The Bentleigh Greens left everything on the park but ultimately fell short in one of the biggest tests Australian football has to offer, as they fell to a 2-1 defeat to A-Leagues Men’s outfit Sydney FC.
The result ends the Greens Australia Cup journey for 2022, with Nick Tolios’ team again doing the club proud with a fantastic performance against the professional side.
Ajak Riak got the consolation for the Greens, but it wasn’t enough to cancel out goals from Adrian Segecic and Aaron Gurd.
Coming off a short turnaround from their dramatic 2-1 Dockerty Cup final win against Oakleigh Cannons on Saturday and without a number of key players, Tolios’ message to his players was that he believed in the ability of every player in his matchday squad and that they were every bit capable of testing their professional opponents.
That belief coursed through the veins of the Greens players who started the game magnificently, effectively disrupting Sydney’s style of play but also managing some nice moments of controlled possession in the Sydney FC half.
Sydney named a relatively youthful lineup by their standards but still played Alex Wilkinson, Rhyan Grant, Max Burgess, Anthony Caceres, Adam Le Fondre and new boy Diego Caballo.
For Bentleigh, the midfield five of Danny Kim, George Lambadaridis, Tom Strickland, Ken Krolicki and Mitch Hore established a strong base for the Greens.
Behind them young Maceo Jones was a stand-out at centre-back, pairing the experienced Jack Webster and flanked by the dependable duo of Jacob Alexander and Corey Sewell.
Up front, Ajak Riak battled brilliantly against Wilkinson and his younger defensive partner Gurd.
Riak had the first chance of the game in just the third minute but missed the target before Sewell and Lambadaridis had shots quickly after 11 minutes.
Goalkeeper Pierce Clark was ready to deal with a Sydney opportunity midway through the second half before Lambadaridis had a long-range effort in the 38th minute that had Andrew Redmayne scrambling across his goal.
The breakthrough came at the 40-minute mark when Wilkinson showed his class with a delightful diagonal that was brilliantly brought down by Segecic, with the youngster showing great poise and touch to maintain balance under pressure and lift a lovely finish over the onrushing Clark.
It was the defining action of a first half in which the Greens must surely have impressed their opponents.
With little to lose in the second half, the Greens threw everything forward in search of an equalizer.
It took five minutes for the Greens to create their first chance for Riak, who was well crowded out of the chance.
Redmayne showed his Socceroos credentials when he made a fine reaction save down to his left to stop what probably would have been his own goal from a corner.
It proved a pivotal moment; minutes later, Sydney took a 2-0 lead with Gurd heading home from a corner.
Tolios introduced 17-year-old Joshua Jackson at the 68-minute mark, and the sub made an instant impact, with a well-struck effort destined for the bottom corner well deflected wide by the Sydney defence.
Dockerty Cup hero Yagoub Mustafa was introduced with 15 minutes to play and his pace and directness once again made an impact.
Riak had a glorious chance to pull one back in the 77th minute, racing through on goal one-on-one, but with the angle tight he opted for power over placement and blasted over the bar.
Redmayne was at his best again in the 78th minute to deny the Greens from a corner, but he couldn’t stop the next Greens chance.
A beautiful, floated ball from Sewell found the head of Riak in the 86th minute, who made no mistake this time as he nodded the ball past the despairing Redmayne.
The goal gave the Greens a big push as they looked to equalize in the six minutes of added time – most of which was added for a fierce shot to the face from Mustafa into the face of Connor O’Toole – but they just couldn’t find the back of the net again.
The final whistle blew, ending another glorious Greens cup run, but the boys were cheered off the ground by the sizeable crowd who turned out to see their Bentleigh boys take on the A-League giants.
The Greens now return their focus to league duties, with a tough test against the in-form Port Melbourne Sharks on Sunday.