APIA Leichhardt Tigers laboured their way to a tight 1-0 triumph over a spirited Manly United outfit at Cromer Park on Sunday afternoon.
Despite only bearing a solitary goal, the Northern Beaches crowd were treated to an entertaining affair where both sides retained position well and experienced periods of domination.
In the end, they were split by a second-half Chris Payne strike which brought up 20 goals for the former Manly striker this campaign.
The result all but sealed second spot for APIA, whilst striking one last dagger in the heart of Manly’s fading finals aspirations.
In a high-stakes affair, it was the visitors who sprung out of the blocks early doors.
Their opening sight on goal arrived four minutes in, courtesy of a Sean Symons free kick which fell narrowly wide of the mark.
John Calleja’s men continued to knock on the door, winning a remarkable nine corners inside the first twenty minutes of the contest.
However they failed to break Manly’s resolve, with Dylan Mitchell proving to be up to the task time and time again for the hosts.
Chris Payne looked to cause his former club some headaches, but his first opening of the afternoon on 13 minutes was comfortably captured by Mitchell.
Having withstood APIA’s early pressure, Manly then began creating some chances of their own.
The 23rd minute saw an onrushing Ivan Necevski snatch the ball off the toes of Adam Parkhouse, before Brendan Cholakian steered a dangerous-looking header high and wide a minute later.
APIA then regained the ascendency and called Mitchell back into action.
A rapid counter-attack 34 minutes in saw Corey Biczo turn his man inside out and unleash a drilled effort that the Manly custodian parried wide with a smart save down low to his right.
Five minutes later, Mitchell made an even more spectacular stop to deny Payne, who had capitalised on a defensive slip-up to find himself with acres of space inside the penalty area.
The botched one-on-one saw both outfits head into the sheds in a stalemate, despite an entertaining opening stanza.
The second half kicked off in the same fashion as the first, however this time it was Manly peppering the APIA net.
No less than three efforts were cleared off the line during a frenetic five minute period following the fifty minute mark.
As the corners stacked up for the hosts, Parkhouse had his close-range effort bundled away, before Cholakian mustered a powerful volley that was effectively palmed to safety by Necevski.
Joe Fox’s effort 54 minutes in sparked a chorus of appeals from Manly, however the ball was adjudged to have not crossed the line by the officials.
And after Manly came within centimetres of the lead, the tide began to turn yet again.
Corey Biczo’s pace on the counter was appearing troublesome for Manly, however his front-post attempt on 59 minutes could not surpass Mitchell.
The match was appearing to take a similar pattern to the 2017 Championship decider between the same two clubs, which despite 120 minutes of similar end-to-end action concluded scoreless.
However this time around, a marksman in fierce pursuit of the competition’s golden boot had other ideas.
The match was approaching its final ten minutes as Sam Mcillhatton won the ball high up the field and expertly fed it into a lurking Chris Payne, who was eyeing off a clear path on goal.
The striker still had plenty of work to do but went about it with ease, as he cut inside the final defender and rolled the ball into the bottom corner with a composed outside-of-the-boot finish.
The goal made it an incredible 20 in total for the campaign, as Payne continues to breathe down the neck of current competition top-scorer Thomas James.
A desperate Manly outfit then tried to salvage their season to no avail against a compact APIA defensive unit, who professionally took the sting out of the contest to ensure they would travel home with all three points in the bag.
Post-match, APIA boss John Calleja was pleased by his side’s capability to secure a snatch-and-grab three points.
“I thought we were very good in the first half, we had the majority of the ball and the play,” he reflected.
“We were probably a little nervy in the final third.
“Manly came out well in the second half and really put the pressure on, as you would expect in a desperate type of game where we were fighting for second and they were fighting to stay in the semi-finals conversation.
“There were a couple of goal-line clearances, and Ivan made a couple of saves to keep us in the contest.
“We then fought our way back and maybe against the run of play Chris Payne broke away and scored.
“Overall, I feel the boys did well and I thought Manly played well too.
“It was a really good game.”
For a disheartened Paul Dee, the unfortunate lack of result despite a promising performance encapsulated the Northern Beaches club’s disappointing campaign.
“It’s a consistently disappointing message that I’ve been delivering,” the Manly coach reflected.
“We had chances to take that game and it was a really silly error on the halfway line that led to a goal against the run of play that left us on the receiving end of a 1-0 loss.
“We were significantly down on troops today, and some of the young boys that came in did really well.
“I was happy with a lot of what happened today, but just disappointed that we didn’t take our chances in front of goal.
“We still have the FFA Cup to think about and look forward to.”
Manly will learn their fate in the FFA Cup Round of 16 draw on Wednesday night, before travelling to Edensor Park to round out their league campaign against Sydney United 58 on Sunday.
APIA, who are now guaranteed to finish in second spot, will face Mount Druitt Town Rangers at Popondetta Park before enjoying a home final in the opening week of the finals series.
Manly United FC 0
APIA Leichhardt FC 1 (Payne 77’ )
Sunday 4th August, 2019
Cromer Park, Dee Why
Referee: B. Abraham
Assistant Referees: J. Adabjou, R. Osborne
Fourth Official: B. Merchant
Manly United: 1. Dylan Mitchell, 4. Travis Oughtred. 5. Sam Gallagher, 6. Joseph Fox (31. Max Rogers 68’), 8. Dominic Ferguson, 10. Brendan Cholakian, 11. Adam Parkhouse, 13. Scott Balderson (47. Massimo Forlico 72’), 17. Lewis Miccio, 23. Bradley McDonald, 30. Lucas Rainbird (7. Sam Wilson 87’)
Substitutes not used: 3. James Georgaklis, 32. Mackenzie Syron
Yellow Cards: Balderson 42’
Red Cards: Nil
APIA Leichhardt Tigers FC: 1. Ivan Necevski, 3. Paul Galimi, 6. Christopher Payne (19. Dominion Nasrabadi 81’), 7. Tynan Diaz, 8. Corey Biczo, 10. Franco Parisi (14. Lachlan Hughes 92’), 12. Sam Mcillhatton, 15. Themba Muata-Marlow, 16. Sean Symons, 18. Adrian Ucchino, 21. Michael Kouta
Substitutes not used: 17. Samuel Gulisano, 20. Michael Trajkovski, 22. Luke Turnbull
Yellow Cards: Symons 65’
Red Cards: Nil
By National Premier Leagues NSW Men’s Reporter Chris Curulli (Twitter handle @ChrisCurulli)