After 27 rounds and the first week of finals, then there were four, while two teams have gone into the off-season to ponder what might have been.
Strap yourself in for some finals review, some finals preview, and general topics of interest in the A-League week one finals talking points.
Now things get serious
Do not let the sub-title mislead you, of course the last 28 weekends of football have been serious, but now we are down to the final four, and all four teams left will feel that they have a rightful place at the big kids table for title honours.
Perth, the newly crowned premier, will want to enshrine their status as the best of the season by winning the two games necessary to cement themselves as the best in the land, as champion as well as premier, for season 2018-19.
Sydney FC, the long-time custodian of that title as best in the land, will be wanting to re-assert their authority, after astonishing failing to make last year’s showpiece, but now perhaps more so incredibly with a chance to rectify that injustice under a new coach.
And then there are the reigning champion, Melbourne Victory, under the tutelage of Kevin Muscat, who just knows how to get his charges primed for these games at this end of the season.
As for Adelaide, well they’ve just won an extra-time thriller, so their mentality should be: anything is possible.
Perth will be a truly intimidating prospect next weekend, because while it is true Tony Popovic has yet to win the toilet seat trophy, he still knows how to prepare his teams to get there.
The structure, the discipline, the work ethic, he simply knows how to get his players ready for the penultimate game to make a season’s worth of work all work at the same time.
Of course, why that preparation and performance has yet turned into grand final glory, that is an answer that I cannot yet fathom.
No doubt, Poppa would love to answer that question come the final game in two weeks’ time.
Yet while one coach is looking to kick off his legacy with a championship, another will come to Perth looking to finish his legacy with one.
Talking points has all the credit in the world for Marco Kurz. Told a while ago that his services were no longer required next season, he has been even more determined to finish this year off as strongly as possible.
So for the team that had difficulties winning at home (so much so that they waited until there were only 90 seconds left in extra time to beat City), they travel to Perth hoping that they can maintain the vital winning edge that carried them across the line late on Sunday night.
Yes, they have just played an extra-time final game in Week 1, and they now have to travel to Perth, but so what?
This is a cut-throat finals series, and if you can’t get yourself up for 90 minutes of football, extra travel and game-time or not, then what on earth will get you firing?
Perth should hold no fears for Adelaide, at least not in terms of being a travel-weary team playing the new premier.
Remember, in 2000, Wollongong Wolves travelled to Perth, and came back from 3-nil down at half-time to win.
So going to Perth doesn’t have to be the death wish that some might seek to make it out to be.
As for the other semi-final, you would think that Melbourne are slight favourites going into the match in Sydney, right? Despite playing away from home.
There has just been something less than convincing about Sydney all season long.
Whether it has been cohesion with recruits, or the fixture list involving juggling ACL commitments, or the all-too-obvious factor of getting used to a new coach, Sydney have flattered to deceive this campaign, yet here they stand one game away from the biggest game of the year.
Remember, the Sky Blues are coming off a last-start loss against the Jets, and haven’t played for two weeks.
In many ways, the top two are punished for finishing so high, because unless they play each other in the grand final, the someone from outside the top two has had a better run of matches to get ready for the big game.
So, Sydney FC will have poor form and a lack of match fitness coming into a game against a purring Melbourne Victory.
And the Victory are indeed firing at the moment, make no mistake.
Muscat will still be a tick upset that his side missed out on second place, and it would not surprise if the wily operator were using that as an added incentive for his team, with a point to prove to Sydney that the table cannot be believed.
Melbourne put the cleaners through a tough opponent on Friday, so with good form, and a great finals record, why should they travel to Jubilee stadium with any fear whatsoever.
Melbourne showed Wellington what a champion looks like
Was the Victory victory on Friday ever in any real doubt?
That is not to take anything away from Wellington, nor is it to actually take anything away from Melbourne to suggest they simply had to show up.
But there truly is just something about Melbourne Victory teams in week one of the finals that just screams: start preparing for next week’s game.
The history, the record, the personnel, the coach, the storied Victory tradition of winning when it matters and making their way to grand finals has all created an expectation of the navy blues such that of any sporting result over the weekend in Australia, in any code, Friday night was the one you had the most confidence in.
What Melbourne does is so much more that money and recruiting.
It is even more than simply Kevin Muscat, a man who has been at the club from day one, either as a player or coach, who is continuing that winning tradition.
It is a deep-seeded mentality in the club that has determined that they want to be the best football club in Australia.
In hindsight, the Jets never stood a chance in last year’s grand final, not against a team that is moulded to win, such that winning is in their very name.
