South Melbourne showcased a commanding 2-1 home victory over Northcote City at Lakeside Stadium on Sunday to place itself on the brink of a championship title.
NPL leading goalscorer Milos Lujic was the hero, netting a brace to cancel out Marino Gasparis’s equaliser.
The win could have huge ramifications for second-placed Oakleigh, which must win its remaining three matches – one of those away to South Melbourne – and hope that South Melbourne drops points against Goulburn Valley if it is to win the inaugural NPL title.
In the early minutes, Lujic was played through by an incisive move, but the ball was smothered by a swift Chris Theodoridis intervention.
Nick Epifano was soon presented with an opportunity in the penalty area, but miscued his volley which bounced well wide of the woodwork.
Nevertheless, the home side’s pressure paid off and South took an early lead when Tyson Holmes delivered a pinpoint cross onto the forehead of Lujic, who nodded the ball home to open the scoring.
Epifano was again involved, nimbly skipping past his marker to sling a stinging shot which was parried to safety by Theodoridis.
Northcote struggled to impose itself on the match, allowing South to control much of the first half’s proceedings.
The away side crept back into the game at the close of the opening stanza, stringing together a patch of possession which culminated in a sizzling blast from Anthony Rizk which was tipped over the crossbar by South custodian Chris Maynard.
Ten minutes after the break, Gasparis netted for Northcote against his former club with a low , precise free kick to level the scores.
South fired back with Holmes finding himself in space with all the time in the world, but he narrowly placed his shot just inches wide.
The partisan home crowd was provoked into indignant roars when Lujic was seemingly brought down in the box but the referee waved away the howling protests.
Substitute Mathew Theodore showed flawless composure with his first touch of the game to supply Lujic through on goal, and the big man demonstrated clinical technique and flair with the outside of his boot to restore South’s advantage.
Northcote occasionally threatened in patches, but Maynard held firm and displayed acrobatic reflexes to keep South’s lead intact until the final whistle blew and the delighted home crowd celebrated joyously.
Winning coach Chris Taylor was confident that his side was within touching distance of the championship.
“I’m just happy with the three points. It’s all I care about. Feels like we’ve just got a bit more to do and get to where we want to be,” Taylor said.
“We’re confident in what we do and for me we’ve been the best side all year and we just need to continue doing it.”
Taylor’s opposite number Arch Giotopoulos – filling in for coach Goran Lozanovski – enjoyed the match as a contest and still believed his side had pride to play for.
“Entertaining match. Both teams went for it. Unfortunately they just got the better of us”, Giotopoulos said.
“There’s still something to play for. You play for the shirt. That means the supporters, the history, and the club.”
South Melbourne will have to the chance to secure the title with a draw or win against Oakleigh when the two sides meet in a fortnight at Lakeside Stadium.
South Melbourne 2 (Lujic 16’ 72’) defeated Northcote City 1 (Gasparis 56’) at Lakeside Stadium [HT: 1-0]
SOUTH MELBOURNE: 21. Chris MAYNARD (GK), 2. Tim MALA, 4. Michael EAGAR, 7. Nick EPIFANO, 9. Milos LUJIC, 10. Tyson HOLMES (25. Shaun TIMMINS 73’), 11. Bradley NORTON (8. Mathew Theodore 70’), 12. Iqi JAWADI, 14. James MUSA, 17. Jamie REED, 77. Stephen HATZIKOSTAS
Unused substitutes: 1. Jason SALDARIS, 18. Dion KIRK, 27. Leigh MINOPOULOS.
Yellow cards: None.
Red cards: None.
NORTHCOTE CITY: 22. Chris THEODORIDIS, 2. Adrian CHIAPPETTA, 4. Kristian KONSTANTINIDIS, 5. Philip PETRESKI, 6. Aaron WARD, 10. Marino GASPARIS (9. Trent RIXON 78’), 11. Liam WOODING, 15. Wade DEKKER (8. James KALIFATIDIS 77’), 16. Greg LOMBARDO, 17. Anthony RIZK, 23. Jonathan BOUNAS (7. Jonathan MUNOZ 70’)
Unused substitutes: 1. Luke GAVALAS, 21. Ricardo GONZALEZ.
Yellow cards: Petreski (36’), Bounas (44’).
Red cards: None