Knights v Roar

A-League report by Jeremy Ruane
New Zealand Knights v Queensland Roar

The New Zealand Knights scored the biggest win of their entire existence in the Hyundai A-League at North Harbour Stadium on December 29, the 3-1 defeat they inflicted upon a poorly performed Queensland Roar combination leaving the beaten team's play-off hopes hanging by a thread.

The home team were good value for their triumph, and given all the off-field activity which has taken place since they last kicked a ball in anger, relating to players' salary payments, contracts and the very existence of the franchise beyond the end of the current campaign, this victory must rank as the best of the four they have scored in the competition's brief history.

They set the tone for their win in the fourteenth minute, when they took the lead after a fairly even opening gambit. Neil Emblen - outstanding in the target man role for the Knights - was fouled just outside the penalty area by Remo Buess, and Leilei Gao's resulting free-kick picked out the head of John Tambouras, who directed the ball beyond the reach of Liam Reddy to the delight of his team-mates.

Queensland sought a swift riposte through Damian Mori, who directed a header narrowly past the post on receipt of Andrew Packer's cross straight from the kick-off.

The visitors' danger man was in again seven minutes later, Ben Griffin and Matthew McKay combining to open up the Knights' defence, which was generally rock-solid. Mori, on this occasion, saw his shot take a deflection off the covering figure of Tambouras, enabling Mark Paston to smother comfortably.

In between times, the Knights had twice gone close to doubling their advantage. Darren Bazeley played the ball forward to Emblen, whose neat lay-off allowed Richard Johnson to burst into the box and pick out Alen Marcina with his cross.

The striker's glancing header careered across the face of goal, sixty seconds before Emblen and Jonas Salley combined to create an opening for Noah Hickey, who surged into the penalty area and let fly with a low drive towards the near post, an effort which Reddy saved at the second attempt.

The Knights gradually got on top of their opponents, and were stringing together some neat passing interchanges which had Queensland chasing shadows at times. Indeed, it made a pleasant change to see a team which has been much maligned throughout its entire existence casting their cares aside and clearly enjoying the chance to concentrate solely on playing football.

That they relished such a simple pleasure, uninhibited as it was by the behind-the-scenes issues arising from the club's previous management regime, was fully reflected in both their performance, and the final outcome - their second win over Queensland this season, one achieved in front of just 1963 spectators, the club's second-lowest gate of the campaign.

Gao was making numerous in-roads down the left flank as the home team‘s dominance grew, and he finally began to profit eight minutes before the interval. His cross at that time was flicked on by Emblen for Salley, but Reddy plucked the ball off the head of the midfielder, who was central to the next Knights raid, two minutes later.

Marcina was felled by Stuart McLaren just outside the penalty area, but Salley, Johnson and Gao nearly made the proverbial pig's ear of the free-kick routine. The African retrieved the situation with a neatly improvised cross which found Marcina racing in, but he could only direct his header at Reddy.

Four minutes before the interval, Gao picked out Marcina with a peach of a cross, only for McLaren to head the danger to safety. Queensland's captain and his colleagues, given their need for the three points this game offered towards their play-off prospects, didn't look anything like top four contenders in the first spell, but little did we know that they would be even worse early in the second spell.

Not so initially, however, for half-time substitute Spase Dilevski was keen to make an instant impact on proceedings for the visitors. He linked with Mori, who played the ball wide to Dario Vidosic.

The youngster's cross found Mori with his back to goal in the penalty area, not that that was to prove a hindrance to the striker, who artfully hooked a volley over his shoulder and just past the far post, Paston scrambling in vain across his goal in pursuit of the threat.

This roused the Knights into action, with Gao and Marcina combining to provide an opening for Hickey to exploit. His volleyed snapshot cannoned to safety off the face of Andrew Packer, whose despairing lunge to cover the threat staved off a second goal.

But only for two minutes, for in the 52nd minute, the home team doubled their advantage in style. Bazeley's long throw-in was cleared back to him, and the Knights' captain promptly picked out Emblen eight yards out from goal with his cross. The striker controlled neatly before lashing home past Reddy - 2-0.

Queensland were mortified at this development, and swiftly set about redressing it. Simon Lynch sprinted down the right and crossed to the near post, where Mori flicked the ball across goal. Arriving on the far post was Packer, but he headed the ball over the bar.

Paston's goal-kick sparked a Knights counter-attack, led by Hickey. The home team enjoyed a four-on-three advantage over their opponents, but the All White's cross was cut out by Josh McCloughan, averting the threat of a third goal which would almost certainly kill off the game as a contest in the 54th minute.

Three minutes later, that very situation materialised. Pouncing on a loose ball in midfield, Johnson let fly from twenty-five yards with a swerving effort which Reddy could only parry. Marcina was following in, and duly administered the coup de grace - 3-0 Knights, the Roar silenced.

Within ninety seconds, they could have struck twice more, defensive blunders allowing Emblen and Hickey the chance to dip their bread. The former's effort was blocked, while the latter's shot on the run scraped the paint off the base of the far post as it crept past, so close did it come to hitting the target.

Sated with joy, the Knights switched off somewhat soon afterwards, the change of game-plan - “Hold what we have!” - confirmed when Marcina bid an early adieu, the fit again Scot Gemmill his replacement.

With no-one providing a perfect foil for Emblen by running off him, Queensland were able to wrestle back some of the initiative, although they were largely reduced to long-range shooting in the face of their hosts' impressive work ethic and defensive solidity.

Hyuk Su Seo sent a twenty-five yarder past the post, while Lynch scored a three-pointer with a shot from similar range. Both Mori and Vidosic were

thwarted by Tambouras, who was rock-like in the Knights' rearguard, while in the 78th minute, Mori - for once in space in the penalty area - dragged his shot across the face of goal.

Two minutes later, the visitors were on the board, Vidosic's cross having picked out substitute Ante Milicic, whose deft touch to control the ball was followed by a shot of unerring accuracy - Paston hadn't a hope of preventing the score changing to 3-1 in the home team's favour.

The goal buoyed Queensland, with Matthew McKay chancing his arm from distance five minutes later. Paston was behind this effort every inch of the way, and promptly launched a counter-attack which saw Knights substitute Michael White racing through the Roar's rearguard at a great rate of knots. He let fly with a cracking shot on the run, only to see Reddy smother his 87th minute effort.

Back came the visitors once more, and after Mori had been forced to shoot across goal by the covering figure of Che Bunce, a delicious back-heel from Milicic split the defence and sent McKay surging into the penalty area.

Paston's save at the midfielder's feet was superb, and staved off any prospects of a late fightback by Queensland on an occasion when they were well beaten by a resurgent Knights combination who richly deserved this triumph.