Liberty A-League R12 Talking Points: Champions dealt new ‘reality’ they’ve never faced ‘in any season’

Check out all the goals from a blockbuster Unite Round in the Liberty A-League which saw all matches taking place in Sydney over one action-packed weekend.

These are the key talking points from Round 12 in the Liberty A-League.

Michelle Heyman became the first player in Liberty A-League history to score 100 goals, headlining a blockbuster first ever A-Leagues Unite Round.

Meanwhile, Western Sydney claimed an impressive scalp against the league leaders, a day after their new coach penned a contract extension in a show of faith from the Wanderers hierarchy.

Cortnee Vine fired Sydney FC to a win in the Grand Final rematch, while Melbourne Victory welcomed back a key player from injury.

These are the key talking points from Round 12 in the Liberty A-League.

SUNDAY RECAP: A wild Distance Derby, late drama & an upset while a Matilda makes herself a her

New ‘reality’ for Sydney FC as injury-stricken Champions claw back up the table

The 2023-24 Liberty A-League season has gone off script for Sydney FC – but head coach Ante Juric is still getting a tune out of his threadbare squad.

The Sky Blues beat Western United 1-0 in Unite Round’s Grand Final rematch to move into third spot on the table.

It’s the first time Sydney has featured inside the top four since Round 1; the Sky Blues sunk as low as ninth with early defeats, a swathe of injuries and fixture postponements combining to put Juric’s side on the back foot.

Cortnee Vine was back in action in Unite Round, scoring the winning goal against Western United after a two-game layoff due to a calf injury. Striker Shae Connors broke her foot against Brisbane in December and is eyeing a return in roughly a month, and fellow forward Lucy Johnson is predicted to come back from an ankle ligament injury in February.

Star signing Fiona Worts will miss the regular season with a knee injury, and captain Nat Tobin is out for the remainder of the campaign following surgery to repair her torn anterior cruciate ligament.

But in spite of mounting injuries Sydney have put together a seven-game unbeaten streak to climb back into relevance near the top of the table. Juric’s side sit two points behind second-placed Perth with a game in hand, and just seven points behind Melbourne City having also played a game less than the league leaders.

On the latest episode of Dub Zone, former Sydney FC striker Cath Cannuli praised Juric for helping the club deal with its new reality: battling their way through a season instead of gliding, with a weakened squad recovering from an early slump in the hope of avoiding becoming the first Sky Blues squad to finish lower than fourth in Liberty A-League history.

“This is the reality for them,” Cannuli said. “They’ve got long-term injuries, so who knows when we’ll see these players back in action? 

“This is where coaching comes into play, and you have to look at our depth, you have to look to change things. 

“You could see (against Western), he started with Jynaya Dos Santos up front, then he’s moved Abbey Lemon into that number nine role, who has been very versatile for Sydney FC this season as well, she’s played in multiple positions. This is where the team needs to get together and dig deep.

“They haven’t had to go through this ever in any season, Sydney FC. They’ve always been dominant, and had players at their disposal.

“But it’s great to see they are getting something out of games, and they are still up there (on) the ladder.”

Heyman’s history-making night as star’s return to form breathes life into Canberra’s season

Michelle Heyman’s legend status grew on Saturday when she became the first player in Liberty A-League history to score 100 goals.

The legendary striker brought up the ton in Canberra United’s 3-1 win over Adelaide United, reaching the milestone with a second-half equaliser before adding her 101st goal a little over a minute later.

She is now only the fourth player in A-Leagues history to reach the milestone, going equal-third with Bruno Fornaroli with 101 goals, sitting only behind Melbourne City’s Jamie Maclaren (151 goals) and A-Leagues legend Besart Berisha (142 goals).

MATCH REPORT: History! Heyman reaches the tonne & inspires Canberra to comeback victory over Adelaide

Her performance, along with the efforts of star midfielder Vesna Milivojevic helped swing the pendulum back into Canberra’s favour in the second-half, as they ran away with the victory.

Milivojevic was unplayable, setting up Heyman for her second goal with a lovely cross, before scoring a stunning long-range effort to seal the win for Canberra.

It was the Serbia international’s ninth goal of the season, which made her the outright leader atop of the Liberty A-League Golden Boot charts, but it was also her first goal since December 10 – the same game she suffered bone bruising in her knee against Brisbane Roar.

