Sydney University won their second consecutive Challenge Cup on Saturday afternoon, defeating Belconnen Blue Devils 3-2 at Valentine Sports Park. It was also the second year in a row that the Challenge Cup, which pits the NSW NPL Premiers up against the ACT NPL Premiers, featured both Uni and Belconnen.
In what was a highly entertaining contest, the Blue Devils took the lead following a beautiful backheeled goal from Caitlin Munoz, before Uni hit the front with two quick strikes from Julie-Ann Russell and Nicki Flannery. Belconnen found an equaliser through Jessie Rasschaert, but second half Uni substitute Cortnee Vine scored what would prove to be the winner in the 83rd minute.
The Students dominated possession early, pressing high up the pitch and looking to make an impact in wide areas. As early as the second minute, Sarah Morgan picked out Flannery from a left wing cross, however Flannery couldn’t keep her header down.
Morgan made several intelligent supporting runs over the course of the game. The left back combined excellently with Russell, who put in an exceptional performance on the left side of the Sydney Uni attack and constantly asked questions of the Blue Devils defence.
Belconnen were having to work hard to keep the Students out. Michaela Day threw herself in the way of a Melissa Caceres shot just past the quarter hour, and on 22 minutes Blue Devils goalkeeper Sally James had to scramble across her goal line to push a Flannery effort behind for a corner. It took Belconnen until the 26th minute to put any kind of sustained pressure on their opponents, with Alexia Forner and Munoz having shots blocked after their side won a couple of set pieces in good positions.
As the half went on, Sydney Uni’s Clare Wheeler began to increase her influence on the match. Wheeler was constantly making forward runs from central midfield, and on 28 minutes she forced Jessie Rasschaert into a block on the edge of the area following an intercept and a neat one-two with Caceres.
Munoz was also starting to make her mark. The former Matilda drifted into space in the 34th minute, controlling Catherine Brown’s cross expertly before rounding a defender and firing over the crossbar.
Wheeler fashioned a chance of her own soon afterwards when she showed some lovely skill to nutmeg a defender, and James had to make another save. As halftime approached, Flannery and Charlotte McLean had great chances to put Uni in front, but neither were able to capitalise.
Right on the stroke of halftime, Munoz punished the Students for their inability to take chances with a moment of magic. Keira Bobbin drilled a low cross to the near post and Munoz improvised brilliantly, backheeling the ball into the goal to give Belconnen a 1-0 lead at the interval.
Sydney University’s response was immediate. Less than two minutes of the second half had been played when they equalised, Russell finishing calmly after getting on the end of Aoife Colvill’s cross from the right.
The NSW NPL treble winners didn’t have to wait long to strike again, taking the lead in the 51st minute. Once again it was the right side of their formation that set up the goal, as Colvill started the move by playing a fantastic pass using the outside of her foot to find McLean’s overlapping run. McLean sent a low pass into the six yard box, presenting Flannery with the simplest of finishes.
Uni coach Alex Epakis looked to build on his side’s 2-1 lead by making a positive double substitution in the 56th minute, bringing on attackers Holly Caspers and Vine for Colvill and Caceres. The switch nearly paid off less than 60 seconds later when Caspers ran down the right and ghosted past a defender before cutting the ball back for Vine, but James was able to save comfortably.
However, Belconnen didn’t make the three hour trek on the morning of the game to go down lightly. Just before the hour mark, Forner brought the best out of Uni goalkeeper Courtney Newbon when she tried for goal from 25 yards out, Newbon diving full length to her right and tipping the ball wide. From the resulting corner, Day found Rasschaert, who headed powerfully past Newbon to level the scores at 2-2.
Sydney Uni continued to press high, and they were now aided by Vine’s electric pace as they pushed to retake the lead. The potency of Uni’s left side was demonstrated on 72 minutes as Russell ran at the defence and played a low pass which required a diving intervention from James, and again in the 79th minute when Caspers headed wide from Morgan’s pinpoint cross.
A minute later, Newbon was quick off her line to block after Nicole Jalocha raced clear of the Uni backline, and that save would prove crucial as the Students struck the decisive blow on 83 minutes.
Last year, Russell scored a late winner in the inaugural Challenge Cup. This time around she would be the creator of the game’s decisive moment, dancing around three defenders and cutting the ball back for Vine to sidefoot home.
Uni could even have doubled their lead in the 89th minute when Carla Trimboli made space with a neat turn, but her effort was straight at James.
After the game, Epakis was quick to praise Russell, who was named as Player of the Match.
“Julie-Ann Russell is unbelievable. She’s obviously a mature head within the group, she’s just been recalled to the Irish national team, and that’s a testament to the work she’s done all year. She’s talented, she can play anywhere in that front three, she’s an absolute asset and I love coaching her.”
Epakis also praised his players for the way they recovered from conceding the first goal.
“I told them at halftime it would be unfair for me to have expected them to hit that game running, considering we just had the last three weeks off. We’ve done a little bit of training, but you can never match game intensity.
“I said for them to attack the wide areas for early crosses, and then we scored those two goals early in the second half. I’ve just told them I was over the moon that they got back in the game and stuck to the gameplan we put together at halftime.”
Meanwhile, Belconnen coach Antoni Jagarinec said he appreciated the challenge of playing against Sydney University.
“We know they’re the best in NSW, just like we’re the best in Canberra, and we knew coming up here that it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. It wasn’t a secret that we defended for long parts of the game, and tried to play on the counter, it worked for us once or twice.”
With Jagarinec and Munoz both stepping away from Belconnen, he reflected on their careers.
“It’s been sensational. I’ve had a great group of players for a long time and I’ve been at the club for ten years now, so it’s time for me to move forward and challenge myself elsewhere. The club’s going to be in safe hands and hopefully the players will stick around.
“I won’t be at Belconnen next year, and neither will Caitlin Munoz. She’s been sensational for the game, 57 caps for the Matildas and a foundation player for Canberra United. The quality of goal she scored today was next level, so it’s fantastic to be able to have that calibre of player with Belconnen, and moving forward hopefully that continues.”
Sydney University 3 (Julie-Ann Russell 47’, Nicki Flannery 51’, Cortnee Vine 83’)
Belconnen Blue Devils 2 (Caitlin Munoz 45’, Jessie Rasschaert 60’)
Sydney University: Courtney Newbon (Sophie Magus 90’), Charlotte McLean, Tori Tumeth, Taren King (c), Sarah Morgan (Lani Johnson 85’), Clare Wheeler, Bianca Galic, Melissa Caceres (Cortnee Vine 56’), Nickoletta Flannery (Carla Trimboli 76’), Julie-Ann Russell, Aoife Colvill (Holly Caspers 56’)
Belconnen Blue Devils: Sally James, Bronte Pyke, Karen Clarke, Jessie Rasschaert, Catherine Brown, Michaela Day, Katie Woodman, Caitlin Munoz (c) (Leah Carnegie 90’), Nicole Jalocha, Alexia Forner (Maria Pachi 77’), Keira Bobbin
Unused substitutes: Rhiannon Davis, Stephanie Hedditch, Jazmine Zabel