Western Sydney reach A-League grand final
Western Sydney have reached another milestone in the club's short history, booking a spot in their second straight A-League grand final with a 2-0 victory over Central Coast.
Ending the Mariners' hopes of a title defence, the Wanderers avenged last season's grand final defeat to ensure they have another shot at claiming the title.
Having won the Premiers' Plate and making the grand final in their inaugural season, the Wanderers booked their spot in the knockout phase of their first Asian Champions League campaign with a resounding 5-0 victory over Guizhou Renhe on Wednesday and now look unstoppable as they eye a maiden A-League championship.
They face the winner of the Brisbane Roar-Melbourne Victory clash in the decider on Sunday week.
A goal in each half from imports Youssouf Hersi and Iacopo La Rocca were enough to seal victory in front of close to 20,000 fans at Parramatta Stadium over a travel-weary Mariners.
Mariners coach Phil Moss made several changes from the side which played an ACL game in Japan mid-week and the move paid off in the opening stages.
The Mariners started strongly, showing no signs of fatigue, with Bernie Ibini and Mitchell Duke looking dangerous.
Ibini, who has scored his six goals this season from just 11 shots on target, went on a menacing goal-bound run and would have put the visitors in front if not for Adam D'Apuzzo making a crucial clearance.
But it wasn't long before the Wanderers began to dominate, with keeper Ante Covic rarely troubled.
Playing five across the back every time Western Sydney were on the attack, the Mariners diffused several of the hosts' forays into the front third, but couldn't stop Hersi giving them the lead in the 31st minute.
Striker Mark Bridge had forced a diving save from Liam Reddy just moments earlier, the clearance falling only as far as the waiting Brendon Santalab whose cross found Hersi for the finish.
Reddy was kept busy in the opening half, saving a Nikolai Topor-Stanley header while Shinji Ono, in his last home game for the club, showed the fans what they'll be missing, his superb free-kick also putting the gloveman to work.
Eying a record fifth grand final appearance, the Mariners emerged from the break desperate to equalise, with Duke stinging Reddy's palms with a long-range effort.
But La Rocca doubled the hosts advantage, easily getting past the Mariners defence and Reddy, who was off his line, to slot home in the 81st minute.
The victory came at a cost for the Wanderers however, with coach Tony Popovic admitting striker Mark Bridge is in "big doubt" for the final after suffering an ankle injury in the second half.
Popovic said the Mariners brought out the best in his side.
"You can see that they've played in very big games, their players know what's required," he said.
"So we had to work extremely hard and play really well to get the win.
"I'm just delighted for the whole playing group, the club, the crowd.
"We get to experience a grand final again."
Popovic praised his charges, who he felt delivered in another crucial game.
"It was a big pressure game and they stood up, defended when they had to defend and were very resolute and brave. And on the ball they always looked good."
Moss admitted the fact his side endured a nightmare schedule this week, only returning from Japan on Friday, may have contributed to the result.
"There were some mistakes out there that probably came down to mental fatigue and that comes from travel, there's no two ways about it," he said.
"But I'm just so proud of my players. The intensity and energy they put into the game considering what they've been through is just first class.
"There's obviously a large part of me that's disappointed with the result and the fact that we've fallen a game short of defending our title but I can't speak highly enough of my players."
Western Sydney Wanderers 2 (Youssouf Hersi 31m, Iacopo La Rocca 81m) Central Coast Mariners 0 at Pirtek Stadium. Crowd: 19,216. Referee: Kris Griffiths-Jones