Wanderers show signs of life in ALM draw with City

Maybe there’s life in Western Sydney Wanderers yet. 

Despite coming into Sunday afternoon’s clash with Melbourne City as the A-League Men’s designated club in crisis, the representatives of Sydney’s west produced their best performance of the 2021-22 campaign to force a 3-3 draw with the defending champions at AAMI Park. 

In doing so, not only did they give their fans a reason to maybe hold out some form of hope for the season (only a little though, it was just one game after all) but also did their bit to help produce what was, arguably, the best game of the campaign thus far. 

Goals to James Troisi and Jack Rodwell, the latter the former Premier League star’s first since arriving in Australia, had the Wanderers two to the good inside the opening ten minutes at AAMI Park, the side in Red and Black looking a distinctly more fluid unit with Japanese import Keijiro Ogawa operating as the nine in place of the absent Bernie Ibini or benched Tomer Hemed. 

While an own goal/Scott Galloway strike, Jamie Maclaren header and Marco Tilio bomb would eventually flip that early advantage on its head, the Wanderers were nonetheless able to pinch a goal back through Ogawa to force the spoils to be shared. 

“We’re a big club, so [taking an early lead is] no surprise. All we need is a bit of belief and we’ll get on with it,” stand in Wanderers coach Labinot Haliti said.

“We showed tonight what we can do.”

Taking advantage of City’s dual-pivots in Connor Metcalfe and Aiden O’Neill losing their shape, Troisi found a yard of space and laced a pearl of an outside-of-the-box effort beyond Tom Glover in the fifth minute to open the scoring before, breaking out in transition, Rodwell laced a left-footed inside the near post to make it two in the ninth. 

Weeks on from their last match thanks to COVID-related postponements – that game a 2-0 defeat to Central Coast Mariners that to former coaches Patrick Zwaanswijk and Dean Heffernan to claim that the club had a toxic culture – it was the exact start that a squad under fire needed. 

Nonetheless, the humour in this being delivered with under-fire coach Carl Robinson confined to his hotel room and his assistant Labinot Haliti manning the dugout, with newly arrived assist Gary van Egmond at his side, wasn’t lost on anyone either. 

Whether the Wanderers are able to maintain their form when the Welshman returns and the composition of the squad potentially changes as absent or benched players return to fitness will inevitably become a key storyline facing down the club in the coming weeks.

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But in a suitably allegorical twist, the early promise and reasons for optimism shown by the Wanderers on Sunday were quickly tempered: City pulling a goal back when a Scott Jamieson cross floated towards the back post and was bundled over the line to make it 2-1. 

Initial replays seemingly indicated that Dimi Petratos had inadvertently deflected it goalward in an attempt to clear, while the scorers awarded the goal to an on-rushing Galloway but, regardless of whom got the last chance, it augured further chances for City. 

Jamieson smashed a cross into the crossbar that bounced off its underside and back into play minutes later before Mat Leckie was subsequently afforded enough time and space to dribble into the penalty area before being denied by a last-ditch challenge from Rhys Williams. 

Leckie would blaze an effort from outside the area over the bar before City eventually found a deserved equaliser in the 36th minute when Jamie Maclaren found a hole in the Wanderers zone and headed in a short-corner routine to make bring things back to 2-2. 

By the end of the first half, City had outshot the visitors eleven to six, had, per FotMob, created 2.07 expected goals (xG) to 0.51 and absolutely should have gone 3-2 up in the final moments of the half after Maclaren had an opportunity to tap in at the far post, only to fail to make proper contact with the ball. 

Nonetheless, it wasn’t all bad for the Wanderers: the vast, vast majority of the opportunities that had contributed to their foes xG sum derived from moments of transition or set-pieces.

And it was the visitors that almost took the lead just seconds into the second half when Steven Ugarkovic, who put in a commanding performance at the base of his side’s midfield, laced a gem of a ball into the path of a breaking Ogawa and set up a shot that forced a diving save from Glover to keep things tied. 

Thomas Aquilina was then almost able to set up the on-loan Yokohama F Marinos man with a low cross driven across the box in the 58th but proved just unable to get the right pace on the ball. 

City, however, then got the chance to show that they possessed some difference-makers of their own: Tilio producing a sterling long-range effort of his own to put his side ahead 3-2 after being found in transition by Andrew Nabbout. Whether the goal should have survived a VAR review, Leckie appearing to foul Aquilina to spring City forward at the start of the move, was a point of contention. 

Alas for the hosts, their perhaps fortunate lead ended up lasting less than ten minutes when Ugarkovic again delivered a laser of a long ball forward for Ogawa in the 68th minute; the 29-year-old just defeating the offside trap and finishing beyond Glover to tie things up.

Opportunities and in vain penalty shouts for both sides would present themselves as the game wore on but, in the end, neither side could find a winner that would have put a fitting capstone on a highly entertaining contest.

The Wanderers, in particular, were crestfallen in the 85th minute not to receive a penalty when Rostyn Griffiths appeared to move his arm towards a Terry Antonis strike.

“At the end of the day, it’s the referee’s decision. In my opinion, he got it wrong,” Troisi told Paramount Plus.

Nonetheless, in coming to Melbourne and taking a point off the reigning champions and premiers, while playing some pretty good stuff to boot, it was a result that could prove important to Robinson and the Wanderers hopes of a turnaround.

Their only potential major downside to the game was a potentially serious injury to captain Rhys Williams, who was stretchered off and taken straight down the player’s race after appearing to suffer a serious hamstring injury in the 78th minute. 

The official A-League Men twitter account would subsequently tweet out that the veteran defender had suffered a “severe hamstring tear”.

“He’s a great leader, we wish him a speedy recovery,” Haliti said.

Enjoying Joey’s coverage of Australian sport? Your support helps keep it possible.
You’re seeing this advert because this is an unpaid, self-published piece.

You can support his ongoing work by buying him a coffee: https://ko-fi.com/joeylynchy 

Header Image Credit: Channel 10/Paramount+

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