Reigning premiers Heidelberg United battle their way through extra time and penalties to confirm their spot in the NPL Victoria Grand Final.
It was a Friday night down at Heidelberg United’s home ground, Olympic Village. The scene was set, a classic NPL tale. Two proud, Greek clubs fighting it out for a spot in the Grand Final. The smell of lamb surrounding the village.
Juggling a souva, beer and my phone, I spent the night refreshing twitter for updates on the game being played across town between Bentleigh Greens and Avondale FC. Two semis being played at the same time, four clubs, four passionate supporter groups eagerly awaiting results? This is what football is about. That feeling of nerves and excitement, a sentiment shared between all in attendance.
Off the back of a successful NPL National Championship elimination playoff against Tasmanian side, Devonport Strikers, as well as their recent FFA cup win, I wondered how long the reigning premiers could hold their long running success.
Both teams started aggressively and although Heidelberg looked to be in control from early on, Oakleigh held tight defensively. After some time off, it didn’t take long for Harry Noon to cement his return to the pitch, providing Sean Ellis with a beautiful ball, linking straight to an offside Tom Cahill. Moments later, a textbook cross from Andrew Cartanos found an open Cahill but his header flew high over the cross bar. Troisi?
This became the theme for the night, with Heidelberg dominating play and creating chances. The hard work being done in the midfield by Sean Ellis, Ruben Way and Josh Wilkins fell without reward however, as they were unable to finish. As a Melbourne Victory supporter, a feeling I’m all too familiar with.
Despite Heidelberg’s forward play and consistent pressure, Oakleigh did well to interrupt their attack. They had a point to prove and nothing to lose. But it was a contentious penalty that saw Dusan Bosnjak take Oakleigh to a 1-0 lead over the home side. While I missed the play that lead to the penalty, I knew it was contentious by the tone in the Greek I was hearing around me. Oakleigh held their lead into the break.
I sat down for a moment to check twitter. It didn’t take long for a couple of elderly Greek men to target me as their go to for score updates. Bentleigh Greens were 1-0 up and I had no doubt they’d retain this lead. If Heidelberg were to come out a different side in this second half and find their spot in the Grand Final, we would be looking at a prequel to the FFA cup quarter-finals match.
The second half saw more intense, physical play with Oakleigh eager to retain their goal lead and Heidelberg relentless in their attack. After a few more failed attempts from the Bergers, it was Jack Petrie who sent the ball to the back of the net and finally, we could all breathe a sigh of relief. If I knew Heidelberg, this momentum would continue and we would bag another 1 or 2 goals. But the story continued. Chance after chance, with no finale. It seemed their backlog of fixtures in combination with the loss of playmaker, Alex Schiavo in that final third was taking its toll. The game was going to extra time and I needed a coffee.
It was at this point I picked up my phone again after being intensely fixed on my own team. Ah, Bentleigh and Avondale level. Phew! Get up, Avondale. You don’t need Pirlo to silence the Greens. I don’t like Bentleigh.
Extra time began and after close to 100 minutes of play, it was clear both sides were starting to lose speed and accuracy with play becoming scrappier by the minute. This caused clear frustration on the pitch and a red card was given to defender Lewis Hall after a scuffle between the sides.
All credit to Oakleigh. They worked to a plan, created fouls, broke up Heidelberg’s play and it worked. It was only ever going to be a penalty shootout that was going to be the decider. It was Adrian Zahra’s final shot that would end the game and send the Bergers marching through to the Grand Final.
Heidelberg United will face Avondale FC in the Victorian NPL Grand Final at AAMI Park on Sunday, September 23rd. This will be Avondale’s first ever NPL Victoria Grand Final. Alexandros!
Featured Image from HUFC Twitter page.