The business end of the season has arrived with the league?s four top sides meeting to decide the destination of the 2008 Premiership.
Two very competitive matches took place over the weekend. On Saturday Gladesville Ravens met Southern NSW FC at Christie Park in the elimination semi final. On Sunday the Minor Premiers, Western NSW Panthers, went into battle yet again with their arch rivals the Illawarra Stingrays. For the winners of the top two clash the prize was a spot in the Arrive Alive NSW Women?s Super League Grand Final.
The match between Gladesville Ravens and Southern NSW FC proved a tight affair. Southern NSW started quickly with Emma Cobb opening the scoring for the girls from Nowra in just the 11th minute. This was Emma?s sixth goal in three matches. She certainly seems to have found her goal scoring form at the right end of the season.
In the 19th minute Southern doubled their lead with a strike from Dowse that left The Ravens with a huge mountain to climb to keep their season alive.
In the 28th minute Fatma Agar gave the Gladesville girls a glimmer of hope with a fine strike. Southern continued to push forward though and we?re unfortunate not to add to their lead prior to half time.
The second half saw a desperate Gladesville trying everything to conjure up an equaliser. However, Southern NSW were more than equal to the challenge. Whilst wasting a number of opportunities of their own Southern still managed to graft out a fine win that sees them move through to the Preliminary Final next Sunday. Southern NSW FC have been the big improvers as the season has progressed. None of the remaining teams in the semi final race would be looking forward to a do or die match against them in the coming weeks.
Gladesville have had a strong season. Despite some fine performances during 2008 they always looked to be just a little shy of the league?s top sides in firepower. There were plenty of positives for Coach Paul Wade to work with though in looking towards the 2009 season.
Sunday saw a renewal in hostilities between Western NSW Panthers and Illawarra Stingrays. I had only been a week ago that these two sides had met in the final round of the competition to decide both the Minor Premiership and Club Championship. Whilst both walked away with a reason to smile that day this semi final was only ever going to have one winner.
Western NSW Panthers were missing both Vanessa Hart and Shannon Waine through injury whilst The Stingrays welcomed back midfield star Christie Akid. The scene was set for yet another epic encounter between these two fierce rivals and so it turned out to be.
The Stingrays burst from the blocks, putting The Panthers under pressure from the kick off. Illawarra pushed forward in numbers with an early corner causing havoc in The Panthers defence. A lay back to Illawarra?s Tina Siskoska was blasted over the cross bar as Illawarra made their intentions clear.
The first 15 minutes was all Illawarra with a rapid succession of corners which led to another solid shot from Siskoska being cleared off the line by a Panthers defender. Another corner saw a header from Michelle Heyman sail across the face of the Panthers goal.
The Panthers only relief during this initial onslaught was a fine break from defence by the speedy Ashleigh Sykes. At the 15th minute mark Christie Akid was yellow carded after a very solid tackle on Jade Braun. Christie obviously wanted to show the Western NSW girls that she was back!
Soon after, Nicole Ring made a nice run for The Panthers, bursting into the Illawarra box before shooting into the side netting.
An Illawarra free kick found Michelle Carney open in front of goal but Carney had no control of the ball, putting her first touch wide of goal. At this stage most of the danger appeared to be coming towards The Panthers goal. Cassie Halloway was making inroads on the right edge of the field. One strong run led to a pinpoint cross that found Caitlin Danyi, whose header hit the post.
A similar run and cross soon after by Halloway say Heyman also head the ball over the bar. The Panthers main chances at this stage seemed to be coming in breaks from defence. Nic Casey was released down the right but her shot failed to cause any concern for Illawarra keeper Sarah Gollop.
The game had started to even out a little as half time loomed. Western NSW were starting to build a some momentum as they got a share of possession. Casey made another good run, using some nifty footwork to lose her defender inside the box before her cross soared over the heads of her support.
