If history is any gauge then a new name will be engraved on the Australian A-League championship trophy come the league’s finale on 13 March. Never in the short six-year history of the competition has a team from outside the top-two claimed victory in the competition’s grand final. It is a statistic that will have Brisbane Roar and Central Coast Mariners fans salivating at the prospect of a maiden title, with the pair claiming a one-two finish upon the completion of the regular season last weekend.
The four other competitors in the finals series will of course have other ambitions but the finals structure means they will have to do it the hard way over the course of the four-week competition, which commences this weekend. Perennial finalists Melbourne Victory will travel to Gold Coast United, while Adelaide United host New Zealand club Wellington Phoenix. The two victors will then square off for the right to meet the loser of the two-legged clash between the Roar and the Mariners.
The 27-week A-League regular season provided surprise and drama in equal measure ultimately resulting in champions Sydney FC and well-credentialed new boys Melbourne Heart narrowly missing the cut. Sydney at least can focus on their forthcoming AFC Champions League campaign where they will represent Australia, along with Melbourne Victory, following their exploits in last season’s domestic competition. 2008 champions Newcastle Jets also missed the cut after a late season slump, while Perth Glory and North Queensland were well adrift of finals football.
New Roar heard
The A-League invariably features tight competition with the various team’s fortunes often varying from season to season. Never has that been better demonstrated than this term with, remarkably, the top three - Brisbane Roar, Central Coast and Adelaide United – completing last season in the bottom three positions on the ladder. This time around the Roar finished eight points clear of the Mariners with Adelaide forced to make do with third, a further seven points afield.
Provided they can go on and claim the championship, the 2010/11 season will long be remembered for the exploits of the Roar. The Queensland club losing just once and breaking a 24-year old national record for an unbeaten streak that now stands at 25 matches, with the chance to extend it further over the coming weeks.
Under former long-serving Australia national youth coach Ange Postecoglou, the Roar have taken the competition to an other level with the success of their high-tempo dynamic passing game. That Brisbane was seriously affected by floods in January adds another layer to the rich fairytale as the city seeks its first national title since 1997, and just it’s second ever since nationwide competition commenced in 1977. Already the Roar has laid down a marker in becoming the first Brisbane club to finish the season at the top of the league ladder.
“Hopefully people can take something out of our success,” Roar skipper Matt McKay told FIFA.com in reference to Brisbane’s recent battle with Mother Nature. “We don’t need extra motivation but to see our fans happy is great, and to see us achieve something is great for them and for the city of Brisbane, so we would like to give them as much support as we can.”
Standing in the way of the Roar’s progress to the championship decider are Central Coast Mariners. The humble club from just north of Sydney enjoying a new lease of life under another former national team mentor; Australia's 2007 AFC Asian Cup coach Graham Arnold. The statistics tell of an intriguing sub-plot for the two-legged encounter with the Mariners scoring in a league record 18 consecutive home matches, while the Roar have yet to taste defeat at home this season.
Adelaide United, seeking a third grand final appearance, will start as warm favourites when Wellington Phoenix visits the City of Churches. The Kiwis are notoriously poor travellers although their most recent win on the road was just last month at none other than the home of the Reds. However Adelaide, the 2008 AFC Champions League finalists, can count the league’s top marksman in their ranks; Sergio Van Dijk’s 16 goals leaving him well clear of the nearest challenger.
A closer contest is expected when two-time champions Melbourne Victory travel to a Gold Coast United shorn of star midfielder Jason Culina, who is set to miss the rest of the season with a knee injury suffered at the recent AFC Asian Cup. On the positive side the men from the nation’s surfing capital have been impressing at the pointy end of the field with in-form Bruce Djite and Kiwi sharpshooter Shane Smeltz leading the forward line. The Victory too has no shortage of outlets to goal, with Archie Thompson returning from injury and Costa Rican Carlos Hernandez always a threat, as the league’s most successful club hunt a record third championship.