Souths v Syd Utd

Playoff report by Alan Clark
South Melbourne v Sydney United

It was a score-line both coaches claimed satisfactory - South coach Ange Postecoglou seeing his team's 2-1 win as a win, and Sydney United coach David Mitchell focussing on the deficit being but a single goal with both the home leg still to play, and an important away goal in the bag.

It was tight and competitive as would be expected. The two teams had proved to be in a class of their own after the full 28-game League season had concluded, and each had managed a 1-0 home win against the other during that program. There's nothing in it still. Neither side was able to provide a knock-out blow during what is effectively the first half of the game with direct entry into the Grand Final for the victor.

South Melbourne certainly deserved its narrow win, and held a 2-0 lead ten minutes into the second half after Olyroo Michael Curcija netted the first in first-half stoppage time, then lanky Kiwi Vaughan Coveny headed in a corner after 55.

Curcija's opener resulted from good build-up from David Clarkson who had found some space in a wide right position, sending over a cross which you'd expect most players would have given up for a goal-kick at the far post. But this was Finals time, and it was captain Paul Trimboli who set his teeth and strained to keep it in, flicking it back to Curcija whose deft touch from inside the six-yard box was sufficient.

Coveny's goal may also not have arisen but for the edge Finals football gives the players. A through-ball down the right was chased down by Curcija and as a consequence, a corner was won by harrying Joe Vrkic. South's tall defenders moved up, but Coveny - no midget himself - rose highest to head home.

A lesser team might have wilted at that point, but Sydney United have had plenty of practice facing adversity this year, and they are made of sterner stuff.

Just after the hour, in a sweeping move from the heart of defence, the ball was played to Jason Burns just inside his own half. Burns made ground as the outnumbered South defence backed off. Mile Sterjovski made a clever run and Burns' pass found him facing only Petkovic. Sterjovski's shot was blocked, the ball ran to Michael Santalab whose shot was in turn blocked by Con Blatsis and the danger cleared. United had shown it was ready to pounce.

South made a tactical change with nineteen minutes to play, bringing on midfielder Steve Panopoulos for Curcija. By this change, South had signalled it would be happy to call a halt to proceedings from then on. But the change had no sooner been made than the plan came adrift.

The goal that kept United on track was spectacular and just reward for the endeavour United had shown all through the contest. Richard Plesa let one fly from 25 metres after 73 minutes, which crashed in from the underside of the bar, with Michael Petkovic's despairing dive getting a glove to it, but insufficiently so, and silencing the crowd which had started to believe South's path to the Grand Final was assured.

"We needed something like that," Plesa said after the game. "Two-nil was looking pretty bad for us, but an away goal has changed the complexion of the series. I just hit it straight on, and it curled on its own."

The South fans' early good cheer would have disappeared altogether had not Petkovic got a hand to a stoppage-time free-kick from Peter Bennett which was arrowing in at the near post.

There will be players on both sides who will be bringing some of this game into their next encounter. United's Sterjovski and Nathan Day were shadowed all afternoon by Steve Iosofidis and Nick Orlic. Those match-up had all four players at various times launching appeal hearings with referee Eddie Lennie, but the experienced referee kept things under control, and his cards mostly in his pockets.

Coveny and Curcija will quickly have themselves re-acquainted with Velimir Kupresak. Coveny in particular will have seen how his pace may be worthy of South's exploitation next week.

Neither coach leaves the game with a damaged squad, and the five bookings spread between the sides will be of little tactical disadvantage.

Postecoglou said after the game, "I was very happy with the way things went. I thought we did exactly what we needed to do. (Sydney United) scored a fantastic goal, so there was no breakdown of our defensive line - it was a great strike from 30 yards. If somebody can beat Petkovic from that range, good luck to them.

"If we can repeat that next week, I'll be very happy."

United's David Mitchell said, "I thought we did very well - it's a difficult place to come and play. I know a lot of teams come and defend when they come here and play South Melbourne, but I thought if we did that we were asking for trouble. (Next week) I don't think (South) will come up and defend. I think they'll want to come up and attack us."

It's all to play for, and a more finely balanced tie would be hard to find.