Melbourne Heart 1 Western Sydney Wanderers 3
The Western Sydney Wanderers are within touching distance of an astonishing premiership triumph in their debut A-League season after all but ending Melbourne Heart's flickering finals hopes with a win in an entertaining, end-to-end contest at AAMI Park on Saturday night.
Tony Popovic's team displayed their trademark efficiency, and plenty of flair, in seeing off the challenge of a desperate Heart to take all three points in the driving rain, the new club stretching the competition's record for consecutive victories to 10.
Western Sydney are now eight points clear of Central Coast Mariners, who play Brisbane on Sunday. If the Mariners, so long the league leaders this season, fail to beat the defending champions at Bluetongue Stadium, the Wanderers will collect the plate when they entertain rivals Sydney in the third of the harbour city derbies at Parramatta Stadium next Saturday. Heart now need a miracle to make the play-offs.
A much changed Heart side began this match with purpose. Coach John Aloisi had questioned the spirit and commitment of several of his senior men after the defeat five days ago in Adelaide. Fred, Simon Colosimo and Matt Thompson, all out of contract at the end of this season, were included in a starting line-up that contained several fresh faces. Patrick Gerhardt was in the centre of defence, while Jonathan Germano came into midfield. Youngster Sam Mitchinson was at left back, given another chance now that he is fit again, while the promising but raw Golgol Mebrahtu was recalled to try to spark a Heart attack.
David Williams and Nick Kalmar were dropped to the bench, while there was no place in the squad for young striker Eli Babalj.
A major factor in the Wanderers' success has been the continuity of their personnel, and while Shinji Ono, the club's marquee player, was an absentee for this trip, the team still had a settled look about them, with their defensive core on duty in front of ever present goalkeeper Ante Covic.
The game opened up in the 28th minute when Western Sydney took the lead. Bridge was shown too much room down the right by young Heart full back Jeremy Walker and the Wanderers striker got to the byline before pulling back a cross. Heart's defence failed to deal with the bobbing ball, and when it came back to Labinot Haliti the forward fired in off Andrew Redmayne's post.
This is a situation Wanderers have become familiar with all season, containing their opponents when they have hit the front and denying them the chance to get back into the game.
But they reckoned without Mebrahtu, who seemed to lift in adversity. The tall Sudanese-born striker has electric pace but is far from the finished article, capable of some inspirational maneouvres and then some basic errors. Six minutes before half-time he fastened on to a pass from Fred well outside the Wanderers area, created space for himself and let fly with a fierce drive which flew past Covic to even the scores.
Heart thought they had their noses in front just before the break when Wanderers failed to deal with Golgol's free kick and Richard Garcia flicked the ball in, only for the goal to be disallowed for offside.
Wanderers regained the lead on the hour mark when Haliti scored his second, taking advantage of some slack marking in the Heart area to finish from Iacopo La Rocca's pass.
With their season on the line, Aloisi rolled the dice and threw on David Williams, with the defender Walker making way. But the hosts could make no inroads and Heart's prospects almost completely disappeared 11 minutes from time when centre back Simon Colosimo was given his marching orders, booked for the second time in four minutes, both times for fouls on substitute Dino Kresinger.
La Rocca's terrific control and beautiful strike in the 88th minute put to bed any thought of an improbable Heart comeback.