It was meant to be a night of magic in Melbourne’s north-east.
Three-time quarter-finalists Heidelberg United were pitted against Brisbane Roar and Olympic Village was abuzz with Australia Cup excitement in the round of 32.
Yet with the opening whistle still echoing around Heidelberg streets, most of the few thousand in attendance were forced to face reality.
Just 80 seconds in, Brisbane’s much-vaunted debutant Charlie Austin played Rahmat Akbari into space with a smoothly volleyed flick-on. Akbari finished onto the near post, saw it bounce in and duly waded through celebrating teammates to credit Austin for his role.
Orange-clad winger Jez Lofthouse had two opportunities to extend his team’s lead 30 minutes later. The first, a header, lacked power. The second, when he found himself clear at the near post, lacked placement.
Especially at the second half’s onset, Heidelberg showed eagerness to press at all opportunities, almost finding a 48th-minute equaliser when Sean Ellis capitalised on a Roar misunderstanding but had his shot balloon off the crossbar.
Nine minutes later, Kosta Petratos’ tricky feet led stumbling Roar defender Conor Chapman to hand the Warriors a penalty and shot at levelling. Petratos converted and, for a couple of short minutes, the stand bounced.
Just as flare smoke cleared into the winter air, Heidelberg were caught in transition. They allowed Jack Hingert to float a cross into Charlie Austin, Austin to cut back a header and an unmarked Henry Hore to drill home a 59th-minute volley.
Maki Petratos, brother of Kosta, flashed a long-range strike just wide with 10 minutes to go, but that was the last of the Warriors’ chances.
Brisbane saw the game’s remainder out with composure and, after a rocketed 30-metre free kick from Nikola Mileusnic, flew home 3-1 winners and round of 16 qualifiers.
Less than three weeks after having his passport stamped in Australia, Charlie Austin made his first appearance for Brisbane and proved he’s no holidaymaker.
The striker, who bagged more than 30 Premier League goals from 111 appearances, was an inimitable presence all night.
Austin’s physical and technical superiority was a throwback to the era of Ola Toivonen, as the 188-centimetre Englishman demonstrated control and grace rare for a man of his strength.
He finished the night with two assists and instilled excitement into the many Australian football fans who yearn for added A-League quality.
WARRIORS CAN’T REPRODUCE MAGIC
Five years after Kenny Athiu shot to prominence and Heidelberg toppled Perth Glory in the round of 32, Olympic Village again brimmed with the special kind of optimism that only the Australia Cup can offer.
Inaugural Heidelberg president George Banisca passed away in the days prior to this clash and the side nicknamed Alexander (after the Greek icon) were hoping to honour his legacy.
The fans rugged up in yellow and black brought an audiovisual atmosphere worthy of the occasion. Flares were lit, an iconic chant was on repeat (“A-A-lexandros”) and one cult hero brought his iconic routine to the big stage.
But aspirations of progression were soon dashed and the mood flattened early, leaving the tiny Roar-supporting contingent to sing their team all the way to victory.
NO ADMIRERS LOST
Heidelberg supporter sentiment was largely positive post-game and, while Brisbane had a few moments of individual brilliance, the two teams’ overall quality gap wasn’t offensively wide.
The Warriors’ line-up featured a smattering of ex-A-League talent – including Ivan Franjic and Kaine Sheppard – and their pressing induced many a Brisbane mistake, but the lack of attacking dynamism was noticeable.
Currently sitting in sixth, three games remain in the Victorian side’s NPL regular season and, depending on their results, any place from fourth to eighth could end up theirs.
A home game on Sunday against Green Gully looms as a finals-shaper and, on the final day, they’ll visit the lowly Eastern Lions hoping to boost goal difference.
Australia Cup Round of 32, Olympic Village
Heidelberg United 1 (Kosta Petratos 57m)
Brisbane Roar 3 (Rahmat Akbari 2m, Henry Hore 59m, Nikola Mileusnic 88m)