The Australian A-League season will play out its final chapter over the coming month with a top-six finals series that features four clubs eyeing a maiden championship. Based on those odds alone, the A-League could well have a new name on its quirky ring-shaped trophy come 22 April. Of the sextet, only reigning champions Brisbane Roar and Sydney FC have previously been crowned champions.
Statistically, however, the winner will likely come from one of the two top teams; table-topping Central Coast Mariners or Brisbane Roar. Such is the nature of the finals format, that only once has a team from outside the top two reached the grand final, and never has a team won the title from such a position. For Perth Glory, Wellington Phoenix, Melbourne Heart and Sydney FC championship glory can only come by winning four successive sudden-death matches. Given all those teams, with the exception of Sydney FC, have strung together lengthy winning runs during the season, 2012 could prove to be the year that the mould is broken.
Mariners’ steely resolve
Central Coast Mariners perhaps have more reason than anyone to be the last one standing. The club, based on a rapidly developing scenic stretch of coast some 90 minutes north of Sydney, is, by many appraisals, the smallest in the league. Yet already the Mariners have won through to three grand finals, although to date they have yet to be crowned champions.
Perhaps, even more pertinent for the current crop is that their most recent failure came just last season as Brisbane snatched an equaliser deep into injury time, before prevailing on penalties. It may have been a scriptwriter’s fantasy and high theatre for the neutrals, but for the Mariners it was the cruellest of blows.
Not that Graham Arnold’s side are buying into the idea of winning the title to put last season right. “(It is) Not so much putting it right,” Mariners captain Alex Wilkinson told FIFA.com when asked about the notion of redemption. “The last two years have been pretty successful for the club so the premiership (for topping the league ladder) is something to show for two years hard work. We have done ever so well to get into the position we are.”
This season also marks the first time both of the league’s top two clubs have been involved in the AFC Champions League during the midst of the A-League play-offs. How that impacts on the favoured duo remains to be seen. Both Brisbane and Central Coast will have played four continental matches, including two on the road, in the period leading up to the season decider.
In contrast to Europe and many other parts of the world, an away match in Asia can mean an immense amount of travel. For Australian clubs a trip to the likes of Japan or Korea Republic can mean a minimum of ten hours in the air, plus internal travel. Indeed, Adelaide United’s recent one-way travel time to Uzbekistan was a hugely sapping 24 hours.
Wilkinson though, speaking after the Mariners recent home fixture against Japan’s Nagoya Grampus, believes it is a price worth paying. “It can only help you playing in big games, not only in the A-League finals but also the Asian Champions League. The more big games young players experience, the less pressure they feel and they are better off for it, so playing in Asia is going to help us.”
Hunted becomes the hunter
Recent months have seen Brisbane Roar in an unaccustomed position. Since December they have sat in second, having been top, virtually unchallenged, for 15 months. A 36-match unbeaten run - an all-time record across the variety of Australia's professional football codes - preceded a surprise mid-season slump. Ange Postecoglou’s side are now fast building momentum and having narrowly failed to haul in the Mariners – they fell two points short at season’s end having at one stage been 11 points in arrears – are now seeking to retain their title with another grand final triumph.
Perth Glory secured third - their highest ever position - in what was a welcome return for the club that was the nation’s premier outfit at the time the National Soccer League was disbanded in 2004. New Zealand side Wellington Phoenix continue to prosper under national coach Ricki Herbert and are in their third successive finals series, having broken a long period of underachievement for clubs from across the Tasman Sea. Melbourne Heart enter uncharted territory in just their second A-League season with Dutchman John van’t Schip seeking to end his time Down Under on a high.
But perhaps the club best equipped to crack the recent Mariners-Roar duopoly is the team who were last to confirm their position in the play-offs; Sydney FC. Despite a highly credentialed midfield led by Socceroos Brett Emerton and Nick Carle, the Sky Blues have flattered to deceive but there are indications that the team are finally starting to peak. “We have waited since round one to play like this,” said Sydney’s Czech coach Vitezslav Lavicka this week. ''It was inconsistent this season… but we have the ability to play quality football.''
For Emerton the return to his hometown after a decade spent at Feyenoord and Blackburn Rovers has been mixed. Despite a career full of big game experience, the big-hearted flanker is nevertheless exhilarated by the prospect of finals football. ''It's exciting and… it's something I'm unaccustomed to,'' Emerton said. ''But there's nothing like finals football. It's a great concept.''