DAVID SMITH - Sunday, August 19, 2012
AGF Aarhus vs FC Nordsjælland
Superligaen - Sunday August 19, 2012
Michael Parkhurst played the hero on Sunday afternoon in Aarhus, striking the second-half winner for Nordsjaelland as they continued their ascent back into the Superligaen elite.
The game came at a critical juncture for both teams; a blow-out loss to Copenhagen last weekend left Aarhus with just one win through their first five and sinking towards the drop zone, while Nordsjealleand's most recent 6-1 win over Silkeborg was the first sign since opening day that the team had finally rediscovered their championship winning style.
Unsurprisingly, Nordsjaelland head coach Kasper Hjulmand made no adjustments to his starting eleven, trotting out the same personnel for the team's traditional 4-3-3 attack that had hung six on Silkeborg just days before.
Parkhurst lined up on the right side of the defense as usual, and was a regular participant in the constant forward push that has become a defining feature of the Copenhagen-area team.
He was almost immediately on the charge, rushing up the right flank in the fifth minute and sending a cross to Søren Christensen in the middle for an attempt for the upper left corner that was several yards high and wide of the mark.
Throughout most of the first half, Aarhus were limited to generating quick counters due to Nordsjaelland's possession-dominant style. Their first of such a threatening foray came in the ninth minute as Casper Sloth broke through the middle and tried to hit a long pass into the path of Stephan Petersen on the right, however the ball was hit just barely too hard, allowing keeper Jesper Hansen to reach it first.
In the 17th minute, Nordsjaelland central attacker Mikkel Beckmann charged up the middle with space to operate and three options on his flanks. Finding his teammates well covered by the defense, he took a crack at goal from 22 yards out towards the right side which Steffen Rassmussen had little trouble to save.
Then one minute later, the hosts responded with a close call of their own. Adam Eckersley whipped in a cross from the left wing into the path of Petersen and Aron Johannsson, which was less than a yard ahead of both attackers.
Winger Kasper Lorentzen found space to cue up a shot towards Rassmussen's goal from 30 yards out in the 26th minute which was at most two yards over the crossbar, but Enoch Adu's cannon from 25 yards three minutes later was even closer to giving Nordsjaelland the lead, as it forced the Aarhus keeper into a spectacular diving save.
Parkhurst continued to find his way into the team's attack, with a quick give-and-go with Lorentzen on the right side ending when the American aimed a low shot from the right side towards the lower left corner, which rolled just wide in the 37th minute.
Aarhus blew their first open chance for grabbing the lead two minutes later, as a free kick by Hjalte Nørregaard was poorly cleared and ended up as a gift at the foot of Anders Kure with only the keeper standing in the way.
Kure, however, rushed his poor one-timed shot, sending it well over the crossbar, saving the Wild Tigers defense any blushes.
Both teams had trouble making any real headway for the remainder of the first half and the opening minutes of the second, until Aarhus provided the most dramatic close-call of the game in the 55th minute.
An Adu turnover in the midfield began an Aarhus attack, with Sloth darting up the left side and firing a perfectly-placed cross through the six-yard box. Petersen lunged forward with precision timing for an attempted header, but was inches behind the ball's trajectory, much to the relief of the visitors.
The hosts continued their push and overall dominance past the hour mark, once again having the crowd of more than 9000 on the edge of their seats in the 63rd minute as Nørregaard's free kick from 30 yards out was just a touch too far for the onrushing horde of attackers.
The tide slowly changed in the Wild Tigers' favor, and despite Aarhus hero Peter Graulund entering the game in the 71st minute in an attempt to create some magic, the visitors earned netted the all-important winning goal with 15 minutes on the clock.
Parkhurst received a pass from Nordsjaelland captain Nicolai Stockholm on the right side and immediately poked it forward to Morten Nordstrand inside the area. Nordstrand quickly hit a return pass to the American, whose one-timed blast flew past Rassmussen and into goal for the 1-0 lead.
"The ball came out and Stockholm played it to me first time," Parkhurst described of the scene. "I saw Nordstrand making a run into the box and I played it into his feet."
"There was space to follow up the pass so I did, luckily he hit it back out to me and I was able to catch it well."
Aarhus responded to the goal with a final quarter-hour of relentless pressure, several times putting Hansen's skills between the goal-posts on display.
Graulund showed his teeth with five minutes left, breaking free on the left side and putting himself into perfect position with only central defender Ivan Runje between him and the target. Runje, however, did a fantastic job of shutting the grizzled Aarhus legend down, closing off any opportunities for shooting or passing to the open David Devdariani, finally forcing Graulund into an awkward attempt that was skillfully blocked.
Then with two minutes on the clock, Petersen pulled down a long ball on the right side, somehow worked in behind left back Patrick Mtiliga, and aimed a low shot just inside the far post. Hansen was up to the task, sticking his leg out and saving the win with a last-second deflection.
Finally in the second minute of added time, Petersen had one last desperate attempt to save the day for the hosts, as he whiffed on a dramatic overhead kick on the right side of goal.
The defense held through the final seconds of injury time, with a much-deserved celebration at the final whistle.
"It's always nice to get victories in both ways," Parkhurst commented afterwards, drawing a comparison to their wide margin of victory one week before. "The coaching staff really likes it when we get the 1-0 wins, but us players prefer the 6-1."
"It was a good performance in tough conditions," he more generally summed up. "It was really warm and we're not used to that here.
It was good to come out here and hold them to zero defensively. That was priority number one, to come away with nothing less than a 0-0 tie. We wanted to get the victory, but at the very minimum was the 0-0."
"It wasn't the best finish [to the game]," he admitted of the late and nerve-wracking Aarhus push, "but the keeper made some big saves and we'll take it."
The victory propels the Wild Tigers to third in the league standings, although they could be caught on Monday night pending the result of Odense's visit to SønderjyskE, the latter of whom they will host in their next outing on Friday afternoon.