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Mar 13, 2011

Sweet Roar of victory

As if there was ever any doubt. Brisbane Roar are the new A-League champions and it took every weapon in their arsenal, every trick up their sleeve and every fibre of every exhausted muscle to do it. But that's why this team has been impossible to topple for all of 28 matches on their way to the most deserved of titles. They simply find a way.

• Brisbane Roar 2-2 CC Mariners

Brisbane Roar's attractive football has earned them the unofficial tag of the best side in Australian league history, but it's their superiority in so many of the unseen facets of football that has earned them the reputation-justifying silverware they so desperately craved. They are fitter, more determined and possess the deepest wells of self-belief.

As though it was scripted, Brisbane were forced to put all their best assets - visible and hidden - on show in this most epic of season finales. They defended resolutely for 20 minutes as the Mariners shot out of the blocks, then turned on the style as they dominated the next hour of play. When that didn't work, their concentration did not waver. Their fitness became a factor as Central Coast faded late in regular time, and they saw out the 90 minutes having dominated all but the scoreboard.

Then the Mariners, the most worthy of opponents and arguably a superior side to many A-League champions past, blitzed their way into a 2-0 lead to put one hand on the trophy that has eluded them twice before. But that only invited Brisbane to reach even deeper, this time into the place they keep miracles. Inspirational captain Matt McKay rallied his troops at the change of ends in extra time, urging one last push so as to not let this record-breaking season go to waste. His men responded. Two goals recovered, 50,168 screaming fans and a wave of momentum that made only one winner seem possible in the penalty shoot-out that followed.

The Mariners had heroes littered all over the field. Brisbane put in one of their better performances apart from execution in the final third, but Central Coast did not play near their best. Instead, they fell back on the naked desire to make it third time lucky in their still unfulfilled quest to be crowned champions. Teenage goalkeeper Mat Ryan stalled the surging Roar for longer than should be expected of a player of his years. Striker Adam Kwasnik put in maybe his best performance in a Mariners shirt, a match-winning display on any other occasion but this. Captain Alex Wilkinson, the hungriest of all to eradicate the demons of Grand Finals lost, was a pillar of strength for his team. The list could go on.

But the harshest truth is that the Mariners came closest to winning the Grand Final they least deserved to. They were disciplined and gallant but aside from an opening burst driven by adrenalin and their incredible jab-hook combination in the first half of extra time, they were mostly focused on holding off this irresistible rival and feeding off rare scraps in the hope of goals.

Those hopes were answered as the energy of influential teenage substitute Bernie Ibini-Isei drove them forward in extra time. Kwasnik's marathon effort was finally rewarded with a poacher's goal as Roar's Michael Theoklitos failed to claim Pedj Bojic's header above Ibini-Isei. Then Kwasnik turned provider to Coastie local Ollie Bozanic on a breakaway launched by Ibini-Isei.

But super-sub Henrique launched the fight-back by finishing a typically flowing Roar attack and Erik Paartalu, the giant of midfield in stature and performance, rose like an obelisk to head home Thomas Broich's corner in a last-ditch comeback as swift as it was dramatic.

Lucky charm Theoklitos, winner now of three A-League Grand Finals, turned hero in the shoot-out to produce stunning saves either side from Daniel McBreen and Bojic. Henrique, the 'Slippery Fish' as he is known, could not slide clear of his team-mates after he coolly tucked the winning penalty into the right hand corner.

The one area the Mariners perhaps could claim victory was the tactical battle: they unsettled Brisbane's passing game like few before them. But that will be of rare comfort to the heartbroken players, staff and supporters of the 'little club that couldn't quite'. They do deserve better and they can only hope the first year of the Graham Arnold era is a sign they will soon get another chance to be top dogs. Brisbane, too, will hope for a dynasty amid rumours Postecoglou will be tempted by a more lucrative opportunity at Melbourne Victory. This victory could well be the decisive factor in his choice of club and also in the FFA's pursuit of new owners for what is now an extremely attractive prospect.

For the neutral, matches like this reek of predetermined fate. It's the sort of narrative sports movies employ to thrill audiences naive enough not to know what's coming. But aside from the 2,000 shattered but proud Coast supporters who braved the Suncorp cauldron, every orange-clad fanatic packed into the stadium will be able to recall this glorious spectacle for years to come - if they believed their eyes.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Matt McKay. The Brisbane captain took the game by the scruff in the second half of normal time. He racked up the passes from central midfield, all of them probing and constructive. And when Brisbane's football failed, he turned to his leadership, delivering the speech that helped his team dream the impossible dream.

BRISBANE VERDICT: Simply unbeatable. They were tested to their absolute limits by a superb opponent but they refused to be the great team that fell just short. They were star performers but critically no player let them down, and they held their nerve brilliantly to score all four of their shoot-out penalties.

CENTRAL COAST VERDICT: Facing a better side, the gallant Mariners did everything in their power to force a result. They sweated buckets for the cause, defending with collective discipline to keep their sheet clean until they sniffed a chance to strike. They will be desperately disappointed with the result but when the pain fades they can turn to the fact it took the most incredible champions to shatter their dreams.

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