Western United persist past Phoenix

Western United 1-0 Wellington Phoenix

by Kieran Yap (7/1/23)

Above: Tyla-Jay Vlajnic celebrates her winning goal. Image: @wufcofficial

Western United have won their sixth straight game to maintain their perfect record, but they were made to earn it by a well-organized Wellington Phoenix.

Wellington were without Alyssa Whinham and Paige Satchell from their attack. Western United were at close to full strength, with only Chloe Logarzo unavailable. After snatching a draw against the Wanderers last weekend, Phoenix was looking for improvement, Western were returning home after a dramatic 3-2 win away to Perth Glory and just needed to keep the ball rolling at City Vista.

Western United enjoyed the majority of possession for the first half and attacked from the outset. Hannah Keane, Jess McDonald, and Khali Johnson tried to get in behind the defence at every opportunity. They found space out wide, but the attacks were repelled by Wellington’s back four, marshalled well by Mackenzie Barry.

Grace Wisnewski was instrumental for Wellington’s midfield. Although Western United maintained control of the ball, they were unable to pass forward easily. Western are not a side that needs to dominate a match to get a result, but if the Phoenix were to stand any chance, against the league leaders it was important to pressure them and limit the supply.

When Western’s passing and movement did pay off, Brianna Edwards was there to deny them. Keane raced beyond Marisa van der Meer, but Edwards pulled off a terrific close-range save. The defender blocked the follow-up shot, before Edwards was called into action for a third time in seconds.

The young goalkeeper has been thrown into the deep end in the absence of Lily Alfeld, and has improved since Round One. This was by far her best performance of the season, and she was the most decisive player on the field for much of the game.

Emma Robers found space in the second half, bringing the best out of Edwards once again. A goal looked likely from the in-form midfielder, but Edwards raced off her line, reacting instantly to smother the lofted attempt and keep the scores level.

With the game headed towards a 0-0 result, Mark Torcaso looked to his bench. In a crucial move, Khali Johnson was swapped for Tyla-Jay Vlajnic. Normally a fullback, Vlajnic was deployed further forward, giving Western United more creativity behind the attackers and another attacking option in possession.

It paid dividends minutes later when Vlajnic jumped to head home from Melissa Taranto’s free kick.

Vlajnic is known more for her wand of a left foot and would have been the deliverer of the ball in on most occasions in her career. With Wellington’s defence occupied by more obvious targets, Vlajnic was able to power her header home in impressive fashion.

That goal was enough to win it. Aleks Sinclair was brought on to close out the game and Francesca Iermano was introduced to keep the pressure on. Wellington’s bench was not as deep and once Emily Clegg was withdrawn, it felt unlikely an equaliser would be found.

Wellington’s problems are simple enough on paper, they have not adequately replaced the power, presence, and goal-scoring ability of Grace Jale. It is easier said than done though, not many A-League Women’s teams have more than two experienced and reliable strikers.

In Ava Prichard, they have a promising talent with a nose for goal, but without Satchell and Whinham, they needed Western United to make multiple defensive errors to get a result. This was a big ask against a team that has shown no charity so far this season.

Wellington looked impressive, and this was their best performance of this campaign. Their defence and midfield was well organized. They are starting to build a solid foundation, but Wellington had scored three times going into this game, Western United had 13 before Vlajnic added another.

This was a mismatch on paper that they equalised for the most part on the field. That is encouraging.

Speaking after the match, Phoenix head coach Nat Lawrence said: “There’s a lot of feelings, a feeling of pride in how much we’ve improved and how we really took it to them. I asked them to show strength and courage and they did that and they fought right until the end.

“There’s that coupled with just being gutted. Just gutted for them that they didn’t get the result that they deserved, again. If I look at this game and the Adelaide game we deserved points out of it.”

Lawrence went on to express her frustration about what she believed is a substandard pitch at City Vista Reserve: “I look at this field that we played on today and we’ve trained on better fields. I don’t know how this is A-League standard. There’s patches everywhere. You can see that the ball is bobbling…this field was by far the worst (we’ve played on). It doesn’t set a good standard for A-League football I think.”

Western United just keep on winning and have six wins from six games. Sydney FC sit above them on the table, and the two sides face off on Wednesday when the defending premiers are welcomed to City Vista.

There are few questions remaining about Mark Torcaso’s side, one more win could entrench them in finals favoritism.

Teams: WESTERN UNITED (4-3-3): Beall, Papadopoulos, Cummings, Cerne, Medwin, Robers, M Taranto, A Taranto, Johnson, Keane, McDonald Substitutes: Dall’ Oste (GK), Iermano, Dakic, Sinclair, Vlajnic.

Scorer: Vlajnic 78′.

WELLINGTON PHOENIX (4-2-3-1): Edwards, Vosper, Barry, van der Meer, Foster, Wisnewski, Knott, Clegg, Rolston, Robertson, Pritchard. Substitutes: McMeeken, Cicco, Walker, Lancaster, Candy (22).

Referee: Rebecca Durcau

Attendance: 630.

Artwork by: Charlotte Stacey, founder of On Her Side.

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