The W-League weekend in 280 characters or less
Wanderers open the round with their second win of the season over Perth 1-0, Victory continue their ladder climb with 2-0 win over Newcastle, Sydney stay top with 2-1 win over Adelaide and Brisbane stay right on their tail with 4-0 thumping of Perth.
Here's the tea
When Elise Kellond-Knight tore her ACL in July last year, a similar kind of panic swept across Matildas fans to what we experienced when Clare Polkinghorne injured her hamstring in the group stage of the 2019 Women's World Cup. Who could possibly replace her? What could the knock-on effects be in a major tournament situation where squad sizes are relatively small? How long will it take for her to get back to full fitness, and who can do the job until then?
If we're talking about true like-for-like replacements -- an experienced, metronomic No. 6 who shields the back four, breaks up play, and sprays long-range passes around the field to change the angle of attack -- some names that come to mind are Sevilla's Aivi Luik and Bristol City's Ella Mastrantonio, both of whom had outstanding W-League seasons in 2019-20 and who are now recording regular minutes at their respective European clubs.
But another player emerging as a potential replacement for Kellond-Knight -- at least in the short-term -- is Sydney FC captain Teresa Polias. The 30-year old is not unfamiliar with the national team. She has been capped 12 times since 2007, most recently making an appearance off the bench during the 2019 Cup of Nations tournament.
Polias has become somewhat of a legend in W-League circles not only for her decade-long commitment to Sydney FC but also her indefatigable and dependable playing style. She has started every game for the club this season -- as she has done almost every single year since she signed -- and has become absolutely critical to the smooth functioning of Sydney's wider playing system.
But Polias is also making a name for herself in various statistical categories, too. She currently leads the W-League in chances created (19) and, following her two corners leading to goals against Adelaide on Sunday, is now equal-first for assists (5). She also leads the league for balls into the area -- as Sydney FC's corner and free kick taker in the attacking half, Polias has sent a whopping 58 balls into the penalty area from these positions as well as from open play. She's all over the rest of the field, too, currently sitting inside the top 10 for highest number of passes (392) across the league.
With the Tokyo Olympics set to go ahead in just five months, and with Kellond-Knight likely not match fit in that time, Football Australia would be daft not to consider Polias in their short-term plans. Not only is she delivering on the field, but her five seasons as captain of the W-League's most consistently successful club and her long-term stints in and around the Matildas also makes her an experienced leader off it.
The question is perhaps not whether Football Australia want Polias to be involved in the national team again; her stats and influence this season surely have her in the conversation. Instead, the question may be whether, in amongst her full-time career as a primary school teacher, Polias wants -- and can do -- the same.
Sometimes when you want something done, you've got to do it yourself. And when the clock ticked down towards half-time in Western Sydney's game against Perth on Thursday, that's exactly what Wanderers centre-back Caitlin Cooper decided to do. Having watched her younger midfield try to open up Perth's stubborn defence, the former Matilda picked the ball up inside the attacking half and went for a wander (see what I did there?), slotting a perfect pass through for winger Julie-Ann Russell to score the game's only goal.
It was also the kind of lead-by-example moment that this largely young Wanderers side has needed to help carry them through their difficult season so far. Coming into Thursday night's game, Western Sydney had just one win in seven games, which came against Newcastle in round 2, and hadn't kept a single clean sheet all season.
And while the goal-scorer Russell won the plaudits, it's the player who fed her the ball that deserves a lot of the credit -- not just for parting Perth's resolute defenders like Moses parted the Red Sea but also for ensuring the score-line stayed that way.
Western Sydney have now leap-frogged both Melbourne City and Newcastle to sit in sixth spot and, what with their visibly improving form over the last three rounds, there's no reason they can't repeat last season's historic feat of a top four finish. This is not the end for the Wanderers' season just yet, especially if Caitlin Cooper has anything to do with it.
While the current season hasn't seen the same influx of big-name players from overseas, there's still a handful of international players who are also benefiting from the clear air of empty visa spots.
Four of them -- all of whom are in their first W-League season -- made a major impact for their clubs this week. On Thursday, Western Sydney's crucial 1-0 win over Perth came through Republic of Ireland international Julie-Ann Russell. Despite being a stand-out in the NSW NPLW for Sydney University, Russell took some time to settle into the W-League, but her last two games have been her deadliest, creating a number of key chances and, finally, getting on the score-sheet this week.
