MELBOURNE: South Melbourne are the new National League champions, but only after fate dealt them a helping hand in an often drab but ultimately dramatic grand final at Olympic Park yesterday.
On an afternoon marred by several outbreaks of unruly behaviour from the Melbourne Croatia fans, Souths came back from the brink of defeat twice to eventually snatch their second Quit NSL championship.
Down, and comprehensively outplayed for 89 minutes of normal time, Souths grabbed a last-ditch equaliser to force the game into extra time, and then won it from the penalty spot despite missing three penalties in a row.
It was rough justice for Melbourne Croatia, who had clearly been the better team for most of the game, and their coach Ken Worden struggled to hide his disappointment afterwards.
“If I say we finished three points ahead of them in the normal season and picked three points out of four during the finals but still lost, does that sound like I’m a bad sport?” he asked.
“These are the rules the NSL set us, and we have to live with them, but obviously I’m very disappointed we have lost.”
It was hard not to feel sympathy for Worden and his team as they came so close to winning their first championship.
Melbourne Croatia had virtually all the scoring chances and controlled the tempo of a match largely devoid of skill or creativity.
On a blustery afternoon, both teams resorted to the long ball game, and with much more experience in the Melbourne Croatia side, such a war of attrition was always going to suit them.
With Socceroo Alan Davidson organising play from deep in midfield and skipper Josip Biskic, a deserved winner of the Marston Medal for man-of-the-match, offering the legwork, Melbourne Croatia always looked capable of winning once they opened the scoring midway through the first half
A long throw from Mark Talajich to Biskic was laid into the path of Andrew Marth, whose speculative 25-metre drive skidded past goalkeeper Bruce MacLaren and inside the far post.
Spurred on by the goal, Melbourne Croatia continued to pepper the South Melbourne goal, and Davidson, Branko Miloscevic and Francis Awaritefe all had excellent opportunities to increase the lead before half-time.
The onslaught continued sporadically for most of the second session, and the result seemed assured until Souths put a sting in the tail with an equaliser with just 60 seconds left on the clock.
After a quick and rare break, the ball was fed to Paul Trimboli, and in a clever switch of play he found Joe Palatsides unmarked, and the striker slid his shot past keeper David Miller.
With a new lease of life, Souths dominated extra time, but failed to prevent the match being decided from the penalty spot.
From there, Melbourne Croatia looked to have swung the pendulum back in their favour with a 2-1 lead, but first Davidson and then Mark Silic – the youngest player on the field – both missed their kicks which would have given them the championship.
Souths made the most of their reprieve and the final ignominy was heaped on Melbourne Croatia striker Ivan Kelic, who at first did not want to take his penalty and then proceeded to blast the kick over the bar.
So Souths, who had to battle to make the grand final, rewarded coach Ferenc Puskas with a championship medal.
Puskas refused to reveal his immediate plans after the game, but if anything is going to keep the famous Hungarian in Australia this was the result to do it.
In the game, if the play was not terribly invigorating there was plenty of action on the terraces where the Melbourne Croatia supporters at the southern end were involved in regular confrontations with police, and there were at least a dozen arrests as a result.
Despite being warned several times in the lead-up to the game and the warning signs placed around the stadium, an unruly element persisted in lighting flares, and the police had no choice but to take action, particularly when missiles were thrown.
While strong action from the policed prevented the situation getting out of hand, it is expected Melbourne Croatia will face disciplinary action as a result of the disturbances.
The club, like South Melbourne, is currently on a $10,000 good behaviour bond, and the NSL seems to have no choice but to turn that bond into a fine.
The irony was that most of the trouble occurred while Melbourne Croatia were winning, and after the final whistle those same fans dispersed quietly.
SOUTH MELBOURNE 1 (Palatsides) bt MELBOURNE CROATIA 1 (Marth) on penalties 5-4. Crowd: 21,328.
Sydney Morning Herald