Late goals from Max Burgess and Alessandro Diamanti rescued Western United from a late, desperate surge from Western Sydney Wanderers, and secured three precious points in their finals quest following a 5-3 win at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium in suburban Sydney on Friday night.
When early suggestions towards a swashbuckling Western United win were on the cards, where the Wyndham club in its debut A-League season staked itself to a 2-0 halftime advantage, extended it to 3-0 with Diamanti providing the first of two finessed second-half goals, the remaining 20-plus minutes of the match would provide great value for drama and entertainment.
Wanderers would draw level with three goals within a 13-minute span, until Burgess and Diamanti drove the final stakes into the Wanderers’ slim finals hopes.
“It was a crazy game, but we got the points we needed,” said Diamanti after his two unconventional second-half goals brought Western United closer to a finals berth in its debut A-League season, with Perth Glory providing the next step in their challenge on Wednesday night.
With the win, coach Mark Rudan’s side crept to within two points of the sixth-place spot on the A-League ladder currently occupied by Adelaide United. An advantage remains with Western United, who possess two games in hand against both the Reds above them and Newcastle chasing them.
Josh Risden provided the game’s opening goal in the sixth minute, amid heavy rain, puddles on the pitch, and downright sloppy conditions. But for as ugly as the conditions were, the goal was exactly what Risden and Western United deserved, with Risden heading Burgess’s telling left-sided cross past Wanderers goalkeeper Tristan Prendergast, moments after Risden had beaten Prendergast but not the woodwork.
Western United were inevitably due to convert their superiority in possession and attack into another goal, and Besart Berisha would deliver it in the 19th minute at the end of a flowing four-man move. Risden turned provider as Berisha found another gear to pace himself past the Wanderers’ central defense to touch easily past Prendergast.
Once staked to their two-goal lead, Western United were defying the primitive conditions to maintain possession and combine passes with relative ease. Meanwhile, the Wanderers – being more reactive on the ball, by contrast to Western United’s skilful, proactive approach – had to settle for Kwame Yeboah and Simon Cox to latch onto long balls over the top to, by comparison, produce half-chances.
Yeboah tested Western United ’keeper Filiip Kurto in the 23rd minute, with Kurto forced into a reflex save, and eventually produced a carbon copy effort from Kurto moments before halftime – such were the pick of the Wanderers’ first-half chances.
Berisha was unlucky not to have doubled his night’s account on the half-hour when he forced another point-blank save from a near-post run from Burgess’s service, then within five minutes later the Kosovan nudged a slow-rolling waterlogged shot onto Prendergast’s left-hand post.
The Wanderers’ finals hopes were now reduced to the final 45 minutes – and appeared to be decimated within six minutes of the restart. Diamanti, playing a short corner combination with Connor Pain, was gifted heaps of near-post space after receiving the return pass, accepted the room to dribble and then audaciously chipped Prendergast at the far post, for one of the goals of the A-League season.
After Western Sydney coach Jean-Paul de Marigny responded with a series of substitutes marked in desperation to save his team’s season, they earned a worthy goal in the 69th minute. Mitchell Duke headed strongly past Kurto after impressive build-up play from substitute Bruce Kamau and Keanu Baccus.
Wanderers grew in confidence with Duke’s goal, and with a quarter-hour to go, another one of de Marigny’s inspired substitutes reduced the arrears to a single goal from a set piece. Tass Mourdoukoutas applied a deft back-heeled flick past Kurto from Pirim Schwegler’s short free kick, and now the game – whose result had seemed a rampant foregone conclusion just minutes before – just got much more intriguing.
As Western United had shown to defend well by getting players behind the ball – and perhaps a bit too early – when possessing a three-goal lead, Rudan’s team were now left to defend for survival against the Wanderers’ growing streams in confidence and possession.
Meanwhile, Western Sydney – knowing that only a win would do to keep their slim finals hopes alive – had nothing to lose. And their dreams were starting to become real, when Duke doubled his night’s account to bring the Wanderers level with eight minutes to play, turning well to beat Kurto, and suddenly they had momentum and real hope.
However, those dreams would be shattered in a matter of moments.
Within two minutes, Burgess capitalized on a midfield turnover to run past the Wanderers’ defenders and beat Prendergast inside the left post to put Western United back in front, and Diamanti completed his brace three minutes later with another lobbed goal – equally as bold as his first one – from Pain’s service to give Western United the all-important insurance tally.
Despite the late-game heartbreak, de Marigny paid tribute to his team’s fighting spirit.
“We started to get back into the game after halftime, and the longer the second half went on, we grew in confidence, and the goals were definitely coming. We never gave up.
“But football is such a cruel game sometimes,” said de Marigny.