Jamie Maclaren clinched the A-League’s Golden Boot honour with a second-half brace to pace Melbourne City to a 3-1 win over Western United in the teams’ regular season finale at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium in Sydney’s southwest on Wednesday night.
“It’s a nice feeling to win it, but also nice to get the three points in the last game of the season,” Maclaren said afterwards, as Melbourne City swept all three games against Western United this season, with Maclaren scoring two goals in each of the three games against their Melbourne derby rivals.
Western United striker Besart Berisha also congratulated Maclaren, with whom he shared the Golden Boot honour at the end of the 2016-17 season.
“Jamie is an amazing striker, and he had an amazing season. He certainly deserves this,” said Berisha.
While coach Erick Mombaerts made just cosmetic changes to his Melbourne City side with Moudi Najjar joining Maclaren in a strike partnership and Stefan Colakovski slotting into the midfield, Western United coach Mark Rudan rang in four noticeable changes for this regular-season finale.
Perhaps viewing the finals place all by itself as a fantastic accomplishment for an expansion side and the weekend’s elimination final as being the more important match, Rudan would have had his incentives to ring in so many changes.
Fans expecting a Maclaren-versus-Berisha showdown for Golden Boot honours would be devastated, as Berisha – trailing Maclaren by two goals entering the match – joined teammates Alessandro Diamanti and Tomoki Imai on the substitutes’ bench and creative midfielder Max Burgess b eing given the night off completely.
In their places, Rudan gave match experience to Apostolos Stamatelopoulos – impressive in a substitute’s role against Sydney FC on the weekend – as well as Oskar Dillon in a three-man back line and Luke Duzel to partner Valentino Yuel up front behind Stamatelopoulos.
Najjar opened the scoring in the 12th minute, making a run to finish off a four-man Melbourne City move, taking in Connor Metcalfe’s last pass to nutmeg Dillon en route to dragging his shot low to the far post past a screened Filip Kurto.
The remaining 33-plus minutes produced a tame affair. Western United’s quest for an equaliser went through Josh Risdon on the right and Connor Pain on the left, but without much in the way of giving forwards any chances.
Meanwhile, Melbourne City’s desire to feed Maclaren for the goal which would seal up his Golden Boot ambitions were quite apparent – Najjar’s speed giving Western United’s defence issues, while Nathaniel Atkinson’s hold-up play in the middle of the park and combination play with Adrian Luna would always provide a threat.
Western United’s best chance to level the match before the break came in the 36th minute when Yuel ran onto a loose ball in the midfield, shed challenges from three different Melbourne City defenders before shooting weakly and straight at Tom Glover.
Five minutes after the break, Maclaren had a gilt-edged chance to lock up the Golden Boot, but his left-footed volley from Josh Brillante’s left-sided cross went wide left.
But Maclaren would not be denied – in the 56th minute, Melbourne City won a spot kick when Tomislav Uskok was adjudged to have committing a hand ball in the penalty area, and Maclaren responded by sending Kurto the wrong way to double Melbourne City’s lead.
After Maclaren’s goal, both sides would make triple-substitutions in the first window of opportunity, but Maclaren, Berisha and Diamanti would all stay in their respective positions. But that wouldn’t last long, as the latter pair would get 25 minutes of match time with Rudan’s next round of substitutions.
It wouldn’t take long for Diamanti and Berisha to make an impact – five minutes, to be precise, as Melbourne City’s Richard Windbichler had difficulty dealing with Diamanti’s slide-rule ball, and upending Berisha in the process. Berisha then had no trouble beating Glover from the spot to halve Western United’s deficit.
With 20 minutes to play, and it was “game on”, as Maclaren was looking to add another goal from open play and Diamanti and Berisha themselves looking to enhance key minutes with more goals of their own.
Four minutes from time, Maclaren would finish with authority at the far post after an impressive spell of possession from his teammates. Lachlan Wales crossed impressively from the right for Maclaren to slam home with the final touch to restore Melbourne City’s two-goal margin.
Melbourne City, having sealed second spot on the A-League’s ladder a week prior, now have a seven-day break before awaiting their semi-final against the higher-ranked of this weekend’s elimination finals survivors, while Western United take on Brisbane Roar in one of those elimination finals on Sunday evening.
“Great chance to rest our legs and prepare for the semi-final,” said Maclaren.
Meanwhile, Berisha had no complaints about coming off the bench, as he already has two Golden Boots of his own as the A-League’s all-time leading goal-scorer, those coming in the 2011-12 and 2016-17 seasons.
“I love scoring goals, but Mark made the right decision. We have to be fresh for Sunday,” said Berisha, viewing the big picture with great clarity.
Yet Berisha relishes a challenge ahead come Sunday, and perhaps beyond that single-elimination match.
“I love finals, and I am very excited. My heart is beating, and I cannot wait,” he said.
“Hopefully, we can keep plugging away and provide something special,” added Berisha.