By Trevor Marshall
“I didn’t expect the step up from the lower league to be so big” said Raptors’ coach Aurelio Hernanes, reflecting on a hard-fought 1-0 home win in the opening game of their first season in Tier 8. 90 minutes earlier he had spoken of his excitement at this new chapter in the Raptors’ story, and the need to press for every point.
For large passages of time, it seemed as if those points were going to be evenly shared, as the two teams battled it out in midfield.
Teams can take a while to coalesce, and this new midfield at times struggled to find a way past the densely-packed opposition. Kozlov in the Raptors goal was the first to be called into action, turning a shot round for a corner in the first 10 minutes. The Raptors had their own corner 5 minutes later, which came to nothing.
These were nervy, unsettled minutes for both teams, neither of them finding consistent shape or rhythm. Jeunet was making himself known, and then after a Raptors corner, Praga counter-attacked, the threat was snuffed out by three defenders.
TJ Praga were looking dangerous on the counter, and at times the Raptors had to be alert to the threat. Yassien was having a confident time in possession, but the route forward was always difficult.
The half-hour mark was still characterised by nerviness, with Marian working well to quell the opposition. As half-time approached there were some promising attacks from both sides, but they either came to nothing, or fell victim to offside.
0-0 was a fair reflection at the half-way point, and both teams went off to reflect.
The second half started with much more purpose, with two early attacks, one with the ball passing tantalisingly across the face of the goal, and a second attack, after good work by Yassien, ended with a foul on the defender. Yassien had a free-kick easily saved by the keeper, and Praga again showed their danger on the counter.
After 55 minutes, Praga upped their tempo, and the Raptors responded, matching energy for energy, and the game started to pick up tempo, with chances falling to both sides. Aionitoaei was showing some nice touches, releasing the forwards into attacking positions.
By 65 minutes, it seemed that a goal should come, and Aionitoaei was again involved as the Praga keeper was needed to make a double save. Not long later, a passage of one-touch football resulted in a craftily taken free-kick, and Zavoianu was on target, forcing a finger-tip save from the keeper, high and to his right.
Balzhinimaev was causing problems on the left wing, breaking through and being mugged by two defenders, and around the 70 minute mark, the ball was being played across the full pitch by both teams, and it seemed clear that neither was happy to settle for the draw.
The Raptors, whilst still struggling to break out of midfield, were showing increasing confidence and understanding, with the ball pinging around, even as tiredness and match-fitness began to play a part. “The level’s dropping” was the shouted analysis from the dugout, and it was.
Then a nothing situation, with Aionitoaei applying moderate pressure to the keeper, resulted in a Raptors throw. The subsequent cross came invitingly along the six-yard line for the onrushing Aionitoaei, who jumped neatly and steered the ball with the inside of his left foot at the keeper, with sufficient force to go through his defences. The goal wasn’t inevitable, but it was not a surprise as the danger had been there since the interval, and it was a reward for the much-improved play in the second half.
Could they survive the 10 remaining minutes? Arribas certainly was wanting to make sure they did, and the Raptors did not let their energy levels drop. As the pressure mounted, there were some fraught exchanges with the visitors feeling aggrieved, but the Raptors kept their collective heads.
With minutes remaining, Hammami found himself in the area, but Praga were quick to smother the attack, but with the Raptors still pressing, their opponents were struggling to find the counter. Balzhinimaev was still causing problems and with the clock running down, there was time for one last cross, one last chance for Arribas.
Then Balzhinimaev was there again, jinking past three defenders, with only the keeper to beat he rolled it along the 6 yard line, but no-one could connect, and the ball finally went behind. The resulting goal kick was the last of the game.
As I left the ground a shout went up from the home dressing room: “Three points!”, and the subsequent cheer showed just how much this win meant. First game in a higher division; new players, and (for today) top of the table.
Meanwhile, the B Team, playing their first ever game, went down 3-1 on Sunday to Bílá Hora despite taking the lead through Ghass Hammami.
© T P E Marshall 2019