Normally by this stage of an A-League season, with just a handful of matches remaining before the semi-finals, form lines have been well and truly set.
With the final whistle for the game the 2018-19 season, the 14th instalment of the A-League, has drawn to a close and its newest champion crowned.
In yet another stellar showpiece event, there was plenty to talk about, so here are my final 2018-19 A-League season talking points.
An occasion fit for the event
The A-League knows how to put on a grand final. Whether it’s Suncorp Stadium with the Den and the RBB facing off against one another, the Adelaide Oval filled to the brim and bursting with patrons, or even McDonald Jones Stadium packed to capacity, the A-League grand final always delivers the event spectators expect.
Optus Stadium lived up to the grand tradition of putting on a show. A packed-out purple stadium in state-of-the-art facilities, the fans turned out in force to create an environment that once again would not be out of place in a marquee European event.
Congratulations to Perth for turning out to the game’s showpiece in such large numbers, with a new A-League grand final attendance record of 56,371. You did the game and the country proud.
The game paid homage to those that have passed
With the passing of David Cervinski and Bob Hawke during the week, the game kicked off with a heartfelt show of emotion in commemoration of their lives.
Perth also remembered the loss of their original kit man, Wynnie Russell, on the biggest day of the season.
In an age when football is known for its poor behaviour off the field and in the stands, the game did the memories of these men proud.
Football is a funny game because, as evidenced by the well-choreographed singing in the stands during the game, when the fans come together they can create truly memorable moments of pure emotion. On this occasion, once again, football stood tall.
The caginess of a grand final
Let’s be honest, when it comes to the game itself, given the stakes, it is understandable teams are coached to ensure they play in a manner that is disciplined, lest they suffer the fatal consequences.
Of course discipline is all good and well for the purists – and when it comes to the defensively minded tacticians, Italians – but when it comes to in-your-face excitement, sometimes that discipline leaves a bit to be desired for the neutral.
Did the first half set the world on fire? Probably not, but that’s not to say that the game was at all boring.
The first half had its moments and its chances, though neither team showed that clinical finish to give the game a goal and bring the occasions to life.
The first half played out as you would expect: two teams, best in the competition, staring each other down, waiting for the other to blink, and it made sense that two of the best scoring teams of the season would holster their weapons for this particular match
Cagey? Yes. Boring? Not at all.
The video assistant referee
The 28th minute will be talked about for an age.
The ball was in the net, the Sydney players were celebrating, the linesman’s flag went up, and the stadium held its breath.
And then those three letters appeared: VAR.
Adam le Fondre protested that he had not had the final touch, so with the ball in the back of the net, had it stood, it would have been an own goal.
But in the lead-up to the goal the linesman had his flag up for the previous play, and once replays showed that the Sydney winger was indeed behind the little yellow line, the reaction was swift and damning.
Steve Corica was understandably furious, and his remonstrations for the referee to allow the goal were rewarded with a yellow card.
An A-League grand final, the ball in the net and an offside controversy involving the VAR – it was May 2018 all over again, and as play continued, you simply hoped that that moment wasn’t going to once again decide the game.
Brosque bleeds for the cause
To prove that the game was being played with the type of toughness and physicality you should expect from an Australian grand final, Alex Brosque, in his final game for the Sky Blues, literally bled for the cause.
Going up for a mid-air challenge, he copped an elbow to the back of his head, which to his chagrin did not earn a foul.
As blood streamed down the back of his head and down his neck, Brosque screamed out to anyone that would listen to let them know that he had been fouled, and fouled badly.
When he was finally sent to the sideline by the referee to get some medical attention for his wound, Brosque greeted his club doctors by asking rhetorically whether they’d seen what had happened.
Yes, Brosquey. They knew. But they’re there to bandage you up.
Alex Brosque, as he walked off the field for the last time when substituted early in extra time, truly could say that he bled for the cause to the very last.
