There’s a strong sense of deja-vu surrounding Saturday’s two Victorian NPL semi-finals, with all the four contesting teams being the very same that contested the semi-finals last year.
On that occasion, Avondale and Heidelberg United made it through to the Grand Finals after knocking out Bentleigh and Oakleigh Cannons respectively. Bentleigh was in good stead, until it was ambushed by a late Avondale comeback, which saw it overcome a 3-1 deficit late in the game to record a miraculous victory. In the other semi, Oakleigh Cannons was eliminated in the cruellest of ways through a penalty shoot-out at the end of extra time.
On Saturday, the semi-final match-ups are different, with the Greens facing their greatest rival of recent seasons, Heidelberg United and Oakleigh travelling to Avenger Park to take on Avondale FC.
Will the Cannons and the Greens make up for the disappointment of last season’s agonising losses, and win a place in next season’s Grand Final at AAMI Park?
To do so they’ll both have to overcome very difficult opponents, the top two teams, over the course of the year.
The Cannons booked a semi-final showdown with Avondale thanks to a 2-0 home win over Hume City in the qualifying final last week. Forward Wade Dekker scored from a Joe Guest assist just before the break, whilst midfielder Matthew Foschini added the second in the second half. The win extended the Cannons’ unbeaten run to 17 matches. Their head-to-head record with Avondale this season is a win apiece, with Avondale winning earlier in the season 3-1 at Avenger Park and the Cannons triumphing 4-3 at Jack Edwards later in the season.
Newly appointed Bentleigh coach and occasional commentator Nick Tolios says it’s going to be very hard for Oakleigh, but believes Chris Taylor’s team is the dark horse.
“They’re 17 games unbeaten. They’ve got a fit and healthy squad. There’s minimal changes to their line-up each week – the consistency is there,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of experience in that team. I think that’s a toss of the coin to be honest. If you’ve got to say anything, it’s that Avondale’s probably got the edge, purely because they’re at home. That could be a physical tough game.”
The two teams have arguably the two best players in the league this season in Oakleigh playmaker Joe Guest and his Avondale counterpart Tasuku Sekiya. The contest could come down to which of these two players has the most influence in the game.
Bentleigh Greens booked its semi-final place against Heidelberg United, breaking a win-less run of five matches courtesy of last week’s 1-0 away win at Green Gully thanks to a Daniel Stynes goal. According to Tolios, everyone who was in that squad that travelled to Gully, is available for selection on Saturday, apart from Stynes who unfortunately for the Greens picked up a red card.
The Greens come face-to-face with their fierce rivals of recent years, the Bergers. The Bergers have triumphed in both their encounters this season, 2-0 and 3-0, with the Greens yet to score against Heidelberg. Despite their inconsistent form, Tolios says the Greens remain upbeat ahead of Saturday’s semi-final encounter.
“They (Bentleigh) are an experienced outfit. They’ve got guys that have won the league before, that have won major trophies at this level. The boys have been very upbeat. They understand they’ve got a massive opportunity to be playing for a Grand Final spot. They’re excited,” he added.
Tolios says the key to getting a result against the Bergers is that you’ve got to be prepared to have a battle.
“One thing (Bergers coach) George Katsakis does well, and he’s done it with every team he’s had, is he always gets the boys fired up for any game, let alone a semi-final. In a final it’s going to come down to who wants it the most. Who is switched on. The two teams have always had a good rivalry. You’ve just got to win every individual battle. That goes a long way, because there’s some really good players on both sides. It’s going to be an absolute cracking game.”
The Bergers have had a week off to give key defender Steven Pace a chance to recover from injury. With the return in recent weeks of players like Andrew Cartanos and Alex Schiavo, the Bergers have many more options up front and more options off the bench than the Greens.
Tilting the balance a little back towards the Greens will be the neutral venue at Port Melbourne, as opposed to Olympic Village which is currently under renovation.
Semi Final Schedules
- Avondale v Oakleigh Cannons, Saturday 7 September, Avenger Park, 2.00 pm
- Heidelberg United v Bentleigh Greens, Saturday 7 September, JL Murphy Reserve (Port Melbourne), 6.00 pm