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Sydney FC do not deserve to be in A-League Grand Final, yet still have a chance - and that should worry Mariners

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Expert
14th May, 2024
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If there is anything surer than the nose on your own face, it is that the Central Coast Mariners, even after a disastrous start to the 2023/24 A-league season, have been consistently the best team and deserve a spot in the decider next weekend.

Not only have the Mariners taken a Premier’s Plate back to their Gosford trophy cabinet, but they have also, somehow, managed to find the time to travel extensively and secure the first piece of silverware won by an Australian club for some time in the shape of the 2024 AFC Cup.

Coach Mark Jackson has parlayed the work done by former mentors Nick Montgomery and Alen Stajcic, men who built from the foundations, and now turned everyone’s second team into a powerhouse of Australian football.

Wellington Phoenix have not been too far behind throughout the course of the season and a late slip from the Mariners across the final weeks of the home and away season could have seen the Kiwi-based club claim the plate in what would have been historic circumstances.

Instead, the Phoenix will look to meet the Mariners on the final day in Australia, at Gosford and in one of the prettiest football stadiums in the world.

Of course, that is dependent on the two teams advancing to the grand final and whilst the Mariners are in the box seat heading into the second leg of their semi-final with a 2-1 lead over Sydney FC, the Nix will have to do some serious work to overcome Melbourne Victory; starting from a 0-0 base that will have both teams nervous and hopeful.

Joe Lolley Sydney FC

Joe Lolley of Sydney FC celebrates a goal. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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Despite the A-League world being well aware of the Mariners’ 17 wins and four draws from 27 regular season matches, as well as the +22 goal difference that topped the league by some margin, a cocky team in sky blue will rock up to Industree Group Stadium on Saturday night.

Sydney will be hopeful of a two-goal win, an extra-time triumph or a dramatic penalty shootout that ousts a team more deserving of an appearance in the season finale.

The key question is, are those hopes unfounded, baseless and fantastical, or could Ufuk Talay’s men actually manage what would be a stunning upset based on the body of work both teams have built across the length of the season?

Logic says no, but football, like life itself, is often unpredictable.

The absence of Joe Lolley for the Sky Blues is enormous. The Englishman is their best player by the length of the straight and with Jack Rodwell and Corey Hollman also set to miss the second leg of the semi-final after being shown red on Friday night, it is hard to see how Sydney scramble and send out a team with the quality to match the Mariners.

Of course, Slovakian international Robert Mak is class and always a danger, yet the front-half make-up looks increasingly challenged heading into the Sky Blues’ most important match of the season thus far.

Whilst many have lauded the work of Anthony Caceres this season, I’ll stand by my view that he lacks top-tier quality and Jaiden Kucharski and Patrick Wood loom as the men most likely to produce a miracle against what is a solid and consistent Central Coast defence.

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Outside of that, I’m not sure where Talay turns for attacking output, with Max Burgess potentially the best of the rest when it comes to finding replacements for the missing attackers.

Fabio Gomes appears to have fallen out of favour with the coach after a season that did little but enunciate his rather average abilities and Talay might be best in punting on the youth to get the job done.

Rhyan Grant and Luke Brattan have been wonderful servants but do appear on their last legs as A-League players and a shock win will almost certainly rely on something special from players far younger.

Sydney FC Goal Celebration Anthony Cacres

Anthony Caceres of Sydney FC. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Very few can see that happening and with Rodwell’s absence now requiring the plugging of a defence that allowed 14 more goals than the Mariners across the season proper, everything points to a tidy two-legged semi-final win for the home side in Gosford on Saturday.

It will be a bumper occasion, there will not be a spare seat in the house and of course, Sydney FC could well produce a miracle with their backs against the wall.

Yet already a goal down and with the Sky Blues busted and bereft of a depth of available talent to combat a confident and rolling Mariners, the stars should align and see the home side advance as the Smurfs are sent packing, back to the big smoke.

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Join me for a live call of the semi-final from 7:45pm (AEST) on Saturday night, as the A-League decides who its two grand finalists will be for 2023/24.

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