Melbourne Knights put an end to a December horror-stretch with a hard-fought win in a seven-goal thriller against Adelaide City Force at Knights Stadium on Sunday evening.
Force had taken a two-goal lead through Aurelio Vidmar and Nick Budin before drew level at the break with goals from Leon Buhic and player-coach Andrew Marth.
Adelaide City re-took the lead in the second-half with a goal from Shane Smetlz, but saw the lead evaporate again after the hapless Iain Fyfe conceded an own-goal. Knights gained the lead and never surrendered it after a sparkling solo goal from Anthony Pelikan with twenty minutes remaining.
Both teams ended the match a player down after Adelaide City's Michael Valkanis and Knights' Rodrigo Vargas each drew double yellows in separate incidents late in the game.
"Today we went back to basics," said Marth after the match. "We worked hard and in the end we got the desired result."
With results elsewhere falling as they did, Knights cemented a position in the top six, even though its recent form has seen just this one win in its four December outings. "We had discussions during the week (as) things weren't going that well," said Marth. "We changed out style of play to play more direct, and it seemed to work for us."
Despite the loss, Adelaide City owner and stand-in coach Bob d'Ottavio was upbeat. "It was a good open game of football," he said. Force had lost its coach Charley Villani during the week who resigned his position after a string of poor results, and d'Ottavio had been required to step in.
"It could have gone either way. When we went up two-nil we got took it too casual for the next ten minutes," d'Ottavio said.
D'Ottavio dismissed speculation that ex-Knights' coach Vlado Vanis who was at the match had been interviewed for Force's coaching vacancy. "His name hasn't come up (and) we haven't spoken to him," he said.
Vidmar opened the scoring just before the first-half's mid-point after a balanced opening period. He benefited from a quick break after Isyan Erdogan and Leon Buhic contrived to turn the ball over when Knights itself was in a promising position up the left.
Carl Veart took advantage of the Knights' duo crowding each other's space and stole away with the ball, playing it across to Vidmar in an inside-left position after an unchallenged run. Vidmar controlled, feinted to shoot with his left, leaving Marth wrong-footed, then turned inside onto his right, curling the ball into the net at the far post with Martin John hopelessly exposed.
"It was a communication breakdown (between Erdogan and Buhic)," said Marth. "We seem to concede goals through our own mistakes."
Force doubled the lead within ten minutes when Goran Lozanovski ghosted in at the far post and cut back a ball that had floated over and been given up by the Knights' defence. Lozanovski met it on the stretch and directed it to Budin who gleefully hit home from six metres.
But what had taken Adelaide City almost half-an-hour to achieve was undone by Knights in eight minutes. Buhic outpaced a square Adelaide City back-line onto a through-ball from Pelikan and netted with a strike from 14 metres, retrieving the ball himself to enable a quick re-start.
Buhic's urgency drew a dividend as just three minutes later, Knights equalised from a 25-metre Marth free-kick thunderbolt. Valkanis had brought down Pelikan to concede the foul and earn his first caution.
Adelaide City restored its lead just before the hour after a defensive mix-up involving Marth and Vargas inside their own penalty-area failing to clear the ball. It richocheted to Smeltz who faced only Johns and scored easily.
"There were two deflections," said Marth ruefully. "I kicked the ball into a player (and it) fell to Roddy (Vargas), Roddy then kicked the ball into (Smeltz's) knee, and it went into the back of the net."
"When things go bad, they go really bad. Roddy and I just looked at ourselves and just think 'Can you believe this?'."
An own-goal conceded at the near-post by the unfortunate Fyfe from a cross played in from the right brought the Knights level again within five minutes, and then Pelikan gave the lead to the Knights for the first time in the match following a scintillating run which took him past three ineffective City challenges.
Valkanis then drew his second card for an NFL-style block on Pelikan, leaving City a player short for the remaining quarter-hour.
Unsurprisingly, Knights had the better of the rest of the game with Gustavo Biscayazacu hitting the bar, but the player balance was restored with five minutes remaining after Vargas drew his second caution for deliberate hand-ball just ten minutes after his first.
"Roddy made a wise decision there," said Marth. "I'd rather go in with three points (and a player cautioned) rather than just one. He wasn't the last man, but (Adelaide City) had numbers on us, and they scored (in similar circumstances before). So I'm not disappointed in his red card."