South Melbourne advanced to the minor semi-final with a solid two-nil win over Marconi Stallions in an entertaining and committed contest at Bob Jane Stadium on Sunday evening.
Michael Curcija opened the scoring midway through the first-half with a glancing header, then blasted home from close-range one hour in to take a firm grip of the match. South had put behind itself its jittery run coming into the Finals and set up an intriguing game against Adelaide United at Hindmarsh Stadium next week.
³It was a very professional performance over the two games,² said South coach Stuart Munro. ³We set our stall out over the two legs to win the tie. We stuck to the plan.
³I had a quiet word with Michael (Curcija) before the game and told him how important it was to get himself in amongst the goals and heıs responded. I thought it was fantastic.²
³It was a very entertaining game,² said Marconi coach Jean-Paul de Marigny despite his disappointment after the match. ³I thought we played extremely well the first fifteen minutes and created two great chances. It was a good opening and if we had put one away (at that point) it changes the whole scene.
³But credit to the lads. Iıve been so proud of them all year. Theyıve turned the football club (after last yearıs poor performance) to fourth. And they never gave up.²
The stakes were high in this game - for one of the teams, not only would the season end, but in the light of the plans for a totally revamped National League, their very existence would as well.
Both sides were foundation members two of only three still plying their trades at elite national level as the others have variously withdrawn, been relegated, or even disbanded, sometimes disastrously part-way through a season.
And neither side had just been making up the numbers at national level - both had won more than their fair share of National Championships. With four apiece, in aggregate these two teams had won nearly one third of all those contested in the leagueıs 27-year history and figured in countless Finals series.
There was little between them coming into the second-leg after a scoreless first-leg in Sydney the previous week perhaps the advantage Marconi had were it to score an away goal was nullified by Southıs home-ground advantage, but it was a mouthwatering contest in prospect.
Not the least of the reasons would be to see the exciting youngsters fielded by the teams. Marconiıs Alex Brosque sets spectatorsı pulses racing, and South Melbourneıs Massimo Murdocca has shown enough to make him one to mark for future honours.
Murdocca had weaved a piece of magic just eight minutes in when he went on a mazy run which bewildered three Stallionsı opponents before feeding Vaughan Coveny. Michael Turnbull was quickly out of goal to block Covenyıs shot.
Shortly after, Brosque showed he would not be outshone by combining with Joe Spiteri in a sharply executed one-two at the edge of the penalty-area before unleashing a stinging shot which required a fine save from Eugene Galekovic.
³(Tonightıs game) was about scoring goals, and thatıs what we went for,² said de Marigny.²
With such a vibrant opening by both sides, a goal was on the cards. It was not long in coming. After yet another Stallionsı foray, South made a swift break, and from a deep position, the ball was played to Con Boutsianis mid-pitch. Boutsianis made some ground up the inside-left channel before sending a ball to Curcija equally as driven as crossed such was its fierceness. Curcija got just the right amount of head to the ball to send it past Turnbull low down at the post.
Brendan Renaud almost brought Marconi back into the game before the South fansı celebrations had died down. Running up the left into space cleverly created by Marconiıs swift passage of the ball through Spiteri, Brosque, then Nick Carle each then moving inside and taking their markers with them, Renaudıs shot flashed across the face of goal.
If South suspected Turnbull was vulnerable to shots from distance, it was put to the test when Ante Kovacevic launched one from fully 40 yards. Then Boutsianis tried from marginally closer, requiring Turnbull to make a diving covering save as it collected the top of the bar on its way through.
Grant Last, then Chad Gibson as the half drew to a close, each took heart from this display of long-range shooting to do some of their own, requiring Galekovic to be alert.
Defences were generally having the better of the game with Stallionsı Angelo Costanzo and Southıs Kovacevic completing full defensive shifts as well as providing some assistance to their own attacks. As the game continued, Costanzoıs loping runs from the back required shadowing, such is his danger in the air. But even he was unable to provide the impetus to break through the South defence.
Curcija netted again on the hour to give South the breathing space it needed. Curcija was first to a loose ball and crashed it home only minutes after squandering a golden opportunity when he had burst past Dominic Longo only to shoot into the side-netting from directly in front. With the second, Marconi needed to net twice itself. Whereas one Stallionsı goal was always a realistic possibility, two seemed a task too great.
De Marigny rang the changes after that replacing Longo and Renaud for Todd Brodie and Shane Webb respectively, but it was still not enough to find a path back into the game.
Carle and Brosque looked to have set up a goal deep into the gameıs last minutes with a well-crafted one-two, setting Brosque free inside the six-yard area for a shot. But Galekovic had spotted the possibilities and met the ball at precisely the same time as Brosque shot, blocking the danger.
³I said three or four weeks ago (South) is going to get better and better,² said Munro. ³We lost our way a little bit, but (I can) see the confidence starting to rise with the clean sheets weıve had over the last two games. Next week, weıll be even better again.²
South farewelled Paul Trimboli and Mehmet Durakovic pre-game, although Durakovic played a cameo as a late substitute. De Marigny paid tribute to both players before his departure from the stadium. ³Itıs been a pleasure playing against (Durakovic) and following his career, and the same with Trimboli for his 450 games.²