Western United returned to the A-League’s winner’s circle from the COVID-19 hiatus in style on Saturday evening, beating Melbourne Victory 2-1 in a passionate Westgate derby at Bankwest Stadium in Parramatta.
Young midfielder Max Burgess led the way, not just scoring a vital second-half goal but also forming a valuable middle-of-the-park partnership with Italian playmaker Allesandro Diamanti to show that Western United, in sweeping all three games from Victory in their debut campaign, is serious about playing finals.
“It’s been a combination of everything, and we’re learning every day, but for me it’s all about intention, soaking up the knowledge around me, from my own mindset and what I can do from a constant effort. It all came together tonight,” Burgess told Fox Sports afterwards, of his match-leading effort.
And Western United coach Mark Rudan was delighted with his team’s performance and self-belief – and ecstatic with Burgess’s efforts in his developments as a top-flight player for his club.
“We played some brilliant flowing football at times, but it just takes a few special moments to bring it all together,” Rudan said, as his club moved to within one point of Adelaide United for sixth spot on the A-League ladder.
“[Burgess’s] starting positions are getting better all the time, he’s understanding his cues – when to run, where to run and how to run, and how to hold the ball and when to dribble – and now he’s not afraid to take players on and be free,” Rudan said of Burgess.
Western United came out to control the early stages of the match, but just as they were dictating the attacking play with Diamanti pulling the midfield strings from a free role, they nearly got sucker-punched in the sixth minute when Victory’s Marco Rojas slipped behind their rearguard to latch onto a long ball, only to drag his shot just wide of Filip Kurto’s right-hand post.
As Grant Brebner – in his debut as Victory’s interim coach – has stated that he wants Victory to play with a bit more freedom and a self-expressive style, it is ultimately reliant on the strike partnership between Rojas and Andrew Nabbout to produce. However, without much in the way of reinforcements whenever those two went forward, or even the rust of cohesion between the two of them, Victory’s early chances were few and far between.
But it was Western United who were playing with greater freedom and daring to take the game on, and they went agonizingly close in the 37th minute when Diamanti and Burgess combined to set up Besart Berisha, who was denied by Matthew Acton tipping the ball over the bar.
But as Berisha – who scored twice in the teams’ last meeting in the Round 9 match in December in Geelong – was stymied in his attempt for the opening goal of the match, Tomislav Uskov wouldn’t be, for his first A-League goal to put Western United in front.
The breakthrough goal came on the resulting short corner, when Uskok came forward to get just enough of his left boot onto Burgess’s chip into the penalty area to finesse his volley past the full stretch of Acton.
The goal snapped the doldrums out of the match as halftime approached, as Nabbout – latching onto another long ball from Victory’s route one tactics – dragged a shot just wide left, just as Rojas was sliding in on the end of a near-post run.
After halftime, as heavy rain began to fall from the western Sydney skies, Victory enjoyed longer intervals of sustained possession with some lovely combination play for moments at a time. However, where their style was on display, substance was lacking without producing any quality chances, although Rojas and Mabbout were making runs to present themselves.
But against the run of play, Connor Pain was unlucky not to have doubled Western United’s advantage in the 54th minute when he headed just over the crossbar from a Diamanti cross.
Three minutes later, the second goal was equally inevitable and irresistible. Burgess, at the end of a highly attractive three-man move involving one-touch passes from Steven Lustica and Pain, nailed a magnificent curling volley past Acton – and with the goal, Western United went from a spring in their collective step to having a swagger with a view at taking all three points, with Berisha unlucky not to have added to the tally.
Acton kept Berisha off the scoresheet in the 64th minute, as the former Victory champion freed himself around three defenders for a shot at the end of Burgess’s mazy run forward, then the Kosovan – who has scored 12 goals in various Melbourne derbies over the years – headed over from a Diamanti cross a couple of minutes later.
However, for as drab as Victory had looked in the first 82 minutes with their lack of chances, a pair of New Zealanders combined for a goal that they hoped would be more than a mere consolation. Defender Storm Roux popped forward to score from a glancing header from Rojas’s looping corner – and with that came hope that Victory could have at least a share of the spoils.
As Victory grew in bravado from Roux’s goal, Western United, whose great forward pressure immediately after their second goal had suggested that a third goal wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities, were now clinging to dear life as Victory were throwing more and more numbers forward.
But in stoppage time, Rojas could not dribble his way through a group of Western United defenders as his desperate shot was blocked, and the points were safe for Rudan’s team.