A goal in injury time was all that separated Marconi Stallions from Sutherland Sharks in their Preliminary Semi Final on Sunday afternoon; the Stallions winning 3-2 after a tense 90 minutes of football at Lambert Park gave way to a gripping finish.
Marconi led 2-1 until the final few minutes when a late equaliser from Sutherland’s Patrick O’Shea might have sent the match into extra time, but Matthew Stewart scored almost immediately after the restart to take Marconi into the second week of the finals.
Marconi had the first real opportunity of the match after an early corner when the ball rolled through the box for an unmarked Marcus Donatiello at the back post, but he seemed surprised by the opportunity and smacked a wild shot well over the crossbar under pressure from goalkeeper Andrew Depta.
The Stallions, the form team of the second half of this season (along with Sydney Olympic), streamed forward in numbers when on the ball, their attacking intent standing in sharp contrast to the Sharks’ slow, deliberate build-up play. Yet Marconi found themselves struggling for ideas when they had the ball around Sutherland’s box; Jack Press finishing off more than one Marconi attack with optimistic strikes from range that did little to threaten Depta.
The Sutherland team looked more fatigued than their opponents from the outset – the result of a number of players backing up for both the 20s and first teams – and made a lazy mistake in defence to give away a penalty in the 20th minute; Cameron Devlin chopping Donatiello down as he ran away from goal on the edge of the area. Ryan Peterson stepped up to take the spot kick, and slammed his penalty low and hard to the goalkeeper’s left to give Marconi a deserved 1-0 lead.
A frustrated Sutherland side were determined to hit back straight away, but sparked a flurry of yellow cards in their enthusiasm to win the ball back, leaving Jacob Bandur and Patrick O’Shea – amongst others – on cautions as they fought to get their side back in the game. Jeremy Cox worked some space for himself at the top of the box before cutting back onto his left foot, but smacked his shot well over the crossbar.
Just as it looked as though Marconi would take their slender lead into the halftime break, they scored a second: Sebastian Malfara carried the ball down the right side before reaching the edge of the area, where he skipped over a sprawling Sutherland defender before shooting high into the roof of the net, giving Depta no chance to keep his side from going behind by two.
With just seconds remaining in the half, Sutherland pulled a goal back with an incredible strike from Charles Lokolingoy, who wound up a shot from over 25 metres out which bounced down off the crossbar before settling into the back of the net – a simply remarkable strike, seemingly out of nothing, brought Sutherland Sharks right back into the match.
The second half began in much the same way as the first, with Marconi – and Press in particular – content to continue testing the goalkeeper with shots from range. Peterson picked out Donatiello with a fine weighted cross that found the striker unmarked at the back post, but he couldn’t jump high enough to direct his header down towards goal.
Eager to remind Marconi of the fragility of their lead, Sutherland went searching for a second equaliser, and nearly had it after Lokolingoy held the ball up well for Jeremy Cox to shoot on edge of the 18-yard box, but the strike was deflected up off a defender onto the post, and the Stallions cleared the resulting corner.
Sutherland kept up the pressure with a repeat of the previous play; Lokolingoy holding the ball before dishing it off for Cox, who this time hit a wild shot over the bar under pressure from Marconi goalkeeper Kristian Sekutkoski. Up the other end, Jack Press might have put the game almost out of the Sharks’ reach when the ball dropped from the sky on the penalty spot, but he mistimed his volley and shot high.
Still chasing the match, Sutherland’s shape narrowed as they tired more, encouraging Marconi’s forward line to move up in numbers with Press, Malfara and Noah Chianese all searching for a goal to kill the game. Press found himself with perhaps the best chance to do just that when Matthew Stewart’s wayward shot fell at his feet at the far post, but the goalkeeper was quick to shut the opportunity down.
With full time approaching, an exhausted Sutherland side won a free kick just over 20 metres out from goal. Patrick O’Shea stepped up and curled a beautiful free kick over the wall and down into the bottom left corner, squaring things up with just minutes left on the clock.
Restarting the match with extra time – and penalties beyond that – on the cards, Marconi streamed forward immediately, moving the ball out for Jack Press to cross to the back post for Matthew Stewart, who leaped high to punch a header back across the keeper and into the goal, sparking wild celebrations on the sideline. Sutherland took the ball back to the centre circle and kicked off, but couldn’t muster up a third goal as Marconi held on to secure a place in the second week of the finals. Sutherland, meanwhile, survive to face Sydney Olympic next weekend for a place in the preliminary final.
Marconi’s Nick Dimovski was beaming at the end of the match. "I’m very proud of the boys," he said. "We dug deep and never gave up. We were up 2-0 and they scored a few bomb goals – Charles [Lokolingoy] hit one from way out, and their free kick was from a good 30 yards too – but these boys have a never-say-die attitude that makes me proud to be a part of this team. We scored with one of the last kicks, sure, but I think we deserved to win – we played them off the park."
Sutherland Shark’s coach Allan Edmonson was understandably disappointed by Marconi’s late winner after his side had come back to 2-2 after being 2-0 behind. "I think we outplayed them in the second half of the second half," he said, "but we gave away a cheap goal right at the end and that’s all it took.
"We came back twice and played some good football, which got better as the game went on. I’m just very disappointed about that late goal."
Marconi Stallions FC 3 (Peterson 20′, Malfara 40′, Stewart 88′)
Sutherland Sharks FC 2 (Lokolingoy 45′, Patrick O’Shea 87′)
Sunday August 23, 2015
Marconi Stallions FC: Brown, Donatiello, Fabiano, Fitzpatrick, Malfara, Peterson, Press, Schmidt, Sekutkoski, Sfiligoi, Vella
Subs: Chianese, Stewart, DeMarigny, Andricopolous, Roebuck
Sutherland Sharks FC: Bandur, Combes, Cox, Curtis, Depta, Devlin, Kakavelis, Lokolingoy, O’Shea, Russell, Stergiou
Subs: Antoniou, Gioiosa, Loe, L. Malfara, Nikas
– by Max Grieve, PS4 National Premier Leagues Grade 20s Reporter