A Saturday afternoon rematch between the first and last place teams in the Canadian Premier League offered Winnipeg fans a chance to see Valour FC earn three more points against the HFX Wanderers FC. Despite a strong performance by Valour lead goalkeeper Jonathan Sirois, the Winnipeg club fell short of a 90-minute effort and lost 1-0 to the Maritime squad.
Valour head coach Robert Gale has continued to say how important possession with a purpose is in every match, which he said was not present in the loss.
"Absolutely not, because we didn’t get a shot on target," he said.
"That was a disappointment. I thought we threatened them in the first 30 minutes, we were very good. To be fair, we got fouled a lot today. There were a few persistent foulers that stopped our rhythm. It’s hard to get going again. They stuck at it, we moved the ball well side to side but the possession on the whole we didn’t do enough with it, clearly."
Going into the clubs' final game in the bubble, Valour FC had been riding the momentum of three consecutive wins, most recently over York United last Sunday. HFX looked to right the wrong of a 1-0 loss to FC Edmonton on Wednesday.
The teams to seemed feel out each other for the first 20 minutes of the match. Following a water break in the 35th minute, Halifax looked to build on the urgent words of interim head coach Mesut Mert who notied the game was a must win before leaving the bubble.
"We knew how hard the game was going to be against Valour," said Mert. "I liked everything about it from the start to the finish."
Over the course of a seven-minute stretch, Valour found themselves at the heels of their opponent as the Wanderers began to show why they had the second-best record in the league last season. Jonathan Sirois, Valour FC’s lead goalkeeper, who entered the afternoon with a record six clean sheets to start the season, was tested several times making a strong save in that 35th minute. This was followed by a press from Halifax as they sent their strikers and midfielders to advance.
Valour’s defense successfully held in the 38th minute following a HFX corner which was met with an incredible save from Sirois on a header attempt by the Wanderers one minute later. Three minutes later, Halifax generated a shot up the middle that was saved by the Valour goalkeeper.
An extensive period of time in Valour’s end followed with HFX's Pierre Lamothe scoring on a powerful strike to give his club a 1-0 lead in the 43rd minute.
"We had a clear blueprint and we executed well," said Wanderers striker Alessandro Riggi. "Once we figured it out, chances kept coming. It’s a breath of fresh air for us."
Lamothe’s first goal of the season was HFX's fourth goal through eight games. It was the first goal Sirois has surrendered all season.
"I played out there pretty solid, but there’s always room for improvement," Sirois said. "I think I could’ve managed the game a bit better. The shot caught me off guard and I didn’t see the ball that well. There were a lot of players in front of me but credit to Lamothe on a great shot."
Valour needed to tighten up defensively in front of their 'keeper who looked like he was hung out to dry following some great saves before the HFX tally.
Gale continued to describe how important Sirois has been to the team’s success after picking up six clean sheets and only one loss in seven starts for the club.
"Everything, he’s a top class goalie," Gale said. "He’s been the best goalie in the league, he had a lot of highlight reel saves today, he’s a great character and a top man."
Shortly before halftime, HFX looked to send a message to the Winnipeg club during a short skirmish between Valour midfielder Stefan Cebara and Wanderers midfielder João Morelli. Cebara and Morelli got tangled up and Morelli surprisingly head butted the Valour forward, earning each man a yellow card. HFX entered half-time with a 10-5 shot advantage.
The question was how Valour would respond in the second half down a goal despite having the majority of possession.
In the 54th and 60th minute, Sirois continued to be tested as HFX kept its foot on the gas.
Over the course of the game, Valour’s passing and offensive rhythm seemed out of sync and the team was unable to register any shots on net in the second half.
"We really tried to keep our foot on the throttle," said Gale. "The second half in scorching heat was a challenge. Today lacked a little bit of the same penetration that we had before."
Christian Oxner, who continues to start in net for Halifax picked up the clean sheet with relative ease.
By the 80th minute the Winnipeg crowd was restless to see their team play with a bit more urgency. A lot of credit can be given to HFX's defense that locked down Valour and kept away ball from their hosts for much of the last 10 minutes of the game.
"On the defensive side we made sure we gave them nothing and we were very patient and professional against their attack," said Mert.
"We changed the shape three times in the second half to try to find different ways to exploit," said Gale. "I thought we were fully in control up until that first half water break. We threw seven attackers at them, it just wasn’t to be our day."
With the win, HFX picks up its second victory of the season as they head back to Halifax. Following their second loss of the season, Valour will now have a few days of rest and a chance to see family before heading west to take on FC Edmonton next Saturday.
Despite the lack of offense in Saturday’s match, Valour continues to sit alone at the top of the standings taking six out of eight wins from the strenuous bubble format with a league best goal differential of plus nine.
Gale is delighted to give his squad some rest and looks forward to returning to his family for their weekly Sunday roast beef dinner. The head coach described the next part of their schedule as a true test in character.
"I think it’s going to be a slog," he said. "It’s eight games a month over the next three months, throw in the Canadian Championship. The mental health of my players is paramount and they need to go and be kids, or some see their kids and get home cooked food, relax. Get a complete mental break from football because they’ve been magnificent."