Shootouts aplenty as finals claim victims

FINALS SERIES Semi-finals Wk1: Sat Feb 20 Gold Coast United 0-0 Newcastle Jets (Newcastle win 6-5 on penalties) Sun Feb 21 Wellington Phoenix 1-1 Perth Glory (Wellington win 4-2 on penalties)

The thing about a football team boldly declaring that they will go through a season undefeated is that it’s hilariously funny when they lose.

Gold Coast United discovered that in spades during their inaugural A-League campaign, after it took them just four rounds to relinquish their undefeated status to the unheralded Newcastle Jets.

There was a sense of symmetry to Gold Coast’s inglorious A-League finals exit, as the club from the glitter strip lost 6-5 on penalties following a scoreless draw with Newcastle in their maiden finals appearance.

Just 4,109 fans bothered to turn out at Skilled Park in Robina for the sudden-death encounter – compared to the sell-out crowd of just under 27,000 who watched a recent rugby league exhibition game – suggesting that the locals hate their football side as much as everyone else does.

The sterile atmosphere contributed to the sort of game that could cure insomnia, so perhaps it was apt that by the end Gold Coast were practically sleep-walking their way to a bumbling finals exit.

That it was the A-League’s most maligned goalkeeper Ben Kennedy who proved the hero completed the Monty Pythonesque spectacle, as Kennedy chose an opportune time to pull off his best-ever individual performance.

Kennedy was in superb form during the 120 minutes of scoreless action, winning his personal duel with Gold Coast captain Jason Culina and frustrating New Zealand international Shane Smeltz at every opportunity.

Gold Coast v Newcastle highlights - click to watch

Yet it was in the shoot-out that Kennedy proved his greatest worth, as the error-prone custodian clawed away Zenon Caravella’s sudden-death penalty to send Newcastle through to a meeting with Wellington Phoenix.

“Caravella… off the post!” was how Fox Sports commentator Mike Cockerill summed up the fateful spot-kick, proving that even the A-League’s host broadcaster had trouble coping with Kennedy’s unexpected turnaround in form.

Newcastle will now face Wellington Phoenix in their next knock-out finals match, after the club from the New Zealand capital beat Perth Glory 4-2 in a similarly dramatic penalty shoot-out.

This time there was plenty of action in regulation time, as Perth youngster Scott Neville cancelled out a strike from Wellington’s English import Chris Greenacre with the scores finishing level at 1-1 after 120 minutes.

Up stepped Wellington’s on-loan goalkeeper Liam Reddy to play his part, as he dived to his left to keep out Naum Sekulovski’s driven effort, before going the opposite way to spectacularly deny substitute Scott Bulloch's spot-kick.

Wellington v Perth - click to watch highlights

It was left to former Perth midfielder Adrian Caceres to administer the last rites, as he drove home low and hard into the bottom corner to spark wild celebrations inside Westpac Stadium.

The result was all the more remarkable for the record crowd of 24,278 that turned out at the cavernous ground – the highest ever for a domestic football game played in New Zealand.

With injuries having already decimated both Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory, Wellington now look the most dangerous team still involved in the finals.

If the New Zealand side can overcome Newcastle Jets at home on March 7 – the same day as Sydney and Melbourne face off in the other game – then just one more game will stand between them and an unexpected Grand Final appearance.

It’s turning out to be an historic year for football in the Land Of The Long White Cloud, as the New Zealand national team gears up for just its second ever appearance at the World Cup finals.

An A-League championship would provide the icing on the cake, even if it invariably invokes the wrath of Asian Football Confederation chief Mohammed Bin Hammam.

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