Despite being out-played for all of the first half, and finishing the game with ten men, Football Kingz defeated Melbourne Knights by two goals to one at Knights Stadium on Sunday evening.
Knights had taken the lead from a Kingz' own goal, but Kingz fought back with a goal in first-half added time when Andy Vlahos followed up a free-kick taken by Patricio Almendra. Harry Ngata's late headed goal gave Kingz the win.
The win keeps Kingz' hopes of Finals action alive, such is the tightness of the competition for places in post-season action. Kingz' coach Ken Dugdale certainly believed his team's season was still alive. "It's going to be difficult, (but) as long as we show the spirit that we did in the second half, then we (might) be there at the death."
Knights' caretaker coach Simon Samardzic rued his team's missed opportunity to take control of the game, and strengthen its claim on Finals action. "It was one that got away," he said. "Mathematically the season is still there, so we've got a chance, but we blew (it) today."
The game started brightly with early shots from Knights' Daniel Rocco and Kingz' Chilean import Almendra ensuring both goalkeepers were kept on their toes. Rocco's shot from 25 metres whistled by Michael Utting's post with the Kiwi keeper diving at full stretch to cover, but Almendra's from a similar distance required a touch from Martin John to deflect it safely around the post for a corner.
Knights showed its attacking attentions throughout the early part of the game, and Henry Fa'arodo was unlucky to see his shot crash off the near post and away after he'd been first to a deflection from an earlier Lubo Lapsansky effort.
Fa'arodo, especially was causing the Kingz' defence some difficulties with his pace. Just before the quarter-hour, Fa'arodo had been brought down by Con Anthopoulos suspiciously close to the corner of the Kingz' penalty area, as he made a diagonal run towards the corner. From the resultant free-kick, Andrew Marth managed to ghost in close to Utting, only narrowly failing to get the touch that would have sent the ball into the net.
But the threatened goal was not long in arriving. Just on the quarter-hour, a clever move down the right resulted in a lay-off by Fa'arodo into the path of Gustavo Biscayzacu. The Uruguayan livewire put in a dangerous cross low and hard into the six-yard box where the unfortunate Perry steered it into his own net.
The pace and frequency of the Knights' forays required some tactical and personnel adjustment by Dugdale. Two quick substitutions eventuated, one of them being the hapless Perry, the other midfielder Darren Young. "Young struggled - he'd been sick before we went out, but we thought he'd be OK. And then John Perry got stomach cramps. When we got fresh legs on, we seemed to settle down a little," said Dugdale. "We'd weathered the storm, apart from the early goal."
Marth, whose last appearance in front of his own fans was as player-coach a fortnight before, but who had been dismissed from his coaching post shortly after, had started this game, but was substituted himself just after the half-hour.
"(Marth) had a pulled quad," said Samardzic, explaining that the substitution was required because of an injury.
Deep into first-half added time though, Kingz showed it wasn't dominance on the park, but what appears on the score-board that decides games. Captain Chris Jackson had been brought down 30 metres from goal. After a slight delay as referee Craig Zettler dealt with Jackson's petulant reaction, Almendra stood behind the ball ready to take the kick.
This was something the Chilean had practised on training grounds for much of his career. It showed. Almendra's shot bent around the wall, beat Johns, hit the underside of the bar, and rebounded conveniently into the path of the onrushing Vlahos who crashed it home from close-range.
After a half where their dominance was obvious, Knights ended it with no advantage.
Kingz had the greater part of play in the second half, but there were fewer scoring opportunities on offer until the game burst into life in the last ten minutes.
The best for Kingz to that stage fell to top scorer Harry Ngata after an error by Isyan Erdogan gave away possession. Ngata's shot needed a touch from Johns to deflect it over the bar.
Knights' best came from Biscayzacu shortly afterwards from a free-kick near the edge of the area. The Uruguayan had earlier had two previous attempts sail harmlessly wide of the target, but this one would have found the top corner but for an athletic save from Utting. The Kiwi keeper banged his head in the process, and the game was halted for several minutes as he received treatment. Dugdale said that Utting had required five stitches over his eyebrow after the game.
The Kingz however had the last laugh, as Ngata's late goal turned the result Kingz' way after he'd run behind the Knights' defence to head home from close in. James Pritchard had sent in a long cross from wide on the right.
"It was a replica of the last goal I'd scored against Marconi," said Ngata after the game. "I just ghosted in past the last defender - I think he just stopped, I don't know what he was doing - and it was a simple goal."
Biscayzacu came agonisingly close a minute before regulation time with a left-foot shot which was saved by Utting and ran onto the post. Fa'arodo followed up from an offside position, but had found the side-netting anyway.
Kingz finished the game defending grimly, with just nine outfield players as Jackson had earnt his second yellow card of the game after a clash with Fa'arodo. Jackson and Hiroshi Miyazawa, who picked up another yellow card, will be suspended for Kingz' next week's game against Marconi.