Okay, it is time to sort the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys and an A-League champion from three pretenders.
With the grand finalists set and the season almost complete, we head straight into the talking points from the second week of the A-League finals.
Finals are here to stay
Don’t tell us that finals are a waste of time.
What happened in Perth on Friday night was of such epic theatre and pulsating entertainment that if you didn’t enjoy it, football is not for you.
Credit to the players, credit to the coaching staff, credit to the fans. Every participant and person present at HBF Park created a match for the ages, and it’s no one-off in the A-League.
We’ve had grand finals go to penalties, we’ve had fight backs from 3-nil, we’ve had extra-time goals galore.
Year after year the A-League produces drama come finals time, and it cannot help but grab your attention.
Social media absolutely lit up on Friday night.
The hashtag #PERvADL was trending, people who otherwise cover the oval-ball codes were entranced by the activities that were going on.
And the ratings that were non-existent last week were pressing 200,000 viewers.
Sure, the Sunday night semi-final didn’t deliver on the excitement, though the multitude of goals suggests that it was at least entertaining. Hey, not every game can be a classic.
In fact, not every game should be a classic.
The proof that finals football works isn’t when every game has you on the edge of your seat – it is the ability to create enough of them with enough frequency for the viewer and spectator to go into the finals matches with a sense of anticipation in every instance.
To date, the A-League has continued to deliver on the finals football front.
In a week when the world went insane for comeback wins and edge-of-your-seat theatre, the A-League stepped up to the plate and enjoyed its moment in the sun.
Maybe the A-League is ahead of its time?
As the world sits transfixed watching the final games in the race for the Premier League title, Ryan O’Hanlon noted on ESPN.com that perhaps tight title races were a thing of the past.
The cut of the rub was that while the EPL is enjoying a dramatic last day, the rest of the bigger leagues in Europe are seeing monopolies on success emerge. For example, Juventus just won their seventh title in a row with games to spare.
Some leagues are now creating an end-of-season finals league to maintain interest in the later games.
If Friday night was a regular season game, it ends 2-all and everyone enjoys a thrilling finish without a winner.
Instead? Extra-time, extra-time goals, seven saved penalties, and a semi-final match for the ages.
Again, tell me how finals have no place in domestic football?
Tony Popovic will be feeling the heat
The Glory – clearly the best team in the competition all season – were pushed to penalties and relied on goalkeeper heroics to make it to the grand final.
Perth were in front after 90 minutes, took the lead in extra time, and still needed their goalkeeper to save four penalties in the shoot-out to make it through.
Poppa – magnificent coach that he is – has won premierships and an Asian Champions League, but still has no grand final wins on his resume.
So he will know that there is a fair bit of work to be done.
Perth had this game won in regulation time until Ryan Kitto slotted home an equaliser – the home side’s lapse cost them dearly.
But to take the lead in extra-time and still need penalties would have had Poppa nervous.
He will know that lightning doesn’t always strike twice, so he cannot rely on a superhuman performance from Liam Reddy two weeks in a row.
When Perth took a two-goal lead into the last ten minutes of play, the game should have been wrapped up.
For Sydney on Sunday evening, the way in which they dismantled Melbourne will give them confidence, but the manner in which Perth were almost ran down will give them extra hope.
That, on top of Poppa’s dismal grand final record, sets the premiers up for a major upset.
What a week of anticipation it should be.
Fare thee well to Adelaide’s Kurz
If you wanted a visual representation of a football team going down swinging, look at Adelaide United on Friday.
It will not be lost on the Reds’ players that they let a major – perhaps once-in-a-lifetime – opportunity slip through their fingers.
To push the premiers to penalties and have your goalkeeper make three penalty saves is a big chance wasted.
Of course, they should not focus on what they lost, but more on what they have achieved as a group.
Adelaide had an inconsistent season, but they pushed the best team in Australia all the way. And the Reds showed on Friday that at their best, they challenge the best.
So Marco Kurz leaves behind a squad that is ripe with talent, but not the whole package, and whoever comes into the hot seat will have a weight of expectation on their shoulders.
Kurz has left a fair amount that not only can he be proud of, but will hold Adelaide in good stead in the future.
Second place is where it’s at
And so the second-placed regular season team is in yet another grand final.
Every single second-placed team has made it to a grand final in the A-League era, and the sky blue of Sydney FC continued the grand tradition.
It has reached a point now where the FFA should just do away with the formality of the second-placed team playing a final and just have them rest up for the occasion itself.
Full credit to Steve Corica this season.
Nothing can be taken away from him.
He took over from Graham Arnold, he felt some growing pains and pressure throughout the season – but he took his squad, he filled the holes of talent left by departures, and he finds himself in position to win a trophy in his first season.
Sydney will hold no fear of Perth.
The only concern is whether the performance against Melbourne has seen them peak a game too soon.
Only time will tell, but given the way Corica got his men to click at Jubilee, it’s doubtful that he won’t have a trick or two up his sleeve for the big occasion.
Truly, Sydney FC are the big-occasion team, and the grand final is where they belong.
What on earth went wrong?
For Melbourne, where did that loss come from?
How did a team that pushed for top two then dismantled Wellington the week before get put to the sword so decisively by Sydney?
The off-season autopsy will be long for Kevin Muscat and his men, and what they do with this squad will be telling.
It is questionable whether Keisuke Honda stays for another year.
Whether Ola Toivonen is still the front man come October is also another question to be answered.
But what will trouble the hierarchy the most is how a championship-winning side led by a championship-winning coach utterly capitulated the way they did in the biggest match of their season.
True, Sydney were near untouchable at times, and perhaps no team could have thwarted them in that mood.
However, Melbourne are a proud side with a proud record and this loss will hurt for a long time.
So beware the wounded bear that is Melbourne.
But whether they are able to recover immediately from a loss like that in time for next season may be a struggle too hard to overcome.
Again, it should be a very interesting off-season at the Victory indeed.
Perth should paint the town purple
The grand final comes to Perth for the first time in the A-League era, and here’s hoping that the city and its people soak up every ounce of the excitement that such an occasion can muster.
When it comes to showpiece events, the A-League has always delivered.
Unlike the AFL and NRL – yes, yes, another comparison with the oval-shaped ball codes – the A-League has the fact that the grand final travels around the country to its wondrous advantage.
Perth is the final mainland state capital to host the final game of the season, and if the pre-season match with Chelsea was anything to go by, Optus Stadium should put on an absolute pearler of a game.
A packed house is a must, and hopefully the teams deliver an entertaining clash.
Neither side should be overawed by the occasion, so it promises to be a memorable event.
For the sake of next season – and to put this campaign to bed in a happier manner – fingers crossed the grand final can capture the hearts of football fans and deliver something special.