The A-Leagues might have been praying for Melbourne Victory to reach the grand final, but after two gripping semi-finals it’s Western United who will take on Melbourne City in next week’s decider.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room. The Australian Professional Leagues will have to work hard to sell tickets for a grand final featuring two of the competition’s least popular sides.
But the A-League Men is about more than just Melbourne Victory and as much as their resurgence under Tony Popovic has been one of the storylines of the season, the APL cannot afford to simply rely on Victory’s huge fan-base to paper over the cracks of what has been an undeniably difficult campaign.
While next week’s grand final at AAMI Park would have been a sell-out if it involved Victory, the APL will have to contend with some short-term pain for long-term gain when the club from Melbourne’s west square off against the defending champions.
Does Western United have the fan-base to fill AAMI Park? Not right now.
But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the chance to build one, and qualifying for a first ever grand final under a coach who many thought was finished is a decent place to start.
John Aloisi is now just one game away from completing one of the most remarkable redemption stories in Australian football.
After three years out of the coaching game on the back of his disastrous Brisbane Roar exit, the former Socceroo deserves praise for the way he’s turned Western United into one of the toughest teams to beat in the league.
He’s done it without Alessandro Diamanti since February, although in former Serbian international Aleksandar Prijovic, he’s got another match-winner to call upon in attack.
When you consider the likes of Tomoki Imai, Leo Lacroix, Rene Krhin, Diamanti and Prijovic, it’s hard to argue Western United don’t have the best scouting in the competition.
Couple that with some astute signings from elsewhere in the competition – Jamie Young, Ben Garuccio, Nikolai Topor-Stanley, Neil Kilkenny and Dylan Wenzel-Halls have all played key roles at times this season – and it’s safe to say Western United are the best recruiters in the league.
Their 4-1 win over Melbourne Victory on Saturday proved they’ve got plenty of grit as well.
Having seen Jake Brimmer’s stupendous free-kick cancel out Prijovic’s early opener, plenty expected Victory to go on and win the second leg in front of a partisan crowd.
Instead, it was Prijovic who registered a superb second, and when Lachie Wales’ rattled home a deflected third before Wenzel-Halls sealed proceedings in stoppage time, Western United were dancing their way into the decider.
Melbourne City had to overcome plenty of adversity too, coming from a goal down and needing extra-time to see off Adelaide United 2-1 in another gripping second leg showdown.
Although quite why the two semi-finals kicked off so much earlier than most other fixtures this season – 5.15pm on Saturday night and 2.05pm on Sunday afternoon – remains a mystery.
A few fans missed the matches entirely because they assumed the second legs kicked off later in the day.
And City’s aggregate win over Adelaide was marred by the latest incident of police overkill, as no less than five uniformed officers dragged a teenage City fan out of the home end – allegedly because he was knocked over the fence and onto the field of play.
This is what’s wrong with football in this country.— Seamus Lyons (@LyonsSeamus17) May 22, 2022
15 year old kid falls over the fence after a goal is scored and this is the treatment. Fucking Pathetic @MelbourneCity @aleaguemen @TheRealALM pic.twitter.com/Qs9dh6U6rr
It was yet another example of the blatant double-standards we expect from policing at every A-Leagues game. Start a savage brawl in the stands at NRL’s Magic Round and police are nowhere to be found, but tumble onto the field at a football game and scores of uniformed officers – many of whom are there specifically to clock an overtime shift – will drag you kicking and screaming from the venue.
It’s another long-standing issue the APL can no longer turn a blind eye to next season.
But for now, it’s Western United who stand in Melbourne City’s way.
It’s perhaps not what the A-Leagues wanted, but in many ways it’s the grand final the game needed.