The battle of hairstyles
Jason Davidson found himself on the left-hand side with the ever-lovable Rhyan Grant as his direct opponent for the majority of the game. It truly was a case of hairstyles at ten paces as the bleach-blonde locks of Davidson came up against Grant’s mullet.
Of course the true battle was between the players themselves as they battled one another all night in a personal duel where the points were probably shared between the two, at least on a personal level.
Davidson rampaged up the line, Grant held strong in defence. It was a fascinating encounter between an irresistible force and an immovable object.
As the game wore on Grant turned into the villain, touching the ball to a chorus of boos, which only emboldened Davidson as the hero.
The theatre of the battle was utterly fascinating and entirely delicious.
A finisher, a finisher, my kingdom for a finisher
When Andy Keogh come onto the park in the 73rd minute, Perth had racked up an incredible 58 per cent of possession.
It would have been inaccurate to say that that possession ratio meant Perth were on top, but equally you had the feeling that they had enough of the ball to at least have a goal on the board.
Joel Chianese worked tirelessly up front for Perth, but on the biggest game of the season he left the field without a reward for his toil.
You couldn’t help by wonder whether perhaps the experience and familiarity of Andy Keogh starting, at the very least coming on earlier, might’ve converted some of that Perth possession into scoreboard reward.
Perth had managed two shots on target by the time Keogh was on the park. Would that stat have improved markedly had Keogh seen more game time?
And here we go again
As extra time rolled around, you had to wonder which team was best prepared to take the game to 120 minutes.
Perth had played out one of the all-time epic penalty shootouts against Adelaide only nine days earlier just to reach the grand final, so arguably they were the better prepared, having survived the mental battle of winning under such circumstances so recently.
Of course the other question was just how much did that game take out of Perth. Did they have the ticker to go around again?
On the other side of the coin Sydney were physically fresh – notwithstanding the flight to Perth – having enjoyed a leisurely six-goal drubbing of Melbourne in their semi-final.
However, as opposed to Perth, Sydney had not yet had their mentality put under the blowtorch of finals and sudden-death football this season, so there was no telling what this team would produce as they commenced 30-minutes of extra-time in the biggest game of them all.
Tony Popovic remains the bridesmaid
Four grand finals, four losses. It will take a man of absolute mental fortitude to recover from that and try to go around again.
In the end, for all of Poppa’s tactical awareness and coaching foresight, he was unable to craft a winning goal, and it was unfortunately one of his most loyal servants who would let him down when it mattered most.
It takes a lot of courage to attempt a Panenka penalty in a knife-edge penalty shootout, and when Brendan Santalab lined up his attempted chip to fool Andrew Redmayne, who didn’t move and comfortably held the ball, the jig was up.
Liam Reddy could not be the penalty shootout hero two weeks in a row, and Poppa still could not win a championship.
Perth can be so proud of their season and their premiership achievements. But for now and unfortunately for the season overall they remain runners-up.
For Popovic, it’s a fourth time in second place. That has to hurt.
Sydney reign supreme in the A-League
You never count out a champion, whether it’s a champion player or champion club.
Steve Corica has been answering questions all season. Questioning his credentials, his tactics, whether he was up to the challenge of stepping into Graham Arnold’s shoes – for a first-year coach he had to withstand a lot of brutal and ultimately unfair criticism.
In the end, when you work towards the lottery of penalties, you live and you die by the sword. Slot enough penalties and you’re a coaching genius, but miss just enough and you’re tactically void.
Sydney FC are the biggest club in the A-League, if not generally speaking – and Melbourne Victory would have rightful claims to that mantel – then certainly for this season.
As soon as Sydney FC qualified for the final, regardless of final places this season, a team with a heritage of championships was coming up against a team looking for their first.
Sydney have ridden the highs and the lows of the season but have emerged from the final game holding the trophy. They are the season 2018-19 A-League champion, and they deserve their title.
Sydney FC, we salute you.