The duo’s performances in the second half of last season helped resuscitate Canberra’s campaign, taking them within a whisker of a finals berth.

But with an expanded finals format, there’s every chance they could go one better this season, if the duo can continue putting together these sort of performances.

Canberra – who are now unbeaten in their last four (W1, D3) – are off the bottom of the ladder and sit seven points off sixth-placed Newcastle Jets.

On top of that, they also have a game in hand, meaning they have 11 matches to still close the gap and, potentially, pinch a finals berth.

Hooker’s Wanderers revolution continues with most impressive result yet

The Robbie Hooker revolution is gaining steam at the Western Sydney Wanderers.

Western Sydney claimed their best result of the season to date, defeating league leaders Melbourne City 1-0 at CommBank Stadium, extending their winning run to three straight games and as a result, taking them into third place on the ladder.

The Wanderers had already beaten Melbourne Victory at home and Perth Glory on the road during this winning run, which is now the club’s equal longest winning streak in Liberty A-League history and have also kept three consecutive clean sheets during this run.

But this result, in itself, was the biggest of their season to date.

City came into the game sitting six points clear of second-placed Perth Glory on the ladder and looked to be gaining steam after successive wins over Brisbane Roar and Adelaide United, where they put five past each of the two sides.

MATCH REPORT: In-form Wanderers upstage Liberty A-League leaders Melb City thanks to Caspers’ season first

Despite dominating the chances, including missing a second-half penalty through Rhianna Pollicina, City couldn’t break the resilient Wanderers who took their chances when they came as Holly Caspers smashed home the winner after a mistake from City keeper Lysianne Proulx.

The result is a seismic one for a Wanderers team who are right in the mix for finals football this season after many years struggling in the bottom half of the ladder.

Since arriving in the competition in 2012, the Wanderers have been starved of finals action throughout their existence, only making the post-season once in 11 previous attempts, coming in the 2019-20 season.

After a slow start, Hooker – who only arrived on the eve of the Liberty A-League season – has done wonders in turning Western Sydney into not only a strong defensive, but a potent team in attack, led by Sophie Harding.

And his strong results have since been rewarded with a contract extension until the end of the 2025-26 season.

Star’s long-awaited comeback adds to Victory’s impressive Matildas cohort

Two months to the day since injuring her calf against Newcastle Jets, Matildas and Melbourne Victory striker Emily Gielnik was back in Liberty A-League action on Friday afternoon.

The 31-year-old’s bench cameo came in Victory’s 1-1 draw with Perth; her comeback might’ve come sooner if not for the club “holding her back” to reduce the likelihood of a reoccurrence of the injury that has impacted her highly-anticipated return to the Liberty A-League.

“She’s been raring to get back,” Hopkins said post-game.

“We’ve been holding her back a little bit…she’s only got one speed and that’s 100% flat out.

“We had to make sure that when we brought her on that she had enough of a base to make sure that she didn’t re-injure herself. Really pleased for her, she’s worked so hard. Well done to our medical team as well.”

Gielnik’s return adds to Victory’s already impressive collection of Australian internationals this season.

Veteran Matildas goalkeeper Lydia Williams missed Friday’s clash with Perth with an ankle injury and is being assessed day-to-day ahead of an imminent return; Williams and Gielnik are two of eight Matildas in Victory’s 2023-24 Liberty A-League squad, along with fringe youngsters Rachel Lowe, Jessika Nash and Jamilla Rankin, as well as veterans Elise Kellond-Knight and Emma Checker.

And then there’s Alex Chidiac, one of Australia’s 2023 World Cup heroes who re-joined Victory in late December.

Chidiac has played three games for Victory since her return and is yet to fire on all cylinders. Last season’s Julie Dolan Medalist is slowly building into form – and in the meantime, Hopkins is delighted with the creative midfielder’s willingness to play a team role.

“It was a kind of grinding, hard-working performance,” Hopkins said of Chidiac’s outing in the 1-1 draw with Glory.

“We didn’t get her on the ball in the positions that we hoped for.

“The great thing about Chids is that she wants to work and work hard for the team. She’ll do any job you ask her to do.

“It’s a credit to her that she went out and put in that type of performance.”

