Steven Lustica’s last-minute winner crashed the party as Sydney FC were forced to lift the Premiers Plate following a 2-1 defeat against finals-bound Western United.
Lustica swept in his first goal for the club after Dylan Pieras' scintillating run and cross as the in-form Green and Black stunned the newly-crowned Premiers at Leichhardt Oval, continuing to build momentum for an inaugural-season Championship bid after collecting six wins from their last seven matches.
Besart Berisha’s 21st-minute effort opened the scoring for the competition newcomers and Alessandro Diamanti conjured a moment of sheer brilliance midway through the first half but the Italian magician’s half-way line strike crashed back off Andrew Redmayne’s crossbar.
Adam Le Fondre’s 52nd-minute header restored parity and Steve Corica’s side entered the closing stages in control of a high-octane contest but veteran midfielder Lustica popped up in the 90th minute to inflict the Sky Blues’ fifth defeat of the campaign as the defending Champions stutter into the Finals Series without a win in their last five matches.
While the Harbour City club paraded their record-equalling fourth Premiers Plate, United celebrated their place in the Finals Series being officially confirmed and Mark Rudan’s team could climb from fifth to third with three points from their season finale against Melbourne City.
In another subplot, Le Fondre’s 20th goal of the season brings him level with Golden Boot leader Jamie Maclaren, while Berisha’s strike takes him to 18. Berisha and Maclaren, who shared the 2016/17 top goalscorer prize, go head-to-head in the final match of the campaign on Wednesday night to decide which of the frontmen claim the award.
Corica brought in the big guns and experienced heads for the Sky Blues’ final game of the campaign – with captain Alex Wilkinson, Rhyan Grant and Milos Ninkovic among five players returning – but an early injury to Michael Zullo saw the Socceroo replaced by Joel King after the 31-year-old had fired a shot over from Alex Baumjohann’s cut-back on seven minutes.
Italian playmaker Diamanti lashed a couple of attempts over and Max Burgess tested Andrew Redmayne in the Sydney goal following a Ninkovic giveaway, before Kosta Barbarouses’ low strike put United ‘keeper Filip Kurto to work on the Polish gloveman’s 50th competition appearance.
United were raining in shots from distance as Sebastian Pasquali drilled over in the 20th minute but the Green and Black finally found a way through Sydney’s rearguard when Diamanti’s curling shot deflected off King and, after Redmayne parried the ball into the air, Berisha pounced to net his 134th competition strike and close within two goals of Golden Boot-leader Jamie Maclaren.
The hosts responded positively with Ninkovic pulling the trigger twice from close range but some last-ditch United defending proved to be enough to block the Serbian’s attempts, before Diamanti went agonisingly close to producing one of the all-time great Hyundai A-League moments in the 25th minute when his chip-shot from inside the centre circle cannoned back off the Sydney crossbar with Redmayne scrambling backward towards his own goal-line.
In a breathless content, Burgess pulled an effort wide at the half hour mark and, at the other end, Luke Brattan slammed a bending free-kick around the outside of Kurto’s goal-post. The Sky Blues settled into their stride as Ninkovic and Baumjohann combined superbly but were squeezed out on 39 minutes by Tomoki Imai’s sliding challenge, while Kurto was called into action to make superb save from Anthony Caceras' shot as United went into the sheds with a slender advantage.
Corica’s team picked up where they left off in the second half and the Harbour City club were level when Le Fondre leapt highest to climb above his marker, Imai, and head Brattan’s out-swinging delivery past Kurto on 52 minutes, notching 20 goals for the campaign and earning a share of the lead in the Golden Boot standings.
Diamanti made way on 62 minutes as Rudan tired to conserve energy among some of his senior troops with a series of substitutions and Grant almost snuck behind the United defence but could not latch on to Anthony Caceras’ searching through ball. United struggled to carve out opportunities against a composed Sydney backline and substitute Apostolos Stamatelopoulos could not get a connection on Josh Cavallo’s 70th-minute cross under pressure from Wilkinson.
Caceras and substitute Trent Buhagiar both fired off target as Sydney FC dominated the closing stages against a youthful United side, but Lustica pounced at the death to snatch all three points as the Sky Blues’ wait for a win continues. The newly-crowned Premiers have a 10-days break before a return to action in a home Semi-Final.