The Central Coast Mariners lead the Newcastle Jets 1-0 in a tense F3 derby which has presented plenty of opportunities but has been lacking in execution.
Mark Birighitti came up with one of the highlights of the game as he pulled off a stunning stop to deny Newcastle a certain goal.
Steven Ugarkovic started what was a beautiful string of passes for the Jets before Ramy Najjarine did well to thread the ball through for Valentino Yuel.
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Yuel then crossed back inside for Kosta Petratos who looked certain to level the scores but his shot was palmed off by Birighitti, who showed great reflexes to come up with the stop.
Both teams struggled at times to come up with the right option on the final pass or shot in a common theme but it was the home side that took a 1-0 lead into the halftime break.
Alou Kuol came up with the breakthrough as the Mariners opened the scoring in the 43rd minute.
In many ways it was a goal that summed up the home side’s night.
It was not the most technical or well-executed play, but the determination and fight to be first to the ball when the opportunity presented itself was what separated the Mariners early.
Stefan Nigro’s pass landed in the box and Connor O’Toole failed to clean it up, with Kuol showing great desperation to get to the ball first.
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The Jets had the early running and a genuine scoring opportunity in the 10th minute when Kosta Petratos gave Angus Thurgate a chance at goal. His left foot strike sailed over the bar though.
It was the first of a number of missed opportunities for both sides, who played with plenty of energy but lacked the execution needed to capitalise.
Young gun Jaden Casella provided the Mariners with a much-needed boost of energy as the home side started to gain the upper-hand in the latter stages of the first half.
Casella burst onto the ball in the 31st minute and linked with Matt Simon who had a chance to give Central Coast the lead but his shot was deflected for a corner.
The cross in from Jack Clisby was dangerous and Casela again showed promising confidence to back himself with a nice strike which was deflected.
There was contention though with replays showing a potential handball from Kosta Petratos, although he may not have had much time to react and the VAR decided not to hand the home side a spot kick for it.
Another chance for the Mariners went begging when Oliver Bozanic sent a free kick over the posts.
With four shots to none between the 24th and 34th minute, it was clear that the Mariners were getting on top but it would mean nothing if they did not take advantage.
That they did eventually through Kuol and it was a tough blow for the Jets, who rued a few big missed opportunities of their own in the later stages of the half.
Najjarine set up Yuel who steamed down the right edge before looking inside to Roy O’Donovan but the last pass was not a good one and the forward could not deliver.
Najjarine again came up with a moment of brilliance, with a second touch setting up a shot at goal shortly after but it went straight to the keeper and the Mariners made them pay just before the break through Kuol.
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