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Feb 17, 2011

The final countdown

And then there were six... Yes, it's A-League finals time. Time for us to throw out 30 weeks of hard work and instead use a handful of matches to determine which team is best. Or maybe not. Most fans and pundits (this one included) have already declared Brisbane Roar the best team in the history of anything, and an upset in the finals isn't going to change those opinions.

We should instead look at the finals as a chance for fans to flock in great numbers to appreciate this season's cream of the crop. Central Coast have been a magnificent team as well - who doesn't want to see them and Brisbane in a showdown? And will someone from further adrift of the leaders stage a charge at that treasured second Asian Champions League berth on offer in the Grand Final?

Love them or hate them, you can't ignore the A-League finals so luckily ESPNsoccernet has you covered with our comprehensive previews.

Major semi-final (first leg): Brisbane Roar v Central Coast Mariners

The story so far: Midway through the season they were being described as 'slick' and 'pleasing on the eye', by the end it was 'record-breaking this' and 'best ever that'. Brisbane Roar have undoubtedly stepped things up a notch. The A-League bar has risen technically and tactically thanks to Ange Postecoglou's men and they are also one of the best team units the competition has seen. It could be argued that the Roar have everything to lose and nothing to gain in the finals since victory is expected and all else would be a failure. But they are determined to make sure their success is marked in permanent ink in the record books.

In their way stand Central Coast, the great over-achievers of Australian football. That is not meant as an insult, but more a reflection of their performance against the modest results consistently predicted for them by others. Graham Arnold's team has flown under the radar despite building a season that would have made them Premiers in most other campaigns. Unlike the Roar, who hit the ground running, Central Coast have improved dramatically from start to finish. How far they have closed the gap to their semi-final opponents is not yet known, but that is one of the beauties of having a finals series.

Tactics: Tactically, Brisbane are the most predictable team in the A-League. Their opposition knows what's coming, it's just been too hard to stop for the most part. They will play attacking, possession football in their 4-3-3, pressing high to win the ball back before moving it to the pitch's extremities using one- and two-touch passing moves. Central Coast have spent the season working out how to counter this football. After two losses to the Roar - the second of which being a home thrashing when Arnold changed formation from his diamond 4-4-2 for the only time this season - the Mariners found the right formula in their recent 3-3 draw at Bluetongue. Central Coast defended deep and compact before doing a Brisbane on Brisbane with some quick passing moves on the break. Moving the ball quickly to beat Brisbane's pressing, then exploiting the space they leave at the back, is the only way to consistently trouble them.

Where it will be won: Both teams are quick and nimble through midfield. Brisbane are that bit more potent up front but Central Coast, particularly now that Luke DeVere has left the Roar, are slightly stronger at the back. The match will most likely come down to the individual battles littered around the pitch. Erik Paartalu and Patricio Perez are key men for their respective teams who will go head-to-head in the middle, but even more important might be the match-up of Kosta Barbarouses and Josh Rose on the Roar's right flank.

Elimination Final 1: Adelaide United v Wellington Phoenix

The story so far: Adelaide threatened to match Brisbane's pace early in the season when their attacking verve was even more eye-catching than the Roar's structured team play. Built more on individual brilliance than systematic movements, Adelaide dismantled opponents at will. But, as those individual players started to miss matches or lose form, the Reds lost momentum. Fortunately for them, their big guns all appear ready to fire when it counts and with Mathew Leckie, Sergio van Dijk and Marcos Flores on deck, they will be tough to hold off.

Wellington's year has gone largely as expected. The team struggled to get going as Ricki Herbert and many of his squad got over their World Cup hangovers. They have suffered the same away blues that have afflicted their travels to Australia in seasons past, while recording some memorable victories on their near-impenetrable home patch. They can draw hope from the fact their most recent win on the road came at Adelaide, when Chris Greenacre's header was enough to earn three points and, crucially, a mental ray of hope for this final.

Tactics: Rini Coolen has usually used a 4-2-3-1, although he has switched to a Christmas tree shape when the opposition has a strict defensive midfielder, thus allowing Flores to find space on the right. He'll most likely stick to his normal style for this match. Wellington have recently been playing a 4-2-3-1 of their own with Greenacre playing in behind in-form striker Dylan Macallister. The shapes might be similar, but the styles will be different. Phoenix will look for a classic counterattacking performance, restricting the space for Flores' wizardry before breaking at pace. Adelaide will need to find the balance between breaking down Phoenix with their attack-from-all-angles policy while keeping the back gate locked up tight.

Where it will be won: The flanks. Wellington have wildcard youngster Marco Rojas marauding down one side, and they could welcome back talisman Paul Ifill on the other. Adelaide's attack is all about Flores bringing the wide men into play to either supply van Dijk or go for goal themselves. Cassio's threat from left back is one of United's best alternate routes when Plan A fails, so his match-up with Rojas could define the result.

Elimination Final 2: Gold Coast United v Melbourne Victory

The story so far: Miron Bleiberg has constantly insisted his Gold Coast team should be considered alongside the best in the competition, but they haven't quite been able to kick on to greater things. Nevertheless, they remain a difficult unit to beat. The loss of Jason Culina has taken the wind out of their sails, although the return of New Zealand striker Shane Smeltz gave them a welcome edge up front.

Victory have been one of the form teams of the second half of the season. The controversy surrounding Kevin Muscat's horror tackle on Adrian Zahra in the Melbourne derby has distracted from the fact Victory have been building towards a serious finals challenge.

And, of the three first week match-ups, this fixture has the most history. Bleiberg accused Victory of being over-physical in their last encounter, a viewpoint he maintained at the finals launch this week. Ernie Merrick has shrugged off the claims but there is a sense that the tension between the two sides will be bubbling beneath the surface on Sunday, ready to be released by the first enthusiastic challenge.

Tactics: Gold Coast's season has been built on defensive solidity and attacking efficiency. They pick their moments to go forward and look to capitalise on set pieces. Smeltz has scored seven goals in nine games back on the glitter strip but he has looked frustrated at the lack of support at times. Victory have been switching between a back three and four depending on the opposition's formation. Gold Coast's 4-4-2 will mean Peter Franjic will be the free man behind Adrian Leijer and Rodrigo Vargas at the back for the visitors.

Victory like to counter attack with deadly speed after drawing their opponents out of their half, but Gold Coast's reluctance to pour forward means this could be the cagiest of the three finals this weekend.

Where it will be won: Victory seem to have timed their run at the finals perfectly with Archie Thompson returning from injury, Carlos Hernandez rested up, Danny Allsopp firing in goals (having returned in January) and Robbie Kruse a better player after his Asian Cup adventure. The awesome foursome - Victory's own magic square - have barely been on the pitch together but they have the potential to be an irresistible attacking force. Gold Coast don't have the goals in them to outscore their opponents so their ability to keep a clean sheet will be vital. Victory have two faces; their flair going forward and their aggressive steeliness at the back. If the former makes the headlines, they will progress.

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