It’s not often that a top-tier sporting competition can claim such parity as the A-League achieved on the weekend just passed.
With Wellington enjoying the week off back in New Zealand – cooling their jets before some tricky matches and the looming blockbuster with Sydney FC on the 18th of March – the remaining ten did battle on the eastern seaboard.
Needless to say, it was stunning. Mike Tuckerman hit the nail on the head in his Monday column when he encouraged the celebration of a league for what it is and discouraged lamentation over what it is not.
While things were a little loose defensively at times, VAR was as annoying as ever and Archie Thompson’s debut in the commentary box enough to drive a man to drink, a host of teams with their backs against the wall lifted when it was needed the most.
Positions seven to ten enjoyed wins and all edged closer to the sixth-placed Roar. That parity of performance has turned the competition somewhat on his head with just eight rounds of play remaining before the finals begin.
Automatically selecting Sydney FC each week appears no longer wise, after the Wanderers’ second win against them this season.
A ten-point lead is still more than handy, yet the Sky Blues were poor against the Mariners ten days ago, humiliated in recent Asian Champions League play and face a busy and demanding schedule with Perth, Wellington, Western Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne City in their list of upcoming A-League opponents.
As a race for second place between Melbourne City, Glory and Wellington seemingly grew more and more likely, Sydney’s stumble and the likelihood of another one or two on the run home has spiced things up at the top.
Perth’s loss to Newcastle has done the same, after the men from the west appeared the most obvious team to earn a week off in the first round of the finals.
Now, Melbourne City holds sway in second. Perth enjoys the luxury of no byes on the journey to the finish line, yet will be hampered by the changing day-to-day proposition that is ACL scheduling.
Wellington play four of their last seven away from home; a challenge for the men in yellow who are mighty tough to topple at home.
Logic suggests that the final round may well be the determining factor in settling the top two. Perth enjoy a home clash with the Mariners, Wellington travel to Wanderland and City may need to defeat Sydney FC in order to seal second spot.
A similar scenario seems likely to unravel in terms of positions in the lower half of the six. Adelaide United’s loss to Victory has them now precariously close to a charging pack.
Just a point behind the Reds lies Robbie Fowler’s Brisbane, after tasting defeat for the first time in 2020 against Melbourne City on Sunday.
The Roar had the opportunity to move into fifth after Adelaide’s loss yet as both clubs failed to snare points in Round 21, Western Sydney and Western United took their chances to enter the fray.
Moreover, down 1-0 early and with their season about to have its life support switched off, Melbourne Victory staked their claim and clawed within six points of the men from the sunshine state.
It presents a statistically interesting and refreshing picture entering March, with just six points covering third to eighth on the ladder and the Victory still with a mathematical chance in ninth.
After multiple seasons where interest has seriously waned in the final rounds thanks to little or no chance of meaningful movement, 2019-20 looks to be the tightest and most compelling race the A-League has ever seen.
Looking at the matches that lie ahead, I’ll predict Sydney will manage enough points to earn the Premier’s Plate, despite the gap narrowing slightly.
Perth look a likely second come season’s end thanks to five home matches from their last eight with City, like Wellington, facing more away trips than home matches in their final seven.
Adelaide have a nightmare run from Round 25 onwards where they face Melbourne City, Wellington, Sydney FC and Perth in consecutive weeks, whereas the Roar enjoy a friendlier draw with matches against Central Coast, Victory, Newcastle and the soon to be battered Reds in the final round.
There is little wriggle room for Western Sydney and Western United and their Round 25 clash at Mars Stadium could well be the death knell for one of their seasons.
It all adds up to a gripping finale to the home and away action with more contenders for the championship than we have ever seen.
Should the Wanderers make the finals, Sydney FC will not scare them. Tony Popovic will feel he has the most in-form and potentially damaging team in the competition, Melbourne City will be there when the whips are cracking and Wellington are realistic shots at the title should they spark on the right day.
Lurking in the shadows is the resurgent Roar and if God is able to deliver another championship to Queensland, it would be the most stunning of achievements.
It makes for a host of great weekends over the next two months and with three or four crucial matches in each and every round, predicting the final ladder may well be near impossible, but I’ll take a stab anyway.
1/ Sydney FC
2/ Perth Glory
3/ Melbourne City
4/ Wellington Phoenix
5/ Brisbane Roar
6/ Western Sydney Wanderers
7/ Adelaide United
8/ Melbourne Victory
9/ Western United
10/ Newcastle Jets
11/ Central Coast Mariners