With eleven games remaining, the A-League’s top four is taking shape. There is little doubt that Central Coast, Adelaide United, Melbourne Victory and newcomers Western Sydney have been the four best teams to date.
Both the Mariners and Adelaide have won 10 games each and boast two of the best attacking records in the competition.
Melbourne Victory have hammered home the goals as well, while the Wanderers outstanding form is largely based on a stingy defence.
Tony Popovic’s impressive Western Sydney have won half of their league games to date, despite many pundits tipping them to finish bottom of the league.
It’s in positions five and six where the race for a finals spot gets convoluted.
Going into this weekend’s round of fixtures, Newcastle Jets occupy fifth place and last season’s grand finalists Perth Glory are sixth.
Perth have won just five games so far this season, the same amount as Melbourne Heart, Brisbane Roar and Sydney FC who are all within striking distance, so the question must be asked whether the Glory deserve to be rewarded with a place in the finals at the end of the season?
The answer, based on their inconsistent form, is a resounding ‘no’ and the same goes for the Jets.
In fact, along with bottom placed Wellington all four of the clubs currently outside the top six are still in with a legitimate chance of making the finals.
But given that the Phoenix have so far lost half their games this season, should that really be the case?
They’ve only won once on the road and go into Round 17 on the back of three straight defeats, so can Ricki Herbert’s team honestly say they deserve to qualify for the end-of-season playoffs?
If they go on an 11-match unbeaten run perhaps they can, but the obvious point is that instead of demanding outstanding results, the six-team finals system rewards mediocrity.
It’s about time that changed, not least because only two out of the previous seven grand finals have featured a team which finished outside the top two.
On both of those occasions – in the inaugural decider in 2006 and last year’s showdown at Suncorp Stadium – the losing finalist finished the regular season in third place on the ladder.
In other words, the teams finishing fourth, fifth and sixth have had little impact in the finals, which probably has something to do with where they finished in the table in relation to the top teams.
It’s time the A-League did away with the six-team finals series and reverted to a top-four format.
The playoff format was changed at the start of the season to eliminate the preliminary final but Football Federation Australia should have gone one step further and reduced the number of overall participants.
Not only would a two-legged semi-finals series represent a better reflection of the best teams in the league, it might also help stem some of the criticism from those who insist a first-past-the-post system is the only way to decide the champions.
A first-past-the-post system doesn’t interest enough supporters in Australia, particularly in a 10-team league, and increasingly leagues overseas are introducing playoff systems of their own.
But as it stands there are two teams too many in the current finals system, a point made all the more glaring by the fact Newcastle are already six points behind Western Sydney in the standings.
There’s enough time for the Jets to make up ground but then, it would still be a more exciting race if only the top four teams were involved.
In lieu of the fact there’s no relegation, perhaps the A-League could consider introducing salary cap or marquee concessions based on where teams finish in the league table.
At the very least they should consider overhauling the finals because as it currently stands, at least two sides in it don’t deserve to qualify.