Round 27 did little else but confirm the fact that Sydney FC are ready to launch a compelling case for back-to-back titles.
A repeat championship, on top of the FFA Cup and premier’s plate, would be an outstanding achievement, and one predicted by many early in the season.
Quite simply, Sydney have hardly put a foot wrong.
But for shock losses to the Mariners and Roar, and an unlikely defeat at the hands of ten brilliant men from Newcastle, the Sky Blues have rarely faltered and are justified favourites.
Snatching away the title from the boys in blue will take something special from the three teams remaining.
The future holds serious challenges in the post-Graham Arnold era. Social media has been alight with fans fearing a Tony Popovic-led Harbour City, although his own rhetoric appears to deny this. Concerns over the new ‘boss’ have dominated conversation and seemed to distract the group, as soon as the announcement of Arnold’s appointment to the national position was made.
The players’ focus was affected amidst the demands of the Asian Champions League campaign.
Concerns around player retention will always circle. The club’s ability to draw quality has been the secret to their run of success and maintaining Milos Ninkovic, Bobo, Adrian Mierzejewski and Jordi Buijs in the same squad, while paying their true value, will be difficult.
Powerful Asian clubs with sizeable chequebooks are always lurking and whether it be a straight-out sale or a more strategic transfer window deal mid-season, Sydney’s list will continue to be under pressure in the coming months.
Throw in some quality homegrown talent – such as Alex Brosque, Brandon O’Neill, Michael Zullo and current Socceroo Josh Brillante – and the problem is magnified. The impressive collection of tools is humming along once again and will undoubtedly take some beating.
In terms of preparedness, the Jets have looked anything but. Until Round 27 that was. Even keeping in mind the disastrous season for the Mariners and their lack of commitment over the final few weeks, it was a stunning form reversal and much needed.
Up to that point, and coming off consecutive losses to Perth, City and Adelaide, questions were rightfully asked.
Losing Andrew Nabbout stung, representative selection for Dimitri Petratos was joyous yet difficult to manage, and when captain Nigel Boogaard broke his tibia, some Ernie Merrick magic was required.
The long-awaited return of Ronald Vargas has helped and he will have a key role to play in the finals campaign. However, whether Newcastle have what it takes to ride the wave of success all the way to glory is questionable.
In their defence, they have been playing in a vacuous space lately, with little to gain or lose from their last month of football. If the thrashing of the Central Coast was a true return to form, everybody else had better look out.
The entire concept of Melbourne City being ready is bizarre. They always look ready on paper yet perennially disappoint, despite possessing the quality to succeed.
In another campaign where their early form suggested this could be the year, they battled through the middle part of the season; wobbly and unstable.
Despite never threatening Sydney’s mantle atop the ladder, they have managed to win when expected despite losing ten games for the season.
Just recently, something strange has occurred. City appear made of steel; gaining a resolve and fortitude that was always lacking in days of old. No doubt Warren Joyce has played a key role in this and wonderboy Daniel Arzani has helped out along the way.
Bruno Fornaroli’s return has been a success and reminded a few people of the damage he once inflicted on defences when at the peak of his powers.
That resolve was never more on show that in the elimination final victory against Brisbane, where they were polished, professional and clinical. The feeling that City might be ready for something special has since grown stronger by the day.
The final combatant in the semi-finals was only confirmed late Sunday as Melbourne Victory defeated Adelaide at AAMI Park and as a headline, that reads expectantly, considering their finals record at home.
However, it was more than astonishing. In a chaotic affair where Adelaide took a lead before Leroy George pulled it back, the stage was set for extra-time. It was a game that you didn’t want to end, such was its to and for-nature and expansive palette late in the second half.
Then, with all the hallmarks of his turbulent and brilliant career, Besart Berisha produced a piece of football artistry that will live forever in the home of supporters’ minds.
[latest_videos_strip category=”football” name=”Football”]
He has been offside all year, looked a step slow at times and not hit the back of the net as frequently as he has done in the past, yet Berisha did what all the champions do.
The Kosovan produced the remarkable as his manager resisted the temptation to substitute him, which had been the pattern for around a month, sensing the great one could produce another fairy tale.
One can’t help feel that Berisha’s rather mooted celebrations this season have contained a little anger, frustration and venom. His future has been questioned. Too old, slow and out of sorts some said and there have been poor games.
However, when the moment arrives he will always be ready.
Just as four teams will need to be ready this weekend if they are to take another step towards the biggest prize in Australian football.