Young Wanderers lead the charge to defeat Premiers

Western Sydney Wanderers brought an end to Melbourne City’s six-game unbeaten league run on Friday night, with Dylan Pierias’ first-half strike the difference in a 1-0 win at CommBank Stadium.

Pierias broke the deadlock after a classy assist from 18-year-old Alexander Badolato on a night when emerging defender Alex Bonetig and 20-year-old Oscar Priestman were all heavily involved in Western Sydney’s best play.

The Wanderers avoided a major scare in second-half stoppage time when referee Jonathan Barreiro halted play to assess a potential handball in the box from Josh Brillante; the on-field referee elected not to grant the penalty after reviewing the incident on the pitch-side monitor as City were deprived the chance to equalise from the spot. 

City will take positives from their Unite Round clash with the Wanderers, with the return of Andrew Nabbout just four months after an Achilles tendon injury putting a silver lining on the slender defeat.

The Wanderers had the ball in the back of the net inside three minutes through Marcus Antonsson, but the early strike was eventually wiped off the scoresheet after a four-minute VAR investigation.

At first it appeared the check was to determine whether Nicolas Milanovic had kept the ball in the field of play before providing the cutback assist for Antonsson – but further analysis found a clear handball from Wanderers full-back Jack Clisby in midfield prior to the attacking move.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – JANUARY 12: Nicolas Milanovic of the Wanderers competes with Callum Talbot of Melbourne City during the A-League Men round 12 match between Melbourne City and Western Sydney Wanderers at CommBank Stadium, on January 12, 2024, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Referee Barreiro returned to the field of play after reviewing the incident to confirm Western Sydney’s opener would not stand.

Milanovic was quick to threaten once more for the Wanderers, angling a header on target from corner which City keeper Jamie Young had no trouble gathering with a comfortable save.

Antonsson was gifted another opportunity when Scott Galloway coughed up possession deep in his defensive third, but the Swedish striker couldn’t beat Young as he attempted to find the bottom-left corner.

The Wanderers were hammering at the door and eventually broke through, with Dylan Pierias tucking home a sumptuous assist from Alexander Badolato.

The 18-year-old burst toward the edge of the penalty area and while dribbling to the right, fed a no-look reverse pass to his left, picking out Pierias through a sea of bodies to set up a stylish Wanderers opener.

Friday night’s Unite Round clash was just the third start of Badolato’s career – and all three of those starts have come in succession for the bright Wanderers talent who produced a moment of magic to help his side take a first-half lead against City.

Pierias almost turned provider with a searching cross off the right flank which fell invitingly for Antonsson to poke on target; Young made a reflex save with his feet but diverted the ball back toward the penalty spot where Oscar Priestman lurked unmarked, only to blast over the bar.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – JANUARY 12: Steven Ugarkovic of Melbourne City competes with Oscar Priestman of the Wanderers during the A-League Men round 12 match between Melbourne City and Western Sydney Wanderers at CommBank Stadium, on January 12, 2024, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

City had a penalty claim waved away when Tolgay Arslan went down in the box under contact from Alex Bonetig; Wanderers captain Marcelo believed Arslan had gone down too easily, and remonstrated with the City midfielder before play resumed without the award of a penalty.

Early in the second half, Priestman stung the gloves of Young as the Wanderers quickly looked to gain the ascendancy – but City responded well to turn the contest into an arm wrestle by the half-hour mark.

Antonsson had another chance for the Wanderers but couldn’t give his side breathing room as he struck off target from close range and a tight angle.

Then came a special moment for City winger Andrew Nabbout, who came off the bench for his first appearance of the season just four months after rupturing his Achilles tendon.

The injury, suffered in a September friendly, could have been season-ending for Nabbout – but the fringe Socceroo has a history of recovering from serious injuries with remarkable speed. Within minutes of coming on Nabbout had a chance on goal with his first touch, firing wide off his left foot before the offside flag was raised.

Young City striker Max Caputo replaced Jamie Maclaren in the second half and the teenager had a chance to equalise, as he latched onto an early cross from Callum Talbot but headed over the crossbar.

A late moment of drama presented when referee Barreiro assessed a potential handball from Wanderers midfielder Josh Brillante; it was the second extensive VAR check of the night, but this one went against City as play resumed at CommBank Stadium. The final whistle blew soon after to confirm Western Sydney’s 1-0 win over the Premiers.