It was a case of so close but ultimately so far for Western Sydney Wanderers who finished with nothing despite a wonderful Hyundai A-League season. We look back a memorable campaign at Wonderland and predict what’s in store in 2016/17.
Record: Played 27, Won 14, Drawn 6, Lost 7
Leading Goal Scorer: Brendon Santalab (11)
Best home crowd: 20,084 – Semi Final against Brisbane Roar
Star performer: Mitch Nichols
A consistent performer in the Hyundai A-League over a number of years, 2015/16 was arguably Nichols’ best-ever campaign in the competition. A grueling pre-season under Tony Popovic got the playmaker in excellent physical condition and it showed on the pitch.
The 27-year-old developed into a real box-to-box midfielder and also developed an eye for goal. Playing all 29 matches for the season, Nichols scored a career-best 10 goals and provided four assists, forming a lethal combination with the likes of Mark Bridge, Santalab and Romeo Castelen as the season went on.
Breakout player: Jaushua Sotirio
While Sotirio had a few games under his belt heading into this season, the 20-year-old was an established part of the first-team in 2015/16. An exciting winger with scary speed and good close dribbling skills, Sotirio played 19 of the club’s 29 games for the season, scoring once and providing three assists.
Proved he belongs at Hyundai A-League level over the course of the campaign and if he keeps improving the way he has over the last 12 months, will be an even more important player for the Red and Black next season again.
Goal of the year: Mitch Nichols
Nichols had his best goal return in the Hyundai A-League this season with 10 goals, but saved the best for the game against his former club Brisbane Roar in round 9. Receiving the ball with his back to goal to just to the left of the box, Nichols turned Jack Hingert before spotting the keeper slightly off his line curling a sensational effort into the top-corner. It wasn’t only a sublime strike but handed the Wanderers a late 2-1 win at Pirtek Stadium.
Highlight: Incredible Semi Final comeback
Wanderland has provided many highlights over Western Sydney’s four years in the Hyundai A-League but nothing like what we saw in the grand final qualifier against Brisbane Roar. In the club’s last game at the venue before its redevelopment, the Wanderers produced a comeback for the ages to see off Brisbane Roar and book their spot in the grand final. Trailing 3-0 inside 25 minutes it looked like Tony Popovic’s side were on their way to an embarrassing defeat but they somehow turned things around.
Roared on by more than 20,000 fans, a stunning hat-trick by Romeo Castelen and another to Santalab saw it finish 4-4 at full-time before substitute Dario Vidosic scored an extra-time winner to seal the greatest comeback in Hyundai A-League history.
The club also won the award for best community program in the A-League, proving they are getting things right both on and off the field.
Lowlight: Derby disappointment and marquee flop
While the Wanderers were the best performing team from Sydney in 2015/16, they were again unable to get a win against the Harbour City rivals Sydney FC. Two late defeats and a 1-1 draw in the third clash makes it now seven games in a row without a win against the Sky Blues. And while Popovic largely got his recruitment right for the campaign, marquee man Federico Piovaccari proved to be a disappointing signing. In all, the veteran Italian managed just 12 appearances for the club and scored two goals, but wasn’t sighted in the second half of the season.
What they need:
While the rebuild over this off-season will be nothing like what we saw 12 months ago (when 18 players were let go) there is still likely to be a decent amount of changes at the club. Popovic is not afraid to make wholesale changes if he feels that’s what needed and it will improve the side. A top-quality central defender will be one position “Popa” will want to fill following the release of Spaniard Alberto, with Tomislav Mrcela already linked with the club. Another gloveman to push Andrew Redmayne for the number one jersey also seems a logical option.
But a star striker is undoubtedly at the top of the wish-list. The side did exceptionally well to finish second and make the GF despite the gamble of Piovaccari proving a failure. It left Bridge and Santalab to share the duties over the season and while the pair did exceptionally well when called upon, the Wanderers ultimately need more options and a proven scorer to take the next step.
Acquisitions for next season:
Mario Shabow, Lachlan Scott (both signed from youth team)
Losses for next season:
Andreu, Romeo Castelen, Alberto Aguilar, Liam Reddy, Federico Piovaccari, Golgol Mebrahtu, Matt Sim, Josh MacDonald
Outlook for 2016/17:
There’s no doubting the Wanderers have been the biggest improvers of the last 12 months going from second-last in 2014/15 to second this season. Popovic will be quietly content with the giant strides his team made – especially in regards to the style of some of the football they are playing now – but internally it’s all about finding a way to land the ultimate prize. With the bulk of the current squad likely to stay together, there is no reason to suggest the Wanderers won’t be right near the top of the pile again next season. The club will again have AFC Champions League football to contend with at the backend of the campaign but Wanderers fans can dare to dream Season 12 could finally be their year in the Hyundai A-League.