his earlier error. Jacksonıs free-kick picked out the unmarked defender, who headed home unchallenged from six yards - 1-1.
This stung the visitors, who, inspired by Gumprecht, quickly set about regaining the initiative. The midfielderıs surging run seven minutes before the interval resulted in Elrich storming down the right and firing in a cross which found its intended target. Milicicıs volley was blocked to safety by the Kingz, who were soon struck down with major injury concerns.
With goalkeeper Michael Utting and defender John Tambouras both sidelined with injury, and Glen Collins suspended, the last thing Kingz coach Tommy Mason needed to have to do was be forced to make all three substitutions prior to the half-time whistle, all a result of injury. Craig Wylie - making his first appearance for the club in eighteen months - hobbled off with hamstring damage, while Harriesı groin failed to last the distance.
To add insult to injury, one of the substitutes, Aleksander Midtsian, had to be replaced just three minutes after entering the fray, although why he was even named as a substitute defies logic - the knee he injured in a recent game at Brisbane was still heavily strapped, so to name a player not fully fit as a substitute was, to some extent, asking for trouble.
Yet through it all, the Kingz kept plugging away. A Martin volley, following a Jeff Campbell free-kick, was grabbed from under the crossbar by Bolton as the first half drew to a close, while early in the second spell, substitute Brad Scott caused Power problems, with Thompson resorting to foul means rather than fair to prevent his opponent from being able to control a Martin cross.
Soon after, Jackson and Campbell combined to release Scott on the counter-attack, with Rayner the lone player surging forward at pace to provide support for the striker. Scottıs cross was homing in on its target, but the retreating Michael Beauchamp stepped in to avert the danger, after which the visitors dominated proceedings.
The danger they posed on the counter-attack was seen best in first half stoppage time, with Colosimo releasing Elrich with another defence-splitting pass. The wingerıs cross found Gumprecht arriving on cue at the far post, but the midfielder was unable to steer the ball on target at full stretch.
In the second half, Gumprecht sparked a 53rd minute move which resulted in Elrich drilling a shot inches past the far post. Milicic, with a deft piece of control and first-time reverse pass, had been the architect of that move, and opted to go it alone seconds later, rampaging forward from half-way before unleashing a shot which Nicholson turned to safety.
The Kingz keeper prevailed once more in the 57th minute, Travis Dodd this time foiled by the custodian after working a smart one-two with Fernando Rech, who, it must be said, had been somewhat anonymous to this point.
He was anything but in the 61st minute, however, as Parramatta regained the lead. Seconds after Nicholson had again thwarted Dodd, following the link-work of Gumprecht and Jacek Sobczyk, Rech gathered the ball in midfield and played it forward to Milicic, at the same time surging forward to join the attack.
Milicic held the ball up well, and looked up to see runs from Gumprecht and Elrich pulling Kingz defenders in every direction. But the angled run he was most aware of was taking place behind him, and a superbly timed slide-rule pass sent Rech charging into the penalty area, and the Brazilian coolly slotted the ball past the diving Nicholson and in by the far post - a splendidly crafted and executed goal.
At 2-1, Parramatta promptly opted to sit on their lead once more, inviting the Kingz to come at them - an understandable ploy when one considers how adept they are on the counter-attack.
While this ploy works well against most opponents, the Kingz lack of out-and-out firepower and genuine pace meant the visiting defenders were able to mop up the bulk of anything the home team created, only for Parramattaıs raids to break down at the hands of the massed ranks of Kingz defenders, of whom Mauro Donoso was easily the best-performed.
The only real scare the visitors endured came in the 71st minute, when a Campbell raid saw the midfielder dribble past four opponents before crossing to a non-existent team-mate when shooting appeared the more realistic option.
Otherwise, it was relatively plain sailing through to the final whistle for the title challengers, whose attempts to increase their winning margin in stoppage time foundered on the combined efforts of Nicholson and Donoso, the latter clearing the ball off the line after the former had superbly thwarted Petrovski, following the combination play of Peter Zorbas and Milicic.
But Parramatta had to be satisfied with a 2-1 victory, but their prime objective of closing to within three points of the lead held by South Melbourne was realised. The Kingz, meanwhile, remain well adrift in last place, and with a trip to defending champions Perth Glory next on their agenda, it would appear that will remain the case for a couple more rounds at least.