Western United has advanced to the semi-finals of the Isuzu UTE A-League Men with a thrilling and combative 1-0 win over Wellington Phoenix.
Aleksandar Prijovic scored the only goal of the game inside the opening 10 minutes with a half-volley that flew into the top corner of the net.
Both goalkeepers pulled off some superb saves to keep the score line at 1-0, with the result meaning Western United will return to AAMI Park on Tuesday night to face Melbourne Victory in the first leg of the semi-finals.
Western United made one change from the final round defeat to Adelaide United, and it was a direct swap at the back with Leo Lacroix coming in for Nikolai Topor-Stanley, who missed with a foot injury.
Josh Risdon returned to the bench while Rene Krhin started at centre-back once again. Neil Kilkenny took the captain’s armband for the first time in the Green and Black.
For an Elimination Final, the game actually had some considerable early tempo as Western United looked to control the ball, while Wellington looked threatening on the counter.
Kilkenny was in the right position to intercept an early cutback in the box before Reno Piscopo had a good chance from just outside the area, but his shot was met with the strong right hand of Jamie Young.
Despite those early looks at goal, Wellington were on the back foot when Ben Garuccio and Connor Pain combined down the left-hand side as they have done so often this season.
Garuccio sent a cross into the area that evaded everybody before falling to Aleksandar Prijovic at the back post, and the Serbian took a touch to set himself before lashing a half-volley into the roof of Oliver Sail’s net.
United then dropped back into its defensive structure and managed to limit the spaces in which the likes of Reno Piscopo and Gael Sandoval were able to get on the ball.
John Aloisi’s men were quick on the counter attack going the other way and had the best of the remaining half chances in the game, with Dylan Wenzel-Halls looking threating when running at Wellington’s defensive line.
Jerry Skotadis drew Sail’s best save of the half when he stepped forward and very nearly bent a strike into the bottom right corner but for the Wellington keeper making a good save.
That opened up a frantic couple of minutes towards the end of the half but the half-time whistle blew with no further impact on the scoreboard as United went in with the lead.
United sought to remain strong in defence in the second half and keep the lead intact but also looked lively when presented with a chance to increase the deficit.
Prijovic looped a header just over the bar and United’s wide players sent a number of teasing balls into the box but just lacked the final piece of incision.
Wellington came closest to adding another goal to the game when Piscopo found space in the inside-left channel, cut inside and launched a shot from long-range that dipped and swerved onto the crossbar.
Wenzel-Halls almost added United’s second not too long after when he had two bites of the cherry in the box, firing just wide from point blank range on the second attempt after his original header was blocked.
Sail pulled off an exceptional save to deny Pain after he had a shot deflected before Young one-upped him with an even better step as he pawed the ball away from danger when the ball seemed destined for the net.
Risdon made his return off the bench and there was a big moment for Rhys Bozinovski who made only his second A-League Men appearance when he replaced Krhin for the final 20 minutes.
Wellington began to throw everything at finding an equaliser but United remained composed at the back and was able to thwart the visitors’ advances.
Nicolas Milanovic came off the bench and put in an exceptional performance in the final moments, keeping the ball and winning some important headers, and the No.26 very nearly put the icing on the cake with a late chance, but for another save from Sail.
The Green and Black held on for a famous win in its first ever home final and returns to the final four for the second time in three years, with a maiden Grand Final appearance on the line.