Perth win 'a season-best performance'
New coach Ricki Herbert says the New Zealand Knights saved their best performance of the season for last when they beat Perth Glory 2-0 on Sunday night, one which showed the team deserved their place in soccer's A-League.
First-half goals from Neil Emblen and Malik Buari were enough to secure a win over the Glory, who rarely threatened the rejuvenated team at North Harbour Stadium in Albany on Sunday night.
The win completed a great end-of-season run of three wins and a draw for the Knights from their last four games.
That run included a fabulous 3-1 victory over the Queensland Roar in late December but Herbert, who only took over the team in December, felt last night's performance was better.
"I think tonight was probably the best that we've played," Herbert said.
"Perth are a decent side but to be fair I thought we probably dominated the game for long periods.
"I think a game where we scored two but probably could have scored more, edges out Queensland for me.
"For most of the game there was only one team in it. Who would have said four weeks ago that we'd be one point behind Perth."
In front of the second-largest home crowd of the year, the performance also sent out a clear message to A-League organisers that the Knights under Herbert were worth their place in the competition.
Fans were also demanding the Knights continue, chanting "are you watching Matt Carroll (Football Federation Australia's chief of operations)" and "there's only one Ricki Herbert" by the end of the game.
New Zealand Soccer chief executive Graham Seatter said he was hopeful investors could be confirmed within a week to ensure the troubled Knights franchise had the estimated $A5 million over three years needed to ensure it would continue.
He said there were three or four locally-based investors who were expressing an interest in putting money into the Knights, and that Herbert's continuing involvement was something most of the prospective investors were insisting on.
Herbert, who also coaches the New Zealand national team, said he was keen to be involved.
"My thought have always been that professional football in New Zealand is a must."
Sunday night's win means the Knights finished the season only one point behind the Glory on the bottom of the table when they had appeared likely to be a much more distant last a month ago.
The Knights dominated the first half and were unlucky not to go ahead in the 15th minute when Gao Leilei scored only to be ruled offside when replays suggested he was clearly onside.
The opening goal came on the 32 minute mark after Noah Hickey was put away down the right wing.
Buari's shot from the cross was saved by Tom Tomich but Emblen was there to put the rebound away.
A Knights corner in the 40th minute brought about the second goal. Gao's corner found Bunce at the far post, whose header was knocked down by Emblen and Buari got the final touch into the goal.
The second half was a more even affair but apart from one header on goal by Glory forward Jamie Harnwell the Knights had more of the game and their win was well deserved.
Emblen said he was delighted to have scored but the team effort was more important.
"The main thing for me is always the result," Emblen said.
"I was disappointed second half the way I played but first half I think I did a good job for the team and to get a goal ... well I suppose centre forwards get judged on that and it's nice to bang one in again."
For the Knights Buari enjoyed his new role as a striker, while Emblen, Hickey and Gao were in good form.
In defence, Dean Gordon, Che Bunce and captain Darren Bazeley also put in such sound performances that goalkeeper Mark Paston was rarely troubled.
Emblen said the last month had been great for the team since the Queensland game.
"The confidence we got from that was massive," he said.
"Since that the lads have been playing much more freely, really enjoying playing together and we feel we've got a bunch of players knocking it about and playing nice stuff."
Glory coach Ron Smith said his team competed well but the Knights had been better at taking their opportunities.
He said the team had suffered this season from injuries to experienced players and a lack of attacking midfield players.
Smith said he hoped there would be a New Zealand franchise next year, and agreed with Herbert that there should be more New Zealand players.