Defending Southern Trust National League champions Miramar Rangers came a cropper at Kiwitea Street on March 15, as league leaders Central United came from behind to down their Wellington rivals 3-2 in a thriller attended by over six hundred spectators.
The visitors started well, with Geoff Brown failing to capitalise on some defensive hesitancy between Dean Tallentire and Ross Nicholson five minutes into the match, the striker stealing in front of the retreating defender only to direct his snatched volley narrowly wide of the right-hand post.
The home team retorted within sixty seconds through a Miro Major-inspired raid, which saw the midfielder thread the ball wide to Shane Pascoe on the left. He got to the byline before whipping in a cross for Daniel Aliaga, whose goalbound header was blocked by Andy Hedge. Seconds later, Aliaga hit the roof of the net with a curling twenty-five yard free-kick.
Miramar were quick to respond, and for the next twenty minutes, were clearly the more dominant team - had it been a boxing match, they would have had a sizable points advantage!
A tenth minute cross from Tim Butterfield zoomed across the bows of the incoming Brown and Simon George, while five minutes later, Rupert Ryanís persistence in the penalty area presented Bryan Little with a chance, but the defenderís effort was blocked to safety by the legs of Ross Nicholson.
Only a vital tackle by the outstanding Greg Uhlmann thwarted Graham Little in the penalty area sixty seconds later, as he wriggled his way through three challenges, before Central briefly flexed their muscles once more, Dylan Hall racing off his line to save at the feet of the incoming Daniel Koprivcic, after Pascoe and Aliaga had prised open Miramarís defence.
The visitors took a deserved lead in the 27th minute, their pressure finally paying off when Graham Little slipped a ball through Centralís rearguard for Tariq Imam, who had stolen in behind the home teamís back-line. From a challenging angle, the midfielder belted a shot beyond Nicholson and in off the far post to open the scoring.
But Miramarís joy was short-lived, as Central pegged them back within two minutes. Aliaga was the catalyst, feeding Koprivcic on the left. The striker jinked inside one opponent before curling a twenty-yard gem around the diving Hall and into his bottom left-hand corner.
This seemed to arouse the home team into action, and a Major corner picked out Tallentire in the 31st minute. His header looked home for all money, until Adam Birch popped up to head the ball off the line. Both Pascoe and Uhlmann were unable to deliver the ball back into the danger zone, the latterís pass failing to find its target.
Cue Graham Little. The Scot scampered down the left at pace, the well-performed James Paterson in hot pursuit. But Little had too much of an advantage, and upon reaching the penalty area, let fly. Nicholson parried the shot, then recovered to deny Little the chance to pounce on the rebound.
Back came Central, dogged work by Neil Sykes, initially, then Aliaga - a much more team-focused performance, and how Central benefited accordingly - denying Miramar possession in midfield.
The latter somehow kept his footing when challenged, and managed to slip a deft pass through for Koprivcic, who evaded a challenge before letting fly in situational circumstances very similar to those from which he scored. But Hall proved equal to the effort this time, flinging himself to his left in the 34th minute to parry the ball away, then recovering to deny the rebound from Aliaga.
The teams went to the dressing rooms on even terms, but Miramar were clearly intent on restoring their earlier dominance upon emerging for the second spell. Within eighty-five seconds, Nicholson had saved at the feet of Graham Little after Brown had created space for a cross from the right. Two minutes later, Bryan Littleís near post corner prompted a gorgeous glancing header by Brown which caused pandemonium aplenty in Centralís penalty area, the home team somehow scrambling clear.
Further Miramar pressure came in the 52nd minute, when George sent Bryan Little away down the left. The resulting cross was
tailor-made for brother Graham, whose first-time volley thundered goalwards, only for Nicholson to produce a fine save, Tallentire clearing the danger.
Central mustered a rare opening two minutes later, when a twenty-yard drive from Koprivcic was deflected beyond the right-hand post of the stranded Hall, but the home teamís defensive plans were thrown into confusion in the 56th minute, when captain and sweeper Tallentire succumbed to a calf injury.
It meant a fair bit of reshuffling in the Central rearguard, with Uhlmann dropping back to sweeper, and midfielder Jonathan Smith initially stepping into the breach. That this wasnít a success was proven within two minutes, when George was unceremoniously upended by Smith in the penalty area. Butterfield sent Nicholson the wrong way from the penalty spot - 2-1 to Miramar in the 58th minute.
This prompted another change of personnel at the back for the home team, with Sykes assuming the responsibility, albeit briefly. Matt Fowler took up the job soon after, before Central finally settled on Pascoe to fill the breach.
Not for the first time in this match, the defending champions found holding onto their hard-earned advantage to be beyond them, for Central were back on level terms within four minutes.
A quickly-taken free-kick by Sykes sent Koprivcic careering down the left at pace, and the striker darted inside and across the penalty area, luring defenders as he went. A short pass found Aliaga in space, and the striker, who had been thwarted by Farringtonís fine challenge five minutes previously, curled a quality shot into the top left-hand corner of Hallís net - 2-2.
Central had their tails up with this goal, and maintained the pressure soon after. Aliaga burst into the penalty area, but Farrington blocked his low cross, only to clear to Major, whose twenty yard volley zoomed across the face of goal.
The same three players were involved in the next phase of play, with Farrington cannoning a clearance into the side of Majorís head as the midfielder retreated. The rebound fell perfectly for Aliaga, who thrashed a right-foot drive beyond Hall and in off the near post from an acute angle to give Central the lead, 3-2, in the 68th minute.
Like the champion side they are, Miramar werenít going to take this lying down, and didnít. But they butchered a glorious chance to level the scores once more in the 76th minute, Graham Little, substitute Mitch Brydon and George prising open Centralís defence to great effect, only for the second-mentioned to stray into an offside position at the crucial moment.
Still Miramar pressed, Brown battering a shot into the side-netting ten minutes from time, before Smith rattled Miramarís crossbar with a dipping twenty-yard volley five minutes later, as Central sought a fourth goal.
The home team werenít finished, with lanky substitute Jesse Van Kekem twice going close from corners in the next couple of minutes upon being picked out by Major - his first effort was headed off the line by Darren Cheriton.
In stoppage time, a raking Nicholson clearance was allowed to bounce by Miramarís rearguard, and Koprivcic didnít waste any time in pouncing on the opportunity. But Hall was equal to the challenge, saving with his legs to keep his side in the contest. Up the other end the visitors charged, and Graham Little drilled in a cross-shot which fizzed over Nicholsonís head, only for Fowler to race back and head the ball to safety off the line.
Within seconds, the final whistle of Mark Vincent - he controlled the game superbly - brought cheers from the home faithful, and confirmed Centralís position at the top of the table, where they are now four points clear of third-placed Miramar, who were worthy of a point from this encounter between two teams who look set to meet again come play-off time.
Central: Nicholson; Paterson, Tallentire (Van Kekem, 56), Uhlmann; Fowler, Smith, Major, Sykes, Pascoe; Aliaga, Koprivcic (booked, 59)
Miramar: Hall; Birch, Farrington (Flaws, 88), Hedge, B. Little (Cheriton, 74); Imam (Brydon, 74), Butterfield, George, Ryan; G. Little, Brown
Referee: Mark Vincent