COURTESY OF SEYRAN MAMMADOV/VARSITY BLUES

For the Varsity Blues men’s soccer team, the old proverb ‘third time’s the charm’ rings true. Courtesy of excellent goals from Artem Tesker, Nikola Stakic, and Nicola Russo, the Blues claimed an impressive Ontario University Athletics (OUA) quarterfinal victory against the Ryerson Rams on Sunday evening. The victory comes after having suffered the ignominy of being dumped out by the Rams at the OUA quarterfinal stage in both 2017 and 2018. 

Beyond that, the win also marks the end of the Blues’ three-year winless streak against their Toronto rivals, as their previous win against the Rams came 1,085 days prior to this one. Yousef Helmy, Kenny Lioutas, and Stakic are the only remaining players from that team.

The former two are in their final year of eligibility, meaning that this game could have been their last with the team. Fortunately for them, however, this win means that the Blues will live to fight another round, against the York Lions on November 1.

In truth, the 3–1 scoreline flattered the Rams, who looked lethargic and insipid throughout much of the match. In contrast, the Blues started on the front foot, playing with courage and showing a clear commitment to head coach Ilya Orlov’s tactical plan. This plan consisted of a structured press when defending, was quick to transition, and played wide when attacking. 

The majority of the opening 20 minutes was spent in the Rams’ half, with the Blues pinging the ball around effectively and breaking down the Rams’ attacks before they could develop. Tesker and Atchu Sivananthan again played as the Blues’ forward two. They linked up well, reading each other’s runs and effectively drawing defenders away from one another.

It is perhaps no surprise then that the two of them were involved in opening the scoring in the 27th minute. Receiving the ball near the halfway line, Sivananthan drove forward at the Rams’ defenders, who were unable to cope with his direct running and dribbling.

As he progressed toward the Rams’ goal, he unleashed a powerful shot that the keeper could only parry into an onrushing Tesker’s path on the right side of goal. Tesker then slammed a shot into the top left corner of the net to make the score 1–0.

The goal seemed to awaken the Rams, who began to press forward for the equalizer, and almost found it in the 35th minute. A corner kick was delivered into the Blues’ box and was headed goalward, only for the Blues to scramble it away with a fine goal-line clearance.

While the Rams continued to look for a goal, the Blues did not relent in their own attacks, as Sivananthan played a creative tour de force, inspiring all of the Blues’ attacks. He was involved again as the Blues scored their second goal in added time of the first half. The goal was almost identical to the first as Stakic received the ball on the right side of the opposition box and slammed the shot into the top left corner, beyond the keeper.

The Rams finally got their act together to start the second half, nearly scoring in the 48th minute after forward Kyle Laborde-Ayres hit the post. The Rams exerted intense pressure on the Blues, who found it difficult at times to play the ball forward.

When the Blues finally did break forward, they made it count. Sivananthan and Tesker combined well to evacuate their defensive half, and Tesker embarked on a good run against the diminished Rams defence. It seemed as if his chance was gone when more defenders returned to their positions, but Tesker found Russo on the outer right edge of the box with a perfectly weighted pass. Russo ran onto the ball and hit a first-time volley to score the Blues’ third of the match.

Apparently not content to protect a 3–0 lead, the Blues continued to commit men forward, pinning the Rams’ defence back. While they continued to look threatening going forward, their defence began to crumble under greater Rams pressure.

In the 66th minute, the Blues lost the ball in the attacking third, falling victim to a quick counter-attack. The Rams hit the post in the ensuing attack and the Blues, in the chaos of attempting to clear the ball from the crowded box, conceded a penalty. Rams captain Abdallah El-Chanti — who for large portions of the game was unable to help the Rams move forward effectively despite tidy passing — stepped up and hit the top left corner, above the dive of Blues keeper Stefan Dusciuc.

After conceding the goal, the Blues seemed to realize that they were already winning and subsequently did not have to commit so many players forward. They returned to the tight defensive structure that they started the match with, diminishing the Rams’ attacks. 

The Blues soaked up pressure well in the closing 15 minutes of the game. The Rams again hit the post late after Dusciuc misjudged a shot, but they ultimately did not add to their consolation goal. The ever-impressive Sivananthan continued to torment the Rams when the Blues did break and could easily have added to his five-goal tally of the season in added time, only for the goalkeeper to save well.

Much of the match was marred by poor refereeing, with both sets of players, coaches, and fans vocally criticizing the referee and his assistants. However, in the end, the Blues will be grateful that they were able to relegate the referees’ errors to a footnote in their sweet revenge story.

Up next for the Blues are the York Lions in the OUA semifinal. The Lions finished first in the OUA West conference and have won the OUA in each of the last two years. The Blues’ last win against the Lions was in 2011, and their last four matches against them have all ended in defeat.

The Blues were able to end their three-year winless run against the Rams in an impressive fashion, so what’s stopping them from ending an eight-year one against the Lions?

Disclosure: Michael Teoh previously served as The Varsity’s Volume 138 Deputy Senior Copy Editor and Volume 139 Business Editor.

Editor’s Note (November 10, 1:24 pm): This article has been updated to reflect the author’s former affiliations with The Varsity.

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