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W-League Grand Final Preview

By Angela Christian-Wilkes

 Melbourne City vs Sydney FC.

Date and time TBC.

Next weekend, behind closed doors, the reigning champions and current premiers face off for the silverware. Sydney FC and Melbourne City are two incredibly successful powerhouses of the W-League. It will be Sydney’s seventh appearance in the big dance after twelve seasons in the W-League, while for City it will be their fourth of five. Both can claim to have won all of their Grand Finals at home—three each.

If history (and this season) is anything to go by here, this is City’s game to win. The two sides have met twice before at the Grand Final; both times City came away with the goods. In the first, they won 4-1 after a debut season in 2015-2016 where they flattened all in their way. The second, two years later, saw them beat Sydney again 2-0 after a comeback from fourth on the ladder.

Both semi-finals encapsulated what the respective contenders will bring to the final. City are the favourites due to not only their incredible season, but also their history of finishing finals. It’s unlikely they will mix up a formula that has served them so well—possession, consistent pressure and clinical decision-making in front of goals.

This isn’t to say Sydney aren’t in with a chance here, but they will need to demonstrate the tactical execution and high work rate they demonstrated last week to an even higher calibre. Whilst there is danger in sitting back defensively, unwavering focus and work ethic will be essential so that City aren’t given any space to create opportunities.

Melbourne Victory 0 – 1 Sydney FC (Latsko 14’)

Saturday 14 March, Epping Stadium.

Victory experienced some difficulties at the beginning their season, compounded by a big roster refresh and a difficult fixture. The return of centre back Laura Brock crucially freed-up the side for a switch to a back three formation. This provided them with more attacking power down the flanks and better service into the goal area for striker Natasha Dowie. Pulling out some big wins at the tail-end of the season (including 0-7 result against Newcastle Jets) Victory were able to wrangle a top four finish. In one of their strongest performances of the season, Victory beat Sydney 3-1 in Round 14, claiming second place and the home advantage for the semi-final.

Sydney have had a more consistent season, sitting comfortably in the top four. They luckily welcomed back not only a coach but a large swathe of their squad, including captain Teresa Polias and centre back Alanna Kennedy. However, in the new year they lost two Matildas to the Football Association Women’s Soccer League in England—Caitlin Foord to Arsenal and Chloe Logarzo to Bristol City—depleting their attack. Nevertheless, the team’s quality across field was still evident.

Both sides were familiar with the context of the semi-final. Victory were facing the team they had comprehensively beaten in the last round of the season as they did against Perth last year; Sydney were coming into the contest from third place as they did against Brisbane Roar. The windy conditions at Epping made for some frantic football, both sides going in on the physical front. The home side dictated the pace, leaving Sydney to disrupt channels instead of creating their own. However, a lapse in concentration from Victory’s defence was all it took for Sydney to get a lead they could cling on to. In the 14th minute, Ally Green made a searching cross into the box, with Veronica Latsko able to stealthily sweep in behind and catch Casey Dumont by surprise.

Victory kept the ball in their attacking third for much of the second half but couldn’t make the final passes count. Although Sydney were unable to smother the play further down the pitch, they pushed hard to leap on mistakes and stifle momentum in front of goal. When the shot was on, keeper Aubrey Bledsoe was quick to clean it up. History repeated itself: Sydney took the win and Victory was knocked out the second year in a row.

Melbourne City (Emslie 13’, Simon 22’ + 56’, Stott 41’, Nevin 62’) 5  – 1 (Vine 51’) Western Sydney Wanderers

Sunday 15 March, ABD Stadium, Broadmeadows.

City started their campaign with modest wins, before eventually expanding into a streak of clean sheets and big victories. Smart formation from coach Rado Vidosic and the development of team chemistry shifted them from imposing on paper to unstoppable on the pitch, finishing the season undefeated after failing to even reach the finals last year. For fullbacks, they had the Matildas duo of athletic Ellie Carpenter—her first season with the club—and the ever-precise Steph Catley. Scottish signing Claire Emslie’s form strengthened across the season, Kyah Simon found her (goal-scoring) feet after years halted by injury, and Emily Van Egmond was given freedom in attacking midfield.

Related—Girls to the Front: the new Australian Sports Museum makes equality a priority

If City’s narrative has centred on a return to dominance, Wanderers’ season has been marked by change. They captured imaginations from fans across the league after revamping their roster, bringing in both international and local talent. Amy Harrison came from across town, whilst W-League veteran Ella Mastrantonio and up-and-comer Kyra Cooney-Cross both departed then-premiers Victory. The greatest excitement came with the signing announcement of three players from the American National Women’s Soccer League’s championship winning side North Carolina Courage – Lynn Williams, Kristen Hamilton and Irish international Denise O’Sullivan. 

This attacking trio of NC Courage players were instrumental in WSW’s early wins and they topped the table for the first time in… well, ever. However, in round 9, things turned pear-shaped. Williams was called into camp for US Women’s National Team and eventually terminated her contract to focus on national duties. Shortly after this, O’Sullivan guest contract ended, leaving a stark gap in the midfield. Whilst the squad was replenished with train-on players, this could not make up for the attacking power lost and they quickly slipped on the ladder.

The magic had worn off by the time fourth placed Wanderers faced the premiers last Sunday at ABD Stadium in Broadmeadows. City controlled the flow of the game from the start. They were persistent yet patient, wasting no time in unleashing shots when given the opportunity. By the end of the first half, City were 3-0 up. Carpenter’s outstanding performance – making run after a run on the wing – had a big impact on the score.

To their credit, Wanderers continued to search for their own chances in second half. Wanderers’ Cortnee Vine’s persistence paid off, slotting in a beautiful goal past City’s defensive line. A spectacular individual effort from Simon and an own goal finished the game at 5-1. In the face of such heavy defeat the Wanderers were able to hold their heads high and push until the final whistle. For their fans, the heartbreak will be difficult but tinged with pride.

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