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How about that for drama? On the back of one of the most difficult seasons in the A-League’s history, the finals series flipped the script and has so far provided four of the most gripping games of the season.

It may have started with a comfortable 2-0 win for Melbourne City over a Brisbane Roar side that only snuck into the top six after the final round, but it improved markedly two nights later when Melbourne Victory came from behind to see off Adelaide United 2-1 in a thriller at AAMI Park in their elimination final.

Besart Berisha’s acrobatic bicycle kick in the final minute of the game against Adelaide looked like being the most spectacular goal of the finals. It hasn’t even come close. Yet no one could have predicted the drama that was to unfold in two epic semi-finals.

If things had followed the script, A-League fans would be preparing to watch Sydney FC host Melbourne City at Allianz Stadium on Saturday night. And for a while that looked like being the case, especially when Bruno Fornaroli forced home the scrappiest of openers against the Newcastle Jets via a helping hand from Jets defender Nikolai Topor-Stanley.

But Ernie Merrick’s team have proved all season they’re made of sterner stuff. They proved it when marquee midfielder Ronald Vargas went down with what looked like a season-ending injury in Round 3. They proved it when key striker Roy O’Donovan missed vast swathes of the campaign through injury and suspension. They proved it when influential winger Andrew Nabbout departed for Urawa Reds.

And they proved it, once again, against Melbourne City. That they did so through one of the most spectacular goals ever seen in A-League history only added to the drama. Riley McGree’s incredible scorpion-kick had to be seen to be believed. It went viral almost instantly – shining a global spotlight on the A-League and reminding the competition’s critics that amazing feats do happen in Oz football.

McGree will never score another goal like it – and it doesn’t hurt that the man who scored the winner, Jason Hoffman, was a Novocastrian too. Born and raised in the city, the hometown hero popped up to lash home the winner against his former club and send Newcastle fans into raptures – and the Jets into the decider. Where, if the form guide was correct, they should have faced Sydney FC.

But Melbourne Victory ignored the script. Their 3-2 win in extra-time over the Sky Blues was hardly one for the aesthetes, but what it lacked in style it made up for in substance. The visitors should have had the game sewn up in normal time, only for one-time Sydney FC midfielder Terry Antonis to catastrophically deflect an Adrian Mierzejewski cross into his own net.

How often have we seen teams who score a last-second equaliser go on to win the game in extra-time or a penalty shoot-out? But Antonis had other ideas. His lung-busting, character-building burst from his own half never looked like being halted, and when his shot looped in via a deflection off Alex Wilkinson, he’d just written one of the greatest comeback stories in A-League history.

Sydney FC were crestfallen. They may have swept the floor at the Dolan Warren Awards – Mierzejewski won the Johnny Warren Medal for player of the year, Graham Arnold was named coach of the year, and Bobo won the Golden Boot – but it means nothing. Like it or not, the A-League is decided by a finals series.

And what a grand final the A-League has ended up with. The Newcastle Jets have been the feelgood story of the season, so hosting the decider at McDonald Jones Stadium feels like a just reward. Not surprisingly, tickets for the decider were snapped up in rapid time and accommodation booked out within minutes. The A-League, it seems, can still get fans through the gates when it matters.

As for the game itself: Ernie Merrick versus Kevin Muscat? It’s a sportswriters dream. Merrick should probably have been named coach of the year for the job he’s done in dragging the Jets from a last-placed finish last season into the grand final, while Muscat was club captain when Merrick was in charge at Melbourne Victory for five largely successful seasons.   

Potential match-winners? The Jets have relied heavily on the collective in their run to the decider, but they may need the creativity of Venezuelan import Vargas to unlock the Victory defence. The visitors, meanwhile, have Berisha up their sleeve. He hasn’t been Victory’s best this season – that would be Leroy George – but the A-League’s record goal scorer invariably fires up for the big occasions.

And it doesn’t get any bigger than this. A restlessly sold-out stadium packed to the brim with success-starved locals and the travelling contingent of partisan visiting fans. A city backing its team to the hilt against a genuine A-League aristocrat. Two coaches who know each other’s games inside and out – even if Victory will miss suspended duo Dean Anastasiadis and Jean-Paul de Marigny on the bench, the latter of whom was also an assistant coach at the Jets.

Whisper it quietly, but this is the grand final the A-League needs. After a forgettable season, let’s hope it’s also one to remember.


Categories: Opinion | A-League

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