From the opening throes, Western Sydney sensed a vulnerability in the team across from them. Brisbane have self-tenderised in the last few days, laying blow after blow on their own finals preparations, with the Thomas Broich issue a major distraction.
The Roar hierarchy have retreated into a weak defensive position over the German’s regrettable shafting, and it was mirrored by the team, who meekly retreated back to the margins of their own penalty area as soon as the game began.
Western Sydney, the league’s second most accurate passers, and a bunch who – often to their detriment – indulge gleefully in passing the ball in tight, advanced areas, relished the situation. Finding very little resistance, Kearyn Baccus and Terry Antonis waltzed up the park, with Joe Caletti and Thomas Kristensen backing up in front of them.
Mitch Nichols, Nico Martinez, and Jumpei Kusukami – as they are want to do – revolved and whirred around, switching positions, eluding markers, searching for fleeting pockets of space.
With Baccus and Antonis allowed the freedom and time, they found their attackers, and many of the chances Western Sydney had in the first half came from passes pinged in from the deeper midfielders to Martinez or Kusukami, who then touched the ball back slightly for teammates to shoot.
On one occasion, Martinez simply meandered up to the edge of the box, performed a simple feigned shot, and darted closer, narrowly shooting wide. This was a sequence that enjoyed a breathy expanse of space around, caused by the Roar’s tentativeness, and these damaging holes lingered throughout the opening half.
Brisbane, having haplessly retreated, limbs dangling and heads spinning, were seen hacking wild clearances to no one in particular. Kristensen and Caletti – and, occasionally, Broich and Holman – were pushed so deep, they were unable to aid in linking the attack to the rest of the team. Jamie Maclaren and Brandon Borrello were only rarely involved; Maclaren’s best moments came almost entirely from his own above-and-beyond exertions, chasing hopeful balls, beating players to the ball he had no right to pip.
Nothing came easily, or fluently, for Brisbane ahead of the halfway line. Western Sydney had the better of the possession, and all the chances, and crucially, the opening goal. A penalty, with Avraam Papadopoulos catching a fraction of Brendan Santalab’s toe, as the Wanderers beat him to the ball in the box. Antonis tucked it away, and – as soft as the decision was – it was a wholly deserved lead.
The halftime break came, and the match-call boffins were asking whether Broich should be substituted. The lingering feeling was that the Wanderers should have scored two first half goals. Brisbane had to be roused over the break, otherwise a home defeat was surely coming.
And then, as if brought out of a dandy’s malaise with a whiff of smelling salts, Brisbane emerged and scored an equaliser within ten minutes of the second half commencing. A counter-attack, where the defence had retreated as they had in the first half, but then, crucially, offered a stern repulse and a vigorous riposte, saw Broich running with flanking teammates.
He passed perfectly – he hadn’t, it hardly needs confirming, been substituted – to Borrello, and his shot ricocheted off the post, right to Maclaren’s feet. He couldn’t miss. Suddenly Brisbane were alive, winning the midfield battles they hadn’t even contested in the first half. Kristensen was passing ambitiously, and with accuracy, and Borrello and Broich were knitted coherently into proceedings, no longer isolated on the flanks.
Borrello struck a man standing on the line, with the whole goal to aim at. Holman whacked an effort from distance high and wide. Janjetovic turned a Borrello volley onto the crossbar, the ball bouncing twice on the woodwork, an inspired save. It was Brisbane, revitalised, who had the better of the second half. But there was no goal to show for it, and Western Sydney survived.
Suncorp was bathed in a late downpour, and the game was slicked, with chances slipping out at both ends. At this point, there had been 42 shots taken in total by both teams. But regulation time elapsed with the deadlock in place, and so it was towards an extra time period that the poncho’d home crowd looked.
The frenetic fervour careered into the extra time period, with pinball midfield play and sudden desperate moments drawing gasps. Jamie Young, only barely with turf beneath stud after coming on for the injured Michael Theo, had to make a snap save from Santalab within seconds. Western Sydney had fanned down some of the Brisbane momentum, until substitute Jashua Sotirio, wrestling away the dunces cap and jamming it squarely on his own empty scone, managed to pick up his second yellow card. He had been on the pitch for 16 minutes. Tony Popovic’s focus, at that moment, turned to forcing a penalty shootout.
John Aloisi brought on Nicholas D’Agostino, to try and steal the night in the second half of extra time. The match curled up symmetrically, with the Wanderers now, wounded by Satirio’s idiocy, retreating meekly to their own penalty area. Oar hit a free kick down Janjetovic’s throat. Broich had a penalty appeal turned down.
The looming spectre of the shootout loured the horizon, casting the last lethargic bursts into an even more desperate light. The final whistle split the tension, confirming it. The teams huddled up, with the rain still coursing over cramped muscles and muddy jerseys. This had been a marathon, testing the spirit as well as the sinew.
Borrello, calm and steely, slotted the first spot kick away, pointing at the Den as he turned back to his team. Antonis clipped a cheeky panenka in to level things; Antonis was brilliant on the night. D’Agostino, a teenager, slammed his home with a stunted run-up, youthful confidence flowing through him.
Dimas, the Wanderers’ late substitute, was next, and he slid his narrowly past Jamie Young’s grasping paw. Maclaren, who missed a penalty last week – losing him the Golden Boot outright – twanged his unerringly into the left-side netting, a perfect penalty. Martinez strolled up, and lifted his penalty high into the right-hand side. This was six straight makes.
Luke DeVere, the centre half, was relieved to see Janjetovic guess the wrong way. Seven straight now. Brendan Hamill, also a sub, scored his, side-footing slightly to the right. Eight makes; the tension was unbearable. Kristensen bashed his off the underside of the crossbar and in, as a flutter rumbled around Suncorp.
Robbie Cornthwaite slipped his square into the top-right corner, the best of the night. Ten straight, and Oar with a low curling shot made it 11 straight. When would this end? The sudden death period, where any Wanderer miss would lose them the tie, had begun some time ago.
Then Jumpei Kusukami sauntered up, a little too casually, and weakly poked his shot far too close to Young, who barely needed to dive to save it. Had Young guessed the wrong way, it would have been peachy, but he didn’t, and the shot wasn’t good enough to mitigate that.
Brisbane, eventually, recovered from their pallid start, and held their nerve when it mattered. Better finishing on the night might have seen a repeat of last season’s 5-4 finals result between these two clubs, such were the frequency of chances and the generosity of the defending. There will be no Sydney Derby in the finals. The Roar play the Victory next week.