Article Courtesy of Fox Sports – http://bit.ly/1ShN8ms
SOUTH Melbourne’s return to the national stage has been cut short in gut-wrenching fashion, losing an epic penalty shootout to Palm Beach Sharks at Cbus Super Stadium on Wednesday night.
Despite being the dominant team for large parts of the match, the former National Soccer League powerhouse was left to rue some wasteful finishing in front of goal in both regulation and extra time.
The match ended 1-1 after 120 draining minutes, before captain Michael Eagar became the heartbreak story, missing what was his side’s ninth spot kick to hand Palm Beach an 8-7 shootout victory.
South striker Milos Lujic kicked off what would become an eye-catching performance with a 34th minute header that put his side in front, before Florian Matk restored parity from the penalty spot just four minutes later.
Despite enjoying the better of possession, territory and the chances in the second half, South could not find a way home in regulation time and it was much the same story for the half an hour of extra time.
South had a 98th minute appeal for a handball by Sharks defender Martin Vazquez waved away before Palm Beach went close two times in a minute just before the end of the first period of extra time – first from a long distance strike off the boot of substitute Jack Boxall and then off a header by captain Kristian Rees from the resultant corner.
Palm Beach’s Eoghan Murphy was sent off in the 113th minute for a second bookable offence, but with both teams clearly out on their feet, South was unable to capitalise on the man advantage – although Lujic did spurn two golden opportunities to score in additional time.
The 500 or so South Melbourne fans who had flown to the Gold Coast for the game created a buzz around the ground – and they were expectant early on as their team peppered the goals repeatedly in the opening stages.
Palm Beach wasn’t without its own chances, however, and came close to taking an early lead via Rees Duncan, who was denied by South goalkeeper Nikola Roganovic, in the 10th minute.
But ultimately it would be the Oceania Club of the Century that opened the scoring in the 34th minute via Lujic, who has 10 goals in 14 National Premier League matches this season.
Nick Epifano had had a shot cleared off the line just minutes earlier, but the winger got involved in the goal soon after as his side capitalised on a turnover in midfield by the Sharks.
Jake Barker-Daish, familiar with the ground from his days at Gold Coast United, started the counter attack, before Iqbal Jawadi advanced the ball forward in conjunction with Epifano.
Brad Norton then provided a fantastic overlapping run to get inside the box before cutting a brilliant cross back for Lujic, who had escaped his defender at the far post and only had to nod the ball in to an empty net from point-blank range.
But after working so hard to gain the acsendancy, South threw it away three minutes later as the match was turned on its head.
A slick through ball from midfield by Nikola Mirkovic appeared to be going out for a goal kick, only for Duncan to refuse to give up the chase.
Roganovic could have picked the ball up but instead allowed it to go past him, resulting in a collision between he and the Palm Beach striker which forced the referee in to giving a spot kick.
To make matters worse for him, the former Melbourne Heart shot-stopper was sent the wrong way by Matk’s penalty and it was 1-1 at the break.
Undettered, South came out after the break and regained the upper hand in the contest.
As the second half got older, and the chances piled up for the visitors, the Sharks retreated further and further back in defence.
David Stirton, who was a part of Bentleigh Greens’ run to the semi-finals last year, forced Palm Beach goalkeeper Shane Viitakangas into a sharp save in the 54th minute after being picked out by Lujic.
Epifano’s left-footed shot from inside the box deflected out for a corner in the 79th minute before another searching run forward by the impressive Norton almost produced an exact replica of South’s first half goal, but this time Lujic was confronted by just enough pressure at the far post.
And Lujic, the 2014 Football Federation Victoria Gold Medal winner, also had a late chance to win it for South in regulation time, but narrowly failed to keep his header from Jawadi’s cross down.