By Dominic Bossi
October 12, 2019 — 7.58pm
The video assistant referee has caused plenty of heartache for Western Sydney but provided the perfect housewarming gift to the club on their return to Parramatta on Saturday night, gifting the Wanderers a controversial late penalty in their 2-1 win over Central Coast Mariners.
Penalty may refer to:
Late penalty ensures happy homecoming for Wanderers
The VAR deliberated for more than three minutes before a handball in the box was ruled, setting the stage for captain Mitchell Duke to begin their Bankwest Stadium era brightly, sealing his brace.
“The result is top but we know we can play better football. We had big problems but it’s always not easy, the first game,” Wanderers coach Markus Babbel said.
The performance was far from pretty against a spirited Central Coast side who deserved at least a point, but the result was all that mattered for Western Sydney’s fans. They celebrated their first A-League game in their new stadium with three points – a rare result during their three years of displacement.
Wanderers fans would also have been impressed with new goalkeeper Daniel Lopar. In a man-of-the-match performance, the Swiss recruit pulled off several outstanding saves, including two deep in injury time.
Of the 11 who started for Wanderers, only Tarek Elrich had played an A-League game at the ground before. However, his return to Parramatta didn’t last long, a hamstring injury forcing him off the field in the 16th minute.
Teenager Daniel Wilmering replaced him and nearly broke the deadlock shortly after. Latching on to a Duke cross, Wilmering headed powerfully down on goal, forcing a fine save from Mariners keeper Mark Birighitti.
The visitors were disciplined and industrious under the guidance of coach Alen Stajcic but it was fortune that delivered their first moment of joy of the season. Serbian signing Milan Duric’s shot from distance took a deflection en route to goal, opening the scoring in the 29th minute.
The Wanderers lacked creativity in the absence of injured playmaker Radoslaw Majewski and it was little surprise to see their best chance arrive from a set-piece. A Pirmin Schwegler corner was pounced upon by Duke, whose glancing header was fumbled into the net by Birighitti, making it 1-1 minutes before the break.
It set the stage for what should have been an enthralling second half. Instead, both sides produced largely insipid, disorganised and directionless football. The Wanderers failed to provide any decent service to their marquee striker, Alex Meier. Just four crosses were put into the box before he was replaced before the hour mark.
The Wanderers were fragile in defence and had Lopar to thank for keeping the scores level. He pulled off two fine saves in as many minutes to deny Mariners striker Jordan Murray, the first to block his header before denying his close-range shot after a counter-attack.
While the quality may not have been befitting of the occasion before a crowd of 17,091, it was a night that belonged to Wanderers. A hand-ball from Dylan Fox in the 78th minute went unnoticed by officials before the VAR intervened, awarding the Wanderers a penalty that Duke emphatically converted in the 82nd minute. The lengthy delay was frustrating enough for the Mariners, though Stajcic slammed the decision, suggesting it was ball-to-hand contact.
“I don’t know if it was a hand-ball. I saw it deflect off our player so it can’t be intentional. I don’t know how that’s intentional when it deflects off a guy from one yard away at that speed,” he said.
The Mariners nearly stole a point at the death when Ziggy Gordon latched onto a set-piece but the Scotsman’s header was palmed away in a reflex save from Lopar. The goalkeeper reacted quickly again a split second later to palm away the rebound, seconds before the final whistle.
Dominic Bossi is a football reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald.