Knights v Mariners

A-League report by Jeremy Ruane
New Zealand Knights v Central Coast Mariners

After a quite frankly awful first half showing from both sides, the Central Coast Mariners prevailed 2-0 over the New Zealand Knights at North Harbour Stadium on November 19 to lift themselves into a share of fourth place in the Hyundai A-League.

The home team's recently appointed Director of Football, Barry Simmonds, was entrusted with the task of steering the ship for this match after the club parted company with Paul Nevin during the week, and was faced with an injury situation so bad that his bench for this match comprised two goalkeepers and one outfielder!

2,139 fans turned up to see if he could improve matters, and in terms of a desire to battle for the good of the cause, this was a far more satisfactory effort from the Knights than had been seen in recent weeks.

Football matches, however, aren't won and lost on effort alone - the small matter of stashing the ball in the opposition's net is the key determinant in that facet of the game, and it's an element which the New Zealand combination are a long way from mastering.

Just four goals - two of them courtesy their opponents - are all the Knights have to show for their attacking efforts so far this season, and they did try to improve on that record in the first half of this match. Malik Buari brought a seventh minute save out of Danny Vukovic, who then denied new Knights Canadian-sourced signing Alen Marcina two minutes later.

Dustin Wells had engineered that opening, and took on three opponents before looking to set up his new team-mate on the quarter-hour. Stewart Petrie raced back from his usual haunt on the left flank to avert that threat, but couldn't repeat the dose when the game's next opportunity materialised, twenty minutes later.

Michael White's cleverly executed pass, despite being off-balance, sent Wells darting through the inside-right channel. But his shot was saved by Vukovic, the Knights' last chance to break the deadlock before half-time.

They certainly created more opportunities than the Mariners, whose lone effort - Damian Mori sent John Hutchinson steaming through from midfield, but he pulled his shot woefully wide of the mark - summed up their pitiful first half display.

Coach Laurie McKinna thought that also, because he ripped into his charges at half-time, as evidenced by the visitors' much-improved second half performance which saw them dominate proceedings right from the off.

Six minutes into the second spell, Hutchinson played a short corner to Jamie McMaster, whose curling cross was pawed out by the recalled Michael Turnbull as Petrie homed in on the far post.

The striker missed an even better chance two minutes later, after Damien Brown had worked a one-two with McMaster on the left and whipped in a low cross. Darren Bazeley missed it completely, which clearly startled Petrie, if the waywardness of his finish is anything to go by.

The Mariners were beginning to find the cracks in the Knights' rearguard which had been skilfully papered over in the first half by Che Bunce and Sime Kovacevic. Mile Jedinak, Adam Kwasnik and Hutchinson were next to carve open the local defence, the last-mentioned's charging run to fully capitalise on the first-mentioned's pass being well anticipated by Turnbull, who saved at his feet.

After Bunce had narrowly avoided turning a Kwasnik cross into his own net, Mori decided enough was enough, and served up a six-minute lesson in the finer points of the striker's role for all present to behold, 360 seconds which decided the game.

Until this point, the prolific marksman had had a generally quiet match, his lack of involvement largely a result of the lack of service he'd received, something due as much to the Knights' efforts to deny it as it was the Mariners' mediocre first half performance.

Come the 59th minute, however, Mori came alive, gathering the ball on the edge of the penalty area before playing in Petrie and spinning off his marker for the return. It came in the form of a driven cross which Mori met with a bullet-like header, Turnbull relieved to see the fifteen-yard effort fly narrowly past his right-hand post.

Three minutes later, while Hutchinson was spreading play wide to Petrie, Mori was setting off on a curving run which took him to a point beyond the far post. When Petrie's delicious cross arced into that area of the goalmouth, Mori arrived bang on cue, and his header was a ripper.

But so was the save - Turnbull made a difficult reflex stop appear decidedly easy, and what's more, he held onto it. A great piece of goalkeeping.

What happened next, in the 65th minute, was a masterclass in intuition, anticipation and clinical finishing. Mori was loitering beyond the last defender, watching play develop downfield, when he suddenly raced back onside, alert to the possibilities opening up should Hutchinson get the ball in the centre circle.

He did so, from Wayne O'Sullivan a mere two seconds later, by which time Mori was already at full pace and primed to race onto a through ball played in between the Knights' defenders.

Hutchinson duly obliged with a first-time pass, and before Bunce and Kovacevic had a chance to react, Mori had four yards on them, Turnbull the lone obstacle between him and the game-breaking goal. The ‘keeper didn't stand a chance - 1-0, the Knights unhinged by arguably the best striker in the history of top-flight football in Australia.

Kwasnik, set up by Mori, blazed wide of the mark six minutes later, before the home team threatened for the first time in the half, in the 73rd minute. Neil Emblen won an aerial duel to present White with the ball, and he set sail downfield before playing Buari in. His deflected shot was greedily grabbed by Vukovic, who smothered a Jonti Richter twenty-yarder twelve minutes later as the Knights pursued an equaliser.

Meantime, Turnbull had been forced to make two saves to deny Kwasnik. While the first one was easy for the ‘keeper, the second was a more demanding denial after Mori had chased down Buari inside the Mariners' half, allowing O'Sullivan to hoist the ball forward. Kwasnik latched onto it, wrong-footed a defender and forced Turnbull into a sprawling save, low to his left.

After Mori had gone for a tumble in the penalty area under Bazeley's challenge as he looked to get on the end of a Kwasnik cross - referee Peter Green wasn't having a bar of his claims! - the goal-getter set up substitute Nick Mrdja in stoppage time.

The newcomer fired wastefully wide on this occasion, but made amends with the last kick of the game, a murderous twenty-yard free-kick which careered through the defensive wall, the set-piece having been awarded after Mori had been felled inside the penalty arc.

That made it 2-0 to the Mariners, a result their first half efforts never looked like earning. But six minutes of menace from Mori made all the difference.

How the Knights must wish they had a striker to bear comparison with the Mariners' master marksman. Instead, their tenth goalless return for the season leaves them rock-bottom, seven points adrift of their nearest rivals with eight rounds remaining. Compared to the off-field shenanigans, this statistic is a mere exclamation mark!