Rhyan Grant’s extra-time heroics in the way of the game’s only goal and some key defensive interventions propelled Sydney FC to their fifth A-League championship, beating Melbourne City 1-0 at Bankwest Stadium on Sunday night in the A-League grand final match.
Grant – who also scored a grand final goal for Sydney FC in 2017 – simply collided with Luke Brattan’s chipped pass in the 100th minute for the only goal in a championship match that twisted and turned on multiple occasions.
“Maybe I was a little bit lucky to beat the ‘keeper [Melbourne City’s Tom Glover] there,” Grant said afterwards.
“I thought we were playing really well in the second half – we were dominating and all we had to do was to continue what we did in that second half, and everything would come right,” said Sydney FC coach Steve Corica.
Corica reserved particular praise for grand final hero Grant, who he describes as his team’s “very own Energizer bunny”.
“He’s energetic, he leads by example, he does all the running and sprinting that is necessary as a big part of the game these days. He leads by example,” said Corica on Grant, who also made two key defensive plays in extra time after scoring his goal.
“He’s been here over ten years now, and two goals in two grand finals, that’s not bad for him,” Corica added.
Melbourne City – playing in its first A-League grand final in its tenth season, and shorn in their third-choice change strip of red-and-white stripes akin to a tribute of the club’s Melbourne Heart origins – had the better of the title game’s opening chances, with A-League Golden Boot holder Jamie Maclaren the main protagonist.
After uncharacteristically fluffing a chance in the game’s opening minute, Maclaren took in an Adrian Luna long ball nicely six minutes later and forced Sydney FC goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne into a point-blank save.
That would be the extent of Maclaren’s direct influence on the match, although he played all 120 minutes, as Sydney FC’s defenders limited him to half-chances for the rest of the match.
Melbourne City then had an apparent opening goal taken away via video review in the 18th minute. Defender Harrison Delbridge appeared to have scored with a ripping long-range shot, but Wales was judged to be obstructing Redmayne’s view.
Sydney FC had penalty claims denied when Adam Le Fondre appeared to have been chopped down in the penalty area by Curtis Good on 28 minutes, but then Le Fondre forced Glover into a near-post save with a shot off the foot of Kosta Barbarouses.
In the first 45 minutes, both teams had created solid chances through some determined partnerships. While Le Fondre and Barbarouses were beneficiaries of Milos Ninkovic and Anthony Caceres’ work in midfield for Sydney FC, Melbourne City maintained chances for Maclaren with Noone and Wales being particularly active down the flanks but the presence of Florin Berenguer always being a genuine threat to join in from central midfield.
As both teams’ attacks were flourishing but without reward, the opening 20 minutes of the second half might had come down to whose defending would provide the first miscue.
On 62 minutes, Melbourne City’s Nathaniel Atkinson nearly became that player, gifting Ninkovic a good run at goal, only for Glover to make a fantastic reflex save.
With Maclaren being kept under wraps and Sydney FC controlling the better chances since halftime, Melbourne City had to press their chances whenever they could take them, and had a pair of good opportunities as the final quarter-hour of regulation approached. Berenguer set Noone up for an open shot at the top of the area that Redmayne saved, then substitute Scott Galloway tested Redmayne with a diving save to his right from a long-range half-volley.
With the end of regulation approaching, Le Fondre sent a cross in from the left that Trent Buhagiar made minimal contact with at the near post, but Glover was equal to the threat at his goalmouth.
Luna had a clear shot at the top of the penalty area, but fired his firm shot right into the gut of Redmayne for the best – if albeit unsuccessful – chance of the five minutes of stoppage time.
As 90 minutes was not enough to crown a champion, one would wonder if the second-half tactical tendencies would continue, with Sydney FC dictating the attack and Melbourne City counter-attacking and struggling to get Maclaren his quality chances.
As extra time commenced, Melbourne City bucked those trends and sprinted into creating the first chance. Noone sent a cross into the six-yard box from Atkinson’s through-ball with two teammates lurking, but Redmayne cleared the danger.
Noone would use his pace to get behind the Sydney FC defence and force a corner kick in the 95th minute, and although the set piece came to nothing, Noone’s runs were exposing the frailties of the right-hand side of Sydney FC’s defending.
However, despite their commitment to attack, Melbourne City’s defensive resolve was ultimately broken via Grant’s heroics. Grant simply ran down the right into Brattan’s chip from the centre of the park at the end of a flowing four-man move to make enough contact with the ball to send it past Glover.
The second half of extra time, by contrast to the opening stages of the first 15-minute overtime session, had Melbourne City on the back foot as Sydney FC pushed their attack in search of a second goal.
Le Fondre, at the end of a three-on-two break in the 109th minute, thought that he had Glover beat with a curling effort outside the penalty area, but Glover did well to palm the ball away with his right hand.
Grant, to add to his clutch goalscoring, made his first key defensive play in extra time to preserve the lead a minute later. Grant made a headlong run to take the ball off of the foot of Ramy Najjarine when the attacker appeared to have a good look at Redmayne’s goal.
Atkinson fired a knuckling long-range shot that Redmayne had to tip over his bar for a corner in the 111th minute, but Melbourne City’s resulting corner came to nothing.
In the final minutes, Sydney FC’s bunker was getting reinforcements – and after Grant intervened again to head over his own goal to force a corner, Good had a free header that he hit straight at Redmayne. And with that, Melbourne City’s chances of equalising and forcing penalties were gone and Sydney FC won its fifth A-League championship hardware and its third in the last four seasons.
“We didn’t start well, we were a bit shaky and they came at us in the first half very well. At the break, we regrouped and took the game to them,” said Grant.
“It might not have been the best grand final for us, going end-to-end at times, but we had to ride that out and take our best chances.
“City were very good – we just got a bit lucky, I reckon,” Grant added.