Western Sydney and Perth play spoiler; W-League legends Heyman, Gielnik contest another Golden Boot

This week in 280 characters or less

Western Sydney record their first ever win in Victoria after thumping Melbourne City 4-0, Canberra stay in finals contention after chaotic 3-2 win over resolute Perth, Brisbane continue their Premiership charge with 4-2 victory over Adelaide, City bounce back three days later to scrape a 1-0 win over Newcastle, and Victory jump into third after 1-0 defeat of Perth.

Winners

The headache teams

Every year, there are one or two W-League teams that begin to find form and momentum towards the back end of the season. Usually, it's when a finals spot has already slipped from their grasp, and so their focus turns to a new objective: try to trip up the other clubs that are a handful of points away from the big dance.

Western Sydney and Perth Glory seem to be those teams this year -- especially the former. Three of the Wanderers' four wins so far have come in the past four weeks, and their only loss in that period -- a 1-0 defeat to Victory in round 11 -- was a much tighter affair than the Melbourne team had perhaps anticipated.

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Indeed, you felt something had begun to click in Western Sydney when they drew 2-2 with Adelaide in early February, followed by a slim 2-1 loss to Brisbane. While defeating Melbourne City 4-0 is not quite the feat it may have been in seasons past, the Wanderers' performance on Thursday was nonetheless their most emphatic so far. And with Adelaide United still to face, we can expect, based on their recent trajectory, that the Wanderers will be out to cause trouble.

Perth, meanwhile, for all their off-field struggles, showed this past weekend that they're no pushovers. Two worldie goals from Caitlin Doeglas and Kat Jukic on Friday night, combined with some force-of-nature defending from Liz Anton, Sarah Carroll and Lily Alfeld, saw Canberra have to fight until the final minute of the game to find a winner (and of course it came through Michelle Heyman -- more on that in a minute).

They backed that up with another stoic performance against fellow finals contenders Melbourne Victory on Tuesday, and were it not for the quick reflexes of Gaby Garton to deny three big chances by Doeglas in the opening half hour, they may not have scraped that 1-0 win that got them into third. Victory have to play Perth once more before the end of the season; a game that could (other results depending) determine whether the Melbourne club makes finals at all. Let chaos reign.

The Golden Boot contenders

The 2011-12 season was memorable for a lot of reasons. It was the first time a W-League club had gone through an entire campaign undefeated (Canberra United), and just the second time a team (also Canberra) had won both trophies on offer. That season had one of the biggest score-lines ever produced in the league (Sydney defeating Perth 11-0), as well as one of the most memorable semifinals in history (Brisbane vs. Sydney, a.k.a. "the Alen Stajcic send-off game").

It was also the season that two young strikers -- Heyman of Canberra United and Emily Gielnik of Brisbane Roar -- competed for the Golden Boot. It was fitting that the two women not only met in the final that year, but both also scored there. Canberra came away 3-2 winners that day, with Heyman taking the top scorer award: 15 goals to Gielnik's nine.

Well, it looks like the Roar forward may get her revenge on the Canberra legend this season. Over the weekend, the two strikers battled it out once again. Heyman's brace against Perth on Friday afternoon not only made her overtake Sam Kerr to become the W-League's all-time top scorer (72), but she also became the 2020-21 season leader with nine.

For a few hours, at least. Later that night, Gielnik replied, scoring a hat trick against Adelaide to take her season tally to 12 -- her best ever goal return in the W-League. We can perhaps expect Gielnik to add to her tally in Brisbane's final game against Newcastle at the end of March, but so too could Heyman, as Canberra take on Newcastle eight days earlier before taking on a defensively depleted Sydney FC.

There's something wholesome about two veteran strikers wrestling for Golden Boot honours almost 10 years after doing the same for the same clubs they're still part of. You almost want them to finish with the same number so they can share the trophy as a kind of monument to the sensational seasons both have had. But where's the edge-of-your-seat drama in that?

Losers

Adelaide United

Squeaky. Bum. Time. No team enjoys having their future dictated by teams and results elsewhere, but that's exactly the position Adelaide United find themselves in after their 4-2 loss to Brisbane on Friday night.

