Derby dreams dashed, the Victoria against New South Wales rivalry will be lived instead in a Sky Blue Championship decider as Melbourne City seal a home Grand Final against Sydney FC. The two semifinals have left a lot to digest, so let’s dig in like a birthday cake.
Melbourne Victory 0 – 1 Sydney FC
One version of this story could be Melbourne Victory were lulled into a false sense of security by their cruisy 3-1 win over Sydney FC in the final round of home and away season. Such a victory saw the Melbourne side happily replicate the same starting XI, in a 3-5-2 formation. The round 14 result begged Sydney to shake things up, and three changes to the starting line up saw the Sky Blue turn to experience for the knockout.
To a degree, Sydney winning can be pinned on a simple narrative. The predictability of Victory relying on Daria Jenkins to ignite in attack, saw her stumble under the pressure, and for large parts of the match marked out of the match by Veronica Latsko. The contest between the two perhaps the unsung area where Sydney really created the turn around from 14 days ago. While a goal created by Ally Green, one of the fresh faces in the side, was enough for Sydney to hold onto victory.
Mother nature had her say on the match, with the wind a key factor to the encounter. Sydney capitalised in the first half with the goal from Latsko ghosting between the centre backs to put home a threatening cross. Rather than navigate the packed midfield, with the benefit of the wind, Sydney often looked to the early long ball with success. The ability of Remy Siemsen to hold up play saw her look lively in the opening spell, more than comfortable to chase the long ball and link up with an incoming teammate.
Once the wind was in Victory’s favour in the second half, the home side easily established their authority over Sydney. A few threatening opportunities in the first half turned to an array of golden chances during the second. Finally the stacked midfield wrestled the match into Victory’s favour, with Sydney unable to find the long ball to spread the pitch enough to expose any of the earlier gaps. From the forward press, through to the general control and creativity was all utilised, as Victory threw everything and the kitchen sink at the match to turn around the one goal deficit.
The true game decider? Hands down the experience of Sydney’s centre backs. Any player of the match award needs to be tied. The tenacity, work ethic and general ability to be a brick wall saw Alanna Kennedy and Ellie Brush put on a display worthy of a Big Blue semi-final. Time and time again the duo were called upon to steady the ship, snuff out dangerous balls and work out of tight spaces under pressure. While the deep line employed this season has been an achilles heel, the pair managed it just right on Saturday and barely set a step wrong. The few instances they did, Aubrey Bledsoe was there for reinforcement.
Melbourne Victory come out of the tie the dominant side. However the inability to break down Sydney FC’s defence, and a lapse of concentration in the 14th minute sees them miss out on the big dance for a second season in a row. Instead Sydney tweaked their game plan to capitalise early and allowed experience to steer the side through the gritty encounter.
Melbourne City 5 – 1 Western Sydney Wanderers
The task for every club to throw Melbourne City off their game and grind out any kind of result has been daunting this season. For the Western Sydney Wanderers, in the club’s first ever W-League semi-final, missing the fire power of Lynn Williams and captain reliable Erica Halloway’s steady, quick feet at fullback, the task was always going to be a mountain to climb. Quick goals added salt to the Wanderers wounds early, as the 5-1 scoreline demonstrates City’s dominance. However, there were blips.
Employing a higher press than at Marconi in round 13, the Wanderers went in hopeful. However it was a key decision in defence to keep Sam Staab and Caitlin Cooper restricted to remaining narrow in the box that was exploited. The move saw acres of space open up on the flank for City. The most obvious was Coutney Nevin increasingly becoming isolated against Ellie Carpenter and the rotating duo of Claire Emslie and Kyah Simon down the Wanderer’s left side. Not requiring an invitation, the first goal came through this avenue. Carpenter went flying into space with the ball at her feet, sent in a mint cross to Emslie, who had lost her markers to open the scoring.
A mirror image of space down the flank would create Kyah Simon’s first goal from the otherside of the pitch, doubling the lead in under 25 minutes of play. Continuing to be asked to play wide throughout the half, City were more than happy to accept the invitation. Another ball flew in from the area creating the danger that lead to Rebecca Stott’s goal to make it three before half time.
Most importantly, there was a tipping point after half time. With a licence to continue long balls, searching for Kristen Hamilton, dividends were paid when the Wanderers found Melbourne City napping in defence. The defence were left calling for an offside, as Hamilton found the diagonal run of Coutney Vine, who had discovered a pocket of space in front of goal, to produce a glimmer of hope for her side.
The heat was turned up at 3-1, as the Wanderers found confidence, however Vine’s earlier composure would allude her for the rest of the match. Instead, as Western Sydney were beginning to wrestle the game back a little, Simon diminished their hope. Trickery fooled Caitlin Cooper in the box, with a strikers finish from Simon sending a reminder to all that this is a City side who are very capable of working the counter attack.
A wild deflection created a Nevin own goal, furthered City’s advantage. There’s little doubt City have set the benchmark. Their ability to create opportunities, world class talent across the pitch and composure has set them apart as they’ve grown even more confident and capable as the season has ticked to its end.
However, one area City will look to tighten up is the space in behind their defence. A number of times, when the Wanderers countered, City looked to ride their luck a touch too much. Particularly in the last ten minutes, the Wanderers weren’t going down without a fight. Sending the ball forward for Hamilton to hold up, Vine crafted a number of delicious diagonal runs into space, that cleverly avoided the offside flag. City were caught on the back foot numerous times. Had Vine found her earlier composure, the Wanderers could have pegged a goal or two back. Whether this was complacency of being a few goals ahead, or tired legs following international matches, it’s perhaps the only chink in City’s impressive armour.
In the end, Melbourne City served the Western Sydney Wanderers an unfriendly welcome to the W-League’s postseason. Melbourne City have set the standard this season, demanding excellence. They’ve claimed a home Grand Final against Sydney FC as just reward. Whatever that may happen in the next seven days, nothing should taint the stunning season City have produced.