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Jan 16, 2008

A-League finals race reaches climax

The stage is set for one of the most dramatic conclusions to any Australian sporting competition in this weekend's final round of the A-League.

Four teams are locked together at the top of the ladder, all with a realistic chance of securing the minor premiership and an automatic berth into next year's Asian Champions League.

Only goal difference separates Queensland, Sydney FC, Central Coast and Newcastle, with the Roar narrowly leading with a goal difference of +6, followed by Sydney (+4), the Mariners and Jets (both +3).

Making things very interesting is the fact that all four teams are involved in games against bottom-four opposition.

According to Football Federation Australia, never before in any of Australia's major national football codes have four teams been equal on points leading into the final round.

"It's been an extremely tight competition I think everyone expected that at the beginning of the year," Newcastle coach Gary van Egmond said.

"I think the salary cap is doing its job which is excellent and its great for the fans coming into the last round to support the team and hopefully get them into a top spot."

The shoot-out begins on Friday night when the Jets host the seventh-placed Glory at EnergyAustralia Stadium.

It would seem an easy match for the home side, but the Jets have a woeful record against the Western Australians, losing five of their eight matches.

Their record at home to the Glory is also astounding - conceding 15 goals and scoring only three.

The Mariners are also at home to lowly opposition in the last-placed Wellington Phoenix on Saturday, but the New Zealanders have also proved capable of springing an upset this season.

Sydney FC have a meeting with the reigning champions and arguably the form team of the competition Melbourne at home on Sunday afternoon while the Roar have a tricky away clash to Adelaide.

First priority for all four sides is getting three points.

That would at least go a long way to booking a top two spot and securing a two bites at the cherry in the playoffs.

After that, goal difference is likely figure.

If all four manage to win, the Roar's two-goal buffer could prove crucial, although the Jets and Mariners are capable of racking up big scorelines against the Glory and Phoenix respectively.

The timing of the games is also crucial, with the Roar's Sunday evening kick-off allowing them to know exactly what is needed to get them to top spot.

Conversely, Newcastle can apply the pressure on the other teams with a dominant display in Friday's round opener.

For those that slip up, at least there is the comfort of a guaranteed berth in the finals and a shot at the biggest prize to be decided on February 24.

The round also represents the last chance for Socceroos hopefuls to impress national coach Pim Verbeek, who will on Wednesday name his squad to play Qatar in Australia's opening world cup qualifier in Melbourne on February 6.