What a difference a season makes. Last year’s Premiers’ Plate practically had Melbourne City’s name on it before a ball was kicked with their line up laden with national and international talent, and an undefeated record to match. This year the Plate has been up for grabs since City’s form headed south, and favouritism has bounced between Canberra United, Perth Glory and Sydney FC.
Since the new year, the W-League has served up a litany of upsets, rocking the ladder, with the Plate appearing to be out of reach of every team. Sydney FC who appeared to have a grip on it, stumbled in the disarray, and Canberra emerged victors in the final round with their big win over Melbourne Victory.
At the other end of the top four, Melbourne City was in a battle with Newcastle and Brisbane Roar for a place in the finals right until the last round, setting up an epic semi-final in the national capital.
Canberra United and Melbourne City head into this semi final with a win each this season. Melbourne defeated Canberra at GIO Stadium in round two in a close 2-1 victory, while Canberra turned the tables four weeks later and were the first side to take 3 points off City which led to their mid-season slide.
Canberra started the season with a loss to their semi final opponents Melbourne City but two impressive wins over Brisbane Roar in quick succession had pundits asking if this was United’s year. A win over Melbourne City in the middle of the season increased those voices as the two time premiership winners looked to fulfil their pre-season promise.
But just as Canberra was looking unstoppable, injuries to captains Ellie Brush and Michelle Heyman hit. Canberra’s slick ball movement in the front end of the season seemed to depart them over the busy Christmas and New Year schedule, highlighted by a draw to Adelaide United, a close win over Melbourne Victory, and their lowest moment in the season, a 6-1 drubbing at the feet of a red hot Sydney FC.
Their return to McKellar Park after a long stretch away boosted their performance leading into the finals with a strong performance against Adelaide and a 7-2 fly-away win over Perth. Canberra had one more stumble in them though, an away loss to the Western Sydney Wanderers, before finishing on a high to Melbourne Victory.
For Melbourne City, it looked like it would be business as usual in Season 9 after they romped to the W-League premiership and championship in Season 8. However, although they captured the three points in the opening match against the Newcastle Jets, it was a tight contest that demonstrated that this time around it would not be as easy.
City followed up three wins on the trot over Canberra, Melbourne Victory and Brisbane Roar to continue to claim their top spot on the table. Then came the loss to Canberra United, their first in 18 matches. The first defeat in the club’s short history began a mid-season slump that saw them fall to the Wanderers, Perth Glory, Melbourne Victory and draw with Adelaide and Sydney FC.
Melbourne City finally regrouped late in the season to claim the last spot in the finals with dominant wins over Brisbane Roar and the Newcastle Jets.
The Good & key Players
Yukari Kinga has been a stand-out for Canberra United this year, along with W-League Golden Boot winner Ashleigh Sykes. Such is Kinga’s influence her team mates joke “Be like Kinga!”, another replies “Be Kinga!”
“Kinga saw that move two minutes ago,” they joke. “Kinga saw that move last week!” is the retort.
In close support is the stylish Grace Maher, Young Matildas’ captain who found the spotlight during this year’s Asian Football Confederation u-19 Championship Qualifiers in Nanjing, China in November 2016, just as the W-League was kicking off. Her play-making on both sides of her body is some of the best in the W-League this season and she has adapted well to the various styles of striker in the Canberra line-up.
Rounding out the central midfield is Celeste Boureille from the Portland Thorns who is strong on both sides of her body, able to distribute perfectly and cease an opposition attack just as effortlessly. It will also be about their incredible line up of forwards including Ashleigh Sykes, Hayley Raso, Lisa De Vanna, Nicki Flannery and Jasmyne Spencer. Any one of those has the ability to score goals and that is a lot of players to try to shut down.
With the best record in the W-League, defence has been the backbone of Melbourne City’s 2016/17 campaign. Unarguably, the most important player for City this season has been new signing and Matildas goalkeeper Lydia Williams.
That Williams has had to make 38 saves (3rd most in the competition) demonstrates just how often the opposition has threatened the City goal this season. That Williams has saved 73.8% of shots faced, is a large reason why Melbourne City were able to stay in matches even when they weren’t playing at their best. Another important player in the defensive end has been Aivi Luik with the defensive midfielder once again quietly and competently providing cover to the back four.
Player / Manager Jessica Fishlock is the barometer for Melbourne City. When she plays well, City play well. While traditionally a holding midfielder, this season Fishlock and been deployed in many roles including up front in an almost false 9 fashion. Fishlock has an uncanny ability to find the ball, play in her teammates and, crucially for City, finish. The two time W-League champion has scored a third of their goals (6) and she will be a key player to lock down.
The Bad & Ugly
When they’re hot they’re hot. When they’re not they’re not.
