Muratovic punishes Western United as Roar open up finals advantage
Super sub Mirza Muratovic scored in back-to-back cameos as Brisbane Roar claimed a 1-0 win to open up a four-point cushion on Hyundai A-League Finals Series rivals Western United.
Robbie Fowler’s side snatched a closely-fought contest following a nightmare moment for United debutant Tomoki Imai on 61 minutes, as Brad Inman robbed the Japanese defender and set up the 20-year-old Muratovic for a emphatic finish.
Roar had edged ahead of Mark Rudan’s side into sixth place ahead of the match and, after inflicting United’s second straight defeat in Ballarat, the Queenslanders move into a commanding position in the chase for a Hyundai A-League Finals Series spot.
While Western United controlled possession at at Mars Stadium, the hosts did not record a single shot on target as Brisbane threatened in the first half when Jack Hingert and Dylan Wenzel-Halls forced Filip Kurto into sharp saves.
The introduction of captain Alessandro Diamanti on 54 minutes provided a spark for United but it was Roar's substitute, Muratovic, who grabbed the headlines once again – following his goalscoring cameo against Adelaide United last week – to extract some revenge for the Roar's 2-0 loss to United back in December.
In the weeks since that result at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane have lost only one of eight matches while United have won one of seven – a run of form which has flipped the script on both sides’ campaigns as the battle for finals football enters the home stretch.
Hingert makes United keeper Kurto work early
United kicked off aiming to make better memories for their Ballarat fans than the 3-1 Round 12 loss to Wellington Phoenix, and the hosts almost made a dream start when Connor Pain threatened, before goalkeeper Filip Kurto was forced into a fine stop from Jack Hingert’s effort inside four minutes.
Durante cannot control his effort on the stretch
Max Burgess engineered space but could not keep his strike on target from inside the Roar box and Andrew Durante sliced a chance over from Josh Risdon’s whipped free-kick as United began to cause problems. The visitors, playing against the wind, began to bank players behind the ball as the half progressed.
With the bulk of the half played within the middle third of the pitch, both sides' low risk approach allowed little space for creativity until Dylan Wenzel-Halls burst away on the hosts' left and fired a stinging shot straight at Kurto in the 34th minute.
A first half that was primarily a midfield battle ended with a flurry of Roar offence and a desperate United defence surviving a goal-mouth scramble, with the Green and Black not able to test Brisbane gloveman Jamie Young in the opening 45.
Roar up the tempo and Muratovic strikes
It was the fifth straight match that Roar had gone into the sheds locked at 0-0, and Fowler's side shot out of the block in the second half. Brad Inman's lung-busting run and cross was met by Jay O'Shea but the Irishman's close-range shot on the turn skewed off target three minutes after the restart.
Rudan introduced captain Diamanti and Fowler sent on young gun Muratovic as both coaches sought to change the game in their favour. Play began to open up as the clock ticked towards the hour mark, as Hingert sprung clear on the right and stung Kurto's hands once again.
Then a moment of horror dawned on Imai on his Hyundai A-League debut. As the Japanese defender hesitated on the ball, Inman snatched away possession and put the ball on a plate for Muratotic to stroke the Queenslanders in front on 61 minutes.
Diamanti inspires as United chase the game
Brisbane were beginning to open up Western United at will as the returning Scott Neville pulled the ball back from the byline and Josh Risdon threw his body on the line to block Inman's scuffed shot.
Almost out of nowhere, Diamanti launched a long free-kick towards goal and ex-Roar legend Besart Berisha saw his glancing header whistle wide of the untested Young's goalpost on 70 minutes.
The Italian gave United a thrust they had been lacking, and his rampaging run forced space to open up in the Brisbane area as captain Tom Aldred charged down Diamanti's attempt from the edge of the Roar penalty box.
O'Neill almost puts the game away
With United opening up the game to search for an equaliser, Brisbane looked more likely to grab the second goal as Inman wriggled free of the home defence and slammed a shot over in the 80th minute.
Kurto was called into action again four minutes later to deny Aiden O'Neill a first goal of the campaign with a fizzing 18-yard effort. United toiled until the final whistle but could not forge an opportunity to level the scores as Young showed safe hands to gather substitute Dylan Pierias' low, driven cross.
Wellington Phoenix v Western United FC
Friday, 21 February
Kick-off: 7.15pm local, 5.15pm AEDT
Brisbane Roar v Perth Glory
Saturday, 22 February
Kick-off: 4pm local, 5pm AEDT