Labinot Haliti orchestrated a Western Sydney smash and grab raid with his 80th minute goal to take all three points back to Sydney and send the Western Sydney Wanderers to the top of the A-League ladder.
With one of the largest away contingents in A-League history supporting them after making the short trip up the F3 to Gosford, the Western Sydney Wanderers took top position on the A-League table despite being second best for much of the contest. In teeming rain and howling wind this first vs second contest attracted just under 19,000 supporters, the game opened with Patrick Zwaanswijk sounding a warning to the Wanderers that slack marking at set pieces would be punished. After Iacopo La Rocca felled Daniel McBreen to give the home side a free kick in a wide position, the giant central defender glanced a header just wide of goal.
For much of the game it was a struggle to gain traction in the final third, Bernie Ibini had the best opportunity of the first half for the Mariners. A 18th minute corner was worked short with a one-two pass that enabled Michael McGlinchey to close in to the Wanderers penalty box, his low cross found Ibini but the young flier was leaning back into his shot and it sailed over one of the giant inflatable sauce bottles of one a Central Coast sponsor.
D'Apuzzo earned a double strike on goal as a beneficiary of the trickery of Youssouf Hersi. Hersi turned Joshua Rose and cut the ball inside, D'Apuzzo hasn't scored a goal in over 100 A-League appearances and it showed with his finish. The first shot appeared to get stuck in the wet turf, the ball rebounding from a Mariner defender, the second effort being skied for a goal kick. Minutes later it was McBreen who had his own shot blocked, McGlinchey changed the point of attack to the right wing, allowing Pedj Bojic to get a first time ball into the middle of the penalty box. McBreen stretched for the ball and made strong contact, if not for Nikolai Topor-Stanley's perfect position it could easily have crept in at Ante Covic's far post.
McGlinchey had his own sky-high moment with 5 minutes to go in the first half, he cut back onto his right foot from the left hand side of the field and lined up a strike from outside the box. The resulting shot went higher than the one from D'Apuzzo. Late in stoppage time, with little happening in front of him Mateo Poljak took on a long range effort that ended closer to the corner flag than Central Coast goalkeeper Mat Ryan.
The rain continued the torrential downpour into the second half, the opening notes of which were a yellow card to each team, one to Topor-Stanley and one to John Hutchinson. With only 5 minutes gone in the half, Central Coast were given the opportunity to land a hammer blow in the race for the Premier's Plate. Dino Kresinger was given the tasking of marking Zwaanswijk at a corner, as the ball was whipped in the defender stole a march on the striker. When Zwaanswijk tumbled to the turf referee Alan Milliner pointed to the spot for a penalty to the bemusement of all on the field but Zwaanswijk. Replays showed the call was marginal and could easily have been waved away.
Central Coast had missed their last three penalties, with several of their attacking players missing. The most recent was during their mid-week Asian Champions League match against Suwon Bluewings, and after training this week it was the goalkeeper Mat Ryan who elected to take on the responsibility of attempting to score the biggest penalty of the season. Ante Covic then added another save to the litany of penalty saves over his long career, the penalty being fired low and to the middle of the goal, Covic kept his feet and legs stretched, blocking the shot and allowed him to claim it. With Ryan scrambling back to his goal Covic contemplated a long bomb but with the wind running in the opposition direction and with the rain making the ball heavy it was extremely unlikely to have made even three quarters of the distance to the goal.
Shinji Ono attempted to rub salt into the wound, his shot from distance moving in the air but being comfortably saved. It was his last major contribution to the match as he was replaced by Aaron Mooy on the hour mark. Despite the introduction of the Socceroo midfielder and the penalty miss, it was Central Coast who remained energised over next period of the match. Zwaanswijk received a lay-off from a wide free kick and hammered it from a fair distance out, it was on target and fast paced, Covic palming it down into the ground holding it from the rebound. Ibini used his pace to burn the left sided defence of Western Sydney, Covic was placed expertly at the near post and the Wanderers scrambled the ball clear.
After Kresinger was punished for his fourth offside of the night he was replaced by Labinot Haliti, he made an immediate impact, getting onto the end of a nicely shaped cross from Hersi. The low ball didn't give much more option than a low sliding header and it glanced into the arms of Ryan, but it was a warning shot and a sign that Western Sydney were still looking to take all three points. Central Coast then had their best chance of the second half, McGlinchey getting the better of Jerome Polenz, then evading the sliding challenge of La Rocca to cut the ball back to McBreen, who smashed the ball at goal from short range, only to see it cannon off the crossbar and bounce back toward the Mariners half, replays showing the correct decision being made by the officials who allowed play to continue.
With the 80th minute RBB Poznan in full flight, a turnover by Central Coast proved deadly. La Rocca took the ball in midfield and moved it on to Mark Bridge who had drifted in from his wing position, his first touch was to slice the ball into the arcing run of Haliti. With Zwaanswijk beaten and hoping for what would have been an incorrect offside call, Haliti arrowed a first time shot across the keeper and it nestled into the back of the net. Haliti immediately discarded his shirt then spun on his heels to sprint to the travelling supporters massed on the far side.
Despite having 13 minutes to play including injury time Central Coast created very few real chances in the time remaining. The frustration told on their players, McBreen picking up a yellow for cutting down Bridge after missing with an initial attempt. Late pressure through a couple of corner kicks wasn't converted into an equaliser and after the four agonising minutes of injury time were up the result was confirmed, with Western Sydney taking their 1-0 scoreline back down the freeway home, and heading to the top of the A-League ladder. The match was the 8th win in a row for Western Sydney. This equals the record for highest amount of wins in a row in the A-League, currentl held by Melbourne Victory in 2006. It is 1 game away from the nine-game streak held by three clubs during the NSL-era.
While three points were saved by the actions of Covic then won by Haliti, mention must be made of Nikolai Topor-Stanley. In addition to his perhaps goal-saving block from McBreen in the second half he created an nigh-on impregnable fortress in his part of the field. While the Wanderers rode their luck throughout the match, most if not all of the other teams in the competition would have left the stadium on the end of a two or three goal loss. Some pundits described Western Sydney as not being deserving of winning the match, but history doesn't record who deserves to win a match, only who does or does not win it. Western Sydney won this match through determination and a refusal to lose combined with a momentary flare of brilliance in the otherwise gloomy Gosford night. As this season draws to a conclusion if it is to be the Western Sydney Wanderers who lift the first piece of silverware for the season, this match will surely go down as the defining moment.
The Wanderers next match is against Wellington Phoenix at Parramatta Stadium, Parramatta, on Sunday the 10th of March at 5:00pm Eastern Daylight Savings Time.