We’ve reached the 91st minute at the Etihad Stadium. The ball falls to the feet of Manchester City forward Gabriel Jesus who, with one neat first touch and shimmy, perfectly caresses the ball down low to the left of Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
The 27-round preamble to the finals has come to an end, the top six is locked in, and four teams begin another lengthy off-season.
Was it all worth it?
So after 27 rounds, Perth are crowned premiers (two rounds ago), the final six locked in (last round), and the finals hosting positions are known (essentially, as of Friday night).
There has been a surprising amount of backlash over the length of the 27-round A-League home-and-away season, and it is particularly surprising when you consider the A-League season as compared to say 38 rounds in the EPL.
Add in the finals making it a 30-week competition, and accounting for the international round byes and split-rounds, the competition runs for seven months across early October to late April before the finals start.
Much of the criticism of the A-League has been somewhat confusing.
On one hand, the complaint has been that with a six-team finals comp, it made the fight for finals places somewhat boring to follow, because so many teams are going to make it that you sort of already knew how it was going to turn out.
Then on the other hand, there was the complaint that there were too many dead games in the later rounds that made the last couple of weeks boring.
I tend to think that it is easy to be critical of the A-League (as I have often been when it came to scheduling, referees, VAR, quality of play, stadiums, take your pick), but on the issue of the season’s format, the A-League hasn’t done too much wrong in terms of having a 27-round home and away season with a finals series to finish things off.
Firstly, has there been much to play for in the later rounds?
Yes, yes there has, and while some results meant that the premiers plate, the top two spots, and the first round finals hosting rights were all decided before the last day’s play, that’s not the fault of scheduling or the competition format.
That was just how the dice landed.
While it is easy to get caught up in the magic and mystique of the EPL title-race at the moment, as Manchester City battle it out with Liverpool for the title, that race could be made redundant at any stage with one team losing.
As well, there have been some seasons in the past where the EPL race was over with weeks, even months to go, before the season has ended.
So when it comes to the importance of later rounds, you take the good seasons with the bad.
Then there is the issue of the six-team finals race.
Again, I have been critical of a six-team finals format in a ten-team competition which has the potential to reward mediocrity.
However, from the perspective of more teams having something to play for right to the death, the six-team finals format works.
Keeping more teams alive as long as possible makes it more likely that the final rounds will matter, and had the Jets picked up just another win earlier int he season, perhaps Saturday’s match would have had more meaning.
Finally, the criticism continues that the A-League should simply reward the first past the post, and do away with finals.
Of course, with no finals, the A-League season 2018/19 would have been over after Round 25, when Perth wrapped up the title.
Now, perhaps there may have been interest in the final rounds for teams chasing champions league spots if the finals format did not exist, but the top two were finalised after Round 26.
That would have left us with a dead Round 27.
As the season turned out, Round 27 for most was a dead round, when Adelaide wrapped up the final top four spot on Thursday, and Wellington played the final Distance Derby with a line-up in preparation for next week (essentially, resting all their important players).
And in fact, there was something still on the line in the final match, because the fifth and sixth positions were still in doubt, given that a heavy loss by Wellington needed to be avoided so as not to drop to sixth.
Again though, the A-League is not the only sporting code in Australia where teams have rested players in the final round in readiness for finals.
I have been critical of the A-League this season, about a great many things, but when it comes to having a 27-round format with finals at the end, you can’t have too many complaints.
Sure, the last few rounds could have been more exciting, but that argument goes as much towards the quality of the teams, and their performances beforehand, than any issues about having all those 27 rounds.
Matt McKay can hold his head high
There are so very few careers that end the way they should do.
You rarely get the fairytale farewell, and when you do, it is not always to the most deserving of players.
Matt McKay has had a good career.
Whether it has been a great one, time will tell.
But McKay finished his career on Anzac Day in front of a small-ish crowd with a loss, but he left the field to a standing ovation.
As McKay goes into retirement, the great unknown for any professional sportsperson, he has performed with the class and distinction of a storied veteran this season.
The game will be remembered more so for Eric Bautheac’s Panenka, a penalty take that made headlines around the world, and while the highlights of Bautheac’s dribbled penalty will be watched on repeat over time, I’ll take a moment to stand and applaud the game and career of McKay.
He gave a lot to Australian football, and while his final game, nay, his final season, didn’t reward him as he would have liked, nor will one season or one result define his career.
Congratulations Matt McKay on a magnificent career of which you can be very proud.
