Melbourne Knights and current NSL Champions Olympic Sharks shared the points in a one-one draw at Knights' Somers Street Stadium on Sunday evening.
Ante Pelikan opened the scoring for Knights, only for Ante Milicic to equalise for a result that gives some first-up comfort to both teams.
"If you said before the game - We'll give you a point at Melbourne Knights - I would have taken it," said Sharks coach Gary Phillips at the after-match media conference. "But having seen the game, I'm disappointed we didn't get the three points."
Knights' player-coach Andrew Marth had similar post-match views. "Overall I think we competed quite well," he said. "Maybe we gave two points away, but overall it was a great performance against the best team in Australia at the moment."
Melbourne Knights might feel that something better could have been earnt as Sharks spent the last twenty minutes a man down. Paul Kohler had been dismissed after receiving two yellow-cards inside two minutes. Kohler pulled back Henry Fa'arodo near the half-way line as the Solomon Islander was galloping goalwards on a break for his first caution, then two minutes later, handled the ball at the edge of the penalty-area to prevent it running to Adrian Cervinski.
"We defended well after (the send-off)," said Phillips. "The team showed a lot of character to hang in there, and showed a lot of pride that they're national Champions. If they show that spirit for the rest of the year, I'd be more than happy."
Both teams congested the play with their five-man midfields, so there was little space to operate. Combined with the lesser level of fluent play due to it being the teams' first games in this campaign, the football was more disjointed than the coaches would have hoped.
A late training-ground injury to key midfielder Troy Halpin made much of Phillips' preparation for nothing. "For the last two weeks we'd been working on Halpin in the middle of the park, and yesterday morning I had to change it," he said. "There was a lot of re-shuffling, so given that, I was more than happy."
The Knights' opening goal by-passed the grid-lock of midfield on a quick break immediately after a promising Sharks move. Tom Pondeljak had looped a header over Martin John but found Andrew Marth had moved in behind to prevent the ball crossing the goal-line.
The ball was instantly played up the Knights' right wing where Daniel Vasilevski took possession at the half-way line and sprinted towards the bye-line. With players of both sides scrambling to keep pace, Vasilevski sent in a cross which Leon Buhic met. Buhic's shot was blocked by Sharks' keeper Clint Bolton, rebounding to Nick Sabljak. Sabljak's shot was also blocked, but rebounded handily for Pelikan who let loose an unstoppable low drive from inside the area which bulged the net ten minutes before the interval.
With the departure of so many of last year's squad, some who played off the bench now have a major opportunity to make a name for themselves at Somers Street this year. Pelikan is amongst those, according to Marth.
"I think Ante's going to be a huge surprise this year," said an appreciative Marth. "He's worked really hard pre-season. He's been our stand-out in training, and I've got high hopes for (him)."
But the Knights' lead was short-lived, lasting until just three minutes of the re-start. Hiroyuki Ishida was bundled over unfairly 30 metres out from goal on the right. Ishida took the free-kick himself, short to Ante Milicic whose right foot volley from inside the area, sent the ball whistling past Johns for the equaliser.
It may have been spectacular, but Marth was dismissive of its repeatability. "I can guarantee you, given a hundred chances (to repeat the goal) he wouldn't put it in the back of the net. (It was a) great finish, but I can guarantee you that he won't do that again."