Western Sydney Wanderers 1 Melbourne Heart 1
Patrick Kisnorbo of the Heart and Matthew Spiranovic of the Wanderers jump for the ball. Photo: Getty Images
For the first time since claiming their first ever professional win, the Western Sydney Wanderers have failed to win in three attempts and are in danger of losing touch with A-League pacesetters Brisbane Roar after being held to a 1-1 draw by cellar dwellers Melbourne Heart.
"We controlled the game but they fought hard, they came with a game plan to really slow the play down from the outset and it jsut wasn't to be today," Wanderers coach Tony Popovic said.
After surrendering first spot in the league in recent weeks, the Wanderers showed immediate intent on keeping up the chase with the Roar and almost broke the deadlock in the fifth minute.
A League - Wanderers v Melbourne Heart
Images from the A-League round 9 clash between the Western Sydney Wanderers and the Melbourne Heart from Pirtek Stadium. All images by Anthony Johnson. Follow us at http://twitter.com/photosSMH Photo: Anthony Johnson
Stand-in captain Nikolai Topor-Stanley showed the determination that has kept Michael Beauchamp out of the starting lineup with a diving header from an Aaron Mooy free kick.
It was powered low and hard into the corner of the net but a superb reflex save by Heart keeper Andrew Redmayne prevented an opener.
Under intense pressure from the hosts, cracks began to appear in Heart's defence and only last-gasp interceptions denied the Wanderers an opener after the half hour mark.
An Iacopo La Rocca header from a corner was cleared off the line by Aziz Behich, who then denied Jerome Polenz on the follow up.
The ball ricocheted back into the path of the German defender who hit the net with his second attempt, though to the dismay of the home crowd, it was the outside of the goal.
The Wanderers were made to rue those three point-blank misses after falling victim to a sucker punch goal in the 38th minute.
David Williams whipped in a cross from the left aimed at the pint-sized Michael Mifsud, who drew the attention of every Wanderer in the box, so much so that they ignored the curling cross which bypassed everyone into the corner of the net.
Just as the visitors looked on course to go into the break with a shock lead, it was third time lucky for Aaron Mooy who hit the back of the net after two earlier misses.
The Wanderers playmaker drilled a low left-foot shot into the far corner of the goal beating the outstretched arms of Redmayne and eliciting a deafening roar from the crowd of 14,549.
The visitors almost restored their lead a minute after the restart when Michael Mifsud easily turned his marker inside the box and had time and space to apply a simple finish.
Instead, he opted for power over placement and blazed his close range shot over the bar.
Just as the game had fallen stagnant, the A-League's liveliest player caught the Heart defence napping.
Hersi had been quiet for most of the second half but on the hour mark, he beat Behich and Rob Wielaert with a darting run into the box and slammed a right-foot shot with some venom but couldn't hit the target from an acute angle.
Both coaches introduced their marquee players into the game as Melbourne Heart were firmly against the ropes.
Popovic went in for the kill while John Aloisi looked to a trump card that hadn't been available since round one.
The entrances of both Shinji Ono and Harry Kewell were met with rousing applause by the home fans, a mark of respect for a club icon and a local hero.
The two stars sparked life into the two sides, but struggled to carve open clear chances.
Fluid play fell victim to close pressing and it was no surprise that the Wanderers two best chances late in the game came from set pieces.
Topor-Stanley powered a header inches high from a corner, while another long shot from Mooy ended up with the fans.
They came even closer from their next set piece as Spiranovic glanced a header onto the upright, but for all their pressure and determination, they just could not find a way through.
Aloisi praised Harry Kewell for his influence as a subsitutute in stabilising Heart's side to help clinch a hard earned draw.
"We know what Harry can do, he just lifts everyone around him. Just him walking out on to that pitch, his teammates lift and that's the reason why we got him at our club," Aloisi said. "It just showed in that short glimpse of him coming on for 15-20 minutes, the game just turned."