The remarkable finals turnaround of the Bentleigh Greens has been completed, Head Coach Nick Tolios – in just his second game in charge of the club – guiding his side to the 2019 NPL Victoria Championship in a penalty shootout win over Avondale FC.
Bentleigh, who experienced a late-season swoon after the departure of Head Coach John Anastasiadis and winger Valentino Yuel, ended the regular season in the fifth position on the table but defeated Green Gully, Premiers Heidelberg and the Avengers on their way to their third title in five years.
Fostered by some superb set-up play from Liam Boland, Yusuf Ahmed had opened the scoring for Avondale on the stroke of halftime, only for that effort to be cancelled out by Jack Webster in the 61st.
In the end, 120 minutes proved not enough to separate the two sides; the crucible of penalties called upon to serve as the arbiter of the two side’s fate.
And it was there that Ryan Scott cemented his legend: saving two penalties to bring the title back to Kingston Heath as Bentleigh prevailed 4-3.
Looking to cap off a ten-year rise that began with them in the sixth-tier of Victorian football in 2009, Avondale almost took the lead within moments of the game’s opening when Tasuku Sekiya cut inside onto his right foot and let loose with a stinging effort from just outside the area that forced Bentleigh keeper Scott into a fantastic diving save.
Despite the hammering rain that soon descended upon AAMI Park, that opening salvo signalled a red-hot start from Head Coach Zoran Markovski’s side, notwithstanding the loss of Jonatan Germano to an eye injury in the game’s 17th minute.
Conversely, Bentleigh’s only clear-cut chance of the opening half came in the 33rd minute when George Lambadaridis had back-to-back bites at the cherry after being set up by Velibor Mitrovic only to have his first effort blocked away by the Avondale defence and his second sail wide.
Continuing to press forward, Avondale was rewarded for their first-half dominance when just on the stroke of halftime some picture-perfect hold-up play from Boland allowed the big striker to shield the ball before placing a perfectly weighted ball in behind the Bentleigh defence for the run of Ahmed.
Ahmed made no mistake with his sight on goal as he hammered an effort past Scott’s near post and made it 1-0.
It should have been 2-0 just minutes later when Ahmed, this time turning provider, played in Sekiya on the right flank. Cutting inside, the Avengers Japanese import had only Scott to beat to make it two but fluffed his lines as he dragged his resulting shot across the face and out for a goal kick.
The chances kept piling up for Avondale and it again could have been two once again just seconds into the second stanza when a corner, eventually, made its way to the head of Boland only for his resulting effort to bounce off the crossbar, somehow avoid crossing the goal line, and be scrambled away by the Greens.
As any observer with more than a passing interest in football could tell you, such an inability to convert chances of the golden variety presented to Avondale will eventually come back to bite you, and that’s exactly what happened on Sunday night.
The warning lights began flashing in the 52nd minute when James Xydias was played into a one-on-one with goalkeeper Rory Brian by Tyson Holmes and let loose with a shot that forced a split-second reaction save.
Nine minutes later, with Holmes once again the provider, an equaliser was then found when Mr Bentleigh Greens himself, Webster, found himself in space on the right of the Avondale penalty area and, gifted time to tee it up, fired off a lobbed effort in on goal.
It was a chip worthy of finding its way into a dictionary: looping perfectly over a charging Brian and nestling into the back of the net to tie things up.
Back-to-back chances from Matt Thurtell and Holmes in the 69th and 70th minutes made clear that Avondale needed to arrest the Greens momentum lest they be left behind but, restabilising a physical presence with several questionable late challenges on the Greens, that appeared to be just what Avondale did.
Cutting inside and onto his right peg in the 83rd minute, Joey Katabian tried to steal the win for his side when thundered off an effort that appeared destined to bury itself into the bottom corner of the net, only for Scott to get down low and get a strong paw out to deflect it away and send the game to extra time.
It should, beyond a shadow of a doubt, have been 2-1 just three minutes into injury time when a long-range effort Scott Hilliar was deflected back into play by Scott and to the feet of a waiting Sekiya.
Alas for Avondale, the subsequent shot from the 2019 NPL Victoria Media Player of the Year was hammered directly into the crossbar despite there being nobody between the former-APIA Leichardt man and the goal.
With the two sides unable to find a winner, penalties were then needed.
Thurtell and Boland made successful starts for their sides, only for Hilliar to prove unable to match Marko Jankovic with the second shots. Kiwi Mario Illich then fired home for the Greens and Brandon Lundy then got his Avengers back on track.
Daniel Stynes then made it four from four for the Greens and put the pressure on Katabian but the former Victory youth struck true.
Stepping up for his side’s fifth, Holmes knew if he scored he would win it but, employing a stuter step runup, his shot was awful: going straight at Brian.
Scott, however, proceeded to ascend to hero status: saving Charlie Beverley’s penalty and securing Bentleigh’s crown.
Whilst the Sunday evening may have proven to be a momentous evening for Bentleigh, it was less so for FC Bulleen Lions.
Competing in the curtain-raising Promotion and Relegation Playoff, the Lions – who had booked their place in the game with a heart-stopping come-from-behind win over Moreland Zebras on Tuesday evening – had the chance to seal a return to the top flight of Victorian football against 12th placed NPL Victoria finishers Dandenong Thunder.
Under the guidance of Head Coach John Maisano, Bullen had finished second in the NPL2 Eastern Conference to earn a right to first beat the Zebras and then play the Thunder but – playing their third game in eight days – had their luck run out against the side from Melbourne’s Southeast.
In what was a dour contest – in which neither side deployed much in the way of clear, incisive play – it was Thunder talisman Brandon Barnes that eventually proved the difference between the two sides; the big man taking advantage of a catastrophic error in judgement from Bulleen defender Andrew Mullet to fire his side to safety in the 80th minute of play.