After its highest-profile season to date, Australia’s A-League begins its run-in to the championship decider with the opening round of the play-offs this weekend. Much focus will be on debut club Western Sydney Wanderers, who last weekend were crowned Premiers after finishing top of the regular season ladder, and also second-placed Central Coast Mariners and their bid to finally become Australian champions after a record number of play-off appearances.
However, the new look play-offs are set to be the most open in the eight-season history of the competition. Never before has a team outside the top two gone all the way through to be crowned A-League kings. Indeed, only once has a side from outside the top two made the final day decider since the introduction of a six-team finals series in 2009. This season, however, the abbreviated three-week play-offs means that each match is a sudden-death encounter and the scope for an upset is greater.
By the end of the home-and-away season the competition ladder had split into three distinct categories with Wanderers and the Mariners jostling for top spot. Melbourne Victory edged Adelaide United into third, while fast-finishing duo Brisbane Roar and Perth Glory snuck into the top six ahead of former champs Sydney FC and Newcastle Jets.
The sub-plots for the five-match play-offs are undeniably numerous. The top two have earned the opening weekend off but with it comes inevitable conjecture about the merits of a sudden halt to their weekly football regime. Melbourne and Adelaide boast home ground advantage for the opening weekend, however their opponents – Perth and Brisbane – are arguably the two form teams in the competition, with both given impetus by a mid-season change of coach. “The two teams with a bit of momentum are us and Brisbane," stated Perth Glory defender Michael Thwaite this week ahead of the trip to Melbourne. Seemingly, the odds of a surprise name on the A-League podium on 21 April are short.
Reigning champions Brisbane Roar have endured a tumultuous season in the wake of Ange Postecoglou’s departure to take the reins of Melbourne Victory. Postecoglou’s assistant Rado Vidosic – father of Australia forward Dario – was unable to maintain the momentum and was replaced by former Australia U-20 women’s coach Mike Mulvey in December. And the Roar have slowly started to rediscover their lost mojo and pose a major hurdle for the erratic Adelaide on Sunday.
“We have many players that have been there and done that,” Mulvey told FIFA.com. "[Goalkeeper] Michael Theo is the most celebrated player in the A-League with four championships, and we also have the likes of Besart Berisha, Thomas Broich, Shane Stefanutto, Jade North and others. We also have a good group of players that are committed to the cause, which will stand us in good stead, but the experience will definitely help. Momentum is important at any time because it is not a case of being able to flick a switch and suddenly start playing well.”
Kick-starting the play-offs series today are Melbourne Victory, the league’s best supported side, who will host Perth Glory. Despite a significant injury toll the Victory enjoyed lengthy winning runs, only to also suffer several hefty defeats as the team continued to adjust to new coach Ange Postecoglou’s possession-based brand of football. With Postecoglou having won the past two A-League crowns at Brisbane Roar, and with the Melburnians boasting several veterans of their own two-time championship winning teams, the side clearly has the ingredients for success over the coming weeks.
With average home crowds regularly in excess of 20,000, adapting to the feverish atmosphere of finals football should pose little problem for the Victory. ''The tempo and intensity early on [in play-off matches] is always up a notch,'' Postecoglou said. ''There is the pressure of knowing it's a big game with a big crowd. That always raises the heartbeat of players … the beauty for us is that we get it every second week and we are, hopefully, better prepared than anyone else.”
The match is being billed in some quarters as a battle of wits between the respective coaches. While Postecoglou has been widely lauded for his ball-playing philosophy and subsequent results, former Assistant National Technical Director and Australia U-20 women’s coach Alistair Edwards has also received plaudits for his work at Perth Glory. Since his appointment two months ago in place of former Rangers stalwart Ian Ferguson, the Glory have adopted a style similar to that of Postecoglou’s with the team jumping from last place to snatch an eleventh-hour play-off berth.
Top two eye history
A lengthy period sharing the top two spots will count for little as Western Sydney Wanderers and Central Coast Mariners chase their maiden A-League championship. The pair will enjoy a week’s break before hosting the two semi-final victors, meaning they are just 90 minutes away from a sudden end to an otherwise hugely successful season.
For either team winning the crown would make for dreamlike success, albeit of a contrasting nature. Three months out from the start of their maiden campaign the Wanderers, from Sydney’s burgeoning suburbs west of the city, didn’t have enough players to field a side. Since then coach Tony Popovic, a veteran of Australia’s breakthrough qualification for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™, has led the team to a record ten-match winning streak. The club’s off-field success has been equally impressive with massive and buoyant crowds in a region that can lay claim to being the heartland of the modern game Down Under.
Meanwhile, 90 minutes north of Sydney, Central Coast Mariners, although considered the league’s smallest club, continue to set on-field standards with Graham Arnold’s side claiming an unprecedented sixth play-off appearance. However, despite being crowned premiers twice and reaching three grand finals, the Mariners have remained the bridesmaid in terms of the national championship. Their concurrent AFC Champions League campaign provides an untimely fixture build-up, but the pain of past failures combined with big-game experience might be enough for the Mariners to finally snag the nation’s biggest prize.