A late goal from Western United’s Steven Lustica spoiled Sydney FC’s Premiers Plate coronation, striking in the 90th minute to give the Wyndham side a 2-1 win at Sydney’s Leichhardt Oval on Saturday evening.
Lustica’s heroics gave Mark Rudan’s side all three points in the affair that was otherwise set to be a stalemate after the marquee strikers for both clubs, Besart Berisha for Western United and Sydney FC’s Adam Le Fondre, swapped goals in each half.
The players of Sydney FC – who wrapped up the minor premiership earlier in the A-League’s interstate hub experience – may have paraded the Premiers Plate around Leichhardt Oval after the game, but Steve Corsica’s side would have concerns with the finish of this match heading into the A-League’s single-elimination finals series, which starts next Saturday with their semi-final match to be played on Wednesday week.
“Not ideal for us to go into the finals after this. We finished the match poorly,” said Le Fondre afterwards, as the Western United rearguard not only limited his chances but also those of teammates Kosta Barbarouses, Anthony Caceres and Milos Ninkovic as well.
Meanwhile, Lustica’s late-show exploits and the way his Western United teammates saw the game out comes as no surprise to Berisha.
“We are really enjoying ourselves. Our players are really hungry and you can see that every time we hit the park,” said Berisha, whose goal took him up to 19 for the season, one behind Melbourne City’s Jamie Maclaren for the A-League’s Golden Boot race as the two teams play each other in the regular-season finale on Wednesday night.
Like a vagabond gambler stepping up to the poker tables at Melbourne’s Crown Casino and playing with house money, Rudan’s Western United side came into the match with all the ambition and everything to play for. Run the table in these last two matches, and they can finish in the dizzying heights of third spot, such an incredible accomplishment in its debut season.
Western United had the best early opening chance, in the 12th minute. After Sydney FC midfielder Ninkovic was dispossessed in the midfield, Max Burgess led a three-on-two break before his well-taken shot was saved by Sydney FC ’keeper Andrew Redmayne.
Sydney FC then had a pair of opportunities on the quarter-hour. Ninkovic and Barbarouses played a one-two around the visitors’ defence before Barbarouses forced a save out of Filip Kurto, then Luke Brattan dragged a low worm-burner across the face of goal from the right, but well wide of Kurto’s far post.
Berisha broke the deadlock on 20 minutes with the simplest of close-range touches.
Burgess led the break after another Sky Blues midfield turnover, played a ball wide for Alessandro Diamanti, then had his left-footed curling effort saved by Redmayne. However, Redmayne could only parry the effort as far as Berisha, who tapped home easily for his fourth tally since the A-League restart.
Diamanti nearly doubled Western United’s lead in the 25th minute with a magnificent piece of bravado that drew a hush over the random few at Leichhardt Oval and turned out to be arguably the near-miss of the season. Seeing Redmayne off his line, the Italian talisman lobbed a long-range drive from the halfway line that saw Redmayne scurry back just in time to view it going off the woodwork of his upper 90.
Kurto made a pair of reflex saves five minutes before the break to preserve Western United’s slim lead, first from Caceres’ effort from the left and then from defender Rhyan Grant at the end of an overlapping run on the right.
If the first 45 minutes was a case of the Premiers Plate holders feeling threatened of having their party crashed by the A-League’s upstarts, then Sydney FC came out with the incentive to regain their pride. And Corica’s charges got their equaliser seven minutes after the restart, with Le Fondre scoring with a header from the top of the six-yard box from a Brattan cross following a short corner.
As the Sky Blues finally breached Western United’s solid defensive shape, the goal was richly deserved from Le Fondre with his first attempt of the match, and getting back in the Golden Boot race in the process with his 20th goal of the season.
Rudan made a triple-substitution in the 62nd minute, giving well-deserved breaks to both Diamanti and Berisha as well as defender Andrew Durante, changes which would allow the possibility of Apostolos Stamatelopoulos to run through the middle of the park as the best benefit of the fresh legs coming into the match.
And Stamatelopoulos went close to breaking the deadlock in the 70th minute, sliding in to try and turn Joshua Cavallo’s cross into the net, but Redmayne turned the effort around the post for a corner.
But in truth, the final 20 minutes of the match possessed all the feel and spirit of a glorified training run – both teams making full use of the five substitutes allotments within the three permitted windows, and Sydney FC just wanting to pass the time before their victory lap with the Premiers Plate, while Rudan hoping for his club to get something out of the match via a share of the spoils.
But in the end, and at the end of the 90 regulation minutes, their reward would be all three points.
A long overlapping dribbling run from speedy wingback Dylan Pierias beat Joel King and Chris Zuvela on pace before crossing for Lustica, who easily beat Redmayne.
Berisha would also pay tribute to his teammates’ never-say-die attitude – qualities that may serve them well against Melbourne City on Wednesday night and into the finals series as well.
“You can really feel it all around this club, as our bonds strengthen,” he said.
“The spirit around this club is enormous, and we’re never out of any match. I love being around it,” added Berisha.