The Premiers’ Plate may have just eluded the NRMA Insurance Wanderers but Sunday’s victory in Wellington was crucial in more ways than one.Here’s what we saw.
Santa more than a super-sub
Much has been made about Brendon Santalab’s exploits off the bench this season [with good reason too] but for the second consecutive week the striker showed that he’s more than capable of leading the line from the get-go.
His two goals against the Phoenix – the first, a brave ‘who-cares-how-it-goes-in’ scramble; the second, a well taken drive with the laces – brought his season tally to a career-best 10, drawing him equal with Mitch Nichols in the race for the Wanderers’ golden boot.
Of particular importance is the fact that in the three starts that Santalab has made this season, he has managed to find the back of the net five times. In a campaign where Tony Popovic has rued chances missed, it’s a strike-rate that will be hard to dismiss going forward.
Wellington v WSW: Santa's second
A second brace in as many weeks for Santa, as he draws level with Mitch Nichols in the race for the Wanderers' Golden Boot.Posted by Western Sydney Wanderers FC on Sunday, 10 April 2016
Whether Santa’s given the nod to start in the semi-final or is deployed from the bench, he’s in the form that gives you the sense that he’ll produce the goods with whatever chances come his way.
Wellington bogey dodged
Although Sunday’s result seemed relatively routine on the surface, the win takes on a new dimension when one considers the recent history and happenings that were surrounding the fixture.
The Phoenix have always been a tough nut for the Wanderers to crack but it’s still strange to think that Sunday was only the Red & Black’s second ever win on New Zealand soil.
Coming into the match, the records painted a rather bleak picture for Tony Popovic’s side: the Wanderers had failed to score in four of the last five visits to Wellington, had only picked up two wins in the seven away fixtures this calendar year and were facing a team that had only lost one match to a top four side at Westpac Stadium this season.
Though spurned on by that lamentable 5-2 defeat at Wanderland in February and with the second place there for the taking, the Wanderers rode some nervy periods to eventually clinch the result with a rather clinical performance.
With so much riding on the result, the match was also an opportunity for the Wanderers to test themselves in a high-pressure-situation ahead of a finals series where it’s win or bust.
I’ll go wherever you will go
What’s a couple of thousand kilometres to a Wanderers fan?
Not much it seems, as nearly 200 Red & Black faithful made the journey across the Tasman to see out the regular season.
It was the biggest away support Westpac Stadium has seen in a quite a while and definitely the loudest, none more so than when Brendon Santalab jumped the hoardings to celebrate his opener with those behind the goal.
The effort from the fans was certainly not lost on the players and coaching staff with Tony Popovic himself shaking the hands of the traveling support after the game.
The Red & Black support in the terraces this season has continued to set the bar for Australian sport and with finals football set to grace a sold-out Wanderland for one last time, you get the feeling that the best is still yet to come.
Talk about turning things around.
It wasn’t too long ago that the Wanderers found themselves finishing a single point off last place, the triumph of the AFC Champions League a muted and distant memory.
Yet fast forward twelve months and Tony Popovic has guided his side back to the Champions League and most saliently, a win away from the club’s third Grand Final appearance in four attempts.
Not many would’ve expected such a reversal in such a short period of time but few would argue against the Wanderers having now firmly re-established themselves a Hyundai A-League powerhouse.
And ahead of yet another finals series tilt, the omens bode well: the Wanderers are two wins from two in semi-finals at Wanderland, while in the past three seasons, the Grand Final has featured first place squaring off against second place.