Western Sydney Wanderers have kept their premiership defence alive - but only just after salvaging a draw against Brisbane Roar on Friday night to stay within seven points of the runaway league leaders.
Wanderers draw with Roar
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Wanderers draw with Roar
In a thrilling top of the table clash, Western Sydney scores a late equaliser to draw 1-1 with Brisbane at Pirtek Stadium on Friday night.
For almost the entire game, the Wanderers faced the prospect of all but surrendering the premiers' plate on home soil after trailing the Roar for 72 minutes in a match they dominated. But substitute Labinot Haliti salvaged a draw with an 85th-minute strike to prevent the Roar from assuming a blow-out 10-point lead at the summit.
''I think what this result means is that we won't be coming back here to play a final and I think that's a massive boost for us,'' Roar coach Mike Mulvey said. ''We lost in a final here last year and it was a serious examination and anyone who wants to come here and a play a final, it's difficult.''
The sign of a champion is often their ability to win even when they're not playing well and the Roar showed their credentials by doing just that, absorbing 13 minutes of pressure to produce three seconds of brilliance. It came through none other than Besart Berisha - the man that has grown from a visa player to an A-League marquee in little more than two years. Berisha received a seemingly nothing pass from Dimitri Petratos inside the box, swarmed by Wanderers defenders.
Two touches on the outside of the right foot pulled Aaron Mooy out of position and a quickfire left-foot shot stunned the crowded box as Berisha stabbed the opening goal against the run of play.
It proved a rare display of the fluidity and speed in movement the Roar have become synonymous with this season as the Wanderers suffocating pressing restricted the visitors transitions in play. Though, as the fouls stacked up against the hosts, 14 by half-time, it showed they were only just containing the league leaders.
For all their pressure off the ball, the Wanderers offered little with it in the first half-hour. Youssouf Hersi was their most dangerous outlet and it was no surprise to see their first real chance on goal fall to the Dutchman.
He snapped on a loose ball in the box and unleashed a right-foot drive from an acute angle that was destined for the far corner. Only a late intervention from the outstretched Roar goalkeeper Mike Theo maintained their lead at half-time. The rising tide of the Wanderers didn't subside following the break and Brendon Santalab should have twice drawn level with two quick-fire attempts, one skilful, the other bizarre. Santalab jinked away from his marker inside the box with a clever lob and fired an immediate point-black shot that rattled the post. A minute later, he charged down a clearance from Theo that ricocheted off his head and to the relief of the Roar keeper, only into the side netting.
As the threat of trailing the Roar by 10 points loomed ever closer, signs of desperation simmered to the surface of the Wanderers' play, and it wasn't necessarily to their detriment. A more direct approach forced the Roar deep and encouraged the hosts to stray forward and wide, playing more expansive collectively for the first time. It was a rare gamble from the Wanderers, but abandoning their more patient play eventually bore fruit.
In the dying moments of the game, Haliti weaved between two markers to latch on to a deep cross and stabbed the back of the net. He embodied the relief of the Wanderers by ripping his shirt off with his arms out stretched, without a care for the yellow card that was to follow.
''We never gave up hope, you could see the players didn't, certainly no one did on the sideline and I'm sure the fans didn't as well, they could see the way we were playing that the leased we deserved was an equaliser,'' Wanderers coach Tony Popovic said.