The Central Coast Mariners laced up at AAMI Park for the second time in three days as they entertained Melbourne City on Tuesday night. In what was a fantastic advertisement for the Isuzu UTE A-League, the contest was over-shadowed by two contentious VAR decisions that ultimately went against the Central Coast.
The Mariners took the lead through a brilliant solo effort from Béni Nkololo before City pulled one back in the 8th minute of first half stoppage time from Jamie McLaren.
In the second half, the action continued with City taking a 2-1 lead through Florin Berenguer, before Ollie Bozanic popped up at the back post to draw the match level once more.
Marco Tilio would find himself in space in the box to make it 3-2 with 15 minutes left before the big talking point of the game arrived when Lewis Miller was trod on in the box and went down, only for a lengthy VAR check to be upheld and play continued into the 102nd minute, totalling over 110 minutes of football that evening, with City eventually winning 3-2.
Nick Montgomery made three changes to the starting eleven with Nicolai Müller, Béni Nkololo and Moresche all coming in to replace Harry Steele, Marco Ureña and Cy Goddard and from the start absorbed large amounts of Melbourne City pressure with no trouble to the unchanged back five.
Jacob Farrell and Lewis Miller demonstrated once again that they are at the top of their game when they frequently denied Matthew Leckie and Andrew Nabbout any chance at delivery into the box or shot at goal.
It was the 19-year-old’s work down the left that created most of the box entries in the opening 45 as he combined well with Brazilian, Moresche on more than one occasion, the first leading to the left back surging into the box but running out of room for a cross and the second, setting up Moresche after nut-megging Matthew Leckie, with the number 10’s shot drifting off target.
When it looked likely that the half would remain goalless, an inch perfect long ball was brought down perfectly by Nkololo over his shoulder and after keeping the ball as if it was on string to his foot, dazzled past two City defenders and curled an effort into the back of the net for his first Isuzu UTE A-League goal of the season.
With the Mariners looking to enter the interval with the ascendancy, the controversy began and VAR reared its ugly head again. Marco Tilio and Kye Rowles challenged on the edge of the box with the Mariners number 14 bringing down the City youngster outside the box. Tilio’s momentum fell into the box and referee Shawn Evans pointed to the spot to the bewilderment of those in yellow.
Evans was recommended to view the incident from the monitor and after a delay that saw injury time elongate to seven minutes, stuck with his original decision of a penalty when most of the evidence and commentary from social media thought otherwise.
McLaren stepped up and dispatched the penalty confidently and both teams entered the half level.
In the second half, with the Mariners continuing to frustrate the champions, Lewis Miller again charged forward and was unlucky to see his strike cannon off Müller and spin harmlessly into the arms of Tom Glover in the City net.
With the Mariners looking likely to take the lead again, it would be City who would land the next blow with Florin Berenguer working intricate passes into the box and calmly slotting the ball past Mark Birighitti to make it 2-1.
The Mariners have resilience in bucket-loads and it was all on show when they could’ve wilted under the resilient City attack but rallied and found their way back into the contest with Dan Hall covering brilliantly at the back multiple times.
Down the left side, Nicolai Muller found Jason Cummings who in turn played a ball to the advancing Jacob Farrell. Farrell then played a first time cross along the box to an un-marked Ollie Bozanic at the back post who had the easiest of jobs to convert and bring the game level once more.
The visitors continued to rally and were unlucky to not take the lead once more with Nkololo testing his range from distance along with Müller.
City would find a third against the run of play with Marco Tilio manoeuvring his way into the box unmarked and sending Birighitti the wrong way 1-on-1.
With the game entering stoppage time, the biggest drama was yet to be seen.
Lewis Miller was in the attacking third and skipped past his man on the by-line and entered the box only to be stood on by Matt Leckie, sending him down in pain with play continuing as normal. As Miller remained on the turf, Shawn Evans was once more recommended to review the incident on the monitor. As the clock ticked on for up to four minutes and all evidence pointed to a certain penalty, in complete shock, he stuck with his original decision.
In the end, over 110 minutes of football was played at AAMI Park on Tuesday the 22nd of February in one of the longest A-League games in history, one of the games of the season, one of the games that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Controversy reigned supreme with City running out 3-2 winners in the end and many leaving the field bewildered and disappointed with what had just happened.
The Mariners will now stay in Melbourne for a few days and travel to play Adelaide on Saturday as part of their Pride Game.