Last season’s Champions Melbourne City are one step closer to their fourth consecutive finals appearance after defeating Sydney FC 2-0 on a windy Thursday night in Wollongong.
It was fate: last season's grand finalists Sydney FC and Melbourne City meeting in the final round of the regular season to determine which of them would secure their spot in the 2018/19 finals series.
Both teams had it all to play for.
Sydney were well positioned to place one hand on the Premiership trophy, coming into the match only one point off top spot on the ladder.
City, on the other hand, were facing an unfamiliar situation: they sat in fifth spot, three points behind both Sydney and Perth Glory. The possibility of missing the top four for the first time in their history.
As expected, the visitors dominated possession early and had several more shots on goal than the hosts in the opening period. City’s control of the game was helped by the strong southerly wind they had at their backs, making it almost impossible for the Sky Blues to clear the ball out of their own half.
City were finding most of their momentum down the right wing through American Jasmyne Spencer, whose speed allowed her to skip easily past her markers to either send crosses into the box or cut inside to shoot for herself.
However, Sydney appeared comfortable sitting in a deep defensive block and letting City pile on the pressure, clearing crosses and blocking shots from all angles.
Sydney’s full-backs in Huerta and Harrison were more reserved than usual, only making a handful of attacking runs all game, making it that much harder for City's own full-backs in Steph Catley and Teresa Nielsen to flood forward and overload either side.
This defensive decision meant Sydney had to play on the counter, relying on American Savannah McCaskill and Matilda Caitlin Foord to hold the ball up and then play it through City’s stretched back line.
This counter-attacking mindset almost paid off early as McCaskill sent a slicing pass through the City defence to put Princess Ibini-Isei on goal, but the winger’s thundering shot was pushed over the crossbar by Lydia Williams.
Not long afterwards, just as Sydney seemed to be working their way into the game, City were given a golden opportunity to take an early lead.
Elise Kellond-Knight, standing over a free kick just outside the box, played a sneaky pass into the path of Tameka Butt, who was bumped in her attempt to collect the ball. Penalty. Up stepped Japanese star Yukari Kinga, but after re-setting the ball twice due to the howling wind, she sent her spot-kick wide of the post.
The rest of the first half unfolded in much the same way: City controlled majority of the possession and tried to break down Sydney’s packed defensive unit. Spencer had the most joy for City down the right side, Catley worked her way into the game down the left, making several piercing runs through her markers and sending crosses into dangerous areas.
Sydney’s defence, though, held firm, clearing the ball anywhere they could as they continued to absorb City’s relentless pressure. The hosts had a few more chances to break, but tired legs and losses of concentration were evident, as a number of passes and crosses went astray.
Sydney were lucky to head into the sheds at half-time with the scores still locked at 0-0.
Unfortunately, Sydney weren't so lucky in the second half.
Despite running into the wind, City maintained their dominant possession and kept Sydney sitting deep, with Alanna Kennedy and her new centre-back partner Ally Green both making several outstanding blocks and interceptions as City continued edging closer towards goal.
Their relentless pressure would pay off in the 65th minute as City’s stand-out player Spencer made yet another charging run down the right and fizzed a cross across goal. Goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe palmed the initial ball away, but it fell right into the path of Yukari Kinga at the back of the six-yard box, who made up for her earlier penalty miss by slotting it into the net.
But City weren’t done yet.
A goal-mouth scramble almost saw them double their lead ten minutes later with Spencer once again the provider from the right wing. However, Sydney defender Amy Harrison made a crucial diving block on Kinga's follow-up shot, followed by two outstanding saves by Bledsoe before the ball was finally cleared.
City’s second goal would arrive not long afterwards.
This time it was City full-back Teresa Nielsen who was able to get upfield to exploit the space behind substitute Julia Vignes. The Danish international squared the ball beautifully for Tameka Butt to chip it past Bledsoe's diving hands and into the net.
Sydney would have a couple of half-chances through Sophia Huerta and Chloe Logarzo in the closing stages, but the score remained 2-0 at the full-time whistle.
The final statistics say it all: City had 30 shots to Sydney's 6 and 24 crosses to 10, with an overall possession percentage of 70 percent to Sydney's 30 percent.
Despite the loss, Sydney head coach Ante Juric took some positives out of the performance.
“I was proud when I take it in context; we played only four days ago, so they’ve had two or three days’ longer rest than us,” he said.
“It’s tough to back up, especially in these conditions, and especially against a team that’s desperate. So in that sense, I’m not too displeased.”
Sydney’s superior goal difference coming into the game also provided a comfortable buffer, and perhaps softened the loss slightly. On Sydney’s efforts throughout the season, Juric was complimentary.
“We don’t get credit enough for being in this position. No team has scored more goals than us; no team has had as many chances as us, not even close. So we deserve to be in this position with what we’ve [produced],” he said.
With this result, Sydney maintains their record as the only team to have made the finals of the W-League every year since the league's inception. They will play their first semi-final away from home next week.