Melbourne Knights booked a place in the FFA Cup’s national stages for the first time since 2016 in one of the sweetest manners possible on Wednesday night; dispatching old foes South Melbourne 4-2 to secure their place as one of four Victorian National Premier League sides that will be present in the Cup’s Round of 32.
A strong opening half allowed the hosts to take a 2-1 lead into halftime at Knights Stadium after a brace from Hamish Watson in the ninth and 30th minute sandwiched a 28th minute header from Kristian Konstantinidis.
A third goal from Watson with twenty minutes remaining pushed the hosts further ahead and, despite a strike from Billy Konstantinidis five minutes later, Ivan Grgic’s strike in the 77th minute assured that the Knights would take the win.
Attaining revenge for their defeat at the hands of South earlier in the season, Croatia are the second NPL Victoria team to book their place in the next phase of the competition, after giant killers Hume – who have already eliminated Heidelberg United and Bentleigh Greens – dispatched Oakleigh Cannons in a penalty shootout at ABD Stadium on Tuesday night.
The final two Victorian sides on the national stage will be decided next week when Moreland Zebras travel to face Altona Magic and NPL2 sides St Albans Saints and FC Bulleen Lions clash at the Veneto Club.
In cold conditions, both Knights and South looked to seize control of the initiative within moments of the contest’s beginning.
Knights surged forward and put multiple crosses in before winning a corner from the opening kick-off and Gerrie Sylaidos threaded a ball in behind the Knights defence up the other end to set up Guiseppe Marafioti for a shot that Jordan Gifkins was forced to get down low to his left to tip out for a corner.
It was an important early save for Gifkins, who was seeing his first action of the 2019 season after Knights’ first choice goalkeeper Harry Cakarun broke his finger in training the night before the contest; forcing him to watch on from the sidelines.
Nine minutes into the first 45, however, the Knights gave the 23-year-old shot-stopper the best reinforcement possible when Anthony Duzel played a ball into Kiwi striker Hamish Watson on the left flank.
Cutting inside onto his right foot, the big number nine was able to shrug off the attention of South right-back Ben Djiba and slide a low shot beyond the reach of Nikola Roganovic and into the bottom corner to make it 1-0 to the Knights.
Giving their rivals no moment of respite, Knights launched another attack just moments later; a ball floated into the penalty area just beyond the reach of Watson and Gian Albano at the far post.
Duzel kept up the pressure with a long-range effort in the 13th minute after Roganovic had punched a Knights shot clear but Knights should have taken a 2-0 lead in the 17th minute when a long throw in found Watson inside the penalty area.
Holding the play up with his back to goal, Watson directed the ball downward into the path of recent Knights signing Mohamed Awad. Awad, though, opted for power over placement with his resulting effort from point blank range and hammered his effort directly at Roganovic, who was able to turn the shot away.
The action between the two traditional heavyweights was coming thick and fast, with the ball skidding along a surface made slick by the heavy rains that had buffeted Melbourne earlier in the day.
On 28 minutes Hellas was able to restore the game to an equilibrium when a free kick won on the left was looped in towards the back post by Marcus Schroen. Rising over the top of defender Nikola Jurkovic, K Konstantinidis made contact with a powerful header to direct it into the bottom corner of the net – Gifkins able to do nothing but watch as it nestled itself in the back of the net.
Perhaps feeling hard done by that referee Lachlan Keevers hadn’t picked up on what they believed to be two hands placed into the back of Jurkovic by K Konstantinidis, Knights burst forward with a renewed sense of venom straight from the game’s resumption – and they were immediately rewarded for their efforts.
Finding himself with enough time to look up and set himself on the right, the Knights Caleb Mikulic whipped a ball into the area in the direction of Hamish Watson.
Despite receiving the ball with his back mostly to goal, the former Wellington Phoenix man was able to guide the ball onwards with his right foot to beat Roganovic and restore the Knights’ lead
Mikulic had a chance to make it 3-1 for his side in the 39th minute when he collected a loose ball in South’s half and advanced in on goal only to be tardy in pulling the trigger; South able to converge on the advancing midfielder to get their bodies in the way of his shot.
Picking up right where he left off, Watson went close to securing his hattrick in just the fourth minute of the second half when, after playing a one-two on the edge of the area with Gian Albano, he fired off an effort that took a deflection and just sailed wide of the top corner.
The 26-year-old target man was subsequently on the end of the corner played into the six-yard-box, heading an effort well wide.
As the heavens opened up above Knights Stadium, the side in red continued to heap pressure on their opponents with Watson, in particular, looking increasingly fired up as he chased down opponents from the front.
South was able to summon some measure of resistance in the game’s 64th minute when B Konstantinidis combined with Syaidos to work the ball in on goal only for the South number nine to loose the ball at the critical moment.
It just didn’t appear to be South’s night, a point hammered home in the 70th minute when the Knights grabbed their third.
After a long clearance out from goalkeeper Gifkins, a calamitous miscommunication from K Konstantinidis and Roganovic enabled Albano to bundle the pair over, collect the ball and slide the ball into the path of Watson to fire home for his hat-trick.
By all rights, the game should have been over at that point; the Knights up 3-1 and well and truly in the ascendency.
However, Hellas was able to rally and drag themselves back into contention when Sylaidos whipped in a beautiful inswinging cross from the left that swerved onto the head of B Konstantinidis and was promptly fired home with fifteen minutes to go.
Any thoughts of a miraculous comeback were put paid to three minutes later, though, when a corner in from Albano was nodded in off the head of Grgic to make it 4-2.
Marafioti had one, final chance to perhaps spark a miracle when he fired off a shot from just inside the Knights area but was denied by a superb diving save from Gifkins.
HEADER IMAGE CREDIT: Melbourne Knights | Mikko Robles