Melbourne Knights have been humbled 5-2 at Knights Stadium by a clinical Adelaide United outfit, in front of a bumper crowd of 4,087.
In what was widely billed their audition for the incoming National Second Division, the former NSL giants were ultimately outclassed on the field, but mounted a compelling case off it.
Despite the miserable Melbourne weather, the game drew a larger attendance than the last time these two faced each other in the NSL, back in 2004.
The night began with a minute’s applause for the legendary Knights groundskeeper Mirko “Rus” Rastocic, who passed away in June after a 46-year association with the club.
Gertijan Verbeek’s Adelaide delivered a slick, professional performance in their first competitive hit-out, with youngster Al Hassan Toure a standout on his senior debut.
Toure netted the opener after 12 minutes, after Knights captain Joey Franjic was unable to clear a low ball into the area. Toure had taken an awkward first touch which ricocheted off the centre back, but buried his shot into the bottom corner on the second attempt.
The Knights had made a nervy start to the contest, with only a brilliant last-ditch challenge from Ayden Brice preventing Riley McGree from running through on goal.
Goalkeeper Jordan Gifkins was not immune from the early jitters, staying rooted to his line as Adelaide hoofed the ball forward into the box – the resulting shot just skewing wide.
A minute later, Kiwi import Mohamed Awad produced a moment of magic for the hosts, nutmegging Adelaide captain Michael Jakobsen, and curling an inch-perfect through ball into the path of Hamish Watson. His fellow New Zealander’s powerful shot was just tipped around the post by Paul Izzo.
Moments after creating their clearest opening, the Knights went 2-0 down out of the blue, a pass from deep in midfield evading everyone except Ben Halloran, who calmly rounded Gifkins and slid the ball into the empty net.
Croatia rallied with a succession of set pieces, one of which Adelaide failed to clear. Watson took an air swing at the ball as it dropped, unintentionally clipping it into the path of Awad, whose powerful drive rattled the woodwork. Gian Albano was in the right place at the right time to turn home the rebound from point-blank range.
The buoyant mood at Somers St lasted through halftime and until the 56th minute, when an error cost the Knights dear. Nick Glavan’s shocking backpass allowed Nathan Konstandopoulos to drive forward and unleashes a wicked curling strike from the edge of the box, which nicked the underside of the crossbar on its way in.
The despondent Glavan was promptly substituted for Ivan Grgic, who took his place at right back.
The change made little difference to the match’s momentum, as this time Brice’s pass into midfield was picked off. Adelaide’s low cross was cleared only as far as the edge of the box, from where Mirko Boland drove low and hard past Gifkins, picking up a deflection off McGree on the way in.
Set pieces continued to prove Croatia’s most lucrative avenue to goal, with the towering Brice pulling another goal back in the 72nd minute. Corey Sewell played his corner short to Awad, whose lofted cross was met by the centre half – who did terrifically to generate the power to beat Izzo.
However, it was the combination of Halloran and Toure who put the game to bed just three minutes later, a neat 1-2 on the break teeing up Halloran to put away his second goal from 12 yards.
There was still time for an encouraging cameo from Reds youngster Pacifique Niyongabire, who slalomed past four defenders before stabbing his off-balance shot just wide.
5-2 was the final score in favour of the A-League outfit, but the despite the pre-game hype, was the game ever really about the scoreline?