Elite League Play-Off Semi-Final, First Leg: PANTHERS have ridden in 480 Elite League races this season. Their title dreams could have been smashed to smithereens by the last three of them.
The city side saw their play-off challenge thrown badly off course by a tame late collapse in the first leg of their semi-final showdown at Coventry.
Everything was going according to plan as Trevor Swales’ troops kept the hottest team in British speedway in check for three-quarters of an engrossing opening battle at Brandon.
But things can change quickly in this white-knuckle world - something Panthers found out when failing miserably to finish a job they had started so promisingly.
A hat-trick of maximums in the final three races turned a highly-creditable display in a racing cauldron into something of a disaster as the Bees seized control.
This tie is now theirs to lose after two top dogs Krzysztof Kasprzak and Chris Harris delivered the goods in heats 13 and 15, either side of another full house from Przemyslaw Pawlicki and Edward Kennett.
Panthers, on the other hand, may already have blown it.
The Bees charged into the play-off shoot-out courtesy of a stunning late run of eight victories in their final nine meetings during the regular season.
One of those successes arrived at the Showground less than a fortnight ago so Panthers know only too well the magnitude of the task that now awaits them.
Skipper Niels Kristian Iversen insisted in the build-up to this meeting that Panthers could not afford to carry any passengers.
And his words rung true as he endured a personal nightmare that yielded just two points, two retirements and one tumble.
He was not alone in under-performing. Second string Krzysztof Buczkowski never looked comfortable and also hit the deck in heat five, while reserve guest Marcin Rempala was generally outclassed in the heat of play-off battle.
The Berwick man was drafted in to replace eye injury victim Norbert Kosciuch but was rarely a threat after being gifted a couple of points in his opening outing.
“I can’t say I’m happy with the performance,” said Swales.
“Some of the riders had bad nights and we just couldn’t really afford that.”
But not even those who view their speedway through yellow and black tinted spectacles could have envisaged their Bees team pulling out such a commanding advantage. At several stages they would have been glad of any sort of cushion to defend at Alwalton.
Panthers led on a couple of occasions and kept their hosts well in check throughout the opening two-thirds of the meeting.
They only fell behind for the first time after conceding a 4-2 in a nightmare 10th heat in which Coventry old boy Rory Schlein had to weave his way past Richard Sweetman after his skipper Iversen had pulled out.
And things just got worse and worse from then on to leave the city boys with a mountain climb back on their own shale.
But Bees boss Alun Rossiter refused to count his chickens ahead of the return date.
Rossiter said: “Panthers showed what a strong, tenacious team they are for most of the meeting but we went for the jugular late on and are in a great position.
“Everyone knows how strong they are around the Showground though and the fact we had a win there recently won’t count for a lot come next Monday.”
He might be right, but their 14-point cushion certainly will count for plenty.
TABLE-TOPPING Poole are in pole position in the other semi-final after battling to a 44-44 draw at Wolverhampton last night.
Krzysztof Kasprzak 10+1 (2, 0, 3, 2*, 3)
Richard Sweetman 4+1 (0, 1, 2*, 1)
Ben Barker 4+2 (0, 1*, 1*, 2)
Edward Kennett 9+1 (3, 2, 2, 2*)
Chris Harris 14+1 (3, 3, 3, 3, 2*)
Lewis Bridger 4 (3, 0, 1)
Przemyslaw Pawlicki 7 (R, 1, 3, R, 3)
Team manager: Alun Rossiter
Kenneth Bjerre 9 (3, 3, 2, 1, 0)
Krzysztof Buczkowski 2 (1, F, 1, 0)
Rory Schlein 10 (2, 2, 2, 3, 1)
Niels Kristian Iversen 2+2 (1*, 1*, R, R)
Troy Batchelor 8 (2, 3, 3, 0)
Mat Tresarrieu 5+2 (1*, 2*, R, 1, 1)
Marcin Rempala 2 (2, 0, 0)
Team manager: Trevor Swales
1 – BJERRE (58.38), Kasprzak, Buczkowski, Sweetman. 2-4, 2-4.