Road woes continue for Wellington

Wellington Phoenix’s struggles outside of New Zealand continued on Friday night, as they fell to a 2-1 defeat to Central Coast Mariners in Leichhardt.

The ‘Nix surrendered an early advantage against the Mariners, and were unable to wrestle back the ascendancy after falling behind before half-time.

They have now lost their last five games in Australia, including two losses against the Mariners and defeats to Adelaide United, Sydney FC and Brisbane Roar, with their last win away from home coming in Round 2 against Western Sydney Wanderers.

If they are to turn the tide on their poor form, they will have to knock off the league leaders Melbourne City next week in Victoria, as they round out their four-game road trip on January 20.

MATCH REPORT: Teenager fires Central Coast to impressive comeback victory over Wellington

“No, it doesn’t get any easier, but they’re kidding themselves if they think it’s going to be easy, no matter who we play, that’s where we’re at the moment,” Wellington coach Paul Temple said post-game.

“We’re a team that is lacking in confidence in our ability to navigate through games and to really find our rhythm and our identity at the moment. That’s the most disappointing thing for me.

“We had lots and lots of discussions through the week about being a team that can fight and scrap and win battles when we need to and be a team that can play good football and play through teams when we need to and having to have the balance between the two and we just were absolutely nowhere near that balance again tonight.

“We weren’t good enough defensively and we weren’t good enough offensively either, so yeah, a lot of soul searching to be done, and we’ve got a very, very tough test coming up over in Melbourne.

“But we’re going to need players that are willing to kind of fight through the situation at the moment and get us out to the other side.”

Life without Emily Van Egmond going smoothly for the Jets

Newcastle Jets’ fine run of form continued on the weekend as they launched into the top six with a 2-1 win over Brisbane Roar.

The Jets had to dig deep to see off Brisbane, who went down to 10 players just prior to Sarina Bolden’s opener, but equalised minutes after the Philippines’ international’s opener through Mia Corbin.

In the end, it was a Tameka Yallop own-goal which gave Newcastle the win and thrusted them into a good position as they look to emerge from a logjam of teams to claim a finals berth.

MATCH REPORT: Newcastle launch into the top four after unfortunate Roar own-goal hands Jets three points

After only one win from their opening five games, the Jets have turned a corner, which was kickstarted by the arrival of Emily van Egmond on a four game guest stint between November and December, where they won two games, and narrowly lost two games against league leaders Melbourne City and reigning champions Sydney FC.

But even after her departure, Newcastle have continued to get points on the board, winning two games, drawing one and losing one game.

A key to that has been the goalscoring form of Sarina Bolden, who now has six goals this season, with three of those coming in this stretch, while Lara Gooch, Mindy Barbieri and Lauren Allan have all stood out at different points.

They are in a great spot to push for a finals place in the second half of the season, especially if they can continue to pick up points, while the sides around them like Melbourne Victory and Wellington Phoenix struggle.

And incredibly, they could get even better if Melina Ayres can return to her brilliant best after an injury riddled start to the season.

‘It is a really important part of our philosophy’

Cortnee Vine was the hero for Sydney FC on Sunday. The Matildas star returned from injury to lead the defending champions past Western United 1-0 in the Grand Final rematch.

Vine earned all the plaudits after coming off the bench and scoring within 10 minutes of her introduction to settle the showdown at Allianz Stadium, but a key aspect of Sydney’s philosophy shined bright.

MATCH REPORT: Matildas star returns to settle Grand Final rematch

The Sky Blues weathered a first-half storm as they kept a sixth clean sheet of the season and their defence has been a key part of their current seven-match undefeated run.

Sydney have conceded just seven goals in 11 matches to sit third in the standings – the next-best defence in the competition is Western Sydney Wanderers and Central Coast Mariners, who have shipped 12 apiece.

“It’s been hard this year, we have had a lot of change,” Sky Blues defender Charlotte McLean told Paramount+.

“But I’m so proud that everyone who comes in understands the role and responsibility.

“Defending is a really important part of our philosophy at Sydney FC and everyone just takes it on board.

“It is a team effort. It’s not just the backline and Jada Whyman, it’s all 11 players on the field.”

Sky Blues boss Ante Juric added: “Our defence has been immense which shows me the attitude of the players.”