Western Sydney boss Wellington to strengthen grip on Sixth

by Jeremy Ruane:
with the compliments of www.sportswebsoccer.com

Hyundai A-League – Season 12 – 2016/2017 – Round 23
Sunday 19 March, 2017 –  New Sydney Showground, Homebush

Western Sydney Wanderers FC 3 (N. Martinez 9′, B. Santalab 39′, 48′)
Wellington Phoenix FC 1 (G. Finkler (76)

Western Sydney Wanderers took a giant stride towards securing the last of the Hyundai A-League play-off spots at Spotless Stadium Homebush on March 19, comfortably accounting for a poor Wellington Phoenix side 3-1 in front of 7,828 fans.

You would never have known that the visitors had to win this game to keep alive any realistic hopes they harboured of overhauling their hosts in the race for the play-offs – by the time they got some semblance of a foothold in the contest, Western Sydney were in dominant mood, and had been from the very first whistle.

Just four minutes into the contest, Mitch Nichols found himself in space on the left and picked out Brendon Santalab with a cross which the striker headed down for Jumpei Kusukami’s benefit. He evaded a challenge before beating Glen Moss with a shot which cannoned off the base of the left-hand upright.

Buoyed by this close call, Wests came again four minutes later, Terry Antonis leading the charge. He fed the overlapping Scott Neville, whose measured cross invited Santalab to send a header bulleting past the post.

Just sixty seconds later, the home team took the lead. Nicolas Martinez started the move, which also featured Kearyn Baccus, Kusukami and Neville before Nichols got involved.

His lay-off for Neville wasn’t what it could have been, but the fullback’s desire to win the ball – he showed far more than the entire Wellington defence – ensured the chance was still alive when the ball fell invitingly for Martinez, whose unerring placed shot from twelve yards left the sprawling figure of Moss clutching at air as the ball arrowed into the bottom far corner.

It was no more than Wests deserved, and they went close to doubling their lead over the course of the next few minutes. Antonis’ driving run culminated in a shot which ricocheted off Nichols and flew narrowly over the bar in the tenth minute, while six minutes later, Moss tipped over overlapping fullback Jack Clisby’s dipping volley, after he had benefited from Antonis’ beautifully weighted pass.

Wellington finally started showing some signs of life in the 24th minute, when Guilherme Finkler’s cross ricocheted off Jonathan Aspropotamitis. Robert Cornthwaite tidied things up for the home team, who still offered plenty of menace despite Wellington’s increasing share of possession.

This allowed the visitors to build up pressure, culminating in a Finkler free-kick from twenty-seven yards eight minutes before half-time which only narrowly flew past the right-hand upright defended by the hitherto uninvolved Vedran Janjetovic.

From the resulting goal-kick, and a bit against the run of play at the time of the match, Western Sydney doubled their lead in the 39th minute. Nichols again caused havoc on the left – Matthew Ridenton is no fullback – before picking out Santalab, who checked inside a defender before, from the edge of the penalty area, unleashing a ferocious drive to which Moss got his hands, but not the power to divert it from its destiny.

Only a superb reflex save by Janjetovic denied Shane Smeltz three minutes before half-time, Costa Barbarouses’ shot having ricocheted off the striker right in front of Wests’ custodian.

Had that gone in, it would have given Wellington some much-needed momentum going into the second half, but within three minutes of referee Daniel Elder blowing his whistle to start it, the visitors found themselves three goals down.

After Moss had smothered a long-range effort from Antonis, Martinez spread the ball wide to Clisby, who delivered a hanging cross towards the far post. As Wellington’s defence watched the ball, Martinez strode onto it and took it to the by-line, from where he picked out Santalab inside the six-yard box.

The striker, who loves scoring against Wellington, did so once more, his close-range header making him the most prolific marksman in the history of Western Sydney Wanderers.

Quite where Wellington’s defence was when this goal came to pass remains to be seen. Yes, they were there in body, but their minds certainly weren’t on the job. Truth be told, the only player in yellow and black who was worth his salt in this match was Moss. The rest of them … let’s just say some are giving the strong impression that they can’t wait for the season to be over and done with!

Western Sydney certainly weren’t complaining, and swiftly looked to build still further on their advantage. Nichols and Martinez combined to release Clisby on the overlap once more five minutes into the half, and once more he picked out Martinez with a cross which allowed the playmaker to wriggle through three challenges, only to be thwarted by Moss.

Five minutes later, a four-on-two counter-attack had Wests perfectly placed to score again, only for Antonis to steer his effort in between Moss and Marco Rossi but just past the post, having been played in by Santalab.

A Shane Smeltz snapshot gave Janjetovic cause for concern on the hour, but normal service resumed soon after, substitute Lachlan Scott outpacing both Andrew Durante and Ridenton only to see Moss save at his feet in the 66th minute.

Five minutes later, Kusukami saw a shot blocked by Ridenton, off whom the ball ricocheted to Neville. His emphatic twenty-five yard volley flew narrowly over the bar, and prompted a brief spell of pressure from Wellington which culminated in a consolation goal, a gem of a twenty yard free-kick from Finkler fourteen minutes from time, and moments after he’d dragged another effort wide of the target.

Cue further Western Sydney pressure as they looked to re-establish their three-goal margin. Martinez took out three players with a gorgeous pass to release Jaushua Sotirio down the left seven minutes from time, but Kusukami failed to capitalise on the resulting cross.

Moss then stood firm to deny both Neville and Clisby, in between whose efforts Sotirio went desperately close to a fourth goal for Wests, after Clisby, Martinez and Neville had carved Wellington open once more.

3-1 was Western Sydney’s lot, however, a result which leaves them perfectly placed to clinch the last play-off spot, given they are now five points clear of nearest challengers Wellington with four rounds remaining.

Match details

Crowd:  7,828

Western Sydney Wanderers FC:  Janjetovic (gk); Neville, Cornthwaite, Aspropotamitis (booked, 86), Clisby; Baccus, Nichols (Sotirio, 77), Antonis (Pinatares, 89); Kusukami, Santalab (Scott, 63), Martinez

Wellington Phoenix FC:       Moss (gk); Ridenton, Durante, Rossi, Parkhouse (Doyle, 30); Lia (booked, 78), Finkler, Rodriguez (Bonevacia, 86); Barbarouses, Smeltz (Watson, 76), Krishna

Points and ratings

Referee:   Daniel Elder   6/10
Match    6/10
Pitch   7/10

Player points:
3.  Martinez
2.  Neville
1.  Antonis