Western Sydney are on top of the league and on top of their city after downing Sydney FC at Allianz Stadium on Saturday night.
On a night that underlined the issues facing new Sky Blues boss Ufuk Talay, a second-half goal for Zac Sapsford proved enough to settle a nervy and stop-start encounter at Allianz Stadium and send his team back to the summit of the Isuzu UTE A-League.
Though a potentially serious injury to striker Brandon Borrello marred an otherwise perfect night for the visitors, it was his replacement – a former Sydney FC youth player – who clinched the victory.
The fact it came at the home of their bitter rivals just added to the piquancy of the win; there wasn’t the swagger and slew of goals that marked their 4-0 triumph here in March, but any derby win is to be treasured.
Western Sydney thought they had gone ahead inside 10 minutes, when a deep cross was headed back across goal by Nicolas Milanovic and turned in by Marcus Antonssen. The Wanderers faithful burst into celebration, only to realise that VAR was checking for an offside that eventually was confirmed against the Swedish striker.
Reprieved, Sydney tried to take hold of the contest. Jaiden Kucharski sent a shot fizzing narrowly wide from distance, and Joe Lolley brought a flying save from Lawrence Thomas with his own shot on goal.
Western Sydney’s game plan had been significantly affected by a first-half tackle from Luke Brattan that chopped Brendon Borrello to the floor, and – a few minutes later – out of the contest – possibly out of January’s Asian Cup too.
Still the visitors went close, with captain Marcelo thumping a header against the bar and Jorrit Hendrix shooting wide from the edge of the box after a storming run forward.
With 55 minutes gone Sydney had a glorious chance to go ahead, when Thomas slipped as he tried to clear the ball, sending it straight to Kucharski on the edge of the box; the Sydney youngster fired a shot at goal, but watched with incredulity as Thomas leapt to deflect it away.
Soon after Kucharski won the ball and drove into the Wanderers box, only to blaze wildly over; the pain would be compounded moments later when the visitors took the lead.
Antonssen’s aerial prowess helped to create it, beating two Sydney defenders to a long ball forward and flicking it into the path of Dylan Pierias who was racing clear. Pierias in turn touched it on to Sapsford, who cut inside Jake Girdwood-Reich and shot past Andrew Redmayne with remarkable composure.
Sydney struggled to find a way back into the contest, reduced to shots from distance that never looked like troubling Thomas. The red and black celebrations at the final whistle were emphatic.
At 21 Zac Sapsford would hope to have a long and storied career ahead of him – but he’ll do well to match the sense of occasion he showed at Allianz Stadium to earn his side the win.
A season spent in the colours of Sydney FC, scoring seven goals in their NPL team before signing with the Wanderers, added to the drama of his strike.
When Sapsford was asked if it felt a bit more special to score a match-winning goal against his former side, his response was emphatic: “Definitely, 100%… I dreamed of it. It’s amazing.”
But Sapsford may not have seen any action had Brandon Borrello not suffered a potentially serious injury in the first half.
In the moments prior to Sapsford taking to the pitch less than 20 minutes after kick-off to the Sydney Derby, the 21-year-old has revealed the inspiring message he received from the injured Borrello that sums up the character of the Wanderers and Socceroos star.
“It shows what character he (has),” said Sapsford.
“He’s just been injured and he’s gone to me: ‘Take your chance, don’t lose your spot. You’ve worked really hard for this’. And hopefully, I’ve done that.
“It’s a shame to see Borrello out but hopefully I can take my chance and play in this team.”
Sapsford added: “I’m buzzing. It’s what I dreamed of, really. You always want to score a winner in the derby, and I can’t believe I’ve done it. It’s a bit surreal to be honest.
“I was sitting down on the bench, and I was like: ‘Wow, the sound, the atmosphere, jeez – imagine playing in this’. Then I had to come on about 15 minutes later!
“But I got a few touches on the ball and got myself into the game. After that I was fine.”
Technically Zac Sapsford’s confident finish was the moment that decided the match, but it was hard not to think that it wouldn’t have happened but for another moment a few minutes earlier.
Jaiden Kucharski’s miss when Lawrence Thomas slipped should have been the point when the Sky Blues went ahead; though Thomas did well to make the save, it’s arguable he should never have been able to. Certainly Kucharski looked bewildered by it.