The Central Coast Mariners’ brave effort against Sydney FC on Saturday night made two salient points.
After the worst possible scenario played out and the Sky Blues jumped the visitors early with a goal to Kosta Barbarouses after five minutes, many were reaching for the floodgates. What followed proved anything but the case as the Mariners swung the momentum late in the first half and pressed for parity in the second.
In the end, an equaliser became possible and at times probable. The result was educative on two fronts.
Firstly, Alen Stajcic’s coaching nous is proving to be well and truly up to the high standards of the A-League.
Tony Popovic, Steve Corica and Erick Mombaerts are setting the managerial bar when it comes to execution and implementation yet Stajcic, who arrived on the Central Coast late last season to take over a derailed squad, is earning much respect.
A win or two buoyed spirits early in 2019, yet the club’s third wooden spoon in just four seasons was impossible to avoid. Despite that sad reality, the club extended Stajcic’s stay briskly and with two wins and a draw from eight matches in 2019-20, it is abundantly clear that the Mariners are in a significantly better place than they have been for some time.
The second clear fact to emanate from the Mariners’ performance is the overall benefit it brings to the A-League. After ten rounds, just five points separate fifth to 11th on the ladder and for the first time in recent history, the competition may run its full course without a less than competitive bottom feeder.
The Wellington Phoenix are also a key component in that broad competitiveness. Despite enjoying a finals run under Mark Rudan last season, the loss of key attacking weapons, a new manager and wholesale changes across the squad had many fearful of just what the men in yellow would produce.
After a rocky start, they have produced much quality and stand unbeaten over the last five rounds. That places the Phoenix sixth and their form suggests they have a real possibility of eclipsing the 11 wins achieved under Rudan last season.
Perhaps the most impressive and surprising team when it comes to the pleasing competitiveness across the competition right now is the form of Rudan’s new chargers Western United. Five early victories, derby wins and a committed and stoic defence have seen the men based in Geelong climb to third on the A-League ladder.
During the pre-season, it was a little tough to predict just how effective United would be as a squad. There was undoubted quality in the shape of Josh Risdon, Filip Kurto and Panagiotis Kone, yet also concerns about the form of potential ‘dad’s army’ members Andrew Durante, Alessandro Diamanti and Besart Berisha.
Any doubts have been eliminated early in the season. Berisha has been stunning, Kone classy and the 37-year-old Durante has shown that there was indeed at least one more campaign in his experienced and tested legs.
In essence, any concerns around the competitiveness of the Mariners and the Phoenix have been forgotten and the natural interest around how a new entity will perform in its inaugural season has been met with a resounding statement by Mark Rudan and Western United.
Of more concern is the situation in Brisbane, where an unproven manager is desperately attempting to draw up a road map to consistent and first-half performances. Robbie Fowler has looked somewhat reactive throughout the opening two months of the season and the Roar’s only accolade appears to be their ability to mount passionate and stirring waves of attack late in matches in an attempt to draw level.
Establishing a lead early and setting tempo is desirable, something that Melbourne City, Sydney FC and Western United have done expertly this season. However, Fowler’s roundabout admission that he may well and truly have dropped the ball when it comes to salary cap management potentially explains why Brisbane have struggled to achieve such control and tempo.
The recruitment of a host of solid players without the skill and flair required to penetrate consistently at A-League level appears to be a reality Fowler now faces and something he addressed publicly last week. The way forward will be nothing but grinding hard work, similar to the path faced by Newcastle Jets after a concerning performance at home against Melbourne City on Sunday afternoon.
Whether City were just on fire, or the Jets failed to fully commit to the cause in Nikolai Topor-Stanley’s 300th game is a little up for debate, however, Ernie Merrick did allude to a lack of energy in his troops.
Already positioned at something of a disadvantage with a squad lacking class when compared to many others, the Jets now face a week in front of the mirror and the challenge of a trip to the west to face Perth Glory this Saturday.
There will be wins ahead for both Brisbane and Newcastle, yet consistency in performance looks likely to hamper their chances of a top-six finish. Central Coast and Wellington will face the same challenge, despite their improved play.
That all equates to a pleasing outcome for the league, with no isolated whipping boy sitting in the cellar and every club still with eyes on a finals position in 2019-20.