Finals football is one of the best things about the A-League. This season, six teams go in with a genuine chance of winning the competition, including one from regional troublemakers New Zealand.
I stood in The Cove last Sunday to watch Sydney FC’s do-or-die 3-2 win over the Newcastle Jets, and like everyone else, I was thoroughly enthralled.
The game had everything: a super opening goal from Bruno Cazarine, a brilliantly worked equaliser set up by boo boy Ruben Zadkovich, a double from local youngster Joel Chianese and late drama courtesy of Jobe Wheelhouse’s scrappy header.
None of which would have mattered if we didn’t have finals football.
That said, hopefully we’re past debating the legitimacy of finals football after last season’s epic series.
The two main protagonists – Brisbane Roar and Central Coast – deservedly go into the current finals series as obvious favourites to cause maximum damage once again.
But it’s the presence of Perth, Wellington, Sydney FC and Melbourne Heart which gives the 2011-12 finals series such an unpredictable feel.
Who would have guessed at the start of the season the Heart would be the premier team in Melbourne?
It’s not that outgoing coach John van’t Schip doesn’t possess an impressive squad – led ably by fan-favourite Fred – it’s just that intracity rivals Victory were expected to fire far more than they did with Socceroos star Harry Kewell at the helm.
Instead it’s the Heart who’ve marched on to face a Shane Smeltz-inspired Perth Glory and surely the winner of that game is in with a red-hot chance of reaching the preliminary final.
They will of course face either Wellington or Sydney FC in a winner-takes-all semi, but with Sydney FC disrupted by goalkeeper Liam Reddy’s ousting for drinking alcohol on the flight to New Zealand and Wellington one of the more erratic sides in the league, I wouldn’t bet against either the Glory or Heart going at least one game further.
That would no doubt come as a relief to the Asian Football Confederation and arguably Football Federation Australia, with the Phoenix not ratified to take part in the AFC Champions League.
They should be, quite frankly, and the sooner the AFC incorporates Oceania into a reconfigured East Asia and does away with its myopic geographical protectionism, the better football in the region will be for all concerned.
At any rate, I think the Phoenix winning the A-League is a long shot at best, even if it’s tough to discount them given veteran import Paul Ifill’s mercurial presence.
Just as intriguing is the burgeoning rivalry between the the Mariners and Roar, with the Gosford side pipping the reigning champions to the post for the Premiers’ Plate this season.
Whether that’s reflective of the A-League’s best team is something we’ll be better able to judge come the evening of April 22, however the two sides have clearly been the most consistent teams throughout the regular campaign.
And hopefully their exploits on the pitch given us plenty to talk about given what’s going on off it.
Yesterday the FFA announced a new Joint A-League Strategic Committee with A-League clubs, and while it’s noteworthy to see the game’s governing body react to several weeks of Clive Palmer-instigated off-field drama, it’s also nice to be able to discuss what’s happening on the pitch.
Because hopefully what’s about to happen is another enthralling finals series.
And if the lead-up to tonight’s clash between the Phoenix and Sydney FC in Wellington is anything to go by that’s precisely what we’re in for, with the business end of the A-League season about to kick off in earnest.