Gui Finkler denied Western Sydney Wanderers a win with a stunning strike in the dying seconds at AAMI Park on Saturday night as Melbourne Victory claimed a 1-1 draw.
The Brazilian magician curled a free kick past Ante Covic into the top corner, cancelling out Brendon Santalab’s 71st minute opener to ensure both sides shared the spoils in a pulsating A-League clash.
Wanderers coach Tony Popovic sprung a surprise before kick-off, leaving Shinji Ono, Tomi Juric and Youssouf Hersi out of his starting side, with only Hersi named on the bench.
Despite their absence Wanderers started brightest, buoyed by loud support from their travelling fans.
After 11 minutes Nathan Coe made a fine one handed save to deny Labinot Haliti’s close range header when Jerome Polenz whipped a fine ball in.
The players didn’t adopt the brawling tactics of their hardcore fans, who had clashed in Melbourne’s CBD earlier on Saturday, instead playing high-tempo fast transitioning football.
Victory kicked into gear after 19 minutes when Kosta Barbarouses’ fine run and cross down the left flank left Connor Pain with a simple tap-in – only for him to fluff his touch.
Western Sydney’s Tahj Minniecon was particularly impressive on the left flank, going close with a curling effort on 33 minutes then leaving Jason Geria in his wake before two last gasp defensive efforts denied Haliti from in close.
Both sides traded chances to score after the break, James Troisi just missing a Pain cross and Minniecon’s effort blocked by Leigh Broxham.
As Victory’s fans gave their loudest cheer of the night for the introduction of subersub Finkler, it was the two Wanderers’ substitutes that changed the game in the 71st minute.
Hersi laid the ball off for Brendon Santalab who struck past Nathan Coe.
Victory had the ball in the net when Adama Traore, one of the best afield, pulled back for Barbarouses, only for Traore’s muscular work to be deemed a foul.
With flares alighting the away support, a Nichols effort was deflected wide as Victory desperately searched for a reply.
Hersi had two late chances to extend the Wanderers’ lead but found Coe’s feet with the first and headed high at the back post with his second.
Victory boss Kevin Muscat, who has preached the value of patience to his side all season, saw his mantra reap a reward.
“Left it late didn’t we?” he said.
“Gui’s come a long way from a serious knee operation less than twelve months ago … he’s coming on, having impacts and changing the outcomes of games.”
Popovic joined Muscat to celebrate Finkler’s last-minute equaliser.
“As a club we admire him … I wish he had done that in a different game,” Popovic said.