On Saturday, American duo Catherine Zimmerman and Kayla Morrison each scored in Victory's 2-0 win over Newcastle, having been similarly plucked out of Victoria's NPLW competition for their first shot at the W-League. Despite some inconsistent results at the start, both players have quickly acclimatised to the higher speeds and standards of the W-League and have now become major contributors to Victory's recent surge up the ladder: Zimmerman is now the club's top scorer (4) while Morrison has started every game at centre-back and, this round, helped Victory record their fourth clean sheet of the season.
Finally, Sunday afternoon saw Kiwi international Olivia Chance also score her debut W-League goal in Brisbane's 4-0 romp of Perth. Chance, who has become one of the league's most impressive midfielders after taking over from the pregnant Katrina Gorry, unleashed a rocket from outside the box with her much-lauded left foot to open the scoring, while also helping her side keep their fourth clean sheet.
It's perhaps one of this season's other silver linings that these lesser-known international players are being given a similar platform to impress their respective national teams. Come 2023, we may well see just how important this season has been for each of them.
Every W-League season has one or two fairytale comeback stories, be it a return from injury or retirement. Last season, it was Hayley Raso. This season, it's Michelle Heyman and -- most extraordinarily and unexpectedly of all -- Larissa Crummer.
758 days after suffering one of the most stomach-turning, PTSD-inducing leg breaks the W-League has ever seen, Larissa Crummer returned to the field for Brisbane Roar against Perth on Sunday.
To even want to be involved in top-flight football again after such an intense injury -- and even more intense, complicated recovery process that took two years -- is admirable enough. But to work her way back to fitness to the point of signing a contract and making the field at all is quite another.
Then she only went and scored.
It was a tap-in, sure. But there is something rather poetic to the simplicity of her goal given that, when Crummer won the Golden Boot in 2016-17 while playing for Melbourne City, the vast majority of her goals were scored in exactly the same way. There's some sort of metaphor in there somewhere, you feel; something about the wider networks of support that have helped her achieve her goals, both literal and figurative, over the years. But this is mostly about Crummer herself: about her resilience, her bravery, her determination. There is no metaphor that can capture that better than she did by simply showing up at all.
There comes a point in every mid-table team's season where they know, deep down, that they're out of the running. For Newcastle, that point felt like Saturday's 2-0 loss to Melbourne Victory. Even though they aren't mathematically written out of finals contention, the rate at which the table is stretching (14 points separate Sydney in first and Newcastle in seventh), plus the fact that the Jets will have to win each of their last five games (against Adelaide, Perth, City, Canberra and Brisbane) in order to squeak into the top four, suggests that this hill has become just too steep to climb.
It's a shame because Newcastle have been playing some of their best build-up football this season compared with many previous campaigns. The Matildas exodus and lack of international imports played heavily into their hands, having been the only team last season to not field a single visa player, and therefore came into 2020-21 with a squad cohesion and player chemistry that was the envy of many others.
The ultimate reconfiguration of their midfield -- the consistent yet multifaceted combination of Alisha Bass, Cassidy Davis and Rhianna Pollicina -- and the addition of a handful of young, quick wingers capable of feeding the ever-reliable Tara Andrews, saw the Jets playing some of the most attractive football in the first half of the season, pushing Sydney FC and nipping two points in a draw with an under-done Brisbane.
But attractive football does not always win games. The Jets' second loss to Victory felt like a bit of a resignation performance -- one of their most defeatist and non-threatening so far. They had just 38% of possession, almost 200 fewer passes, less than half the number of crosses and shots, and just a single corner. That's due in part to Victory being a fit, high-pressing and well-drilled team that prevented the Jets from playing to their own strengths, and yet it speaks to the gulf that still exists between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' in the W-League despite the unexpected equalisation measures that the pandemic provided.
That Pollicina -- one of Newcastle's most impressive players this season -- recorded the first red card of the 2020-21 W-League season for deliberately clipping the heel of an accelerating Kyra Cooney-Cross is perhaps a fitting metaphor for the team's current situation: as other teams race away from them, all Newcastle can do now is try to trip them over as they do so.
Is there a gif of that?
Even though Newcastle lost, its players nonetheless remain confident that they can take on the best.
Jets winger Sunny Franco's cheeky nutmeg of Matildas legend Lisa De Vanna was a fun little display of just that.