United captain Alessandro Diamanti and game winner Kwabena Appiah after the final whistle. Western Utd beat Western Sydney 2-1 at GMHBA Stadium in the A-League on Saturday night. Picture: Alan Barber
United captain Alessandro Diamanti and game winner Kwabena Appiah after the final whistle. Western Utd beat Western Sydney 2-1 at GMHBA Stadium in the A-League on Saturday night. Picture: Alan Barber

So far so good but biggest tests yet to come

The cat is out of the bag. Western United are a team to be reckoned with.

 

They proved last week's comeback win over Melbourne Victory was no one-hit wonder, with a dominant come-from-behind win over Western Sydney Wanderers on Saturday night in front of 4558 at GMHBA Stadium.

 

They will almost certainly play finals, but can they mount a fairytale title challenge in their debut season?

 

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Panagiotis Kone’s injury is a concern for Western United.
Panagiotis Kone’s injury is a concern for Western United.

Western United's decision to assemble an experienced squad of "winners" has paid dividends, but could it prove an Achilles heel?

 

The win, via Andrew Durante and Kwabena Appiah-Kubi goals, entrenches United inside the top two after five rounds, giving it a vital buffer entering a potentially challenging period without two of their best players, Josh Risdon and marquee star Panagiotis Kone.

 

Risdon is on Socceroos duty, but Kone's injury is cause for concern.

 

Kone is yet to undergo scans, but the way he pulled up and his recent history suggest he could be sidelined until December after limping off with a hamstring injury early in the first half.

 

"Hard to say (how long he'll miss). It's a hamstring. We're always cautious, so is he," United coach Mark Rudan said.

 

United's injury record has in fact been relatively good, especially in Victoria with their local rivals losing a host of players to soft tissue injuries thus far - Tim Hoogland, Robbie Kruse, Andrew Nabbout (Melbourne Victory) and Jamie Maclaren, Florin Berenguer, Richard Windbichler (Melbourne City).

 

Alessandro Diamanti has been a revelation for the new boys.
Alessandro Diamanti has been a revelation for the new boys.

SQUAD COMPOSITION

 

United's goal in assembling the squad was simple - sign the best available from all parts of Australia.

 

In addition to a $400,000 salary cap exemption from Football Federation Australia, coach Mark Rudan and football chiefs were handed a generous multi-million-dollar marquee budget by club owners.

 

The early signings were made by ex-football chief Lou Sticca, while Rudan had a big say when he was appointed.

 

Kone was their first signing, back in January.

 

By the time he debuted in October, Kone had not played a senior game in 18 months - AEK Athens' Greek Super League win over Levadiakos.

 

While the former Greece international has been class in midfield, headlined by a cracking goal against Perth Glory, his signing always presented obvious risks and judgments can't be made until the end of the season.

 

Along with Kone, 32, the second marquee was Alessandro Diamanti, age 36. Both are technically a class above.

 

Scott McDonald has returned to Australia to lead United’s strikeforce.
Scott McDonald has returned to Australia to lead United’s strikeforce.

Needing a striker on the eve of the season. Berisha, age 34, became available.

 

In the meantime, attacker Scott McDonald joined (36), defenders Andrew Durante (37), Ersan Gulum (32) and defensive midfielder Dario Jertec (34) were all signed.

 

In isolation, each offers something unique on and off the pitch. Most are big personalities who've helped instil personality, a touch of (healthy) arrogance and an intimidation factor, which has helped the club race out of the blocks and added a buoyant dressingroom vibe.

 

But collectively there are obvious risks, and those ageing legs will also be tested in the summer months.

 

At 31.7 years, United's average first XI age (after five games) is the oldest in A-League history.

 

Berisha gave the first glimpse into the squad management that will be required throughout, as he was left out.

 

United’s fans are certainly enjoying the moment.
United’s fans are certainly enjoying the moment.

"Bes was rested, simple as that. Bes came in 10 days before the first game and hadn't played a lot of football. He did more than what we thought in the first four games," Rudan said.

 

"He worked extremely hard last week. He was spent last week, not just physically but emotionally. Never discard the emotional side of things, because that can sometimes have more of an impact than physical.

 

"It wasn't an easy one for him, because he wants to play all the time. But you've got to be strong and straight with players and we have got an experienced side that we need to really look after."

 

SQUAD DEPTH

 

United's first XI is not the most balanced in the competition but that's offset by individual quality and formation set out by Rudan.

 

McDonald, who made his name in the UK as an out and out striker, has successfully been used in a deeper role and the back three and wingbacks - including reinventing Connor Pain - has worked a treat.

Kwabena Appiah celebrates putting United ahead against Western Sydney.
Kwabena Appiah celebrates putting United ahead against Western Sydney.

Their other underrated asset is their depth. United possesses the deepest squad in the A-League, along with Perth Glory and perhaps Melbourne City, factoring in the rapid improvement in their youngsters.

 

United's depth showed in the emphatic Wanderers display, with Appiah-Kubi scoring in his first start in place of Berisha, while Connor Chapman slotted in seamlessly for Kone and Sydney FC title-winner Calver and ex Wanderers regular Brendan Hamill came on late.

 

Minus Kone, deep-lying midfield (along with Croat Jertec) is probably where United lacks least depth, but Chapman - who's a more natural stopper - played much of pre-season there.

 

Max Burgess has been tried there, but prefers an advanced role, while Young Socceroo Seb Pasquali is yet to feature on the teamsheet.

 

"We rejigged and Connor Chapman understands that (midfield) role," Rudan said.

 

"We talk about making sure there's competition for places all the time."

 

Alessandro Diamanti and Kwabena Appiah have made a big difference.
Alessandro Diamanti and Kwabena Appiah have made a big difference.

United's combinations are improving and they controlled the game against the Wanderers, flaunting their gradual improvement since Round 1.

 

Their progress is not dissimilar to Rudan's Wellington Phoenix last season, although this squad is far stronger than the Kiwis who finished fifth.

 

The fairytale is on.

News Corp Australia


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