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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Kuol header shoots down Jets in season opener

No owner, no full-time head coach, no favourable result. It certainly wasn’t the start of the 2020-21 A-League season the Newcastle Jets were hoping for.

But, it’s not all doom and gloom for the Hunter outfit either, with Angus Thurgate and Ramy Najjarine both showing flashes of brilliance at Central Coast Stadium last night.

However, a first-half Alou Kuol header handed the Central Coast Mariners a 1-0 New Year’s Eve win over the Jets on Thursday 31 December, the club’s maiden round one victory since the beginning of 2015-16.

The Mariners, who strung together two draws and a triumph to end the 2019-20 campaign, went into the sheds at the break with an opportunistic one-goal lead.

That came after two chances spurned by the Jets throughout the first half, with Thurgate and Najjarine both failing to beat Mark Birighitti in the Central Coast goal.

The Mariners remained resolute in defence of their goal in the second stanza, with Birighitti pulling off a remarkable save to somehow keep Kosta Petratos and the Jets from finding an equaliser.

Thurgate was the next to test the keeper’s prowess – this time from distance – but the Central Coast gloveman was once again up to the task, leaping to his right to tip Thurgate’s calling strike off the bar and out for a corner.

The Mariners were without a home victory since January 12 – their first home game of the season – and with the minutes ticking down toward 2021 they finally registered their second, braving a ruthless push from the Jets to claim all three points in their opening game of the campaign.

Before Central Coast pulled ahead, Newcastle was presented with two chances to craft a lead of their own, but Thurgate and Najjarine were unable to place their respective strikes in the back of the net. 

First it was Thurgate, who received the ball after some nimble footwork from Petratos before firing a first-time strike over the bar.

And, with five minutes to play in the opening period it was Najjarine’s turn to attack the Mariners’ goal, but his long-range right-footed strike was easily collected by Birighitti.

When Stefan Nigro floated a free-kick into the Central Coast box, it seemed the ball was destined to be cleared by the Newcastle defence.

Connor O’Toole was camped under the ball, but ducked away from the header after what can only be assumed as advice from teammates to leave the ball for his goalkeeper. 

But, the ball bounced invitingly instead for Kuol who timed his run to perfection, leaped above all others and made his strong header count.

When Valentino Yuel found Petratos at the back post, his sliding strike appeared likely to find the net.

That was until Birighitti produced a moment of individual brilliance, sprawling backwards to shovel the ball away from the goal-line and somehow keep the Jets off the scoresheet.

As the F3 Derby rolled on, Birighitti proved time and again to be the thorn in Newcastle’s side, pulling out save after save of quality and importance.

After depriving Petratos from close range, he pulled out a stunning diving block to stop Thurgate from registering a phenomenal equaliser.

Poised with the ball on his left foot outside the box Thurgate sent a curling shot toward the top corner, but Birighitti’s fingertips pushed the ball off the bar and away for a corner.

Oli Bozanic returned to the Mariners for the 2020-21 campaign and almost produced a magnificent goal on his comeback with just minutes to play in the game.

Poised with the ball near the halfway line, Bozanic let rip with his left boot. 

The ball sailed toward goal and had Jack Duncan scrambling, before the attempt hit the bar and landed safely away from Newcastle’s goal.

  • Matthew Comito (www.a-league.com.au)