For a coach who prides himself on leaving nothing to chance, Tony Popovic made a fatal error by failing to name Michael Beauchamp on the bench for Sunday’s A-League grand final.
We have heard throughout the season all about Popa’s extraordinary attention to detail, a meticulousness that saw the former Crystal Palace assistant coach frequently rotate his squad and rest players for important games as early as January.
That foresight, and some shrewd acquisitions made solely with the AFC Champions League in mind, helped to carry the Wanderers to the grand final and also meant they are Australia’s only representatives in the ACL round of 16.
Indeed, their impending commitments in that tournament afforded us another example of Western Sydney’s peerless attention to detail, Simon Hill informing us during Fox Sports’ broadcast of the Grand Final that a pre-arranged police escort would help to speed the squad to Brisbane airport ahead of their flight back to Sydney and subsequent trip to Japan to face Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Wednesday night.
Leaving no stone unturned in their quest for an advantage, Popovic and the Wanderers seemingly exaggerated the extent to which Mark Bridge was in doubt for the Grand Final.
They went even further in the psychological warfare stakes the day before the game, keeping the opposing coach and captain waiting by arriving late to the pre-match press conference.
A simple lack of punctuality and Bridge’s extraordinary powers of recovery are more innocent explanations for those issues.
But the question Popovic will find hardest to answer is why he chose to omit club captain Beauchamp from his Grand Final subs bench.
When Nikolai Topor-Stanley, skipper on the day, went down with a knee injury in the 66th minute, the Wanderers had been in front for 10 minutes and largely untroubled by the Roar up to that point.
That all changed when Iacopo La Rocca, the dominant force in midfield throughout the first half and early in the second, was forced to drop back to central defence. Aaron Mooy struggled to match his influence in the middle and the Roar slowly, inexorably began to assert themselves, with fatal consequences for Western Sydney’s title hopes.
The counter argument of course is what would have happened if a Wanderers midfielder had been injured and there was no Mooy on the bench? In that scenario, bringing on Beauchamp and pushing Matthew Spiranovic further forward might have cost Western Sydney penetration, but they would have lost none of their solidity, while ‘Spira’ is the technical equal of any of his midfield colleagues save Shinji Ono.
And would the redoubtable Beauchamp have allowed Besart Berisha to head the Roar level unmarked from a routine free-kick? Or permitted Henrique the time and space in the middle of the box to score the winner?
That’s something we’ll never know, but even if they’d never admit it, it’s a question that will haunt Popovic and the Wanderers throughout the long off-season and deep into 2014-15.