Western Sydney Wanderers have gotten off to their best start to a season in three years following a 1-0 win over Melbourne Victory on the road at AAMI Park.
Up against a side that hadn’t lost a regular season game in 16 fixtures in front of a healthy crowd of 18,017 fans, the Wanderers kept their nerve to hold off a fiery Victory outfit.
Despite holding less of the possession and registering five fewer shots than their opponents (10-5), the Wanderers were the more clinical of the two sides registering more shots on target. They broke the deadlock in the 41st minute from an unlikely source, defender Tomislav Mrcela finding space inside the box after his side broke away on the counterattack.
Having garnered a new identity under coach Marko Rudan playing counterattacking football, the Wanderers manager was full of praise for his squad post-game. While admitting there were shaky moments, he felt the side pulled off the game plan brilliantly.
“[It took] a lot of belief, a lot of organisation, understanding exactly how they play. They [the Melbourne Victory squad] have been together for a year and a lot of their movements are not too dissimilar [to last year]. [We] had a good look at them in the preseason,” Rudan said post-match.
“I thought we nullified their main threats. We really came into the game after the 10 [to] 15-minute mark and showed our quality and put a lot of pressure on them.
“I thought we deserved [in] that second part of that first half to get something out of it, we threatened them, there were some good combinations.
“We’re still not there [where we want to be], that’s kind of clear we were a bit anxious last week, I didn’t think that anxiety as such was there today, but it’s never easy to come to a place like this and an atmosphere like this which generates some of the best noise in the competition.
“But they were very disciplined, they worked very hard for each other, and we never allowed them [the Victory] to play through us as such. The game plan was perfect and they executed it extremely well.
“Those last 10 minutes where you really have to roll up your sleeves and stay organised and communicate and stay disciplined was there, the character shown by the players was fabulous.”
Having underachieved in recent seasons, the win on the road against a strong opponent should be enough to instil confidence in the squad and help turn their fortunes around.
Though Rudan feels the win was not only big in the context of their season but also marks a frustrated fan base the club is on the right track.
“It was really big for our fans and members, we have worked really hard during the offseason to connect with them,” he said.
“Part of the strategy in my mind was to bring back players from the [Wetsern Sydney] region, Gabriel Cleur is from Fairfield, Ramy Najjarine re-signed, Jarod Carluccio re-signed, Lawrence Thomas is a boy from Blacktown, I can go on.
“I worked really hard here and overseas to entice a lot of players because they understand the people from the west and we’re just an extension of them [people of the western suburbs]. What they want to see more than anything else is a representation of themselves in that team.
“And the [people of the] west are fighters, they have a chip on their block because things haven’t always gone their way and I understand that growing up as well, and that’s what is important to us.
“Everyone talks about the importance of having a strong Western Sydney Wanderers in the competition [and] I couldn’t agree more.
“It’s only Round Two and the important thing this week is we don’t get too complacent because our next opponent [Brisbane Roar] is yet to win a game and we’re at home and expected to win, and there won’t be any of that [complacency], especially with the group that we got.”
One of the Wanderers’ top contributors on the night was 21-year-old Calem Nieuwenhof who had a day out in central midfield. Finishing the game with a pass completion rate of 78 per cent and a successful dribble rate of 80 per cent, he was effective in pushing forward while also tracking back defensively with nine recoveries and three interceptions.
Having struggled for playing time with Sydney FC, Nieuwenhof has asserted himself early at the Wanderers. Rudan is pleased with the youngster and feels he can only get better.
“He was a bit disappointed and disjointed with what was happening at his old club [Sydney FC], didn’t feel he was being cared for, looked after or getting game time,” he said.
“The environment we created [for our players] they need to enjoy it but they also get challenged every day, and he’s been superb, really fantastic as far as I’m concerned.
“But he’s still young and he’s got a really good head on his shoulders, really mature, his game was good but can get better.
“There were still moments where he has to understand how we do things and the little things as well and he will [learn].”
Having restricted the Victory to just one shot on target which came inside the opening 15 minutes of the game when Victory winger Nani was denied by the post, the Wanderers put in a strong defensive showing.
Their captain Marcelo was a rock at the back with seven clearances, four interceptions, and five recoveries. Leading from the back, he was pivotal for the Wanderers and his coach was full of praise post-game not just for his efforts on the pitch but for what he brings to the squad off it as well.
“Marcelo was the last piece of the puzzle, he came in the latest and I was looking for a real strong leader, my first conversation with him was fantastic,” Rudan said.
“I got some good vibes and [a] good feeling about him, you can tell a lot by looking into someone’s eye and seeing what they’re about, you do your research and then you speak to a lot of people, he all checks out really well.
“He was really motivated to come and not just have a holiday. The guy has played that many [UEFA] Champions League games, he’s won championships wherever he’s gone and been a strong leader at the back and that is exactly what he is.
“He’s fantastic around the group, [the] first thing he said to me after the game was ‘let’s not get too excited, we got to back up and recover well and get back to Sydney and look forward to next week’ and that’s the kind of leader that he is.”
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