Updated: Aug 28, 2020
Melbourne City are into an A-League grand final for the first time, withstanding vast intervals of Western United sustained pressure before a Jamie Maclaren second-half penalty kick goal propelled coach Erick Mombaerts’ side to a 2-0 win at Bankwest Stadium on Wednesday evening.
“It means a lot to us [to make the grand final] as a group. We wanted to achieve something big, and we’ve done that,” said defender Richard Windbichler afterwards.
“With all of the sacrifices and challenges we’ve had in front of us, there is a sense of ‘mission accomplished’ among all of us,” he added.
Western United, into a semi-final in its debut A-League season, made the most out of their presence on the big stage, with their holy trinity of Besart Berisha, Alessandro Diamanti and Max Burgess taking the game on against their much-favoured opponents.
But the combination of Maclaren’s cool-as-a-cucumber mindset from the spot and goalkeeper Tom Glover’s timely saves wound up being the difference in the match – and enough to give Melbourne City a history-making title-match berth on Sunday night, where they will face Sydney FC, who were 2-0 winners in Wednesday night’s other semi-final against Perth Glory.
“It’s a relief. We’ve been playing hard all season, and it’s nice to get a reward for all of our hard work,” said Glover afterwards.
“We now get a chance to go to ‘the big dance’ on Sunday, and hopefully take it out,” he added.
After an initial quarter-hour of the two teams feeling each other out, video review came into play in the 18th minute on the first bonafide chance of the match, and as it revealed Melbourne City’s Lachie Wales to be a step offside, what would have otherwise been the opening goal of the match off the foot of Maclaren was wiped out.
Meanwhile, Glover saved his side’s blushes on a couple of first-half instances to maintain the scoreless situation.
In the 23rd minute, Josh Risden fired firmly from the top of the penalty area from a Diamanti corner, but Glover was equal to the task, saving it with a short dive to his left.
Burgess also tested Glover to the same post as Risden did in the 38th minute – but as these may not have been signs that Western United were growing in attacking confidence, the maintenance of their defensive posture of four and five players in the back in front of Filip Kurto continued to frustrate Melbourne City’s attacking prowess.
Whereas Mombaerts had said the day before that the secret to breaking down Western United’s defensive shape was to play the ball quicker upfield, his side was failing to accomplish that – and this was where the western Melburnians were gaining their strength.
The teams going into the changerooms scoreless at the break turned out to be an advantage for Western United, as their counter-attacking tactics continued to keep Melbourne City on the back foot and take them off dictating the style of attacking-first play which they are normally accustomed to playing.
Limiting chances for Maclaren up front and Florin Berenguer in the middle and relegating Melbourne City’s best attacking options to Wales on the right-hand flank were also working out well for Western United.
And the longer the game was to go on scoreless, the greater the upstarts from the Wyndham shire were to grow in confidence – and if there was ever a time where belief exists as an intangible element to win big football matches, this was it as the match approached the hour mark.
And Lustica brought another close-range save out of Glover in the 58th minute, at the end of a brilliant spell of Western United possession – and with that, their confidence in attack was matching their resolve in defence.
“He [Lustica] was free at the back post, and luck was on my side,” said Glover.
But all of Western United’s hard work came undone in the 66th minute when Maclaren won a penalty kick when Aaron Calver clipped the Golden Boot winner from the rear of his left ankle.
Kurto guessed correctly to his right, but the pace of Maclaren’s spot kick was too much for the Western United goalkeeper to contend with – and with Maclaren’s seventh goal against Western United for the season, Melbourne City got the vital breakthrough.
If Melbourne City were 20 minutes away from a grand final by leading from a bare minimum of quality chances, Western United’s underdog role was now being tested as much as ever. However, the goal brought Melbourne City to life, and they assumed a greater edge in their attacking play.
Meanwhile, the goal also appeared to deflate Western United’s challenge – and when Richard Windbichler came up from the back to lend enough of a presence from a Craig Noone corner for Timoki Imai to inadvertently head into his own goal six minutes from time, their Cinderella story was a good as over, and Melbourne City’s season of promise of a grand final appearance was becoming a reality.
In the end, Maclaren paid credit to the quality of the challenge that Western United gave Melbourne City, and one which wound up motivating Melbourne City after halftime.
"Credit to Western United -- they were fantastic in the first half, and found a way to get us to stop playing the way we wanted to," said Maclaren.