It was a typically dramatic semi-final round in the National Premier Leagues 2 NSW Men’s competition. Northern Tigers and Central Coast Mariners will fight for the right to party and be crowned as Champions – both teams have certainly earned a Grand Final spot at Valentine Sports Park next Saturday after being pushed all the way this weekend.
NWS Spirit FC 1 (Peter Pelekanos 6’) Northern Tigers 2 (Shervin Adeli 76’ Nicholas Kalogerou 107’)
Northern Tigers booked their Grand Final ticket after 120 minutes of thrilling football at Christie Park.
Tigers centre back Nicholas Kalogerou was an unlikely goalscoring hero for Adam Hett’s side, striking the decisive blow in extra time after Shervin Adeli’s late spot kick cancelled out an early goal from Peter Pelekanos.
Spirit midfielder Kota Odakura has shown his dead ball wizardry many times this season, and in the sixth minute he created the opener with another quality corner kick, Pelekanos reacting quickest to head the hosts into the lead.
Duncan Stewart was the next to threaten as he looked to add to his seven goal tally for the campaign, but his left footed shot on the turn wasn’t anything to trouble Elliot Carwardine in the Tigers goal. At the other end a Lachlan Lloyd run and pass set it up for Oliver Scott, however he couldn’t get enough power on his shot to seriously test Jack Greenwood.
As halftime approached, Tigers skipper Adeli started to make his mark on the contest by using his technique to fashion a couple of chances, hitting the side netting on both occasions. Odakura also went close, firing a 25 yard free kick inches over the crossbar.
These two teams were playing their adventurous and high-octane style of football, with plenty of quick ball movement on display. It was rare for any of the players, even the two goalkeepers, to get more than a few touches as both sides looked to press high up the park when not in possession.
Northern Tigers turned the heat up after the interval, pushing relentlessly in an attempt to find the equaliser, and Matthew Warner started to become more prominent with several overlapping runs from right back.
Greenwood was forced into two key saves barely 30 seconds apart to deny Oliver Scott and Adeli, then on 58 minutes the visitors thought they had equalised when Oliver Wiggin bundled the ball over the line after Nicholas Drummond’s initial shot was saved, but play would be pulled back for a Tigers infringement. Despite the Tigers pressure, Spirit were still showing a goal threat of their own and Michael Konestabo nearly punished a lapse in concentration when he snuck behind the defence, shooting just wide of the post.
Tigers pressure paid off with a quarter of an hour remaining when Adeli won a penalty after being fouled by Odakura. Adeli dusted himself off and did exactly what you want from a captain, planting the spot kick in the bottom corner for the leveller.
There was no break in the intensity, even as the second half drew to a close, with Adeli and Spirit substitute Anthony Vastag trying their luck from the edge of the area. However, despite both teams pushing for a winner in regulation time nobody was able to find the crucial goal, sending the game into an additional half hour.
The hectic pattern of the contest continued into extra time. Abuzar Awaz glided past a challenge and fired wide, then Wiggin collected Kalogerou’s laser-like diagonal pass and headed straight for goal but couldn’t keep his effort down. Another nice Tigers pass, this time from Mo Bachelard, set up Adeli however he couldn’t hit the target either. Spirit’s substitutes were also getting in on the action, Corey Kavanagh testing Carwardine after Emilio Manos laid the ball into his path.
We had to wait until the 107th minute for the game’s most crucial moment and an unexpected Tigers saviour. After Wiggin whipped a corner kick into the middle, Kalogerou took a touch and drilled a low shot through the crowd to give Northern Tigers the lead.
The visitors were able to keep Spirit at bay with strong defending plus smart work in possession, and could even have extended their lead in the dying minutes. Will Hodgson had scoring opportunities, one of which was set up by a neat knockdown from returning Tigers veteran Liam McConaghy, but he couldn’t make either chance count. In the end however, that didn’t matter, and the Tigers sealed their place in the NPL 2 NSW Men’s Grand Final for the first time since 2015.
No matter how it happens, semi-final defeat is always heartbreaking. However, Spirit FC coach David Perkovic can be proud of their continued improvement since he took charge – the club finished second this year after ninth, seventh and fifth place finishes in 2017, 2018 & 2019 respectively.
Central Coast Mariners 2 (Alou Kuol 57’, Max Balard 67’) Bonnyrigg White Eagles 1 (Jack Armson 55’)
The Mariners came from behind to win for the third time this season, sealing their Grand Final place in front of a delighted Pluim Park crowd.
Jack Armson drew first blood for the visitors, before Alou Kuol and Max Balard both scored their first goals since August to send Central Coast into next weekend’s Championship game at Valentine Sports Park.
Bonnyrigg had the better of the early going, with Aaron Peterson heading over at a corner kick and Judah Cleur firing over from long range. Mariners shotstopper Zenden Hart was then called into action, saving from both Hiyori Kawaguchi and Cleur.
Unusually given the way Central Coast have attacked this season, they didn’t seriously challenge Bonnyrigg until the 27th minute, when Damian Tsekenis beat the defence to Cameron Windust’s long pass but couldn’t hit the target. Tsekenis was involved again a minute later as his 25 yard strike was diverted wide by Kuol.
The White Eagles continued to create, and Cleur couldn’t beat Hart when Kawaguchi found him in the area. With almost the last play of the first half, Asmir Kadric tried from distance, however Hart was able to watch the effort fly over the crossbar.
Bonnyrigg’s momentum wasn’t slowed by the halftime break, and early in the second period Armson and Eremugo combined to set up Kadric, who shot straight at Hart. Instead it was Armson who opened the scoring with his fifth goal of the campaign, pouncing on a loose ball and sending a first time left footed strike into the bottom corner from 25 yards out.
Central Coast have shown many times this year that they don’t drop their heads when conceding first and it only took Nick Montgomery’s side a couple of minutes to draw level. Just as he did the previous week, Jordan Smylie made an impact as a substitute, linking with Jacob Farrell and crossing beautifully for Kuol to head home.
There were near misses at both ends as the game hung in the balance. Kadric charged down the right flank and sent in a teasing cross which Peterson couldn’t quite reach, then Smylie mishit the ball after Matthew Hatch picked him out with a cutback.
However Smylie, a former Northern Tiger, would play a part in the goal which ensured that his current team will meet his old team next weekend. Smylie crossed from the right for Tsekenis, who was denied by a brilliant save from James Chronopoulos, and Balard was in the right place to force the ball over the line.
Not content with the one goal lead, the Mariners sought some breathing room and kept attacking. With just under ten minutes to go, Tsekenis had a shot blocked after good build-up play from Farrell and Hatch, and Harrison Steele’s follow up effort was deflected wide of the post. They still needed to be wary though, and Bonnyrigg substitute Radovan Pavicevic was inches away from connecting with a pinpoint set piece.
The thrills kept coming in time added on. Steele intercepted the ball and played it to Smylie, who brought the best out of Chronopoulos with a swerving strike. Pavicevic and Sam Gallaway then combined to create an opportunity for Max Chung, and Windust had to put his body on the line to deflect the shot wide. The game’s final chance came when Balard exchanged passes with Smylie before drawing another fine save from Chronopoulos.
For Bonnyrigg, it’s the second consecutive year where they have fallen one game short of the Grand Final, but they will surely be one of the contenders again next season. Meanwhile, Central Coast are now one game away from completing the Premiership – Championship double, which hasn’t been done in this division since Marconi Stallions achieved the feat in 2017.
By Eric Subijano (@eric_subijano)