With just over 10 minutes remaining in Saturday's derby between Western Sydney Wanderers and Sydney FC, the TV commentators remarked on an eerie silence that had descended upon the CommBank Stadium. With Sydney's finest playing an A-League Men elimination final against each other for the first time, an air of dread was beginning to descend on Wanderland. It was a sign of what was to come.
For most of the evening, the Wanderers fans had enjoyed complete control of the ambience, granted unfettered sway when they opted not to join their counterparts in boycotting the fixture in protest of the highly unpopular decision to sell hosting rights of the A-League's men's and women's grand finals to Destination NSW from 2023-25. Just minutes before Morgan Schneiderlin's 39th-minute penalty had put Wanderers ahead, they'd been a heaving mass of humanity and noise, a battle cry of "F--- off Sydney FC" unmistakable to everyone in attendance or watching along at home. They'd kept the chant going for quite a while, as well.
But when Sydney FC's Robert Mak capitalised on a poor clearing header from left-back Adama Traore, skipped around a challenge and whipped in a shot off the post in the 69th minute, there was a realisation that all the momentum was shifting behind the visitors.
The Wanderers will never play a Sydney Derby with a friendlier atmosphere, but they looked to have left their heads in the dressing room when they made their way onto the pitch after the break. What had worked in the first half had either been discarded or swept away by a ferocious intensity by those in Sky Blue.
Looking to maintain their one-goal lead, attempts to hunker down instead saw them struggle not to give it away -- something they could have done minutes into the second half had goalkeeper Lawrence Thomas not been able to deny Adam Le Fondre's snapshot in the 51st, or if midfielder Luke Brattan had hit his volley a bit lower a few moments later.
Maybe it was the weight of expectation, which the hosts had undoubtedly carried into this game and were supercharged by their lead, that eventually took its toll. A side with so much on the line suddenly found themselves challenged by the whims of fate, fancy, and an influential Max Burgess.
Beyond the almost complete control of the stands on the night, the fourth-placed Wanderers entered the game as favourites -- with a +16 goal difference, compared to +1 for Sydney, showcasing a gap that existed between the two sides despite them both finishing on 11 wins and with the latter just three points behind in fifth. Furthermore, a narrative had been built throughout the season that the balance of power in the Harbour City was shifting and soon to be realised.
Compounding it all was that it should never have been up for debate at that point anyway. The Wanderers should have been 1-0 up, possibly 2-0, even before Schneiderlin's penalty. Traore had found Milos Ninkovic -- whose first season after making a Sol Campbell or Luis Figo-esque crossing of the Sydney divide ended on a sour note -- in space inside the penalty area moments before that goal, only for his driven effort to be redirected over the bar by Andrew Redmayne.
Captain Marcelo had also sent an open header wide in the 13th minute. He then did similar in the 87th minute, sending an effort that would have forced extra time over the bar.
On a different night, those opportunities go in and both the game and narrative would have shifted. What if Schneiderlin's penalty had been one of several first-half goals that gave the Wanderers a better buffer, or if Traore had sent his clearing header anywhere than where he did to hand Mak a chance for the equaliser? Would they have been able to stem the blue tide if one of the pillars of the league's best defence, Tomislav Mrcela, hadn't got injured in the early stages of the second half?
On Saturday, though, those things didn't happen and Sydney claimed a memorable comeback win. After being forced to batten down the hatches for much of the first half, either retreating into defence during sustained Wanderers possession or struggling to work through the press, they found their groove and found a way back.
So when Le Fondre rose highest to meet a Mak corner and send a glancing header inside the far post to seal a 2-1 win on 80 minutes, it didn't feel like some great injustice had been done. The Sky Blues' performance in the second half -- as well as the Wanderers' -- merited it, and their history always suggested it might have been coming. While the Wanderers were experiencing a long period in a final-less wilderness, experiencing the false dawns of the Markus Babbel era or the hollow promises of Carl Robinson, Sydney were constructing one of the finest dynasties Australian football has ever seen and a sizable number of those contributors remained.
For the Wanderers, the season ends with a tinge of underachievement, given the talent in their squad. But it is not a disaster. After what has been on abject show across the past six years, Saturday's disappointment won't obfuscate that this side has made progress that a club with such resources should be able to build on. A failure to do so would be an indictment. Some form of cleanout and rejuvenation in the squad is likely imminent given coach Marko Rudan's history, but players such as Calem Nieuwenhof, a future Socceroo if there ever was one, are building blocks.
The Sky Blues, meanwhile, have the unflinching, unmerciful winning machine that is Melbourne City awaiting them in the semifinals. Elimination probably awaits, the premiers have reached a level of standard befitting their gargantuan, CFG-provided resources where anything other than a championship represents failure. At least after Saturday's game, though, they can say that Sydney is not yet red and black.