Knights v Spirit

Round 21 report by Alan Clark
Melbourne Knights v Northern Spirit

The final score was closer than the difference between the sides, as Northern Spirit seemed always to be able to shift into another gear whenever threatened, at one point opening up a two goal lead before Ice Kutlesovski brought the game back to within Knights' grasp with a goal nine minutes from time.

Spirit had squandered a penalty on the way - Robbie Slater's 52nd minute effort was blocked by the hard-working Joe Didulica after Ivan Jolic had fouled Matthew Langdon in the area. Two encroaching Knights players were not noticed by referee Louis Prospero, and the ball was swept clear.

The game was balanced at that time - Daniel Watkins' 34th minute strike from close-in converted a driven cross from the impressive Langdon for the Spirit opener which was often earlier threatened.

But eight minutes later, Knights had battered back into the contest with a well-taken shot after a storming run through the middle by Ante Kovacevic.

Before the game had re-started, Knights' sweeper, and principal marker of Slater, had found his name in Prospero's book presumably for exchanging an opinion thought unnecessary by the official.

The Saturday night crowd settled in at the break with optimism, perhaps recalling Knights' 3-1 win over Adelaide City here the previous Sunday. The game had been switched to the time unfamiliar to the Knights Stadium faithful because of an anomaly in the fixtures which had all three Melbourne clubs playing home games that round.

Night football is more the preserve of Spirit, and that may have provided the second-half edge.

And it wasn't long in coming. Within a minute of the re-start, Spirit regained the lead.

Jolic, later to give away the penalty, had managed to get his head to a free-kick taken by Slater wide on the left, only to find it skidding handily for Spirit player-coach Graham Arnold, who tucked his header into the now unguarded net.

What then seemed likely was that Spirit's unrelenting pressure and the presumed extra fitness their full-time footballers could bring to bear on the contest would overpower the home side. Slater had harassed the Knights' back four into conceding possession while inter-passing and homed-in on Didulica. Slater's thunderbolt was gathered at the second attempt by the Knights' tall Olyroo keeper.

Then came the penalty which Didulica again blocked, and shortly after Clayton Zane's introduction from the bench on the hour, Didulica was again in scrambling action.

What was surprising about the third goal was that it took so long. But it inevitably did 78 minutes in when Slater coolly scored with his head after a perfectly flighted Luke Casserly cross from the right. Zane had begun the move with a powerful run splitting the Knights' defence, before playing a ball back enabling its progress to Casserly.

Nine minutes before time, Ice Kutlesovski gave the Knights' fans some slim hope of joy with a well struck shot from the edge of the area, but by then Knights had run themselves to a standstill.

Matthew Bingley made a serviceable debut for Spirit without setting the game alight. Arnold said "Bingley today just did a job. He'll benefit a lot from the run today. That was far from the best he can do. One thing we don't have in our team is a midfielder who can run box to box. I think Matthew can do that for us."

"I thought their two wide men - Pondeljak and Kiratzoglou - both had good games. I stressed to Casserly and Langdon that they were going to be in for a hard game and they were," said Arnold.

Knights' coach Josip Biskic was disappointed at the loss but happy with the fighting abilities of his struggling team. "My boys kept going. For all ninety minutes it was exciting, and I'm pleased because of that. Both teams played (well). I'm disappointed only because we didn't take any points. But life goes on."