2353 days and counting – Derby revenge mission that shows why the Wanderers are deep in the title race

Putting four goals past Sydney FC in the derby did more than humiliate the Sky Blues, writes Tom Smithies.

As the goals rained in to the delight of those in red and black, two fleeting moments in the derby summed up a night and defined a season right across the city.

There was more than half the contest remaining when Luke Brattan swept a raking pass to the left wing, on to the foot of his Sydney FC teammate Joe Lolley with an acre of space ahead of him. So often the master of killing the ball and driving forward, Lolley lost his bearings, his footing and his touch to be left standing, bemused, outside the pitch. A discordant moment in a discordant team in a discordant season.

Metres away and some 35 minutes later in the same game, Wanderers defender Adama Traore was momentarily trapped in possession on the touchline with Jaiden Kucharski snapping at his heels and facing his own goal. Traore just stepped one way, effected a dummy, turned Kucharski in two and stroked the ball forward up the line: a moment of self-belief in a match and now a season drenched in self-belief.

The margin by the end was four goals, but the symbolism of this rout invoked a far wider chasm. The Wanderers are striding towards the finals with a swagger, the structural certainty of their defensive setup now draped in an avalanche of attacking flair. Sydney FC are left nervously calculating the points total that might get them into the finals, but with little thought to what might happen if they actually get there.

Calem Nieuwenhof scores the Wanderers’ third goal against Sydney FC.

This was a drubbing, a contest so tipped to one side that it felt genuinely shocking. Western Sydney have waited some 2350 days for payback since the Sky Blues cut them to pieces in 2016 in front of more than 61,000 fans at what was then ANZ Stadium. It was 4-0 that day too, and presaged the beginning of an era of Sydney FC success. The same scoreline in reverse provided unarguable proof of that era having closed.

So comprehensive was this triumph for Western Sydney that their fans might wake on Sunday morning and question if a dream of a win really happened. The league table will confirm it, and the highlights reel will quickly be threadbare from constant replaying. 

Marko Rudan could celebrate this win with a meal at one of Sydney’s chichi-est seafood restaurants, the sort where they cut up a whole fish at your table, and still not see as stylish and efficient a filleting as his team unveiled at Allianz Stadium. 

The goals were one thing and each deserves its place in the sun, but the completeness of the performance went far wider. Across the park there were outstanding individual performances but the Western Sydney orchestra played in unison. 

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 18: The Wanderers celebrate with their fans after winning the round 21 A-League Men’s match between Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers at Allianz Stadium, on March 18, 2023, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jeremy Ng/Getty Images)

Laterally they were compact in defence and quickly broad in attack; from front to back, there was minimal space between their lines when Sydney tried to attack, but those same lines raced forward to ripple through the home side’s defence at all the crucial moments.

And how. It would be churlish to focus on a handful of individuals when so many contributed; Lawrence Thomas made a huge save at 3-0, while 19-year-old Aidan Simmons hardly skipped a beat in only his second start. At the heart of defence, Marcelo was a leader all night. The peerless Milos Ninkovic glided across the turf like the old days, and laid on a goal with an effortlessly weighted pass.

But two players in attack had nights to remember for differing reasons. Amor Layouni was in only his fifth appearance for the Wanderers, but had hit the ground running so effectively that earlier in the day he had earned a recall to the Tunisian national team for the first time in four years. 

Scoring twice and setting up a third was some way to celebrate, and the angles of Layouni’s running are enough to make geometry sexy. A left-footer who prefers playing off the right wing, he knows how and when to cut in, or when to hold the touchline and laser in on the fullback. He can finish with poise too.

Amor Layouni of the Wanderers celebrates scoring a goal against Sydney FC.

Already he seems to have an understanding with Brandon Borello whose rampaging season hit another level. A winger who has impressed as a striker this season suddenly dropped into the No 10 role and found a stream of killer passes to bypass Sydney’s defence. If he plays with this freedom for the Socceroos then there is some entertainment on the way.

So there will be in the final rounds of the A-League season, judging by the freeform brilliance we have seen these Friday and Saturday nights.

As the finishing line of the regular season starts to materilaise on the horizon, this is the point when certain teams begin to motor away and the realism of their title chances becomes tangible. Melbourne City have played for much of the season like a team that believes it will be one of the last left standing; Adelaide and Western Sydney have broken from the pack and are powered by self-fulfilling momentum. The Mariners remain the most likely to challenge that trio, if their kids keep their nerve.

The rest, or those for whom a place in the finals is still a viable prospect, will fight on but without a back catalogue of performances to suggest that they can do much more than make up the numbers. This is the sober reality for Sydney FC this season; apart from one run of three straight wins early in the new year, Steve Corica’s side has not achieved consecutive wins all season; worse, they have conceded three goals or more five times.

They will fight on because that’s what footballers do, but everyone can see that the balance of power in this particular city has shifted.