A grand date to be sure
The A-League Angle delves into the world of Australian football, analysing key talking points from the top-flight club competition Down Under.
A grand date
And then there were two.
The 2012/13 A-League season will boil down to one more clash between new boys Western Sydney Wanderers and the unlucky bridesmaids, Central Coast Mariners.
Arguably the two best sides across the entire season, it is fitting that the premiers (Wanderers) and runners-up Mariners should battle for the championship in the grand final on Sunday, their fourth encounter of the season.
Interestingly, these two sides opened the new campaign way back in October last year, the Wanderers - the A-League's latest expansion ploy - against one of the competition's best built and most consistent sides.
That day the game ended in a 0-0 draw. Don't expect the same score line on Sunday.
Wanderers coach Tony Popovic has moulded a cunning, quick and decisive side, able to cut open opponents at will while maintaining a defensive wall which has only been breached 21 times; the best record in the league. Amazingly, Popovic put this team together in the space of a few months, and was only able to offer his players season-long contracts.
Further south, Graham Arnold was readying his wounded troops for another assault on the A-League. Under Arnold's tenure, the Mariners have fallen just short each season with only the finish line in sight. Last campaign they claimed the Premier's Plate only for Perth to knock them out on penalties in the semi-finals. But that pain was nothing compared to the horror of season 2010/11 when they looked home after claiming a 2-0 lead over Brisbane in extra-time of the grand final. Only the Roar recorded one of the most sensational comebacks and, again, made the Mariners rue their lack of precision from the penalty spot.
The Mariners have also tasted defeats in the grand finals of 2005/06 and 2007/08.
But the Mariners will have another shot at glory after dismissing the challenge of Ange Postecoglou's Melbourne Victory in a 1-0 win. Melbourne came out of the blocks at a frightening pace, the deadly trio of Archie Thompson, Marco Rojas and Marcos Flores buzzing around the Mariners' perimeter. But after those early assaults, the Mariners quickly took control and a stunning Daniel McBreen goal was enough to send them through to the showpiece event. It was sweet revenge for Arnold, never before tasting victory against a Postecoglou-led side in the finals series.
Unfortunately, defensive hard man Nick Montgomery won't be there. The Englishman's tough approach earning the official's ire; two yellow cards forcing him to the stands and out of Sunday's match.
Ill-discipline will also cost the Wanderers an influential player of their own, Youssouf Hersi sent off as the Wanderers put an end to reigning champions Brisbane's attempts to make it three titles in a row with a 2-0 victory.
Wanderers' big Croat Dino Kresinger gave the home crowd plenty to cheer in the early stages, a cheeky back-flick putting the premiers in front. Brisbane tried to rally, but the game was taken from their grasp when Japanese import Shinji Ono produced a magical lob from just outside the box that floated gracefully into the top right corner. It was a goal to win any game and one that Ono, Popovic and the fervent Red and Black Bloc, a staunchly proud Western Sydney supporters group, hope hasn't come a game too soon.
So what can we expect in a week's time? Well, at least one record will be broken, it just remains to be seen whether it's Wanderers becoming the first expansion club to win the championship in their debut season or the Mariners finally ending their grand final hoodoo. We'll get to see the league's, and Australia's, two best coaches - the young Popovic against the experienced Arnold - pit wits against one another. And finally, and much more eagerly anticipated, we'll see two teams, both with credible claims as playing the best brand of football in the nation, once and for all show Australia what it means to be a championship team.