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Get rid of the A-League pretenders: We want to see the Mariners bombard the Phoenix bus, the perfect grand final in waiting

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5 days ago
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There were many disgusted by the overall spectacle at AAMI Park on Sunday afternoon when the Phoenix and Victory played out a cagey 0-0 semi-final draw.

Sure, the football was different to what we often see in a seven-goal epic at Cooper’s Stadium on a wild Friday night or a high-scoring derby for the ages, yet there was something incredibly appealing about the contest.

Perhaps it was a satisfied glow following Mother’s Day lunch, some inherent positivity emanating from all the goodness that occurs on the day? Who knows, but I enjoyed the match immensely.

From a neutral’s point of view I wondered why on earth Daniel Arzani was not on the pitch from the opening whistle for the Victory and admired the intent the home side showed throughout.

Victory seemed certain in the belief that they needed at least a goal in hand heading across the ditch this Saturday, if they stood any chance of managing a win across the two legs, particularly with the second being played in front of what will be a raucous and noisy crowd in the New Zealand capital.

Sadly, after 20 shots at goal and 57 per cent possession during the match, the cutting edge required to translate the dominance into a goal was lacking for Tony Popovic’s men.

They now travel east without a buffer and the knowledge that Wellington will probably throw far more at them from an attacking perspective at home than what they did on Sunday.

(Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

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The Phoenix sat mighty deep, at times with immense numbers behind the ball and every now and again, as pointed out by a Roar punter during the call of the game, had almost the entire outfield playing group inside the six-yard box and defending corners and attacking free-kicks.

Whilst many an A-League fan would have been sitting with ginger beer in hand and scoffing at the lack of clear goal-scoring opportunities that come when only one team is enthusiastically attempting to score, there was actually something beautiful about the visitors’ performance.

Wellington’s defensive block has been on show for much of the season and the approach was predictable heading into the match. The tactic is one thing, but the execution of it was superb.

It reminded me of the day I send my under-13 girls out onto the pitch with an intent to park the bus and claim a valuable point with just eight fit and healthy players. We executed perfectly on the day, probably less stylishly than the Phoenix, but certainly with the same effect.

Victory were frustrated and stymied at almost every turn and a goal on the counter seemed almost likely in the second half, with Murphy’s Law threatening to turn a frustrating afternoon for Victory into a disastrous one.

Yet scoreless it would end and many felt a dullness come the final whistle.

Elsewhere, it was a much juicier affair in Sydney on Friday, with Sydney FC securing the early lead against the Mariners before the visitors struck on either side of the break and then drew two red cards from a frustrated Sky Blue outfit in the second.

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It was far from Central Coast at their sparkling best, yet once again, they showed the ability to score when needed and ice matches in the second half.

The thought of the Mariners giving up a 2-1 lead during the second leg in front of a sold-out Industree Group Stadium is a bizarre one and they are long odds-on to make the grand final in a fortnight’s time for the second consecutive season.

Logic says the Phoenix are also firm favourites to advance, although Victory will have a say in matters and could well stun the favourites.

However, given that the expected results play out, the conflict of styles awaiting in a grand final between the Mariners and Phoenix would be one to savour.

One team happy to run with flair, dare and adventure against a team capable of shutting down a contest for far more than 90 minutes would make for a rare watch on the final day of the season.

When the teams met on February 6th, it was a 0-0 stalemate. That day it was the Phoenix with a little more of the ball, yet only six shots on target were managed collectively. On April 6, Central Coast managed an added-time winner to triumph 2-1, in a far more open match that Wellington coach Giancarlo Italiano took as a warning sign for future clashes.

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It is the match-up with the most interest and the one we all want to see. If we could just manage to jettison Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory and allow it to happen, the league could see one of its most historic and compelling clashes.

I’ll be running an eye over the traditional competition heavyweights remaining in the top four tomorrow and finding reasons why they could in fact cause an upset and advance.

Yet realistically, I’d prefer they stumble and we all get to watch an A-League grand final where the Mariners thump shot after shot at a big and impenetrable yellow Phoenix bus! That would be fun to watch.

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