A-League tipsters were thrown another curve ball over the weekend. This time around it was the 2019-20 elimination finals, where the higher placed teams were humbled in two entertaining and compelling fixtures.
Western United did have strong claims against the Roar, yet after a series of matches on tight turnarounds and subsequent brief recovery time, many felt the men in orange might just set the bar high enough to end the brilliant recent run that Mark Rudan’s team has enjoyed.
Just 24 hours earlier, it seemed all and sundry had foreseen Wellington toppling Perth Glory; a team still without its talisman and the more refined attacking class of the Phoenix likely to prove decisive.
As things played out, Tony Popovic orchestrated something very close to which I eluded in the A-League expert tips and predictions article last Friday.
Tony Popovic. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
Tempo was key for Perth, as they did indeed find a goal on the counter before proceeding to control the flow of the match in an attempt to deny Wellington free flowing attacking opportunities.
Perth did it well, despite the Phoenix having their moments and certainly creating enough to level during what was a gripping second half.
By early Sunday evening, when United held on for a 1-0 triumph over an at times unlucky Brisbane Roar, much conventional thinking had gone out the window.
The clearest thing to emanate from the matches was a stark awareness that both Sydney FC and Melbourne City had best be on their games this Wednesday night in the semi-finals.
There was no fluke in the performance of either of the winners in the first two finals’ matches and despite another brisk turnaround for Western United, they and Perth will enter the fray tomorrow night convinced they are heading to the big dance on Sunday.
Sydney FC have done little better than wobble since the resumption of the competition. Their form after a 3-1 win against Wellington to begin the run home has been anything but that of earlier in the season.
Popovic showed again that lifting a team for a one off contest and setting them up to defend with discipline and vigour is what he does best.
With Sydney struggling to find the net as consistently as they once did, an early Perth lead could well result in a stunning victory and the sixth-placed team on the ladder finding their way into the A-League grand final.
While Sydney FC manager Steve Corica will talk the language of calm in the lead up and emphasise the trust required in a system of play that saw the Sky Blues become everyone’s favourite for the championship some months back, inside he actually has no idea whether Sydney will rediscover previous form or continue in the funk that has stained their play over the last month.
As for Melbourne City, well, confidence is not something their fans possess in spades, after years of disappointment and the team’s penchant to fall rather dramatically at what ends up being the final hurdle in their season.
They look as likely as any heading into the finals, yet now must face a runaway freight train in Western United; a team that appears to have completely forgotten how to lose when at full strength.
Sure the 3-1 loss to City to round out the season could potentially be used as ammunition for those mounting an argument for a United loss in tomorrow night’s match, however, there were some extenuating circumstances and Mark Rudan definitely ‘managed’ his side through a match that now looks irrelevant.
However things do play out on Wednesday, it stands to be a gripping night of football. Should Sydney FC and Melbourne City advance to Sunday, many will cite their ladder positions and feel there was some sense of predictability about the match up.
However, after watching the A-League twist and turn since the resumption, I call BS on that. Western United and Perth Glory will throw the proverbial kitchen sink at them both and anything other than their best could result in the most unpredictable of grand finals.
Stuart Thomas is a sports writer and educator who made the jump from Roar Guru to Expert in 2017. An ex-trainee professional golfer, his sporting passions are broad with particular interests in football, AFL and rugby league. His love of sport is only matched by his passion for gardening and self-sustainability.
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