When it comes to his side’s do or die semi-final against Melbourne City on Wednesday afternoon, Western United Head Coach Mark Rudan has one message: forget the form and forget the fatigue.
Having become just the third expansion side in A-League history to play finals football in their debut campaign, Western promptly one-upped Gold Coast United on Sunday evening when they downed Brisbane Roar in their first-ever knockout fixture off the back of a first-half Alessandro Diamanti free-kick.
The result means they now have a chance to equal the achievement of Western Sydney Wanderers first season Grand Final qualification when they take on Melbourne City in the first A-League semi-final.
From a historical perspective, Western has omens that are both for and against them heading into that meeting with their crosstown rivals.
Ominously, they are yet to actually defeat, or even take a single point from, City in the three competitive fixtures they have played in their short history; City downing Western 2-1 in their round three meeting, 3-2 in round 13 and, less than a week ago, triumphing 3-1 at Jubilee Stadium.
History also tells observers that sides that finish inside the top-two, generally, have the inside running on post-season success, with Sydney FC’s Grand Final triumph a season ago the most recent example.
Conversely, City’s spotty record when it comes to winning the big games is a well-established A-League trope and the club’s most recent dalliance in a knock-out fixture saw them go to pieces in the face of a rampant Adelaide United in the 2019 FFA Cup final.
Speaking to media on Tuesday morning, Rudan also pointed to the rejuvenation his squad has gone through throughout the season, as well regular football that his side has enjoyed since the A-League’s restart, as working in their favour. Likely to only run out five of the same starters that were defeated by City back in October, Western will play their eighth game since July 25 against City compared to their foes three.
“I don’t believe we’ve had the ability to play our strongest team, particularly the last two times we played them,” Rudan said. “So, it’s a different kettle of fish.
“The first time we played them was a completely different team to what we are now. We’ve taken a lot from our past experiences against them, but they rightly finished second on the table and in this position and are to be respected.
“We’ve played seven games post-resumption. Although it’s tough, we enjoy playing games, rather than not, so we’ve got continuity and we’ve got the ability to get those minutes throughout the whole squad, which is important.
“I just feel like when you’re playing a lot of games it’s actually better for you – the players certainly believe so. I mean, Brisbane didn’t play a game for 13 days before they played against us so I do believe it’s in our favour.”
Despite a number of players sustaining knocks in that game, Rudan said that his squad wouldn’t be bereft of anybody’s services as a result – Andrew Durante, Josh Risdon and Max Burgess all name-dropped as being available for selection.
City will enter the coming contest against the expansion side as the bookmaker's favourites but, as arguably the form side of the competition, Western cannot be ruled out of springing a surprise when the two sides clash as Bankwest Stadium.
Rudan and his coaching staff have maximized any little opening they could find to great effect since the A-League’s restart and he detailed during his press conference how he and his coaching staff, immediately upon returning to their hotel after defeating Brisbane, spent the next several hours scouting and researching City.
The Western gaffer has previously acknowledged that the side sought to take advantage of Western Sydney Wanderers goalkeeper Tristan Prendergast’s predilection from coming off his line in their meeting post-restart – with Diamanti promptly chipping him twice as Western ran out 5-3 winners.
On Sunday, Rudan could be heard shouting “I told you so” after the Italian sent his free-kick past Jamie Young in Western’s elimination final win.
“We do it with every team,” Rudan said. “You can always find subtle things in the opposition where you can pinpoint and have a look at - the devil’s in the detail.
“People that know me know how big I am on small details. It could be the smallest of things from a starting position to how someone moves to what their habits and behaviours are in a game, how they receive the ball, first touch.
“Those little things are important for me and they’re the little things you have to try and relay to the players and the team. How do we best utilise that and make the best out of it?”