A 10-man South Melbourne were unable to deny a fast-finishing Bentleigh Greens on Sunday as the two NPL Victoria powerhouses played out a highly entertaining 1-1 draw at Lakeside Stadium.
Heading into the game’s final 10 minutes, it appeared as though Milos Lujic, as he so often has in the past, had won the game for Hellas. The attacker slid his side’s lone goal past Bentleigh goalkeeper Ryan Scott in the 21st minute after some fine buildup play.
However, his dismissal in the game’s 50th minute proved its turning point, with the undermanned South unable to deny a fast-finishing Bentleigh as a Tyson Holmes cross found an unmarked Velibor Mitrovic at the far post in the 81st minute. Mitrovic dutifully hammered home his third of the season to tie the game up.
The fixture – which marked South’s return to Lakeside after their annual exodus to make way for the Australian Formula One Grand Prix – was played in conditions that harkened back to the last time South played a competitive fixture at the venue, when South’s fairytale 2017 FFA Cup run ended in a 5-1 defeat against Sydney FC.
Two days’ worth of rain prior to kick-off saturated the surface, creating difficulties for both sides as they looked to acclimatise in the game’s early stages.
This acclimation period played into the dearth of clear goalscoring chances that presented themselves early for both sides, with the opening stages of the contest seeing both Hellas and the Greens getting good penetration down the wings – only to fail with that final killer pass into the penalty area.
The Greens’ best chance of the first half came only a minute prior to South’s goal, finally nailing that final ball after they burst up the left and worked a ball to former New Zealand international Jason Hicks on the edge of the six-yard box.
Hicks, who had been in fine form coming into the game with four goals from his six games of the campaign, could only spray his shot wide, however, and was then forced to watch as South marched up the other end and scored.
The second half brought with it a rise in tensions, as two of NPL Victoria’s biggest clubs began to let their frustrations show. The match official was forced to go to his book early and often.
Lujic was the first to suffer the referee’s wrath, shown a straight red in the games 50th minute after launching himself studs first into a 50-50 contest with Bentleigh’s James Xydias.
Mathew Foschini then followed his teammate into the book in the 56th minute, albeit with an offence only deemed worthy of a yellow after the referee came back to sanction him for a late challenge on Jack Webster having initially played advantage.
Webster, in turn, would see a yellow of his own only two minutes later, cynically bringing down Iqi Jawadi in what appeared to be a bit of tit-for-tat from the Bentleigh defender.
At this stage the crowd – as well as Bentleigh head coach John Anastasiadis and South gaffer Sasa Kolman on the touchline – were livid, becoming increasingly vocal as the game began to open up. Bentleigh had the best of the play but a litany of chances were created by both sides.
Scott produced two fantastic saves in two minutes, the first an absolutely magnificent one with his legs to deny Matt Millar in the 69th minute, keeping Hellas’ lead at one, before a fantastic last-second challenge from South’s Greek import Christos Intzidis denied Hicks up the other end in the 73rd minute.
The Greens, beneficiaries of a one-man advantage, began to put the Hellas defence under siege in the game’s final minutes, pouring men forward as they launched attack after attack in an effort to pinch a winner following Mitrovic’s goal.
South gloveman Keegan Coulter, who entered the season as South’s clear No.2 but found himself thrust into action after first choice Alastair Bray suffered a season-ending injury in Round 1, produced the performance of his life in denying the Greens, ultimately doing enough to earn his side a point.
The result means the Greens’ perfect start to the season, with six wins from the season’s opening six rounds, has come to an end. Bentleigh’s attention will now turn to Friday night when they host one of the two NPL Victoria sides to remain perfect, Heidelberg United, in Round 8’s marquee matchup.
South will be hoping their return to Lakeside will spark a restoration in their fortunes, for as impressive as holding Bentleigh to a draw is, they still only have one win for the season.
With eight of their next 12 games to be played at Lakeside, and no FFA Cup to distract him, the pressure will be on Kolman to use this result to spark a Hellas revival.
Header image credit: Cindy Nitsos / SMFC