Late drama as Sydney FC defeat Melbourne Victory to seal Grand Final return

Sydney FC 1-0 Melbourne Victory

By Kieran Yap (22/4/23)

Above: Matchwinner Madison Hayley for Sydney FC. Photo: Liberty A-League.

Sydney FC are through to a sixth straight A-League Women’s Grand Final after edging past a stubborn Melbourne Victory 1-0 at Allianz Stadium.

The two sides entered this game under very different circumstances. Sydney FC were looking for a response to a surprise loss to Western United last week, while Melbourne Victory had momentum behind them after a thrilling win against Melbourne City.

Momentum and the form of Casey Dumont in goal was their best chance in this game. Without the suspended Amy Jackson in midfield, Jeff Hopkins was forced into a reshuffle. Nat Tathem moved into midfield, and Beattie Goad was pushed to fullback to deal with the threat of Cortnee Vine.

Ava Briedis started for the second time this season. The tricky winger was involved early but faded in as the half wore on and Sydney FC began to dominate. At just 17 years old, there is much more to come from the Young Matildas attacker.

The home side looked comfortable and moved the ball much more easily than they did against Western United. The slightly improved state of the pitch helped, but Princess Ibini and Sarah Hunter were in fine touch. The pair switched play and directed attacks. Ibini was unlucky not to score with a swerving shot that forced a diving save from Dumont, and a combination with Madison Haley almost set up Rachel Lowe to score, but the chance was snuffed out by some proactive goalkeeping.

Victory set themselves up to defend. Catching Sydney FC on the counterattack was always a difficult task with Goad on defensive duties and Lia Privitelli on the bench due to injury. Although Sydney FC controlled possession and created chances, they rarely looked like scoring in the first half. Both teams looked like they were playing according to plan, yet neither looked entirely comfortable in the game.

Sydney FC looked much stronger this week with Madison Haley in the side. Rachel Lowe has been excellent as a mobile, creative forward, but what works against sides in the bottom half of the table is not necessarily the best plan in finals.

Against Melbourne Victory, she was a handful, and frequently required the attention of multiple defenders. Along with Princess Ibini, she looked the most likely to break the deadlock and when she hit a strong, athletic half-volley in the second half, it looked destined to ripple the net but skidded wide.

Above: Kirsty Fenton (left) and Ava Briedis battle for possession today. Photo: Keep Up.

Victory struggled to get a shot on goal, and their best chances came from pressuring Jada Whyman in goal. Melina Ayres forced an error from the Sydney FC goalkeeper, but could not capitalise. A later corner kick evaded Whyman’s clutches, but the header from Claudia Bunge did not clear the defence.

As the half wore on, the effects of Victory’s epic semi-final started to show. Clearances became more tired, and more gaps began to appear for Vine to dash into. When the goal came it felt both fortunate and inevitable.

Nat Tobin took matters into her own hands and embarked on a strong attacking run into the area. A series of tired clearances from Victory eventually fell to Sarah Hunter in space on the edge of the box. Her ball in was spilled by Dumont and Haley reacted quickest to poke home the scrappiest of winners.  

The ball bobbled over the line, and Sydney FC had produced far more aesthetically pleasing moves in the game, but they would not care. They finally had their first goal of this finals series, and it had come too late for Victory to respond.

So Sydney FC are into a sixth straight Grand Final, and although Western United defeated them a week earlier, they will be confident. They have an almost fully fit side, their centre forward has rediscovered her scoring touch, and any player that had a down game in the first final redeemed themselves in this one.

The reigning premiers deservedly have a chance to add to this season’s silverware and to win the only trophy that has evaded them in these dominant years. Quietly, the APL must be breathing a sigh of relief that this is not an all-Melbourne final in Sydney, but it still feels unfair that Western United would have won the right to host the final and would be doing so in a historic day had the rules of the competition not been changed mid-way through the season.

Melbourne Victory had a successful season by another other club’s standards. As the winners of the last two Grand Finals, they will be disappointed. However, they had a brave campaign and kept grinding out results despite the injuries and departures of Alex Chidiac, Elise Kellond-Knight, and Paige Zois. They spent a large chunk of the season without Catherine Zimmerman and Melina Ayres and relied on the youth in the team far more than they would have expected before 2022/23 began.

The good news is that these players largely stepped up when needed. Alana Murphy looks to be a genuine star in the making, and Ava Briedis has all the skills and physical attributes to be an excellent player. Only inexperience and the fitness to play a full game are in her way between being a squad player and a gun winger for the club.

Above: Madison Haley (left) celebrates her late winner with Mackenzie Hawkesby. Photo: Keep Up.

In this context, making the finals is a massive achievement,  and winning the first one against the odds was a momentous occasion. They will not feel like it now, but they gave their fans a thrilling ride and some unforgettable highlights.

But this afternoon was all about Sydney FC. There are few weaknesses in this squad. Ante Juric has built a cohesive and dependable starting 11, that has defensive stability and multiple threats in attack.

On the bench, there is almost unparalleled depth. In Mackenzie Hawkesby and Sarah Hunter, they have the league’s most dominant midfield pairing, and in Cortnee Vine the competition’s most dangerous player. Being able to bring on Indiana Dos Santos to try and change the game is a luxury few sides have, at just 15 she is already a proven senior player with match-winning potential.

They will face Western United next week and have lost to them twice this season, but not twice in a row. It will be an epic final between two sides that play different styles and have very different stories. It will take something special to decide the champions of 2022/23.

Speaking after the game, Sydney FC head coach Ante Juric said: “We attacked so much and we questioned whether we were going to get the goal but it was superb and we showed that emotion once the goal went in.

“A lot of our players now have another game under their belt like Charlotte (Mclean) and Madi (Haley) which will stand us in good stead for the final.”

Matchwinner Madison Haley reflected on her thought process in scoring the late goal saying: “I’d been saying all game to follow up everything and that was me sticking to the game plan. 

“I knew extra time was looming and that was the perfect chance, I saw the ball fall in front of me and just had to get there and keep it low and it went in.”

Teams: SYDNEY FC (4-3-3): Whyman, Mclean, Fenton, Hunter, Lowe, Haley, Vine, Tobin, Hawkesby, Rule, Ibini. Substitutes: Offer (GK), de la Harpe, Hollman, Dos Santos, Badawiya.

Scorers: Haley 88’.

MELBOURNE VICTORY (4-3-3): Dumont, Nash, Bunge, Morrison, Goad, Tathem, Murphy, Eliadis, Briedis, Ayres, Zimmerman. Substitutes: Garton (GK), Markovski, Curtis, Privitelli, Simon.

Referee: Isabella Blaess.

Attendance: 1,630.

Artwork: Charlotte Stacey, founder of On Her Side.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: