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Herbert: Grand Final key battles

A-League
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 By Rob Brooks

Fornaroli chases more goal records for Melbourne City in A-League

The top six of Australia's A-League now has different look, with Adelaide United on top and last year's Grand Finalists, Sydney FC, out of the top six, despite an heroic victory earlier this month over holders Guangzhou Evergrande in the AFC Champions League.

As the domestic competition enters the final five rounds of the regular season, here are five things to watch out for:

1. Big-name players headline A-League agenda

The marquee player debate, perhaps more than any other issue, has divided opinions among A-League fans this season.

Following Football Federation Australia's disclosure of a four year strategic plan this week, the discussion is about to become even more heated. High on the list of priorities for the governing body is the development of a AUD$10 million fund to help clubs sign big-name players.

Shinji Ono and Alessandro Del Piero in Australia
Alessandro Del Piero and Shinji Ono headlined previous seasons, but now the A-League lacks star power.

Having seen countless targets choose China or the United States over Australia in recent months, the time had come to act. Perhaps more important than keeping up with other leagues, though, the element of celebrity, quite simply, is a must if the A-League is to significantly improve upon its current broadcast rights deal -- currently valued at just AUD$40 million per year, expiring in 2017.

There will be fans who ridicule the move, deriding the desire for "name players" as desperate. The potential dividends standing in front of Australian football, however, demands this action to be taken. If all goes as planned by FFA, the A-League landscape has indeed been changed forever from this week.

2. Fornaroli future in focus for City

Though not signed as a household name, Melbourne City's Bruno Fornaroli is the ideal example of someone whose form has transformed him into a marquee player.

Indeed, the Uruguayan has shone brightly in a season with so few genuine stars. Fornaroli has already broken the A-League record for goals in a season, netting 20 times in 22 games.

Bruno Fornaroli has five more games to add to his impressive tally of 20 A-League goals for Melbourne City.

The fact he has five matches still remaining this term means he could set a mark which is not eclipsed for quite some time. Is it any doubt, then, that all the talk as fourth-placed City prepare to travel to an in-form Adelaide United is about Fornaroli's future? Still with a year to run on his current deal, the 28-year-old is expected to receive a healthy contract upgrade on the back of FFA's marquee player fund in the coming weeks.

Should he guide City deep into the finals series, the man known as the 'Prickly Pear' will be hoping to delay those negotiations as long as his value continues to soar.

3. Soul searching needed for Sydney

On the opposite trajectory to Fornaroli are Sydney FC. Winless in seven games on the domestic front, the Sky Blues have now dropped out of the all-important top six, and face a real battle to get back into a finals' position.

Their excellent victory over Guangzhou Evergrande aside, Sydney have struggled since January. This is in stark contrast to their fortunes last season, when the additions of Mickael Tavares and Jacques Faty boosted the club into the Grand Final.

How Graham Arnold and his team -- without injured skipper Alex Brosque -- respond remains an intriguing question, knowing they have to fight domestically and on the Asian stage. Sydney must defeat ninth-placed Wellington Phoenix at home this Saturday.

Sydney FC vs. Guangzhou Evergrande
Sydney FC beat Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande, but are seven matches without a win in the A-League.

But, perhaps more telling, will be the form they show away to Brisbane Roar in a fortnight. Having not won outside New South Wales all campaign, there will be no greater challenge than to face one of the A-League's top teams with everything on the line.

4. Perth playing with passion

Perth Glory moved ahead of Sydney into sixth after a hard-fought 2-0 win over Newcastle Jets on Monday. Kenny Lowe's men, however, will not be content with that.

The Glory's resilience to turn around their season -- largely on the back of January signings Shane Lowry and Andy Keogh -- will be for nothing if they fall short of qualifying for the finals.

This week, Perth host Central Coast Mariners, who languish 10 points adrift at the bottom of the table. A slip up here would be disastrous for the West Australians, giving this Saturday night's immense significance. A cliché it may be, but every game truly is a final for Perth from here on in.

5. Wellington and Western Sydney spirits lifted

Two off-field announcements will this week have buoyed certain A-League supporters.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 12:  Romeo Castelen of the Wanderers celebrates with team mates and fans after scoring their second goal during the round 10 A-League match between the Western Sydney Wanderers and Melbourne Victory at Pirtek Stadium on Decemb
Fans of Western Sydney received good news about plans for an English-style terrace at Pirtek Stadium.

For the Western Sydney Wanderers faithful, there is the prospect of seeing the first safe standing area in an Australian stadium at their renovated home ground. On Monday, NSW Minister for Sport, Stuart Ayres, revealed a terrace-style environment could become a reality for the most vocal fans in the competition.

This may not help the team return to form away to the Newcastle Jets, who are fighting for a spot in the finals also. But it will be in the back of the mind of everyone wearing red and black on the road this Sunday.

Elsewhere, Wellington Phoenix have celebrated their licence extension by signing one of the All Whites' finest players in Kosta Barbarouses. The winger will finish up with Melbourne Victory at the end of this term, and will bring pace, goals and, most importantly, pride in New Zealand football to his new club.

In the meantime, Babarouses and his Victory teammates will need to maintain the form they showed away to Gamba Osaka and Central Coast Mariners over the past week when they face Brisbane Roar on Saturday night. No distractions will be tolerated for the fifth-placed club, as the situation on the cusp of the top six becomes increasingly cut-throat.

 

Rob Brooks is a former Newcastle Jets and Central Coast Mariners media officer who joined the ESPN FC team in 2011. Twitter: @RobNJBrooks

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