If you are looking for the team to beat come the grand final, you’d be hard pressed to go past the Central Coast Mariners.
Tony Popovic and his Wanderers may have walked away from Gosford with the three points, their eighth straight win, the competition lead and title favouritism among the bookies.
The Wanderers may well go on to win the premiership now, but on the evidence of this pulsating night in front of a near full house at Bluetongue Stadium, the Mariners are the competition’s best and most complete team.
They proved, in the big wet, in the face of an almighty traveling contingent of about 6000 Wanderers fans, they have the capacity to hurt Popovic’s men more than any other team.
Graham Arnold hasn’t always got it right throughout the season, but at home he has had his men ready, and they were certainly primed for Saturday’s blockbuster.
It only took the Mariners a few minutes to show how they could hurt the Wanderers, stretching and testing their system both in behind and through the use of width.
Within the first minute John Hutchinson played a ball in over the top of the Wanderers high defensive line for Mitchell Duke to chase, turning Michael Beauchamp, forcing him into the corner, where he was pressured.
It was an early sign of the Mariners’ power, an ability to stretch the Wanderers vertically through penetrating runs.
The other thing the Mariners were able to do so well was stretch Western Sydney, especially by using their right flank, such an effective outlet this season.
In the third minute, Mat Ryan picked up a ball, saw Pedj Bojic had a few yards on Mark Bridge and released it immediately.
Off Bojic sprinted, playing an early ball down the line, in behind Adam D’Apuzzo, for Bernie Ibini to chase. Giving D’Apuzzo a couple of metres start, Ibini powered beyond him.
Rather than sit and admire his through ball, Bojic carried on, into the box, ahead of Bridge. Ibini found him with a square ball, and while Bojic, at full tilt, struggled to control the ball on the wet surface, the pattern was set.
As the match went on, Josh Rose started chipping in down the left. As the Wanderers, under relentless pressure, unable to keep the ball, started to retreat more, Michael McGlinchey started to come into the space.
The Mariners certainly hurt the Wanderers with their relentless run, and later, when the space opened, their combination and link-up play was easy on the eye.
Bojic, in particular, was phenomenal, giving Bridge one hell of a working over. Rose, too, kept Youssouf Hersi busy.
Meanwhile, Hutchinson and Nick Montgomery, working closely with Trent Sainsbury and Patrick Zwaanswijk, made sure there was very little space for Shinji Ono to get on the ball and influence the Wanderers front third.
This was a tactical victory for the Mariners in almost every sense. They just couldn’t round off all their great work, even when presented with what looked a dubious penalty.
Only when Aaron Mooy and Labinot Haliti came on late did the Wanderers have any front third possession.
Perhaps not since a ten-man Melbourne Victory picked them off at Parramatta Stadium in round eight in November has the Wanderers’ system been so stretched and out of control.
Even though they scrambled with terrific spirit, it wasn’t the usual controlled and compact defending.
Indeed, there were many moments of panic, with Ante Covic and the odd post coming to the rescue.
It’s little wonder Popovic hinted over the past couple of days there is improvement in his side ahead of next season.
Clearly he still has somewhat of a dilemma to resolve at number nine this season, where there has been lots of industry but little goal threat.
While Dino Kresinger continues to work hard and has become a crowd favourite, he hasn’t looked like scoring for some time.
Haliti, more typically a wide player, may have given himself a chance of starting against the Wellington Phoenix on Sunday.
Arnold and his team, on this evidence, should go into any re-match in the finals or championship decider with much confidence.
On an unforgettable night, there was certainly an air of destiny about the Wanderers’ win in front of a wonderful traveling contingent.
But if they can maintain the standards displayed on Saturday night, and the football gods give them a break for a change, the Mariners certainly look the one to beat.