A flying start for Panthers as Bjerre got the better of rival number one Kasprzak before Buczkowski powers down the inside of Sweetman leaving the final bend of lap two.
2 – re-run BRIDGER (59.80), Rempala, Tresarrieu, Pawlicki (ret). 3-3, 5-7.
Panthers received a boost when Pawlicki packed up in the opening corner with ignition trouble to gift a share of the spoils. Tresarrieu coasted home after a last lap alarm in which his steel shoe came undone.
3 – KENNETT (59.09), Schlein Iversen, Barker. 3-3, 8-10.
Schlein was smartest away from the inside but had no answer to a Kennett surge through the first couple of corners. The Panthers men packed in to fill the two minor places.
4 – HARRIS (58.95), Batchelor, Pawlicki, Rempala. 4-2, 12-12.
The Bees hit back to level the scores after Harris zoomed around Batchelor at the end of the opening lap. Rempala was never able to make an impression while stuck at the rear.
5 – BJERRE (58.38), Kennett, Barker, Buczkowski. 3-3, 15-15.
Bjerre made a stunning start from the outside gate to hit the front. Buczkowski held third spot until the third bend of lap three when, under intense pressure from Kennett, he hit the deck.
6 – BATCHELOR (59.22), Tresarrieu, Sweetman, Kasprzak. 1-5, 16-20.
Panthers were gifted a maximum return after Bees number one Kasprzak made a mess of the opening lap. The Pole went far too wide leaving the second bend, locked up and allowed Tresarrieu through into second for the smoothest of 5-1s.
7 – re-run HARRIS (58.50), Schlein, Iversen, Bridger. 3-3, 19-23.
Iversen took a heavy fall after being the victim of a first-bend domino effect – the Panthers skipper taking a blow in the chest from his bike after sliding into the air fence. He was fit enough to line up in a re-run during which Panthers saw a 4-2 advantage reduced to a share of the spoils when Harris collared Schlein on the second lap.
8 – PAWLICKI (59.11), Sweetman, Buczkowski, Tresarrieu (ret). 5-1, 24-24.
Panthers threw away their advantage during a nightmare heat. Reserve change Tresarrieu hit the front from the start but found himself swamped by Bees riders through the second bend. He then retired with more steel shoe problems to leave Buczkowski in a distant third.
9 – BATCHELOR (59.16), Kennett, Barker, Rempala. 3-3, 27-27.
Batchelor produced a nerveless front-running ride to keep Kennett and Barker at bay and maintain parity. Reserve switch Rempala was never able to land a blow.
10 – KASPRZAK (58.59), Schlein, Sweetman, Iversen. 4-2, 31-29.
Panthers fell behind for the first time – but it would have been worse had Schlein not forced his way past Sweetman at the end of the second lap. Iversen had retired earlier on that lap.
11 – HARRIS (57.69), Bjerre, Bridger, Buczkowski. 4-2, 35-31.
Bjerre tasted defeat for the first time after Harris scythed to the front in turn two and Panthers suffered a second successive heat loss when Bridger got the better of Buczkowski later in the opening lap.
12 – SCHLEIN (59.08), Barker, Tresarrieu, Pawlicki (ret). 2-4, 37-35.
Schlein claimed a first victory of the night as Panthers took advantage of another Pawlicki retirement to halve their arrears.
13 – HARRIS (58.03), Kasprzak, Bjerre, Batchelor. 5-1, 42-36.
Fast-starting Bjerre went backwards as Coventry seized the initiative with a crucial 5-1. The little Dane was powerless to prevent Harris flying around his outside and then saw Kasprzak fly down the inside.
14 – PAWLICKI (60.53), Kennett, Tresarrieu, Iversen. 5-1, 47-37.
Iversen entered the first corner in front, left the second in last place and got no further than the second lap as his personal nightmare reached a horrible end.
15 – KASPRZAK (58.56), Harris, Schlein, Bjerre. 5-1, 52-38.
Schlein carried the fight to Coventry’s top dogs, but just like Bjerre before him he had no answer to the speed of Kasprzak and Harris. Bjerre himself was never in contention at the rear.
Key: * = paid points, R = retired, F = fell.