The Melbourne City machine rolls ever onwards, with an energetic and disciplined performance from Western Sydney Wanderers showing just how competitive the W-League has become, and what a longer season could mean for slow-starting teams.
Both WSW and City entered today’s game in the bottom half of the table with only five rounds remaining after a disappointing start to their seasons.
For the Wanderers, the issue has been the introduction of a new coach and a host of new players trying to create productive relationships on the pitch. For City, injuries and delayed arrivals has meant that they haven’t had their full complement of players until recently.
Given its short length, the W-League is not kind to teams who take time to find their feet. This afternoon’s game showed what both of these teams could be if a longer season were afforded to them.
The opening ten minutes were shaky in the Sydney heat as both teams tried to take control of the game’s tempo.
City are known for their possession-based football, particularly playing out from the back and flooding players forward to pile pressure onto opposition teams. However, it was clear that the Wanderers had prepared for such a game; they stayed compact through the middle of the park, forcing City to play around or through their deep defensive block.
This defensive discipline paid dividends in the 14th minute as the Wanderers opened the scoring.
Having pushed several players forward, City was left thin in the midfield. A defensive header from the Wanderers found striker Leena Khamis in the centre circle, who turned away from City’s defensive midfielder Yukari Kinga and slotted a pass out wide to the pacy Georgia Yeoman-Dale.
Yeoman-Dale, after taking a few rangey strides, spots City keeper Lydia Williams off her line and smartly sends a looping chip into the back of the net.
City’s defenders were their own worst enemies in the following twenty minutes, giving a number of balls away in dangerous positions. Western Sydney could have been ahead by two goals in the 17th minute after Elizabeth Addo found Erica Halloway, who’d broken through City’s two centre-backs, but the winger was called offside despite replays showing she was just in line.
However, history has shown that City know how to grind out a win. American forward Jasmyne Spencer had been making some productive runs down the left wing, sending balls into the box, and City would probably have equalised sooner if not for solid defensive performances from WSW centre-backs.
City’s control and pressure eventually proved too much for the Wanderers as Tameka Butt equalised in the 38th minute. Servet Uzunlar’s clearing header found the Matildas midfielder near the top of the box, and some slack defending from Lo'eau LaBonta meant Butt had room to turn and chip a delightful ball over the outstretched hands of goalkeeper Nicole Simonsen.
Halftime was a welcome break for the match officials as well as the players, as an assistant referee had to be substituted due to the heat.
City arguably benefited the most from the break, quickly taking control of the game and moving the ball around with both patience and composure. While their midfielders were given more time on the ball, WSW continued to hold a tight and disciplined back line, catching a number of players offside in the opening twenty minutes of the second half.
City were almost ahead in the 52nd minute as Spencer again broke through the WSW back line and scored, but was called back for offside.
From that point, Wanderers right back Talitha Kramer did not let Spencer out of her sight in an outstanding second-half performance that took the tricky winger out of the game almost entirely. Similarly, City’s other winger Rhali Dobson was kept largely in check by WSW left back Miramontez.
It was the introduction of substitute Adrianna Jones in the 66th minute that would prove to be the difference.
Having chased the ball for much of the second half, it was clear that the Wanderers were beginning to tire, and a tiny loss of concentration in the 81st minute would see them go behind.
After a fizzed pass from Kinga deep in her own half, Dobson managed to get an incredible touch on the ball to take it perfectly between WSW defenders. Jones, running off Waldus’ shoulder, collected the pass before rounding Simonsen and slotting it into the net for City’s second and game-winning goal.
Western Sydney had two or three more half-chances through Addo, but City were largely untroubled for the rest of the match.
Despite the loss, Wanderers striker Leena Khamis was happy with her side's performance.
“Happy [about the game] in a sense but I don’t think we deserved to lose. We were a bit unfortunate at the end there.”
By contrast, City coach Rado Vidosic was not satisfied with his team’s performance.
“Happy with the result, but not happy with our performance,” he said.
“We must do better than what we did today; both halves we didn’t play the way we can play, didn’t move the ball quickly enough, didn’t create enough chances. At the end of the day, we’re lucky to get three points.”
In a warning shot to the rest of the league, Spencer revealed that City are treating every game like it’s a grand final because these are the performances that are necessary to reach the finals for the fourth time in as many seasons.
As Vidosic reiterated, “From last week we said we have six grand finals before the semis, we’re treating every game like a grand final that we must win or we will miss out. The competition is very strong this year, four or five teams competing for first and second spot, so we must treat every game as a grand final from here.”
Despite another loss, Western Sydney can take confidence from a much improved defensive performance against a team laden with superstars.
It’s unfortunate that the length of the W-League means the Wanderers have started to click far too late to rescue their campaign, but have demonstrated a solid foundation for future seasons. Meanwhile, City continues their tradition of a strong end-of-season run, finding themselves one ladder spot closer to another finals appearance.
Precisely what heights this City team could reach with a longer season, one can only imagine.