If the success or quality of any competition is to be measured by its evenness and depth, and there is some debate if that’s entirely the best method, then the A-League has made strides in the right direction this season.
With only seven rounds until the finals, it’s fair to say that the titles, both the premiership and championship, are as open as they’ve ever been, with no less than seven of the 10 teams still feeling they’re in with a shot at both.
What’s more, the standard of the football in the past few months has been very good, perhaps as deep as it’s ever been.
Usually, by this time of the season, the top six has just about sorted itself out, with two or three standing out up top, and two or three purely making up the numbers. If there’s a race for the finals it’s simply to make up the numbers.
That’s been the case every season of the first 10 years for the competition, and I, as well as many others, have often argued that six finals spots is a reward for mediocrity.
Take Brisbane Roar and Melbourne City, who made it with 34 and 35 points respectively last season. Both had a negative goal difference.
This has been the trend for teams finishing in the bottom two of the top six across the A-League’s life.
Compare that to the ladder this season, where fifth and sixth-placed Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC, and seventh-placed Perth Glory, are already on 29, 29 and 28 points respectively, with all of them having a positive goal difference.
It’s fair to suggest you’d need at least 40 points to make the final this time around.
Dig deeper and there are only seven points between top-placed Wanderers and Glory, who meet in an enticing clash in Parramatta tonight.
With an Asian Champions League campaign in the mix for the Victory and Sydney FC, three-point suspended sentences hanging over the Victory and Wanderers, and upcoming World Cup qualifiers, there’s still so much to play for between now and the abbreviated finals series in April.
Genuinely, you could make a case for any of the seven.
Sydney’s campaign has stuttered along for the most part, but if they can reproduce the type of commitment and control they showed against the Wanderers in the derby on Saturday night, they can’t be discounted.
Finishing stronger physically, the return of skipper Alex Brosque adds plenty, while Matt Simon turned back the clock with the type of in-your-face pest-like performance that would trouble most defenders if replicated from here.
Sydney’s biggest hurdle, apart from consistently producing that type of effort, remains the travel and flurry of games that comes with being part of the ACL.
The same goes for the defending A-League champions, Victory.
Already we’ve heard rumblings from those that missed out on the continental squads, and the managerial quality of Graham Arnold and Kevin Muscat will be tested over the next couple of months.
We saw what an impact it had on Tony Popovic’s campaign last time around.
The Wanderers, though, have rebounded well this season, recruiting much better, but for the Italian marquee Federico Piovaccari.
The derby was far from a disaster, but it did expose a couple of things.
Most interestingly, the Wanderers looked heavy and lagged in the final 25 minutes. Popovic could have done more to freshen the side by giving Brendan Santalab more than seven or eight minutes at the end, particularly with the likes of Mark Bridge and Mitch Nichols looking spent from a game of high physical attrition.
The Wanderers though remain right up there in the premiership reckoning, especially when the three Spaniards, Alberto, Andreu and Dimas, are on the field, as they will be tonight.
While their finishing remains more miss than hit, they’ve tended to control most games and are creating chances.
But they are not unshakable. Sydney have proved that in recent times.
Perth, with Andy Keogh, Chris Harold and Diego Castro flying, and Shane Lowry adding some stability in defence, have summoned five wins on the spin and could really make a statement at Wanderland tonight.
The January transfer window has been kind to the likes of Kenny Lowe and John van ‘t Schip.
The latter was found a little wanting a short time ago at Wanderland, but he continues to reside over a team on the rise, and if Aaron Mooy and Bruno Fornaroli can sustain their form into the finals they have two players that can win games on their own, almost as good to watch as Elkeson and Dario Conca, who we got to see at AAMI Park on Wednesday.
But van ‘t Schip still has much to prove from a tactical perspective come the finals.
John Aloisi has proved he has learnt a lot in his time away from coaching since the Melbourne Heart gig, but like van ‘t Schip his biggest test awaits, especially with his foreign contingent being a work in progress at the moment.
This is a team that nominally relies on an Australian 8 (Matt McKay), 10 (Dimi Petratos), 7 (Brandon Borrello) and 9 (Jamie Maclaren). It would be some feat if they went all the way.
Guillermo Amor, on the other hand, has been quite the revelation. Many, including this correspondent, thought he’d struggle to fill the boots of the flamboyant Josep Gomabu, but he has set about quietly building to the point that United look the real deal, and continue to improve.
Coming across as the most humble of managers, Amor appears to have the full respect of his players by treating them with a human touch. Who wouldn’t want to play for a manager like that?
I’ve been mighty impressed with the addition of swap-deal Stefan Mauk to his midfield. He seems to have taken to the Jimmy Jeggo role with aplomb, and looks to have the potential to become a more regular goal threat.
Also catching the eye in recent weeks has been the form of wide attackers Craig Goodwin and Bruce Kamau, the Gareth Bale and Raheem Sterling of the A-League at the moment.
Meanwhile, Jordan Elsey and Dylan McGowan, in central defence, have gone to another level since Osama Malik left.
There’s been much doom and gloom surrounding the A-League this season. The standard wasn’t great early doors as Adelaide and the Glory struggled, and the crowds were a real disappointment.
But since the active fan groups turned the heat on the FFA over the banning process by staging walk-outs in the wake of the Rebecca Wilson publishing the banned list in November, fans have been galvanised and have been turning up in very good numbers.
While the published ratings on pay and free-to-air television continue to be lower than the heights reached in season eight – the year that Alessandro Del Piero, Shinji Ono, Emile Heskey and the Wanderers hit the scene – and flares have dominated the headlines this month, no-one can be critical of the standard of play the past three months.
Only Arnold has been guilty of adopting defensive tactics, but even he appears to have got the message after the second Sydney derby in January.
Even the three teams at the bottom – Newcastle, Wellington and the Mariners – have played proactively at times, and are anything but the basket-cases we have seen at the bottom in the 10 years of the league.
It paints a picture of a competition finally developing a technical soul. Of course, it’s not the greatest football on the planet, but it’s been very watchable this season, and I’ve got no doubt the cooler conditions this summer have played a significant part.
Apart from that, coaches have generally set their teams out to be proactive, pressing and defending high, being offensive even in defence.
The work of the man I dubbed the Dalai Lama, Andres Carrasco, at the Wanderers, is a prime example of the more positive angle across the league.
Tony Walmsley might be at the bottom of the table, but his team is anything but the dour one set out by Phil Moss last season.
There’s also plenty of quality foreigners like Fornaroli, Alberto, Andreu, Milos Ninkovic, Castro, Keogh, Thomas Broich, Besart Berisha, Gui Finkler, Corona, Luis Garcia, Roly Bonevacia, Isaias, Marcelo Carrusca, Cirio, Dimas and many more.
And beyond that there are some talented youngsters coming through like Kamau, Mauk, Jonathan Aspropotamitis, Borrello and Thomas Deng.
It sets the scene for a riveting, open climax to the season, and while some so-called ‘all sport’ experts tell us the league is in a rut, the evidence is the standard of play hasn’t been as high across the board.