It’s been a rocky road for Canberra’s defence at times this year. In stunning form one week, and leaking goals the next. It’s not a new challenge for the capital – questions have been asked in recent seasons about consistency at the back, possibly a result of experimenting with different formations.
Canberra’s defensive structure has solidified as the season has progressed, with Emma Checker’s stability on her new knee and resulting confidence growing stronger with every game, Hannah Brewer’s timing and fitness ever sharper, and Jenna McCormick’s toughness and distribution key to winning challenges and launching attacks in recent weeks. They will need to be on this week if they are to repel City’s improving offence. The big question for coach Rae Dower will be whether captain Ellie Brush is ready to return to the line-up after her successful return from injury for her 100th appearance last week.
With the losses from pre-season, scoring goals was always a question mark for Melbourne City. From a team with a record number of goals in Season 8, the defending champions produced less than half of their goal tally from 2015/16 finishing with 19 (lowest in the top 4).
The worry is not just about goals scored, it is also about creating those chances. This season they have managed just 53 shots on target (4.4 per game) and 158 shots on goal (13.1 per game), the equal lowest of the Top 4 teams, It has been a worry for a team that possesses the ball like no other in the competition and speaks to the breakdown between the midfield and attack. If this can be improved in the semi final, they will certainly have enough ball to do damage.
Where will it be won?
Melbourne City might have taken the low road to the top four, but Canberra United are not taking them lightly. The obvious answers are that this game will be won on the taking of an opportunity in front of goal, or the minimisation of mistakes in defence, or the international battle royale between Kinga and her City counterpart Jess Fishlock.
The midfield battle will be huge. City have been greedy with possession this season, averaging 59.5%. However, they have struggled to convert that into meaningful chances on goal. Canberra on the other hand have had the equal lowest possession stats of the top four sides but have been masters in transition football, utilising the foot speed and wing players Hayley Raso and Steph Ochs to find space in behind opposition defences.
If Melbourne City are to win, they will need to find ways to move the ball quicker and be more incisive in the final third. If Canberra United are to win, they will need to find a way to at least halve the possession count.
Deep down though, this match will be won in the minds of the players. Which team will want it more, exploit the last element of energy they have, and keep driving until past the final whistle, will play the largest part in who triumphs in this blockbuster.
- Canberra United are playing off in their 8th W-League semi final. They have a record of 3 wins and 4 losses.
- Melbourne City are playing off in their 2nd straight W-League semi final and so far have a perfect record
- In 6 of their 12 matches this season, City have managed over 500 passes in a game, including a match against Victory which saw 664 passes (incredibly they lost the match 2-0)
- Canberra United finished the season with the highest goal tally of 33. They also averaged the equal highest number of shots on goal (19.1) and shots on target (7.6)
Canberra United v Melbourne City FC
Sunday 5 February 2017
Venue: GIO Stadium, Canberra
Kick-Off: 8:00PM (Local) (8:00PM (AEDT))
Referee: Rebecca Durcau
TV Broadcast: Live coverage on FOX SPORTS 505 and delayed coverage on ABC TV (10pm nationally)
Radio Broadcast: ABC Radio Canberra, Grandstand Digital Canberra
Online Broadcast: mixlr.com/melbcitywfc
Canberra United squad: 1.Trudy BURKE (gk), 2.Yukari KINGA, 4.Clare HUNT, 5.Jenna McCORMICK, 7.Ellie BRUSH, 8.Hayley RASO, 9.Jasmyne SPENCER, 10.Grace MAHER, 12.Hannah BREWER, 13.Celeste BOUREILLE, 14.Ashley SYKES, 15.Emma CHECKER, 16.Karly ROESTBAKKEN, 18.Kahlia HOGG, 19.Nickoletta FLANNERY, 20.Georgia BORIC (gk), 22.Stephanie OCHS, 32.Lisa DE VANNA **two to be omitted**
Ins: 4.Clare HUNT (promoted), 18.Kahlia HOGG (promoted), 16.Karly ROESTBAKKEN (promoted)
Unavailable: 11.Michelle HEYMAN (ankle – 1-2 weeks)
Melbourne City squad: 1.Lydia WILLIAMS (gk), 2.Teigen ALLEN, 3.Lauren BARNES, 5.Laura ALLEWAY, 6.Aivi LUIK, 7.Steph CATLEY (c), 10.Jessica FISHLOCK, 11.Erika TYMRAK, 13.Rebekah STOTT, 14.Melina AYRES, 15.Amy JACKSON, 16.Beverly YANEZ, 17.Marianna TABAIN, 18.Jacynta GALABADAARACHCHI, 19.Tyla-Jay VLAJNIC, 20.Emily SHIELDS (gk)
Ins: 18.Jacynta GALABADAARACHCHI (promoted), 19.Tyla Jay VLAJNIC (promoted)
Unavailable: 9.Larissa CRUMMER (foot – season)