Red-hot Santalab fires hat-trick to seal victory over City
MUCH was made of the Wanderers' early-season scoring woes.
As Tony Popovic's side endured a seemingly endless run of low-scoring draws and losses, one question was pondered over and over again.
Who could do the job for the Wanderers up front?
It seems the answer was right under Popovic's nose.
He just needed a little bit of backing.
If there's one man who consistently defies expectations, it's 34-year-old Brendon Santalab.
After a game-winning brace against Wellington, the enigmatic forward earned himself another start against Melbourne City.
Seemingly, he had no plans of wasting his opportunity - even after the Wanderers copped the opening goal of the match.
First, he unleashed a lethal left-foot strike that City goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen couldn't quite deal with to level the scores, in the process becoming the first Wanderer to score 12 goals in an A-League season.
But after half-time he produced a wonderful purple patch.
First he latched on to a delightful ball from Scott Neville, finding space among four defenders to head home.
But if the second goal was a classic striker's finish, Santalab's third was an exceptional one.
With City goalkeeper Sorensen rushing forward, Santalab put his body on the line and headed home goal number 14 of 2016-17, sealing his first hat-trick for the Wanderers.
"What a brave header," Robbie Slater said on Fox Sports.
"When you look at it, big Sorensen coming at you, not every striker would have gone for it."
It was a genuinely delightful striker's performance and one that has surely cemented his spot as the man leading the line week in, week out.
"Popa's got no choice but to start him," Sasa Ognenovski said on Fox Sports post-match.
"He's the heartbeat of this team, you can see when he scores a goal, his teammates rush to him."
When he exited the game, in the 85th minute, Santalab - ever a fan favourite at Wanderland - earned a standing ovation from the Western Sydney faithful.
Appropriately, it was for Lachlan Scott, the lanky youngster who looms as Santalab's heir apparent.
But if those five goals in two weeks are to be believed, the changing of the guard is a fair way off yet.
That said - Scott could get his chance next week, with Santalab suspended for the trip to Newcastle after picking up a yellow card.
To say the result was disappointing for Melbourne City is an understatement.
Second place - already an unrealistic aim - looks all but gone, while their hold on third place has become tentative.
The two second-half goals earned the ire of coach Michael Valkanis, while Bruno Fornaroli missed a gilt-edged chance to cut the deficit back to a goal when he had a poor penalty saved by Vedran Janjetovic.
But Mark Rudan said City needed to be measured with its response.
"It's not panic stations for them," he said.
"They started the game off quite well ... their games against the Wanderers are always quite tough, they're always quite tight.
"From a whole, I don't think they're too far away. They certainly weren't at the races today, their head wasn't in the game and they've got to improve."
But Ognenovski was critical of a City side that had delivered a "scintillating" performance against the Jets the week before.
"The most concerning thing for me is ... we didn't see that same energy tonight," he said.
"The Melbourne City fans, the Melbourne City club needs to see that energy, week in, week out.
"How can you support Melbourne City when you don't know what you're going to get?
"There's something missing, there's something amiss in that club."