The A-League finals have arrived. Four weekends of finals football before the extended period of winter hibernation sets in between the seasons. Four clubs have already fallen by the wayside. The remaining six meet in three finals this weekend.
From an epicurean point of view, the matches resemble a delicious sandwich.
The two elimination finals are the bread on either side of the tasty filling provided by the first leg of the Brisbane Roar versus Central Coast Mariners showdown at Suncorp Stadium this Saturday night.
I had my doubts on whether the Mariners would have the squad to adapt to the punishing schedule of mid-week Asian Champions League matches and A-League finals; I thought that even the football gods would not be enough to save them.
But, so far, the redoubtable Graham Arnold has proven me wrong. He has been able to cover the important losses of Matt Simon and Royston Griffiths, and when the tip of his midfield diamond Mustafa Amini went away on Olyroos duty, he unveiled a young star in Tomas Rogic.
Add the pleasing progression of the young, exciting striker Bernie Ibini-Isei, with his ability to terrorise defences with his pace, and you can see how the Mariners with their excellent organisation were able to hold out Brisbane’s late charge to be crowned deserved winners of the Premiers’ Plate.
They head into the final series with great expectations, especially on the back of assured performances in their ACL campaign.
The vagaries of the ACL schedule have handed the Mariners another advantage. The Mariners will be the hosting Seongnam Ilhwa next Tuesday night. Meanwhile, Brisbane will be on the sky road to Korea to face Ulsan Hyundai on Wednesday night.
How Ange Postecoglou plays his selection cards over the next week will be fascinating to watch.
Regardless of the outcome of this two-legged affair to determine the host of the grand final, the two finest managers in the A-League have their battle marked down as a three-legged affair to determine the eventual champion.
It will be a major upset if it turns out otherwise.
Who will survive elimination after this weekend’s finals? Sydney FC takes on Wellington Phoenix at the Cake Tin this Friday evening. They will be riding high on confidence after their thrilling win over Newcastle last Sunday. But they have lost their two visits to the land of The Yellow Fever this season.
I can see Sydney scoring, but whether it will be a winning score depends on whether they can keep their nerve at the back.
In Perth, it will be the master goal scorer versus the apprentice when Perth Glory takes on Melbourne Heart. Both Shane Smeltz and Eli Babalj head into the match bristling with goal scoring confidence.
Midfield supremacy will determine the outcome of this match, and Glory’s chances will be boosted with the imminent return of Liam Miller and Jacob Burns from injury.
Melbourne Heart nabbed an away win last time they visited nib Stadium and will feel they can make their season last at least a week longer. And, of course, just in case our protagonists stubbornly refuse to be vanquished in 120 minutes, we have a penalty shoot-out to jangle the nerves and settle the matter.
Selfishly, I will be hoping for Sydney FC and Melbourne Heart to progress. Why? Well, a road trip to Sydney will be a great way to spend the Easter break.
Athas Zafiris is on Twitter @ArtSapphire