Nestor Irankunda celebrates giving Adelaide United the lead over Campbelltown City in the NPL SA Finals Series with teammates Luka Jovanovic and Harry Crawford. (Image: Ken Carter)

The first legs of the two NPL SA Semi-Finals were played and with two spots in the Grand Final up for grabs, The Inner Sanctum takes a closer look at what has shaped the two ties at the halfway mark.

As Football South Australia decided to follow the A-Leagues Finals Series format, the NPL SA Semi-Finals are now two-legged affairs and the first installment took place on Friday night. Adelaide United came from behind to claim a victory over Campbelltown City, while MetroStars snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against Modbury Jets.

The Inner Sanctum takes a look at some of the talking points from an intense first week of Semi-Finals which left both ties finely poised for their respective away legs. Despite both Adelaide United Youth and MetroStars entering the return legs of their matches in a position of strength, their opponents know they can make them sweat as they did for large parts of their first encounters.

The table means nothing in the Finals Series

It is no secret that the NPL SA regular season saw a big gap build between the top two sides and the rest of the competition. This was apparent in the Semi-Final matchups which saw Premiers MetroStars, who finished the regular season with 56 points, come up against a Modbury Jets side that finished a whopping 26 points behind it, while second-placed Campbelltown City came up against third-placed Adelaide United after being separated by 19 points at the conclusion of the home and away season.

Despite the immense gaps on the table, both matchups were competitive, and despite both fancied sides taking the lead, they ended up falling behind. In fact, MetroStars needed two injury-time goals to salvage a miraculous win from Smith Partners Stadium on Friday night.

The story is a bit different for Campbelltown, with their opponents, Adelaide United, being boosted by the addition of players with A-Leagues experience in Nestor Irankunda, Luka Jovanovic, Panashe Madanha, and Ethan Alagich. The Red Devils gave the Young Reds a fight and could have arguably won the match, but Airton Andrioli’s side ended up victorious, thanks to goals from Luka Jovanovic and Nestor Irankunda, on the night to take an advantage heading into the return leg at Steve Woodcock Sports Center.

MetroStars and a knack for unlikely heroes

MetroStars has enjoyed a historical campaign so far and forward James Temelkovski has written most of the headlines in 2023. The club is quick to remind people that MetroStars is a deep team, with an array of talented players such as Hamish Gow, Austin Ayoubi, Jackson Wallas, Michael Cittadini, and many more, that do the heavy lifting, but some days an unlikely hero pops up to get the job done.

That was the case back in June when Japanese forward Ren Nagamatsu popped up from the bench in his side’s Federation Cup Final against Campbelltown City to score the deciding goal in a thrilling encounter. The forward was a starter in most games in 2022 but was benched due to Temelkosvski’s excellence in 2023. Despite that, he scored his third goal of the year on the big stage to bring back the first piece of silverware to Klemzig since 2017.

In 2023, young defensive midfielder Jackson Fortunatow began seeing more minutes, and he was brought on against Modbury Jets in the 82nd minute when his side was down by a goal, an interesting choice considering he had never scored a senior goal heading into the match. Astonishingly, in injury time, the midfielder did not just meet a Hamish Gow cross with his head to level the scoring, but he also hit a spectacular volley to win the first leg of the Semi-Final for MetroStars while writing his name into club folklore as another unlikely hero who played his part in a magical season.

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Nestor Irankunda can’t be afforded a second

In the past couple of seasons, Nestor Irankunda has made his impact felt in the A-League Men competition, which means any time he drops down to play in the NPL he automatically becomes a target for opposing sides. Irankunda receives close defensive attention when he returns to the NPL, with his markers often trying to get under his skin as they aim to affect his performance, and against Campbelltown, it was no different.

The Adelaide United prodigy was kept exclusively to shots from distance for the majority of the game and grew frustrated that the attention he was receiving was not penalised by referee Christian Verdicchio. With the game in the balance at one goal apiece, Campbelltown City was left aggrieved after not receiving what they believed was a penalty after Ethan Cox thwarted Jake Halliday’s advances in the box, but that moment of diverted concentration ended up being fatal.

Cox rapidly restarted the game with a goal kick and found Irankunda free on the wing, with the young winger doing what he does best and charging at the Campbelltown backline before expertly beating Alex Woodlands to his far corner to give the Young Reds the lead. Irankunda did not have his most prolific performance, but he proved to be decisive, his strike claiming the win for his side, after taking advantage of arguably the only time he was given time and space in the first leg of this Semi-Final clash.

The stars made their mark, but the young talent continued shining

James Temelkovski and Hamish McCabe were two of the big names entering the NPL SA Semi-Finals, and they both delivered, with the former recording his 29th goal of the season and the latter his 17th. Despite their brilliance, it was the young stars from all four teams that made the difference on Friday night.

For Modbury, young forward Stefan Matteo was able to level the scoring with a cool finish, but despite his goal combining with Hamish McCabe’s to give Modbury an unlikely lead, it was a MetroStars youngster who stole the show. As previously mentioned, Jackson Fortunatow came off the bench for the MetroStars to write headlines by scoring his first two professional goals in injury time to claim victory for the Premiers.

Campbellotwn’s Luis Lawrie-Lattanzio may only be 21 but he is already a star, especially at the NPL level, and he opened the scoring against Adelaide United, but Young Red Luka Jovanovic equalised from the penalty spot minutes after the restart. Talented young goalkeeper Ethan Cox shut down multiple Campbelltown advances for the rest of the game and even assisted Nestor Irankunda who won the match for the Young Reds to cap off a weekend headlined by exciting young South Australian players stepping up in the big moments.

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