There’s a perfect storm brewing in the world of professional sport and the A-League has been one of the first competitions in Australia to feel the full effect.
It took Melbourne Victory coach Kevin Muscat almost five years to kill the memories of a heartbreaking grand final loss to Sydney FC at Etihad Stadium.
On that fateful day – 20 March, 2010 – another epic grand final was locked at 1-1 after 120 minutes.
Muscat then failed with the Victory’s first penalty kick. Sydney prevailed in the shoot-out 4-2, securing a second championship win.
Redemption didn’t come quickly. In 2015, on the back of two goals in the closing seven minutes, Melbourne Victory responded with a 3-0 triumph in the A-League game which counts most. This time Muscat was leading his troops from the bench.
It could be the battle of the benches that decides the fate of Sunday’s decider on what is likely to be a difficult Allianz Stadium pitch but one on which Sydney has an imposing 2016/17 record: 11 wins, three draws, 25 goals and just four concessions in 14 starts.
Graham Arnold versus Kevin Muscat. Two former Socceroos teammates. Two men who have shown that local coaches can deliver on the big stage – and hasn’t Arnold delivered.
There has been just one loss all season, and that came nine games ago against cross-town rivals Western Sydney Wanderers at ANZ Stadium (and let it be known that I am a WSW Ambassador!).
Neutrals can only admire Arnold’s achievements. Numerous records have been broken. Numerous awards have been won. Finishing the regular season 17 points clear of the Victory with a goal difference of 43 while leaking just 12 goals speaks for itself.
There are a couple of key factors that will determine the outcome. In the 3-0 home semi-final triumph against Perth Glory the likes of Milos Dimitrijevic, Bernie Ibini-Isei, Dave Carney, Matt Simon and Andrew Redmayne were once again ready to join the fray from the bench. What a luxury of riches.
The 4-2-3-1 formation has served Sydney FC so well. Jordy Buijs and Alex Wilkinson are rocks in the heart of defence while Danny Vukovic is a giant in the goals.
Josh Brilliante and Brandon O’Neill are models of consistency, and in fact it’s consistency in selection that has proven to be a huge key – Arnold has 10 players who have made 25 or more appearances this season.
Statistics also don’t lie. Bobo (28 appearances, 15 goals, four assists), Alex Brosque (27 appearances, 11 goals, five assists), Milos Ninkovic (27 appearances, nine goals, 11 assists) and Filip Holosko (27 appearances, eight goals, four assists) provide Arnold with so many attacking options. Ninkovic has certainly taken his game to the next level.
Don’t get me wrong, Melbourne Victory also boasts some enticing attacking weapons with the likes of Besart Berisha (27 appearances, 20 goals, four assists), Marco Rojas (24 appearances, 12 goals, 11 assists) and James Troisi (25 appearances, six goals, six assists).
My concern for Melbourne Victory is twofold. The team’s form coming into the business end of the campaign has not been overwhelming. In the closing six rounds Victory claimed just two wins and five goals alongside three losses.
Melbourne’s away form has also been poor, with just five triumphs in 13 games. There has been just one success in the last seven road trips: a 3-0 triumph at the Central Coast on 19 February.
If Sydney FC can starve Victory of possession and also cut the supply and nullify Berisha, they will hold sway. Home ground advantage no matter the state of the pitch is huge – opposing teams have only managed four goal celebrations at Allianz this season.
It’s fitting the top two sides will end another dramatic 2016/17 A-League campaign. I sense the celebrations in Sydney will go well into the night.