'Grand Final Weekend' brought with it some of the best football action seen on Australian soil for a long time. But it wasn't to be found in the AFL or NRL deciders, which both turned out to be duds as spectacles. Instead it was the A-League that produced sporting drama of the highest order with three of the four matches settled by stoppage time winners.
Central Coast Mariners earned these bragging rights ahead of fellow high-flyers Brisbane and Adelaide by virtue of the fact their beaten opponents, North Queensland Fury, put up the greatest fight of the four losing teams this week. North Queensland are known for their late fightbacks but the Mariners thrilled their home fans by doing a Fury to the Fury with a stoppage time winner from Patrick Zwaanswijk in a 3-2 triumph. It's important for the Mariners that, when Patricio Perez is marked tightly, other players take advantage of the extra space, as Michael McGlinchey did through two superb assists.
Gold Coast United's Skilled Park isn't the most daunting venue in the A-League but Wellington Phoenix suffered another defeat on the road there on Friday night. It seems like Phoenix haven't figured out how to play away from home, but a team full of internationals should be capable of picking up points on Australian soil. Perhaps the team should adopt the backs-to-the-wall approach of the World Cup All Whites when away from Westpac, because the three preventable goals conceded in the 3-1 loss to Gold Coast undermined any chance of getting a result on Friday.
Saying that Gold Coast's goals were preventable might be taking something away from the performance of Bruce Djite, who scored two and set up the other in the most influential individual contribution of the weekend. Djite has the unenviable task of replacing Shane Smeltz at the Gold Coast but he looked up to the challenge as he turned Socceroos defender Jade North inside out for his first strike and channelled the likes of Didier Drogba with his classy backheel-flicked second.
Sydney FC have improved beyond sight since the return of Alex Brosque and the injection of Hiro Moriyasu into midfield but poor old Stephan Keller was at least partly at fault for both goals as the cellar-dwellers fell 2-1 to Adelaide on Monday. Keller's positioning was questionable in the lead-up to Shannon Cole's own goal but more importantly he was all-too-easily rounded by Adelaide centre-back Robert Cornthwaite, playing as a makeshift striker, immediately preceding Iain Ramsay's stoppage time winner. Perhaps Keller underestimated Cornthwaite's ability but to be skinned by a lanky defender at such a crucial moment embodied Sydney's inability to concentrate for 90 minutes this season.
Ange Postecoglou's Brisbane Roar are executing his pass-and-move system with great aplomb week-to-week but it was the coach's expert use of the bench that proved the difference in Perth. Roar were right on top with the score at 1-1 in the second half, overwhelming the midfield thanks to Glory's ill-advised use of Robbie Fowler in a role behind two strikers. But the visitors lacked punch in the final third, prompting Postecoglou to sacrifice Massimo Murdocca for a superior goal-threat in Mitch Nichols with a full half hour to play. The young midfielder relished in the circumstances, scoring a goal that was incorrectly ruled out for offside before eventually setting up another substitute, Rocky Visconte, for the fortunate stoppage time winner.
It's a shared award this week between two previous winners of this dubious honour. Perth's Dave Mitchell and Vitezslav Lavicka of Sydney FC both suffered heartbreaking 2-1 losses thanks to late strikes but more than back luck was to blame in both cases. Mitchell used Robbie Fowler at the point in a diamond 4-4-2, conceding the midfield impetus to Brisbane's vastly more mobile players. Lavicka's team got on top in their battle with Adelaide, but the coach's reluctance to change a losing formula hamstrung his ability to change the match from the bench. By shoehorning Mark Bridge into a midfield playmaking role, Lavicka left himself with no attacking substitutes. Instead he reverted to his Hayden Foxe-as-target-man experiment, losing momentum late on and watching in horror as Adelaide stole the points.
ASSIST OF THE WEEK
Goal of the Week has been changed this week to recognise the quality final passes laid on by Nichols, Minniecon, McGlinchey (x2) and Cornthwaite. But none were better than Thomas Broich's superb dribble and cross to set up Reinaldo's first-minute goal for Brisbane.
SAVE OF THE WEEK
Central Coast's 18-year-old back-up goalkeeper Matt Ryan has been a flop in previous weeks but credit where credit's due, he made a crucial save low to his right from Chris Payne in the 89th minute, allowing his team to go to the other end to win the match.
Best of the Rest
The surface at Central Coast's Bluetongue Stadium is due to be ripped up and replaced, so the club allowed fans to run onto the pitch at the end of the match. With the adrenaline of a last-minute winner pumping through their veins, Mariners fans young and old ignored the driving rain to hug their heroes and hit the back of the net for themselves in memorable scenes.
Worst of the Rest
Is there an echo in here? Once again the referees have forced their way into Tops and Flops for all the wrong reasons. Patricio Perez was denied the most obvious penalty in the A-League's history before Nichols had a goal ruled out for offside when he was a full three yards on. But Gerard Parsons outdid his colleagues at the Sydney Football Stadium, denying Lucas Pantelis and Alex Brosque clear fouls which should have seen yellow cards awarded to the tackling players, rejecting Hiro Moriyasu's claims for an obvious penalty and failing to spot a blatant foul by Travis Dodd in the lead up to Shannon Cole's own goal. When will it end?