The halfway mark of the 2021 Steeline Limestone Coast Football Association season was ticked off on Sunday and it shapes up to be the closest in years.
Reigning premier International holds onto the top spot, but faces unprecedented competition from Gambier Centrals and Apollo, who are in are in thick of the premiership race.
The last finals berth is being cemented by Naracoorte, which looks tough to beat at home, while Millicent and Blue Lake United are in a close fight to avoid the wooden spoon.
Teams had plenty of time to prepare for round 5 after a bye for the Junior State Development Program and they came out firing.
No one matched the blitzkrieg assault of Inter as the black and blue blew Millicent away at Casadio Park.
In similar fashion to the Steeline Cup semi-final, the men in green had no answers to International’s class.
By half time the writing was already on the wall with the scoreboard reading 5-0.
Inter goalkeeper Tyler Johnston had little to think about as the ball was locked at the opposite end of the ground.
There was no respite for the visitors when play resumed as International doubled its tally to secure an 11-0 win and maintain its unbeaten start to 2021.
Matthew Bueti continued his goal-scoring feats with four and Connor Prior kept up his impressive form with a hat-trick of his own.
Samuel Bueti, Tyler Michielan, Jordan Millard and Austin Rossi were the other goal scorers, while Millicent’s Matthew Porter received a yellow card despite battling hard on a tough day in defence.
The biggest surprise occurred up the highway in Naracoorte after hot-favourite Apollo failed to return with a full house of premiership points.
Naracoorte has impressed throughout the season, but particularly on home turf and used that advantage to counter the threat posed by James Stephenson’s men.
Fresh from recording its biggest win of the year in the previous round, many expected Apollo to record its fourth win of the year.
But the yellow and black had other ideas and opened the scoring through Hossain Panahi.
Naracoorte’s confident start put Apollo on the back foot and the home side looked set for an upset win leading 1-0 at half time.
The crowd’s belief grew even bigger when Andrew Diment also found the back of the net.
However, Naracoorte’s party was spoiled by Say Say Wah, who kicked a double to save Apollo from defeat.
No less than four players received bookings form the tense 2-2 draw.
Things also did not got the way some anticipated in the Centrals v Blue Lake United at MGA Park.
With a premiership contender hosting a winless team, the Rangers were not expected to show much fight, but they did just that.
Despite the Lions dominating possession, they could not find a way past the Blue Lake defence, which repelled every single forward entry from the home side in the first half.
Some shots were misdirected, while others hit the post or were saved by keeper Josh Johnson and denied by defenders Hunter Mansell and Braydon Patzel.
Despite crushing the opposition in almost every statistic, the scorers were untroubled before half time and Gambier Centrals coach Chris Fleetwood conceded he started to tear his hair out.
“The one word I can think of to describe the game was frustrating,” he said.
“We started well and the first 20 minutes was some of the best we have put together all year moving the ball quickly and finding people in space.
“They had one shot and I think we had 30, but only nine were on target.
“So it was complete dominance, but the final third could not hit the target for some reason.
“They had seven players in the box at one point and I felt for the players because they were trying, but it was just not happening so we may have been a little predictable.” To counter Blue Lake’s defensive approach, the Lions opened the game in the second half and it worked wonders.
Broc Linden and Jake Blackwell both kicked important goals, while star new recruit Nathan Fleetwood also put himself on the board to put the icing on the 3-0 victory.
“Credit to Blue Lake, they frustrated us and we had to find the solutions,” Fleetwood said.
“At half time we said we needed to open up a bit wider, so I got my two wing players on the touchline to draw out the defenders and come back in behind them.
“That worked and created space in the middle to move the defenders around.
“A win is a win and we will take the points.” The Lions threw down the gauntlet by winning the 2021 Steeline Cup, but were sent back down to Earth the following week with a loss to Apollo.
Since then Centrals has drawn one and won three games and Fleetwood hopes his men can find the consistency to hit back.
However, a COVID cloud hangs over round 6 which also has Millicent hosting Blue Lake United and Inter welcoming Naracoorte to Casadio Park.
“Things have been hard to manage due to the stop-start nature of the season, so we are still a little inconsistent and just need to keep playing games,” he said.
The sixth round of the season scheduled for this weekend will not take place and it is unclear if the remainder of the season will be rearranged as a result.