A "Western Derby" saw the Western Sydney Wanderers travel to Ballarat in Victoria to take on Western United on Sunday afternoon, with Jordon Mutch taking advantage of a terrible defensive error to slot home the only goal of the match.
The major pre-game drama involved the Wanderers coach Carl Robinson, who took ill on the morning of the game and remained in Melbourne while his team travelled down the freeway to Victoria's south-west Assistant Kenny Miller took Robinson's place in the technical area. Keanu Baccus was dropped to the bench after his horror show in the last game, Jordon Mutch made his first start for the Wanderers and James Troisi took up the attacking midfield role.
An early chance fell to Bernie Ibini in the 10th minute, he nodded down a wide free kick testing the Western United keeper but not beating him. The home side had their own try not long after, with a fast break that ended with Connor Pain firing a shot in from a very narrow angle. Alessandro Diamanti attempted an audacious volley from well outside the penalty area but it flashed miles over the bar.
Besart Berisha fashioned a goalscoring chance despite being outnumbered 2 to 5, receieving the ball he turned on his defender and shot low and hard. Daniel Margush was well positioned and collected it easily. Graham Dorrans fired back from 25 yards, causing a deflection that momentarily worried the keeper. Diamanti tried another long range effort and replicated his earlier finish, well over the bar.
On the half-hour Dorrans was very unlucky not to open the scoring, Ibini and Duke managed to knock the ball down into the path of Dorrans and his shot took a deflection that almost beat Kurto. After it was cleared a scramble saw Bernie Ibini try to turn the ball home at the near post, he missed but Aaron Calver hit Kurto in the head with a stray knee as he dived in for a block. Kurto remained on the turf to take a concussion test from the club physio. He failed the test and was replaced by Ryan Scott who made his second A-League appearance, with his first coming in identical circumstances against Adelaide United in March 2020. The delayed blunted a measure of momentum for the Wanderers and let Western United regroup. Steven Lustica the former Wanderer was booked for a clear drag-back on Ibini. Ibini then found space outside the penalty area but his shot rose off the boot and kept rising until it reached the construction zone behind the goal.
Jordan Mutch nearly pulled a scorpion kick goal out of the locker just before half-time, a cross in was behind the midfielder and Mutch stuck out the leg and turned it toward goal but not accurately enough to trouble the scorers. As the 5 minutes of stoppage time were indicated by the fourth official, Dylan Pieras sucked Mark Natta into a poor challenge and the Wanderers central defender was given a yellow card for it.
Diamanti delivered a corner to the back post and found Tomoki Imai, although he was falling backward he generated enough power to really trouble Margush and forced the keeper into a diving scrambling stop that rolled over the byline.
Controversy reigned in the final seconds of the half. Bernie Ibini took the ball inside the penalty area, Aaron Calver did a blatant shirt pull while Andrew Durante also knocked him from behind. It clearly impacted on Ibini's shot but the referee gave nothing, while VAR cleared the foul in the 15 seconds between the foul and half-time being blown. It was a clear and obvious error on just the shirt pull alone, with two further fouls committed as Ibini was going to shoot. Unlike VAR calls that go against WSW, the ref didn't stop the game, didn't walk over to spend 5 minutes reviewing slow motion replays from bad Fox Sports camera angles while the VAR Bunker tells him to change his mind.
Scott made his first action of the game in the second half, Ibini held up the ball to play Troisi and his lofted short range cross was met with a volley from fullback Daniel Wilmering. It was fast but straight at the keeper down low. The Wanderers first change of the game was forced through injury, Mark Natta who was already on a yellow card suffered a quad strain. With no recognised central defender on the bench Keanu Baccus was bought on and the Wanderers moved to a more regulation four at the back formation.
Jordan Mutch opened the scoring in the 56th minute after Jerry Skotatis made a horrific error trying to play the ball back to the keeper. He made a complete hash of the pass-back, it dribbled a meter or so and Mutch was reward for his closing down with a saloon passage into the penalty area, his side foot placed shot beat the sub keeper to make it 1-0 to the visitors. The Wanderers did a double change after the goal, bringing on Kwame Yeboah and Bruce Kamau in place of Ibini and Troisi.
In the 65th minute Pieras sent the home supporters into raptures with a ghost goal. His curling strike beat Margush and looked to have nestled into the bottom corner but instead it hit the goal stanchion and rolled onto the rear side of the netting. Mitch Duke pulled up sore with an apparent leg injury and he left the field for Simon Cox, with goal scorer Mutch replaced by Nicolai Muller.
Western United built back into the game after the subs broke the speed of the play, Berisha had a chance for a very short range header and looped it over the crossbar. Margush was called into action again 10 minutes from full time. When the rest of the defence failed to stop a long throw being flicked on at the near post, Margush was strong with his hands to keep the ball out. Simon Cox almost doubled for the Wanderers, he got onto the end of a long bomb cross from Yeboah, it would have beat the keeper but a late intervention from the defence stopped it from finding the net or flashing across goal for a Muller tap-in. Muller had his own opportunity when he smashed a short-range volley over the bar.
The fourth official somehow found a 6 minute long stoppage time and United should have equalised with a point blank header only for the United attacker to find Margush from a few meters out. The Wanderers should have then buried the game as they broke fast up the other end, Yeboah and Kamau combined and Yeboah practically shot the cover off the ball only to rattle the woodwork. If he'd found Kamau in the middle he might have had a tap-in to seal it.
The late pressure from United was met with a stoic, uncompromising defence with the Wanderers throwing themselves at the ball and when required, through the opposition players. The clearly excessive 7 minutes of stoppage passed with waves of United attack but they couldn't breach the Red & Black wall and having taken all three points, the Wanderers benefiting from other results to fly up the A-League table to take 3rd place on 16 points, 5 from the Mariners in first and ahead of Adelaide United on goal difference. It may not have been the prettiest game for the visitors but they held fast, worked for each other and had enough chances to say they deserved the close win. It is the first win for the Wanderers outside New South Wales in 436 days and a welcome relief after the poor form of last month.
The Wanderers next match is against Wellington Phoenix at Parramatta on Monday March the 15th.