Finishing deserted the Weston Bears in a narrow 3-2 defeat to a clinical Edgeworth Eagles side on Sunday.
A well-manicured Jack McLaughlan Oval set the scene after a deluge the previous afternoon. The last time the sides met was an Australia Cup thriller a month ago where the Bears prevailed 3-2 in extra time.
Both clubs would have expected stronger starts to their respective NPL campaigns, lying outside the top four and lacking potency in front of goal, lending the contest an additional sprinkle of desperation.
The visitors drew first blood on the afternoon; trickster Aaron Niyonkuru capitalised on a sloppy touch at the back to nick possession and dispatch a clever finish with the outside of his boot to beat Eagles keeper Josh Low from a tight angle at close range in the 14th minute.
Merely a minute after the restart, Sam Kamper's incisive run nearly resulted in a second Bears goal, but the attackers lurking in the box could not apply the crucial touch to his cutback. Kamper produced another touch of attacking verve in the 23rd minute, advancing past his marker and letting fly with a 20-yard attempt that ran just wide of the right post.
A slick 26th minute interchange between Moustafa Mohammad, Cooper Buswell and Chris Hurley saw the latter played through behind the line and make his way deep into the box, but he was unable to produce an attempt on goal. His cutback saw Buswell's strike deflected just wide and the Bears would no doubt have felt unlucky not to have a two-goal advantage. Niyonkuru's subsequent corner was headed just over the bar by Mohammad to let the Eagles off the hook.
Kamper would gallop up the flank in the 31st minute and cross for Niyonkuru, whose first touch took him the wrong way from goal with acres of space to himself. His blushes were ultimately spared by the offside flag of the linesman and somehow the margin remained just one.
In terms of attacking opportunities, it had been one-way traffic in the opening half hour, with the Bears now finding their way through the Eagles' defence with regularity. As is football's way of serving up the unpredictable, though, it was Edgeworth's first attacking opportunity of note, in the 32nd minute, that saw them equalise almost totally against the run of play.
A misplaced clearing pass from Nathan Morris saw Will Bower take possession in midfield and find Josh Rose with a slide rule pass that eluded a desperately sliding Cooper Sargent. Rose's cool and composed low cross for Jeremy Brockie saw the latter convert a simple tap in from close range. The incomparable experience of the two ex-A-League stagers proved lethal in undoing the previously untroubled Weston defence.
It was a familiar feeling for the Bears in the context of their campaign; a great showing in terms of general play but somehow lacking dominance in the only area that matters, the scoreboard.
The hosts now had their tails up and were looking to capitalise on Weston having the stuffing knocked out of them psychologically. A deep cross in the 36th minute found Rose at the back post, but an uncharacteristic moment of hesitation saw Bears keeper Jacob Zissis claim a simple catch from what ended up being a tame chip.
It was déjà vu in the 37th minute, Rose taking possession and delivering a pinpoint looping cross towards the back post that saw Brockie rise above Kamper to nod past Zissis for a scarcely comprehensible 2-1 lead.
A cheap giveaway directly after the restart saw the Bears give away possession immediately and the Eagles surged forth once more. Brockie's run was curtailed this time but there were now a few worrying signs that the Bears were capitulating mentally and they would need a herculean effort to put a stop to the red tide.
Fortunately for the Bears' brains trust, the remainder of the first half saw their charges work their way back into the contest, lending a strange complexion to the opening stanza where the Bears had essentially dominated all bar a five-minute period of madness but had a scoreboard deficit to show for their efforts at the interval.
Niyonkuru fell victim to a hair's breadth offside call in the 45th minute as he prepared to bear down on Low one-on-one, and two minutes later the players would head to the sheds.
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The Bears started the second half positively as Niyonkuru made his way into the box and found Mohammad only a couple of yards out after just 20 seconds of play. Low did well to pounce on a loose touch, but the linesman's flag signalled that the play wouldn't have counted in any case.
A superb drive from 25 yards on the half volley by Buswell saw Low called upon to produce an athletic save to tip the ball over the bar for a corner, which ultimately amounted to little. It would have been a goal of the season contender had it gone in, but importantly it appeared the Bears were once again exerting a sense of control of the contest.
With a light sprinkle coming over the ground, conditions began to deteriorate somewhat and the heavier surface meant the game's latter exchanges were likely to be more of a gruelling war of attrition than a zippy, fluid brand of attacking football.
A 61st minute run up the centre of the park saw Michael McGlinchey release Mohammad at the edge of the box, but the Dutchman failed to connect cleanly and pulled his strike wide of the post. Clear cut opportunities were proving few and far between at this point but one did crop up in the 73rd minute for Bower, who fluffed his lines from close range after a kind bounce. This seemed to break the game back open with a flurry of chances following once more.
Weston was awarded a 30-yard free kick in the 76th minute and Morris clearly fancied his chances, but the surface played spoiler and he lost his footing right at the crucial juncture and could only produce a tame strike that bounced into the arms of Low. A half-shout for a penalty at the other end was turned down a minute later.
A 79th minute free kick was given in a near identical position for the Bears; this time Morris used the divot from his previous attempt as a makeshift tee of sorts, and was able to produce a more shapely effort headed for the top corner, but Low was still comfortably equal to the task.
Just as had occurred previously, a penalty shout at the other end followed the free kick, and this time the referee pointed to the spot after Zac Sneddon was adjudged to have unduly impeded Bower's progress towards goal one-on-one with Zissis in the 82nd minute. Brockie charitably declined the opportunity to complete his hat-trick and instead allowed Bower to step up; he made no mistake, coolly converting in the bottom left corner and sending Zissis the wrong way in the process.
A 3-1 deficit with little time on the clock gave Weston a mountain to climb. A zippy left flank run from substitute Tommy Duggan found fellow new introduction Jake Brownlow in the box, but Low held his nerve to make a crucial save and preserve the two goal advantage. Brockie was denied his hat-trick superbly at the other end by Zissis one on one after a quick Edgeworth counter attack.
An ambitious speculator from 40 yards in the 89th minute from Morris finished up well over twice the height of the goal and it appeared the Bears had used up all their creativity and would be resigned to defeat. Kamper had other ideas though, unleashing an absolute rocket from the edge of the box that flew in off the underside of the crossbar in the 93rd minute.
It was too little, too late, though, as the referee blew his whistle immediately after the resumption with the Bears falling 3-2 at the hands of their more fancied opponents. It was a bitterly disappointing result given the weight of opportunities in their favour, but they now need to focus their attentions on Sunday's home game against cellar dwellers Adamstown Rosebud, who are yet to register a league win from 12 games in 2022.
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