Fairytale has been a common refrain leading up to Sunday’s A-League finale, as competition new boys Western Sydney Wanderers aim to win the league in their maiden season. Wanderers captain Michael Beauchamp compared the idea of his side being crowned national champions - just nine months after the club’s inception - to a script from a Hollywood film. Football Federation Australia Chief Executive David Gallop said it was a sporting tale unlikely to be matched anywhere in the world.
Standing in the path of the Wanderers are Central Coast Mariners. Despite the headline-grabbing achievements of the Wanderers, a win for the Mariners would also be warmly greeted by the neutrals in any ordinary year. The league’s smallest club, who will be featuring in a record fourth grand final in just the A-League’s eighth season, have already endured their share of heartbreak with final-day defeat in 2006, 2008 and 2011.
The club from the growing metropolitan area 90 minutes north of Sydney led the league for much of the season only to be overhauled in the final weeks. The Wanderers record winning-streak – now standing at 13 – sewed up the premiership after topping the regular-season ladder, and surely positions the Sydney club as favourites.
Announced as the league’s tenth and newest club just over 12 months ago, Western Sydney Wanderers took to the park for their maiden pre-season match last July with just a handful of contracted players. Fast forward to the present day and coach Tony Popovic has somehow combined unwanted cast-offs along with some judicious - though mostly low-key - imported arrivals, and formed a team now on the cusp of greatness.
The entry of a club representing Sydney’s sprawling western suburbs was in many ways expected to be a success, though few could have imagined it would arrive so quickly. Long a heartland for the game – the area produced nearly half of Australia’s 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ squad – fans in the region adopted the team quickly, and tickets to the final few home games at their 20,000 capacity stadium were snapped up within a matter of minutes. All the while, the Wanderers enjoyed unprecedented media coverage for football in a hugely competitive sporting market.
On the park Popovic instilled tactical discipline at a remarkably quick rate, and his team defend with impressive team-work and resilience. Reigning champions Brisbane Roar, whose high-tempo possession-based playing style led to successive titles, were eliminated by the Wanderers last weekend, and coach Mike Mulvey stated his team had never been pressed so hard when in possession. In attack, much of the inventive guile for the Wanderers comes from former Japan national team icon Shinji Ono. On the debit side is that one of the team’s few creative outlets – long-serving Dutch Eredivisie flanker Youssouf Hersi – will miss the match due to suspension.
Mariners set sail for glory
One of the game’s many sub-plots will be on the sideline where Mariners boss Graham Arnold – boasting 15 years coaching experience – will lock horns with a debutant coach. It is a relationship, however, which stretches back almost 20 years across numerous national team matches. Most notably, Arnold was assistant coach to Guus Hiddink at Germany 2006, while centre-back Popovic was one of the Socceroos’ unsung heroes of that breakthrough campaign.
Just three points separated the two sides at the end of 27 rounds. Indeed, but for a late against-the-odds winner for the Wanderers in the final match-up of the season, the pair would have finished level on points. On paper, however, the Mariners have the edge in attack and were comfortably the league’s top scorers. So too they boast the league’s leading goalscorer in Daniel McBreen, with wide men Michael McGlinchey and Bernie Ibini a constant source of supply. McBreen, though, will need to contend with another winner at last Monday’s annual awards – goalkeeper of the year, Wanderers custodian Ante Covic.
Experience of the big match occasion favours the Mariners, who have nine survivors from their heartbreaking penalty shoot-out defeat two years ago against the Roar. Victory at the Sydney Football Stadium would surely heal the scars of a thinkable defeat when Central Coast somehow lost a 2-0 advantage with three minutes remaining.
"We are fresh and motivated and, as long as we execute our game plan, we will be fine,” says Arnold. “There is pressure on both teams, but I'm sure we can handle it."