Western United are A-League Champions for the first time in their short history.
Frankly, from the beginning of the game it did not seem like the game would go any other way as Aloisi’s side outwitted, outfought and, ultimately, outclassed this season’s Premiers. It was all too passive from Melbourne City who never really looked likely to break down Western’s water-tight defensive unit.
Such is their reputation for solidity that the game felt like it was decided after a matter of mere minutes.
It took just two minutes for Aleksandar Prijović to score the fastest goal in A-League Grand Final history and send the packed Western Service Crew into raptures as he profited from a beautifully flighted Ben Garuccio corner kick. For all his experience, Rostyn Griffiths inexplicably lost Prijović, his direct marker, at the front post as the Serbian punished the error with authority by heading the ball towards goal before it deflected off Nuno Reis and found its way past Tom Glover in Melbourne City’s net.
From the first minute, Western sought to challenge City’s defenders to defend on the front foot as Prijović was increasingly a thorn in their side.
In hot form off the back of his herculean effort in last week’s unexpected smash and grab against Melbourne Victory, the Serbian consistently outmuscled Curtis Good and Reis in the air. While his 7.87 aerial duels won per 90 suggests that this has been a common theme throughout Prijović’s season, the transformative effect of his strength and capacity to retain possession was more pronounced against City as Western constantly used him as an outlet to find their way beyond City’s high press.
Not enough time had elapsed before Western’s goal to assert that it had altered the state of the game, however, it felt as if you could copy and paste the first half of Aloisi’s side with almost any match during the regular season as they remained compact, resolute and robust in defence. On the flip side, City were tentative and passive, as if they were playing without the same freedom that had permeated the team prior to their ill-fated Asian Champions League campaign.
It is almost too cynical to suggest that Kisnorbo’s structured machine had ran out of gas, but – whether through skill gap or through sheer determination – they appeared second best to every loose ball and played needlessly risk-free football at the best of times. This is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that, despite their relative dominance of the ball, it took until the 39 minute before Kisnorbo’s side registered their first shot of the match, that shot being a deflected shot from outside the box which trickled out for a corner kick.
Like a lion wishing to feast on their prey, Western United were merciless and aggressive. After a flurry of chances including a Prijović volley which required a pulsating clearance from Good, Aloisi’s side struck again in the 30th minute through none other than their mercurial Serbian.
If Western as a side are like a lion wishing to feast on their prey, then Prijović is the leader of the kingdom – the unashamed, robust predator who does not need an invitation before he inevitably swoops.
In similarly scrappy fashion to their opener, Prijović cannoned the ball into the top corner after turning on a sixpence and volleying the ball into Glover’s goal. The goal came as a result of a driven shot from Connor Pain being deflected before rebounding off his face and sending Prijović on his way.
The circumstance of the goal was almost as comical as City’s defending itself. Despite being originally ruled offside, Chris Beath gave the strike the all clear after Video Assistant Referee Kris Griffiths-Jones found that the ball had deflected off Connor Metcalfe, thus ruling Prijović’s offside position as null and void.
After the second goal, it almost appeared that Western were toying with the Premiers as ill-discipline began to creep into Kisnorbo’s side. Carl Jenkinson was arguably fortunate to escape severe punishment after an altercation with Pain late in the second half. While he seemed to move his head towards the Western livewire, Kris Griffiths-Jones determined that the action was not severe enough to warrant a brandishing of Chris Beath’s red card.
As City were crying for a decisive match-winner from the bench, the decision to leave Marco Tilio on the bench until the 65th minute was perplexing. While Kisnorbo is not one to depart from his ‘Plan A’, the context of knockout finals matches often require minute changes to throw the opposition away from their established match plan.
However, City’s approach was all too familiar and it was what we had become accustomed to seeing after their ACL bout. The same indecisiveness, the same incapacity to facilitate much-needed third-man runs beyond the opposition’s last line and the same tactical rigidity with respect to bench utilisation.
The decision to move Leckie into midfield upon Tilio’s introduction felt more like Kisnorbo throwing the proverbial onto the wall and hoping it would stick, rather than it being representative of any meaningful shift in tactical dynamic.
Scarily, the writing was on the wall for City before this match had even commenced. Upon return from Bangkok, Kisnorbo’s side lost to wooden spooners Perth Glory and edged a narrow victory against sixth placed Wellington before they crawled over the finish line against Adelaide in a two-legged showdown which was decided in extra-time.
Although Western began to tire in the second half with their last line beginning to drop further and further into their own half, City struggled to amass many decisive opportunities on goal. Indeed, it speaks volumes that City’s best chance of the match came as a result of a long diagonal over the top from Reis to Leckie in the 60th minute – an opportunity that was squandered by the Socceroo after having taken the ball past Jamie Young.
While it is worth acknowledging City’s efforts in attempting to retain their A-League Championship crown, as the game wore on, it merely felt as if City were prolonging the inevitable as they struggled to even make a dint in Western’s armour-like rearguard.
Although Western were characteristically brilliant throughout the match (and the season for that matter), this felt equally as much of a Melbourne City loss as it did a Western United victory. City will rue their poor first half while Western will worship the likes of Prijović and Kilkenny for leading them to their maiden A-League Championship in just their third season in the league.