If big games turn on big moments, then the turning point of Sunday’s A-League grand final occurred when Western Sydney Wanderers’ defender Nikolai Topor-Stanley dived into a tackle midway through the second-half.
At the time, the Wanderers were leading 1-0 at Suncorp Stadium and within touching distance of their maiden championship. Seeing Besart Berisha embark on a surging run, Topor-Stanley executed a fine tackle but landed awkwardly and injured the medial ligament in his knee.
Although he wanted to go back on, the medical staff ruled him out, leaving midfielder Iacopo La Rocca – who would be later named a joint-winner of the Joe Marston Medal – to move into central defence for the remainder of the match.
“It just changed the dynamics. La Rocca was doing a great job controlling the midfield at the start of the second half,” Wanderers coach Tony Popovic said. “Nikolai and Matt [Spiranovic] were never really troubled, but injuries happen. It gave them the ascendancy after the goal.”
Spiranovic had a superb game but the splitting of the partnership proved telling. Thereafter, Roar striker Berisha grabbed an equaliser from a set piece before Brazilian substitute Henrique scored the winner when he was left unmarked 12 minutes before the match was due to go to a penalty shootout.
“I think we controlled the first half very well. It’s probably one of the best halves we’ve played all season,” Spiranovic said after the game. “Obviously, with Nikolai coming off, we probably didn’t adapt to that scenario as quickly as we would have liked. It’s the first time it’s happened all season to be fair.”
However, Spiranovic reckoned the Wanderers had opportunities to kill the game off before Brisbane’s trademark fightback, none better than Labinot Haliti’s one-on-one that was denied by Michael Theo.
“We had some chances at the end. Labinot had a great chance,” he said. “We also had a chance that went across the goal to make it 2-0 and I think it would have been game over. But that’s football and we have to move on.”
Wanderers fans arrive prior to the 2014 A-League Grand Final match between the Brisbane Roar and the Western Sydney Wanderers at Suncorp Stadium. Photo: Getty Images
Spiranovic admitted the mood in the dressing room was one of raw pain but he felt his colleagues deserved to hold their heads up high.
“The boys battled extremely hard tonight. There’s a lot to be proud of, all season, it’s our second grand final in two years. To go out in extra-time is painful but we’ll move on and work towards making it again next season,” he said. “I thought the boys played very well, especially in that first half. Credit to Brisbane, they’ve been great all season and it was a fantastic contest.”
The Wanderers' reward for their defeat is a gruelling challenge next up, away to J-League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the first leg of their Asian Champions round of 16 clash.
They flew to Sydney immediately after the match, stayed in an airport hotel and will then board a flight to Tokyo on Monday morning. That night, they will then fly to Hiroshima and start preparing for Wednesday’s match.
“I suppose that’s nice, we can play a game on Wednesday and move forward as quickly as possible,” Spiranovic said. “We have to try and move on from this as quick as possible. We’ve got an early flight on Monday morning and a big match in Hiroshima on Wednesday.”
After scoring the opening goal with a brilliant header from a Shinji Ono corner, Spiranovic said he would take some joy from that moment but that it ultimately paled into insignificance.
“For me, it’s nice to score in any game being a defender and it’s great to be on the scoresheet tonight,” he said. “But it’s an empty feeling coming away with no medal."