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.