The whispers that Western Sydney Wanderers were suffering second-season syndrome were emphatically put to rest last night with one of their most polished performances yet, a resounding 2-0 win over the A-League champions.
This was a warning to the rest of the league that the Wanderers' credentials as title challengers remain first-class. They comfortably dismantled Central Coast, their usual suffocating defence partnered by a new-found fluidity in attack, which was highlighted by a contender for goal of the year by Tomi Juric.
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Western Sydney welcomed the Central Coast Mariners to Parramatta Stadium looking to keep pace with A-League leaders Brisbane.
While the Mariners were by no means poor, there was little for them to take out of the match other than the news that former star Bernie Ibini returns on loan in place of the outbound Michael McGlinchey, who joins former coach Graham Arnold at J-League club Vegalta Sendai.
Whether it was the lingering desire to avenge last season's grand final defeat or the yearning to kick-start their own title aspirations, the Wanderers' intent was evident from kick-off. Mariners defender Josh Rose was the first to fall victim to the hosts' pressing and was caught out by Jerome Polenz, who dispossessed his opponent to find Ono inside the box with a low cross. The Japanese star appeared certain to break the deadlock but an uncharacteristically poor first touch and a skied shot on goal gave the Mariners a massive let-off.
The Wanderers finally broke down the Mariners' defence after 20 minutes. The champions were reduced to last-ditch tackles, twice blocking crosses from Youssouf Hersi then a close-range shot from Iacopo La Rocca, but there no let-off when Juric latched onto resulting loose ball. The ball looked to have dropped a metre behind the Wanderers striker but that mattered little as Juric adjusted his position to slam a stunning bicycle kick past Liam Reddy.
The Mariners came within a toe's length of drawing level shortly afterwards. A cutback from Mile Sterjovski to Marcos Flores deep inside the box gave the Argentinian an open goal to shoot at. He opted for placement over power but a diving lunge by Wanderers defender Matthew Spiranovic turned the shot narrowly wide of the post.
The outstretched boot of Spiranovic proved to be all the more decisive just five minutes later, as the Mariners found themselves down by two. Another swift and calculated Wanderers counter-attack had the A-League champions defence chasing shadows as La Rocca surged forward and slipped a pass to Ono on the right flank. The marquee star whipped in a curved low cross that found Hersi mid-stride and the enigmatic Dutchman slammed the ball into the roof of the net with a first-time shot.
The premiers showed no respite after the restart and half the stadium thought they had a third in the 54th minute. A deep corner was floated to the edge of the box, where Polenz was the first to react. Despite having time to bring the ball down, he let-fly with a first time volley which whistled just past the upright.
Ono's evening was cut short in the 71st minute after he copped a stray elbow to the face during a challenge with Nick Montgomery, who was lucky to escape a second yellow card. Despite talks that he was seeking a move away from Western Sydney, Ono received a standing ovation from the home crowd of 15,786. The Wanderers continued searching for a third goal beyond the 90th minute but substitute Labinot Haliti was denied from close range.
WESTERN SYDNEY WANDERERS 2 (Tomi Juric 20m, Youssouf Hersi 33m) bt CENTRAL COAST MARINERS 0 at Pirtek Stadium. Crowd: 15,786. Referee: Strebre Delovski.
Ladder after round 11
|Western Sydney Wanderers||11||6||4||1||13||7||6||22|
|Central Coast Mariners||11||4||4||3||10||13||-3||16|