Melbourne City turn it on
Who did City prefer to play in week 1 of the finals? Because I know who I would have preferred.
Needing to overturn a six-goal goal difference with Wellington, and hoping that Perth finished off the Phoenix with a loss, City appeared to be trying to avoid a Round 1 finals derby with the Victory.
With Adelaide wrapping up fourth spot, and Melbourne locked in third, City appeared more intent on travelling to Adelaide than playing at home, when they turned on the attacking afterburners against the wooden-spoon accumulating Mariners on Friday.
Credit should be given where credit is due.
Melbourne could have saved themselves for the derby next week, put the cue in the rack, avoided injuries, and accepted their fate.
But to chase the goals against the Mariners, find some more attacking form and try to improve their finishing position saw them add some life into a lacklustre final round, and turned on the entertainment.
Where there is a will, there is a way, and City to their further credit, has shown a willingness to score.
Perhaps they were timing their forward line ability perfectly for week 1 of the finals.
The season that might have been
Ernie Merrick has much to ponder over the off-season.
Going from hosting a grand final to missing the finals – that has to hurt the accomplished Scotsman.
As his team put Sydney away with a 2-nil win, and in doing so completed only the first occasion where the Jets won consecutive games this season (and also, managing only for the second time in the club’s history to beat the Sky Bues to nil, the first time being in 2007), Merrick made an interesting post-match comment.
The Jets, statistically, had a superior season in 2018/19, than they did in reaching the grand final.
They had more attacks, the completed more crosses, they held more possession, amazingly the Jets had a better defence this year than last.
The one area that the Jets failed, was in attack, where they scored fewer goals than last season, however, this season, the attack for the Jets was still one of their better ones throughout the A-League for the club.
There is the famous line that there’s lies, damned lies, and statistics.
Perhaps one criticism of the Jets in reaching the grand final last season was that they rode their luck at times, and probably didn’t control the play as they might have liked to.
The Jets, in many ways, played better, more complete football this season, and as a result, they won’t be playing finals.
Merrick is no idiot, and he will spend the next few months recruiting with Lawrie McKenna, and tinkering with his tactics, to get the Jets back into championship contention.
One thing is for sure though, for all the statistics that the Jets achieved well in, Ernie will spend a lot of time trying to figure out two things: how to score even more goals, and how to win more matches.
Victory did what they needed to do
As far as dead matches go though, the Victory vs Wanderers game had literally nothing riding on it.
Melbourne Victory got the win, and it literally made no difference to their season from a practical perspective.
You know things are not quite right when Kosta Barbarouses is clear on goal, one-on-one with the keeper, and he not only manages to get chased down, but botches the job.
The 1-nil final scoreline is probably about right.
Credit to Kevin Muscat and his men this year.
As defending champions, regardless of recruitment, you have a target on your back, and you are balancing champions league while seeking to improve on your ladder position from the previous season. Full credit must go the Muscat and his team.
Finishing third, in my opinion, is the prime position to finish the season in.
If you finish in the top 2, while you have the opportunity to host a grand final, you also end up only playing one game in three weeks leading up to the big occasion.
Finishing third however, you get to host a final, and you are then able to face off against the team running second, with form on your side.
Of course, the team finishing 2nd has always, every season, qualified for the grand final.
So for the Victory to make the grand final this season, they must make history, and knock out the second-placed side.
You wouldn’t put it past this Victory team.
Wellington putting their eggs in the week 1 finals basket
If Melbourne were trying at all costs to avoid a week 1 finals derby, Wellington clearly went in with the mentality of not caring who they played.
Given that Wellington have to travel to Australia no matter what, you can’t blame them for thinking to themselves if it’s Melbourne or Adelaide, the difference is negligible.
It was with a hint of sadness as well that, given Mark Rudan’s decision to rest his stars, one of those stars, Roy Krishna, did not grace the field for longer.
As Perth ran riot through the undermanned Phoenix, Roy Krishna watched on from the sidelines for the majority of the match, saving himself for next week, in the safe knowledge that the golden boot for season 2018/19 was already his.
18 goals in 25 appearances for the Fijian is an astonishing output, particular for a side that travels internationally every other week.
While it would have been nice to see if Krishna could have added to his tally in Perth, given the line-up for the Phoenix it would have been unlikely, it made sense for him not to play any more than he did, from a finals perspective.
Krishna is in good form, clearly, this season, and he will be primed and ready to go to light things up come finals time.
Wherever that was going to be.