An incredible match, an atmosphere to match and a brilliant comeback but what did we learn?Normal service resumes as Wanderers enter third Grand Final
This time last year the Wanderers were in a state of bleak disarray. Tony Popovic’s battle-weary troops had trudged their way to a ninth placed Hyundai A-League finish whilst a crushing injury time goal in a match Wanderers were not even playing in the 2015 AFC Champions League all but ended the side’s hopes of a continental respite.
It was undoubtedly a low point, compounded by talk of off-season overhaul. Fast forward a year and the Wanderers have regained what is beginning to look like a customary position in the fight for the A-League’s biggest prize. Normal service, it seems, has resumed in Parramatta.
Memories of last season’s anguish, a complete anomaly it may now seem, will have surely been extinguished if they hadn’t been already.
The side’s regular season tale of the tape now reads: Premiers 2012/13, runners up 2013/14 and 2015/16. With three Grand Final visits – only Melbourne Victory and Central Coast Mariners have been involved in more – Popovic’s history-breakers are on the verge of something truly special.
All-time classic comeback must be savoured
Not since the 1999/2000 National Soccer League Grand Final when Wollongong Wolves came back from 3-0 down to draw with Perth Glory before claiming the trophy on penalties has a fightback of this magnitude been witnessed on Australian shores.
But this is an encounter that will head straight to the forefront of all-time classics. In truth, it’s likely not to be usurped for a long time.
Alarm bells would’ve been ringing when Brisbane restored parity with ten minutes to go, given the Roar’s recent pedigree in finals matches and deserved label as the competition’s comeback kings.
Jamie Maclaren’s twentieth goal of the season (incredibly, the electric forward’s third brace against the Wanderers this campaign: he becomes the all-time leading goal scorer against the Wanderers with eight goals in seven matches) – could have easily resulted as the psychological hammer blow that it first looked.
But it was a comeback on par with anything Brisbane have produced in recent times, and gave the Red & Black faithful who clamoured into a packed Wanderland one last priceless memory to savour.
Popovic calm key to fight back
The Wanderers have a penchant for overcoming odds but not even the most ardent optimist could’ve foreseen this Houdini-esque escape. Except for Tony Popovic.
Facing arguably the most intense moment of his managerial tenure in Parramatta, the boss’s ability to remain stoically calm in the thick of the storm proved to be the spark that ignited such an unlikely comeback.
The manager reflected on a tumultuous 120 minutes after the match:
“After the third goal I said let’s not throw it away and keep a clear mind and find a way into the match.
“Had we conceded a fourth by trying to force things I’m sure it would’ve been game over.
“It was crucial to say calm, and once we got that first one you could see that the belief grew within the group and also in the stands.“
It was in complete contrast to a Brisbane side who allowed panic to germinate through their ranks as soon as Romeo Castelen pulled one back for the home side. Brisbane had no answer, resistance or even the slightest influence of calm against the Wanderers whirlwind – even despite boasting seasoned stalwarts in Jade North, Matt McKay and Thomas Broich.
John Aloisi has proven he has the tools to edge his former teammate on several occasions this season but on this night the young Roar manager was outclassed by a masterful display of managerial prowess from the Red and Black custodian.
Romeo Castelen underlines his quality in individual performance of the season
In what was one of the all-time great A-League matches, with a catalogue of plot twists and talking points, it will be the contribution of Romeo Castelen that lives longest in the memory.
There will surely be an element of bittersweet regret wrapped underneath this exhilarating cameo.
Dogged by injury for much of his career, this was the young superstar-to-be who burst onto the scene at Feyernoord over ten years ago, one of the most prized assets in a conveyor belt of Dutch talent.
It was Castelen at his electric, explosive best: an unstoppable force in this form, and a reminder of what could’ve been for the Suriname-born excitement machine.
“He’s been very good for us and in these last six weeks he’s stepped up”, lauded Popovic after the match.
Following a performance of such blinding quality, there can’t be many steps left for Castelen to ascend. He is fast becoming the Red & Black’s talisman.
Everyone is going to miss Wanderland
No words needed here. Incredible scenes in the Wanderers’ last ever game at the original Wanderland before it gets demolished.