With the way the draw has shaken out this season, the Reds are one of three teams to have played 11 games at the conclusion of round 12. Unfortunately, the teams immediately above and below them (Victory and Canberra) -- i.e. the teams vying for a top-four spot -- have both only played 10. Each of them also have a fairly even run home to one another: both play Sydney FC as well as a bottom-three team in their final two games (Newcastle and Perth), so it's likely that they'll each secure at least three of six available points.

Adelaide, on the other hand, face a resurgent Western Sydney in their final match of the season -- a match where, after their loss to Brisbane, they must win if they are to secure that elusive finals spot. Off the back of their impressive outing against Melbourne City, the Wanderers will be heading into the Adelaide game on a wave of confidence.

With Victory's (ahem) victory over Perth on Tuesday night taking them to third, Adelaide sit just one point inside the top four, with Canberra snapping at their heels. The Reds need to hope that either they or Victory stumble in the next two weeks, and that they themselves can bounce back from their Brisbane loss to take three points from the Wanderers, or else it could be yet another finals dream dashed for a side that really, finally, deserves to be there.

Melbourne City

We all know what the story is here, so I won't linger on it for too long. Melbourne City are a history-making and history-breaking team in so many ways. Their entry into the league in 2015 was one of several shot-in-the-arm moments that made other clubs sit up and take notice. We're now seeing some of those ripple effects in the form of, say, Adelaide United putting women's-specific structures in place, including a Head of Women's Football role, or Western Sydney building a training base that includes equal access to facilities for its men's and women's teams. City have been, by and large, one of the most important things to happen to the W-League.

Which is why it's sad to see how far they've fallen. In fact, they risk setting a new kind of record in potentially becoming just the second team ever to go from title winners to second-last in the space of a single season (this unfortunate record is held by Perth between 2014 and 2015). There's even a risk they could go one worse and crash to the foot of the ladder if they lose their two remaining games to Perth Glory, who sit six points behind them with a game in hand. Both clubs play each other twice over the next two weeks and the results of those two games could determine who makes history in 2020-21 for all the wrong reasons.

Here's the tea

Global chaos may be the best thing to have happened to the W-League

At the start of this W-League season, many were worried that the standard of play and the overall excitement factor would drop off a cliff following the exodus of Matildas to Europe and the pandemic's border restrictions preventing internationals from making their annual trek to our sunny shores.

But anybody who has followed the 2020-21 campaign up until now will know that almost the opposite has happened: this season is one of the most exciting and unpredictable in recent memory, and this past round's worth of games encapsulated all the major narratives that have unfolded since November.

The historic downfall of Melbourne City was hammered home in their 4-0 loss to the Wanderers; one dynasty potentially replaced by another. That game also highlighted the emergence of a new generation of young Australian strikers, with 17-year-old Bryleeh Henry and 20-year old Rosie Galea both scoring braces; players who are part of a cohort that will be passed the Matildas baton at some point in the next decade.

The endurance and persistence of the W-League's legendary players in Heyman and Gielnik was on full display on Friday night -- each scoring a brace and a hat trick, respectively. Both of those games were some of the most exciting of the season so far, too; waxing and waning in only the way open, attack-minded, risky football can. At least three of the goals scored this round inspired tweets in all-caps, rocket emojis and Goal of the Season nominations.

In total, this weekend saw 17 goals scored, three braces and a hat trick, three chaotic score-lines and cliffhangers galore as the league enters its final fortnight. The people reading this column need no convincing that women's football contains all the emotion and spectacle of the men's game, or that speed and strength do not necessarily equal excitement or tension or turmoil.

For all the hurdles the W-League has had to overcome off the pitch in the past 12 months, to have a league and a group of players capable of delivering anything at all is noteworthy. But to have given us one of the most exhilarating and memorable seasons on the pitch, too, is something truly remarkable.

Is there a gif of that?

Melbourne City's solidarity shirts

Last week, former Melbourne City defender and Football Fern Rebekah Stott revealed she's fighting stage-3 Hodgkin's lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. True to form, Stott announced she'd be participating in the World's Greatest Shave to raise money and awareness for the illness. On Thursday, her old teammates walked out onto the field in shirts that did just that. We're all with you, Stotty.

You can donate here.