The Newcastle Jets had a disappointing start to their A-League campaign, but Dimitri Petratos ensured their opening match finished with a bang.
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There was a rising fever to this match, a simmering contest between two old rivals that haven’t met in the finals for a while.
Both of these teams have had sputtering moments this season, spells of dizzy dysfunction at both ends. The game began sharply in midfield, with intense skirmishes sparking across the gut of the pitch; players would skid in for a bouncing ball, colliding and tumbling.
Coherent possession was rare, but clearly the teams were fighting to establish a physical tone. The play was dotted with fouls, keeping a slightly haywire tempo to the match, like a malfunctioning metronome ticking and tocking with no discernible rhythm.
Nikola Mileusnic and Johan Absalonsen were swapping flanks; the Dane had begun on the left, but with Leigh Broxham playing left back for Victory, Marco Kurz had perhaps decided to try and target the diminutive former kit-man in the air, out-matched in that regard as he was against Absalonsen.
Remember, Adelaide are the league’s most prolific crossers, and any dash down the left could end with a swooping cross to the far post, with Absalonsen isolating Broxham – as opposed to the much more statuesque Thomas Deng on the other side – underneath it. Really, Broxham was the only weak link, aerially, in the Victory defence, with Rhys Williams, Thomas Donachie and Deng all very capable.
The team exchanged free kicks from near-mirror-image positions in the opening 20 minutes. Isaias struck Adelaide’s into the wall. Terry Antonis struck Melbourne’s down Paul Izzo’s throat.
These were brief moments of respite from a frenetic affair; the intensity of the midfield maw was astonishing, and very little as far as clear, unhurried chances were coming from it. A wonderful, pure long-ball from Ersan Gulum cut through the chaos, a shaft of air and light beaming through all the sweaty scuffling, but Daniel Adlung miscontrolled it.
Players were hurtling up and down the flanks, the only areas where they could move unmolested. Adelaide, with their pacy wide players, had something of an advantage here, although Kosta Barbarouses was doing the same for Victory. By the half-hour mark, the teams had fired in 14 crosses between them, but none of them had found teammates in good positions.
This match was begging for a player with a bit of stillness and composure to take control in the middle, but neither team had one. Instead, the teams continued crossing, or scampering madly on the counter-attack to no tangible end.
Absalonsen was seen toeing the ball, at full speed, over the Melbourne byline. Seconds later, James Troisi was seen in the Adelaide half, leaping over a tackler having made a heavy touch of his own.
This was not a treat for the eyes. Every time a Victory player found a pocket of space, the Reds swarmed to fill it, a mob of kicking and harrying; it was clear Adelaide’s game-plan was designed to frustrate and smother, and as much as their approach offended the sensibilities, their industry was admirable. The half ended with just two shots on target in total, both from Melbourne, but about a billion little kicks at ankles.
The second half began with Chris Beath giving Carl Valeri a yellow card that could easily have been a red, after the Victory captain lunged in on an Adelaide attacker with his studs raised to the shin. Moments later, Adelaide overhit a cross, missing everyone in the box; the demeanour of the match, it seemed, was unchanged.
Then, as was always going to be needed in this game, a long ball that bypassed the entire midfield led to the opening goal. Isaias, from a free kick in his own half, punted the ball over the Victory defence, into the path of Mileusnic.
As fast as any player in the division, Mileusnic left Williams in his wake, and beat Lawrence Thomas to the ball, poking it past him into the goal. A sudden, incisive gesture, and the Victory were punctured. This was Adelaide’s design working perfectly, and now the Victory had another half an hour of stifling Reds defence, with their foes now bolstered by a snatched lead.
Adelaide were snorting a little now. Baba Diawara smacked the ball against Thomas’s palms on the turn. For the Victory, patience was now crucial. They would need to weather this storm, regather themselves, and press on; there was still plenty of time for them to equalise. In fact, it took no time at all.
Barbarouses, enjoying rare space on the right, twisted, turned, and clipped a cross in. It flew over Besart Berisha, but fell right onto Leroy George’s head. He nodded it past Izzo, and parity was restored. Adelaide’s lead had lasted seven minutes.
These goals were two seltzer tablets dropped into what had been a tepid, stale glass of water. Fizz surged through the match, with chances bubbling up at either end, as if the pitch had suddenly been widened and lengthened.
Mileusnic coaxed a booking out of Broxham, dancing past him. George set up Berisha, a perfect cross after a lung-busting run, but the striker saw his shot wondrously saved by Izzo. Gulum saw a perfect flick-on flash past the far post from a free kick. George oddly bungled a wide open chance to take the lead, stooping needlessly to try and head a sensational Troisi cross. Ryan Kitto was brought on for Mileusnic.
The match struggled back and forth, pining for a winner; extra time would be needed if the score remained level. Diawara came off for George Blackwood. Kitto botched a couple of headers, only half chances really. Then Barbarouses scampered into the box and floated a cross towards Berisha, who was surrounded by Reds.
It was at that point, having made precious little impression on the game, that Berisha decided to leap, contort his body in mid-air, and score with a bicycle kick. Holding off Jordan Elsey, who was thrashing around behind him, Berisha’s overhead connection sent the ball spearing past Izzo, just inside the post.
It was, context and degree of difficulty all taken into account, probably the goal of the season, and it took his team into the lead for the first time in the match. Berisha was subbed a minute later, having now scored in his eighth straight finals game. Only a few minutes remained for Adelaide.
In truth, there wasn’t really any chance Adelaide could respond to a winner that good; their game-plan had been sound, and it had almost worked. But not quite.
In matches as tight as this one was, superlative moments often make the difference. Berisha’s input was jaw-dropping, and it arrived at the most dramatic of moments. “This is why Victory brought me here … I want to make sure I score the goals.” Berisha said after the game.