The Panthers were doing a good job of keeping Illawarra?s big guns quiet. Whilst Michelle Carney was annoying the defence she couldn?t find herself enough space to provide real danger. Michelle Heyman too was having difficulty getting into the game. The worrying fact for The Panthers though was, whilst this was the case, they were still under heavy pressure from the Illawarra side.
In the shadow of half time Illawarra added yet another to their corner tally. Whilst The Panthers cleared the corner the ball was snared by Cassie Halloway. She quickly hooked the ball back into the box where Christie Akid let loose with a solid shot. The ball took a deflection off a defender before hitting the back of the net to give Illawarra a 1-0 lead. The Stingrays held this advantage into the half time break.
The second half proved to be something of an arm wrestle. Neither side could quite create a telling opportunity. The Panthers changed tactics as the half went on, seemingly trying to find some space to make use of Ashleigh Sykes?s sizzling speed.
Sammi Wood earned herself a yellow card in the after a push and shove with Christie Akid. Christie was certainly enjoying her return to football! In the 56th minute, Stingrays Coach Darren Sewalt decided that Akid had done enough and replaced her with Anne Mayo.
In the 63rd minute Nic Casey dispossessed Caitlin Danyi on the edge of the Western NSW box, then turning defence into attack by releasing Gillian Rosconi towards goal. Rosconi?s hurried shot went wide of goal however. Illawarra then created an attack of their own which ended with Michelle Heyman shooting over the bar.
Illawarra then replaced Taryn Ruiz with young Talitha Kramer. A flurry of opportunities followed with Mayo shooting over the bar for The Stingrays before Ashleigh Sykes broke clear for The Panthers. However, a fine tackle from Courtney Danyi saved the day for The Stingrays.
The 76th minute saw Panthers Coach Paul Waine replace Nicole Ring with Nicole Sykes. Rosconi had another half chance but her shot lacked venom. Michelle Heyman, who was now playing in a more defensive role, was yellow carded for tackle on Rosconi. It was certainly no place for the feint-hearted out there with Talitha Kramer also coming up with a couple of crashing tackles. Referee Steve Wye was being kept busy calming some frayed tempers as the pressure mounted.
Heyman was then replaced by Hannah Minogue with ten minutes remaining.
The match became a little scrambling as both sides sought to impose themselves. There was a lot of kicking but not necessarily with purpose. The Panthers seemed to be resorting to a long ball attack whereas The Stingrays seemed to want field position. Possession, accordingly, was tending to change hands often.
Kramer created a nice opportunity for Carney who turned, releasing a shot that went wide of goal. Carney hadn?t had too many chances during the match. Illawarra were certainly having the better of the closing exchanges with Mayo shooting wide before a Carney free kick was cleared off the line by Panthers defender Annie Holliday.
Despite their best efforts neither side could add to the scoreline however with the final score being a deserved 1-0 win to Illawarra Stingrays.
Illawarra Captain Michelle Carney said that she couldn?t wait for the Grand Final. It had been great to finally get a win over The Panthers, said Carney, after the battles the two sides had had during the season. Carney felt that her team had played really well in the first half but had let Western NSW back into the game in the second half. The Captain singled out Tina Siskoska for her sound game in defence. Carney also mentioned the efforts of Christie Akid in her first game back from injury.
Panthers Captain Gillian Rosconi was quite upbeat, despite the defeat. Rosconi felt that her side had done a fine job of closing down the Stingrays attack. She felt that The Panthers had played much better than the previous week. Rosconi felt that everyone in her side had done their jobs and, whilst they had conceded a soft goal, there were no real negatives for her team. Rosconi felt that Sammi Wood had played well but was pleased with the performance of her team overall.
So, next weekend sees The Stingrays able to sit back and enjoy the sight of their two remaining rivals hard at work in the Preliminary Final. The Panthers certainly deserve to start as favourites but Southern NSW have shown that they have their sights on the Grand Final berth and a match up with their South Coast neighbours. The Final should be an exciting prelude to the biggest game of the season.
-By Ross Anderson