Granted, Wellington fought back, and fought hard, but up stepped Ola Toivonen to put away the third goal, and carry on that Victory tradition of winning the big games when it matters.
You can’t bet against the Victory maintaining that tradition in Sydney next week.
Can the Phoenix rise once again?
Wellington cannot rest on their laurels from an otherwise successful season, and nor can they allow the final loss of the season to define both this season and the next.
Every season needs its darling, and luckily enough for the A-League, between Wellington lighting up the field, and the Glory surging to the top, there have been two darlings to behold.
Yet, while Wellington have enjoyed a successful season, the departure of Mark Rudan hangs heavily over the club’s head.
And, unfortunately for the Phoenix, the means of their final loss has the ability to leave a bit of an after-taste in the mouth.
Conceding three goals to a strong opponent is nothing to be ashamed of, but accumulating seven cards, one of them red, and finishing the season without the full compliment on the field, that’s a tough end to a season of success.
So it truly is a shame that Mark Rudan will be leaving, and won’t get a second season to finish what he is starting.
Which once again leaves the Kiwi club in something of the unknown.
Ufuk Talay takes the reigns, and no doubt he will do his best, but uncertainty will hang over this club now until Round 1 next season, and should things not start well, it can be a hard road to travel.
For everything that the Phoenix have achieved this season, truly must they almost start again, and it would be one of the great shames of the A-League if they went the way of the Jets this season, and were unable to truly build on the previous season’s success.
Adelaide play better away from home anyway
Adelaide took every moment possible before finishing City.
With a raucous crowd behind them, and playing the defensive-minded Melbourne city unit, Adelaide were never going to pile on the goals in the second elimination final.
Adelaide took their chance, and defended as well as they needed to, particularly on the back of a determined performance from Paul Izzo.
That is cup football though.
That is what a finals series is about.
It is not always about the best team, though Adelaide arguably were, it is about the team that has the mentality to win when it matters.
Adelaide, going into the game with a shaky home record this season, would, or at least should have been nervous.
So when Ben Halloran finished in the 119th minute, himself a big off-season recruit with some pressure going into this season, the Reds players and their fans celebrated accordingly.
Adelaide should go to Perth holding no fear.
They have shown they can win.
They proved exactly that, when it matters, in their win over Melbourne City.
What an off-season it will be for Melbourne City
What will City Football Group make of their Melbourne outpost after season 2018-19?
Player unrest, limited attack, no real identity other than grim defence, is that what CFG want out of their investment in this team?
To be fair to Warren Joyce and his men, once they finished fifth, the key was about playing winning football, which when you’ve lost to a last minute of extra-time goal, you can at least argue you played football that could win a game.
But City were never going to go on a championship run, to be honest.
They scraped fifth place when Wellington tanked the last game of the season, and City’s problems this season were well-known as they struggled to field strikers, and became overly reliant upon a defensive system that held teams out, but didn’t win matches.
City will look on the loss in Adelaide with pride, and had any of their second half chances been taken, this would be a different talking point.
But City didn’t take their chances.
And ultimately, you could at least put it to the paymasters of Melbourne City Group, that part of that comes down to the coaching.
It should be an interesting off-season for Melbourne City indeed.
One last note worth rating
Talking Points, despite some criticisms, genuinely has made every effort to talk up Australia’s little league that could.
Perhaps one of the best outcomes of the season was that the VAR criticisms that received such uproar to kick off the early rounds now appear to be a thing of the past.
The league should be commended for working through those technical issues, and creating a system that appears to be working.
However, one thing that simply has been abominable has been attendances and ratings.
Only 16,000 attended the Friday night fixture hosted by Melbourne Victory, watched by an even poorer 35,000 on television.
At time of writing, 13,000 attended the Adelaide versus City game (while it should have been a sell-out, it is a commendable attendance for the timeslot) and the TV ratings were not yet known.
Melbourne, a team that averages 20,000 crowds during home and away, could not get that many for their last home game of the season.
As for those watching on television, they are frighteningly poor, poor figures.
Yes, there will be arguments that streaming numbers are not included, but the NRL and AFL, managed to get in excess of 100,000 viewers for all bar one of their games over the weekend (the lowest rating game that talking points found was Giants v St Kilda in the AFL, with a low 50,000).
It remains such a shame that the A-League, for all the quality on the pitch, is not being received by many viewers, whether at the game or on tv.
So unless there are about 250,000 people watching the game via streaming services, then the failure to get eyeballs on the game should have people in a position of power worried, if indeed they even care anymore.