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Mar 11, 2011

Aussie tacticians eye Grand Final glory

It's June 2010. Ange Postecoglou is pacing the sideline as his Brisbane Roar players compete in a series of small-sided games at the club's training facilities. He silently notes their improvement, thinking back two months to the start of this lengthy pre-season when he laid out his vision of progressive football to this enthusiastic squad. He imagines how far they will progress in the next two months before the new A-League campaign begins.

Later that day in South Africa, Graham Arnold retreats to his room after a day of intense training with Australia's World Cup squad. The Socceroos assistant eagerly opens emails, checking for updates on his attempted signings for Central Coast Mariners and noting the latest training report from his club staff back in Australia. He wonders whether he is mad trying to orchestrate his return to club football from half a world away.

Fast forward nine months and these two Australian coaches now find themselves doing exactly the same thing: preparing their teams for the A-League Grand Final. The battle of the tacticians defined the regular season title race and now it forms the primary narrative to Sunday's decider. Both Grand Final participants favour team structure over star power and that has put their coaches, rather than players, in the spotlight. Who would have thought that in the 'Year of the Coach' two Aussies would outshine their European peers?

A packed Suncorp Stadium will be a fitting endpoint for a season dominated by Brisbane in all measures. Postecoglou can look to that four-month pre-season spent drilling two-touch, pass-and-move football into his young squad as the foundation on which their record-breaking year has been built. Arnold did not have the same time to work with his charges before the August kick-off and he has admitted he focused first on creating a disciplined defensive unit, hoping the football would come later.

And so the season has panned out. Brisbane hit the ground running and lost just once as they perfected their fine art in the early stages, before pulling clear of all challengers with what now stands as a 27-match unbeaten run. The Mariners, in contrast, have improved dramatically over the course of the season, starting out as a hard-to-beat nuisance but eventually producing their own mesmerising attacking displays to dismantle the likes of Adelaide and Gold Coast in the run-in to the finals.

On Sunday evening we will find out once and for all how far the Mariners have closed the gap to Brisbane. Their previous battles, in both the regular season and the two-legged major semi-final, have formed a fascinating subplot to this fascinating campaign. There has been a sense of Central Coast getting closer and closer to that elusive breakthrough and two weeks ago they gave Brisbane their biggest fright since their sole loss this season (to Melbourne Victory in Round 6) by taking a 2-0 lead at Suncorp, only to see Roar fight back to parity to maintain their unbeaten record at home. That semi-final second leg had the unnatural premise of a 2-0 lead to Brisbane from the first leg, a position which seemed to stifle their normally positive play. The Mariners, on the other hand, will claim they only allowed Roar to equalise on the night because they had flooded forward in search of an aggregate winner.

But that actual scoreline is now immaterial. All the match proved was that Arnold has indeed developed a gameplan that could work against this opponent, giving the players belief it could be third time lucky for the club that was bridesmaid in A-League seasons one and three. Brisbane will rightfully be heavy favourites but there will be two teams in this final.

However, all other pre-match signs point to a home win. Brisbane have not lost at Suncorp this season. They have not lost to Central Coast in five outings. They will have the vast majority of a record crowd for football in Brisbane urging them on. They will be at full strength (besides the pre-finals departure of defender Luke DeVere) while Central Coast seem likely to lose Argentine playmaker Patricio Perez to a hamstring injury.

Perez is a key cog in Arnold's midfield machine but should he fail to play, teenage sensation Mustafa Amini will slot straight in at the tip of the diamond. On the form he has shown, 17-year-old Amini would have walked into most teams in the league this season and at times he has even outshone Perez when given the opportunity. Perez's absence might not be a blow to Central Coast's hopes so much as an enforced solution to a difficult selection choice for Arnold.

Either No. 10 will match up against Roar holding midfielder Erik Paartalu, who is at the heart of the ongoing tactical battle between coach of the year Postecoglou and Arnold. Paartalu dropped deeper in the semi-final to avoid the attentions of Perez, in turn allowing Roar's attacking wing-backs Shane Stefanutto and Ivan Franjic to push higher up the flanks. This development made Roar's build-up play predictable and much onus falls on Brisbane skipper Matt McKay to probe more attacks through the middle. Brisbane will predictably have the bulk of possession and if their forward line, packed with game-breakers in Thomas Broich, Kosta Barbarouses and Henrique, is on song, they should win the match.

But standing in their way will be the league's premier defender, Patrick Zwaanswijk. The veteran Dutchman has starred in the heart of a well-organised and hard-working Central Coast defence. Behind him is Mat Ryan, the enigmatic teenage goalkeeper who has displayed an ability to both win and lose games in his breakthrough season. And to their left stands Josh Rose, the competition's outstanding left-back and a vital attacking outlet for the Mariners. His reduced influence against Sunday's opponent has been a factor in Brisbane's success in past meetings, but he has a telepathic understanding with Amini and his overlapping runs could benefit from the youngster's visionary passes to the left.

Central Coast also possess in captain Alex Wilkinson, Matt Simon, Adam Kwasnik and John Hutchinson players who have suffered the disappointment of losing a Grand Final for this overachieving little club. That experience will serve its purpose during the week as the two youthful outfits seek to get their heads right for Sunday.

Pedj Bojic's renewed battle with Broich will be just one of many critical individual battles littered across the pitch. It is impossible to pinpoint one area in which the match will be decided. The sides know each other intimately by now so there are no secret weapons; whichever team executes better on the day will triumph. Both teams, but particularly Brisbane, have a dogged determination that can rescue a result when their slick football fails to do the job.

Either winner would provide a satisfying headline. Brisbane, the near-invincible premiers, would be more than worthy champions and the city's recent flood disaster adds an element of destiny to their hunt for glory. Meanwhile, Central Coast have an underdog appeal that has many neutrals hoping for an upset and few would begrudge them a first championship having made half of the A-League's Grand Finals. Other teams, particularly Victory, have troubled Roar more this season than the Mariners but these are undoubtedly the league's two finest outfits.

This fixture has averaged four goals per game this season so the likelihood of a traditional cagey final seems remote. Both squads are young and hungry and will likely be back for more silverware in coming seasons, but that will be far from their minds as they focus solely on Sunday's task. Everything is in place for an A-League classic.

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