Liberty A-League Semi-Final lives up to the hype as defending champs draw first blood in thriller

Sydney FC have drawn first blood against Central Coast Mariners after prevailing 1-0 in a breathtaking opening leg of their Liberty A-League Semi-Final.

Sunday’s matchup had almost everything in an end-to-end contest that was settled by Mackenzie Hawkesby nine minutes into the second half.

Hawkesby was played in by 16-year-old sensation Indiana dos Santos and she made no mistake slotting the ball beyond Casey Dumont at Industree Group Stadium, where Sky Blues star Princess Ibini dislocated her shoulder in the first half.

Both teams finished with 17 shots – Central Coast had seven on target, while Sydney tallied six.

Defending champions Sydney will now take a narrow lead into the return leg at Leichhardt Oval on April 27.

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Sydney entered the game looking to arrest a two-match losing streak which cost the team an record-breaking fourth consecutive Premiership.

The Sky Blues ended the regular season with a 4-0 rout at the hands of Melbourne Victory three weeks ago.

“The last week we’ve been stressing about how we played against Victory and it was just sloppy. We video analysed ourselves and no one put in the effort,” Cortnee Vine told Network 10.

“We watched it back – everyone’s walking, no one was going in for the second tackles.”

Vine added: “Great to get the win. We haven’t played a semi-final where it’s two legs so that’s a massive win for us.

“I think for us it’s just being a bit mongrelly. We have to bring that into Finals Series. We’ve learnt over the last few years that you can’t play pretty football, sometimes it’s a big scrappy. We just have to play with a lot of heart.”

Sydney head coach Ante Juric told Network 10: “Extremely happy. It’s tough to come to Central Coast and get a result. We did that and we didn’t do it all year. Really pleased with how we played.

“The last two games we were disappointed we didn’t work hard enough. For whatever reason, that’s probably my fault not getting the girls up to scratch.”

The Mariners had their chances throughout the 90 minutes and were unfortunate not to find the back of the net.

Matildas star Kyah Simon had a couple of opportunities, while China international Wurigumula hit the post in the second half.

“They definitely weren’t the better team on the day. I think it was a mistake from myself and I take full responsibility for that,” Simon said afterwards.

“We were very much in the game but just didn’t create enough clear-cut chances to get on the scoresheet. we had some half chances but I think we need to be a bit better.”

Central Coast goalkeeper Casey Dumont described Industree Group Stadium as “bloody beautiful” in an interview with during the week and Gosford was picturesque for Sunday’s fixture.

The action on the field did not disappoint either as the Mariners – coming off their first ever finals win – and Sydney clashed in an end-to-end first half.

Sydney almost stunned the Gosford crowd within 90 seconds – a delightful cross from Cortnee Vine picked out Dos Santos and Dumont could only stand and watch on helplessly as the teenager’s shot fizzed just wide of the post.

Ibini got beyond Ashley Irwin and Dumont momentarily as an empty goal emerged from an acute angle but the Mariners scrambled the ball away for a corner in the sixth minute.

Vine was in the thick of the action and she nearly broke the deadlock three minutes later. It was an incredible piece of skill which saw the Matildas forward bring the ball down before placing her volley just over the bar and onto the roof of the net.

There was barely a dull moment as the first half continued – Sky Blues goalkeeper Jada Whyman was quick off her line to thwart Kyah Simon in the 18th minute.

Dumont made a huge save to keep out Vine following a dazzling run approaching the half-hour mark. Vine took on one, breezed by another but could not beat the Mariners shot-stopper in a moment Network 10 commentator Grace Gill labelled “top drawer” while Teo Pellizzerri said Vine is almost “undefendable” when it does come off.

Whyman was at it again moments later to push Wurigumula’s first-time strike over the crossbar.

Sydney somehow stayed on level terms after chaos on the goalline in the 33rd minute – Simon’s deflected header almost bounced over the line but a scrambling Margaux Chauvet made a last-ditch goal-line clearance, while Whyman thwarted Rola Badawiya at the other end.

There was a surprise at the start of the second half after Sydney captain Ibini was substituted. However, it was revealed the Sydney star had dislocated her shoulder in the first half.

The Sky Blues unleashed a barrage of attacks on the Mariners, but the ball just would not go into the back of the net as Shea Connors saw her goal-bound strike blocked – but Sydney did get their goal in the 54th minute.

Great awareness and precision from 16-year-old Dos Santos released Mackenzie Hawkesby, who slotted the ball underneath Dumont.

With a vocal crowd behind them, the Mariners launched wave after wave of attack as Sydney absorbed an onslaught.

Simon was at the heart of Central Coast’s best chances while Wurigumula saw her curling effort rattle the post 17 minutes from the end.