Ren Nagamtsu celebrates his winning goal against Inter Lions in the Australia Cup (Image: Ken Carter.)

A promising Round of 32 of the Australia Cup saw all three South Australian sides qualify for the next phase of the competition, but the Round of 16 was not as kind or straightforward for any of the Adelaide-based teams.

After a comfortable enough victory over Northcote City, Adelaide United traveled to Western Sydney to take on the Wanderers. That encounter spelled trouble for the Reds from kick-off with Western Sydney imported striker Marcus Antonsson opening the scoring for Marko Rudan’s side after only a minute and a half of game time.

To add insult to injury, South Australian forward Brandon Borrello recorded a brace as the Wanderers trounced Adelaide to the tune of five goals. Zach Clough was able to claw back a late consolation goal but it was not enough as Carl Veart’s side bowed out of the competition.

Meanwhile in Melbourne, Campbelltown City faced a tantalising matchup against Victorian heavyweights Melbourne Knights. Ben Cahn’s side, which has qualified for the NPL Victoria Finals Series, played with the confidence of an in-form home side and pressed their visitors from the offset.

The opening goal for Knights was ironically scored by South Australia’s Mohammed Sumaoro who applied pressure on James Boffa and smothered his clearance into the back of the net. Mitchell Hore made sure of Croatia’s passage to the competition’s Quarter-Finals, which only left one South Australian side standing.

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MetroStars, the only South Australian side handed a home tie in the Round of 16, welcomed Inter Lions, a team sitting midtable of New South Wales’ League One.

Despite finding themselves in a lower division, the Lions were not shy when it came to getting to the faces of the MetroStars. Coming into the match, Danny Graystone’s side had not lost since April, but the pressure and physicality applied by its scrappy opponents set the scene for a potential upset.

The first half of football saw both sides go close to scoring, with James Temelkovski wanting his time again after failing to make a connection with a rare undisturbed cross that could have given Metro the lead if he was able to apply the finishing touch.

The MetroStars have not faced many “scraps” in 2023, blowing their opponents out of the water in most matches, but with the Finals Series kicking off in South Australia, and having played a similarly hard-hitting match against Modbury Jets on Friday, Danny Graystone’s side entered the second half against Inter focused on the task in hand.

The MetroStars grew not just in territory but in purpose, but at the same time, Inter Lions posed a threat on the break, arguably looking like the side most likely to score. In the search for goals, Danny Graystone made a brave call by substituting marksman James Temelkovski for Ren Nagamatsu with 20 minutes remaining.

Nagamatsu, alongside fellow substitutes Jackson Fortunatow and Alessio Melissi did not shirk in the face of a physical game and allowed their side to keep playing its game while matching the intensity of its opponents. As the game seemed destined for extra time, an unlikely hero struck in a big moment for the second time in 2023.

Metro was awarded a corner in the second of six minutes of injury time, and instead of an in-swinging delivery, something that was confidently claimed by Inter goalkeeper multiple times on the night, Austin Ayoubi played the ball to the edge of the box to Hamish Gow.

After battling the whole day in a midfield that saw him outsized, Gow used the limited time and space he was afforded to curl a cross in the vicinity of Ren Nagamatsu, and as he did in the Federation Cup the Japanese forward sealed the winner.

Nagamtsu’s story at MetroStars keeps getting ever more intriguing, with the forward starting most games in 2022 after moving to Adelaide from Japan and having a solid goalscoring record to his name, before being benched for the majority of 2023 due to the excellence of James Temelkovski.

Despite his minutes being limited, Nagamatsu can claim that he has scored two of Metro’s most important goals in 2023, one to return silverware to the club for the first time in just over half a decade, and one to advance it to the deepest it has ever been on the national stage.

A hard-fought victory was obviously sweet for MetroStars, but after the elimination of both Adelaide United and Campbelltown City, the NPL SA Premiers now have the privilege of being South Australia’s sole representatives on the national stage.

Juggling their Finals Series commitments with their Australia Cup obligations won’t be a simple task for MetroStars, but it is a spotlight that Danny Graystone and his players would be relishing.

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