South Melbourne's season-long unbeaten home record was put under threat by Northern Spirit which had raced to a two-nil lead by the quarter-hour at Bob Jane on Sunday, but was emphatically maintained as South proceeded to crash six unanswered goals past the outclassed Sydney side.
South's starting eleven was missing Goran Lozanovski, Zeljko Susa, Mehmet Durakovic, and Fausto De Amicis, all rested by South coach Mickey Petersen to ensure they'd not exceed the yellow-card count. "It was sensible management from our part. It was pointless risking a booking and not having a full list (for the upcoming Finals games)," he said in the after-match media conference.
The change was perhaps a cause of South's uncertain start which had them facing a two-goal deficit against a Northern Spirit playing a lively brand of football.
Spirit opened the scoring in the ninth minute after Robbie Enes sent through a perfectly-judged diagonal ball which completely wrong-footed the South defence. Matthew Langdon had sprinted up the left to meet it and crossed to the waiting Ben Burgess at the far post. Burgess easily won the header, sending it to Alex Moreira who had a simple tap-in.
Five minutes later, Spirit had stretched the lead. After a South attack broke down with much of its midfield in support, Spirit captain Noel Spencer played a surgical pass, with Moreira the recipient. Moreira drew Patrick Kisnorbo before releasing Burgess, square to his right. Burgess finished easily from the edge of the area, but found that goal his last influential moment in the match, being substituted through injury shortly after.
South Melbourne fans - hoping the match would be a simple victory against a team whose season had effectively ended several rounds previously - now found the contest not to be the foregone conclusion they had assumed.
Northern Spirit coach Mick Hickman was pleased to be two up against South so early. "We were pleased obviously, but champion teams can find something a little bit extra when it's needed, and (South) certainly could provide it," he said. "What I have to aspire to with my team is that level."
Petersen too saw that his team were flat. "We played on Wednesday night to secure (top spot). It was always going to be a huge ask to come up (today) when there was really nothing to play for," he said.
"To the boys' credit, we had a chat at half-time and said it's not the way we want to finish our league season, regardless of the fact that there was nothing at stake (except) our football pride."
South closed the gap just before the half-hour in a move begun by David Clarkson - recalled to the starting eleven following a frustrating period for him as a bench player. Clarkson's pass up the line found Con Boutsianis who had switched wings to the right. Boutsianis whipped in a cross which was missed by the Spirit central defence as at made its way to the far-post where Andy Vlahos stood. Vlahos had time to steady and chose his spot.
Boutsianis himself nearly levelled with a thundering free-kick from 30 metres which beat Spirit keeper Paul Henderson, only to crash off the far-post before being cleared.
But Boutsianis did level in the final minute of the first-half in circumstances where Spirit could reasonable feel aggrieved. In a goal-mouth scramble, where South had committed significant resources to the attack, a high ball dropped near Vlahos. Vlahos attempted an overhead kick at the same time as a Spirit defender approached in more orthodox fashion. Vlahos made connection with the ball but with a high boot. It would not have surprised had referee Matthew Breeze blown for dangerous play. However the game was allowed to continue, and the scramble eventually caused the ball to break for Boutsianis, just two metres out from the goal, and in what looked to be an offside position.
Boutsianis played to the whistle, and with a shimmy, scored past the hopelessly exposed Henderson. The incident was enough to provoke Mike Smith into a verbal indiscretion aimed at Breeze which resulted in his booking.
But Spirit could have no complaints at anything other than their own poor defensive skills for the way the game was totally rent from their grasp within four minutes of the re-start. Boutsianis completed his hat-trick with two goals in as many minutes in a period of the game where four South goals were scored in a ten-minute period, bringing to mind the recent qualifiers in Coffs Harbour.
The first was courtesy of Simon Colosimo, whose far post cross from the left wing found Vaughan Coveny. The gangly Kiwi nodded down to Boutsianis who struck home from ten yards. No sooner had the celebrations ceased than Boutsianis again had the ball in the net for his hat-trick.
"Boutsianis has had a splendid season. He's playing the best football of his career - he's got it right, physically and mentally," said Petersen of Boutsianis, once again having a best-on-ground performance. "We saw a good entertainer out there today."
Spirit's woe continued when Michael Cunico headed into his own net from a Paul Trimboli cross, and then Boutsianis blasted in a 30 metre free-kick to bring up South's sixth.
South Melbourne had unchallenged control of the game now and Spirit scarcely were allowed another look-in, despite its promising start.