After a frenzied finish to the A-League regular season following the resumption of play, the hotly anticipated finals series is upon us.
Let’s take a look at each side’s chances of lifting the championship trophy on grand final day.
Perth Glory After losing their star attacking midfielder Diego Castro over the COVID break, Perth’s title chances took a hit. Tony Popovic’s chances of finally becoming a championship winner have been further hampered by his side’s poor form – they managed to take just six points from a possible 18 since returning to action.
The four losses would be concerning enough on their own, but in something of an anomaly for a Popovic-led side, their defensive frailties were also well and truly exposed for all to see. They conceded 13 times across those games, including a 5-3 defeat to Adelaide United and a 4-0 thumping by an inexperienced Melbourne Victory side.
They face Wellington Phoenix in the first elimination final on Saturday who are in something of a form slump themselves and have hardly been prolific in front of goal, but I still fancy Talay’s side to advance. Glory are too frail at the back and without the X-factor Castro always had the potential to come up with, too toothless in attack.
It’s going to be an early exit from this finals series for Perth.
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Sydney FC Sydney are perhaps the side heading into sudden death football with the most questions around them. Following another premiership-winning season, you would have thought they would be flying high, ready for the pursuit of another double. But their post-COVID break formline makes for grim reading. Taking just five points from their six matches, their performances in those games have also left much to be desired.
Their loss to Western United last time out led to an awkward Premiers’ Plate presentation, with some players appearing to be less than thrilled. Coach Steve Corica didn’t look particularly impressed, either. There’s an uneasiness about Sydney FC – but it’s difficult to define. Is it a lack of confidence? Burnout? Are they devoid of hunger, after so much recent success?
Is this the same Sydney FC who utterly demolished Melbourne Victory in the qualifier and went on to claim a fourth championship last May? On paper, more or less. But having watched their last few fixtures closely, they’re just not playing with the swagger they exuded at this stage last season. They’re not inspiring confidence like the premiers should do.
Form is so important at the business end of the year. Sorry, Sydney fans – they might sneak a win in their semi-final, but another championship win will prove elusive.
Western United The new kids on the block have definitely impressed under Mark Rudan’s watch. Despite going down to Melbourne City in their final regular-season fixture – in which key players were either rested or played reduced minutes – they are the side that appear to be hitting their best form at just the right time.
Midfielder Alessandro Diamanti has endeared himself throughout the season and his performances seem to be only getting better and better. As always, if any side matching up against United fails to contain him, they’re going to be in trouble. Ex-Sydney FC man Max Burgess will be looking to pull the strings and Besart Berisha is looking as lethal as ever in front of goal.
United’s attack has looked formidable since the A-League restart and in the second elimination final, they match up against a Brisbane Roar side that you couldn’t say boast the same goal threat. I see an easy passage to the semi-finals here for the green and blacks.
None of the other finals sides will want to match up with the new boys. The bookmakers might not agree, but with Sydney’s struggles and City’s penchant for choking in big games, I give United a big chance in this finals series. I’d be surprised if they are eliminated before the grand final – and if they do manage an appearance in the big dance, what’s stopping them from going all the way?
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Melbourne City Erick Mombaerts’ men have enjoyed a solid regular season campaign. On paper, their side is one of the best in the finals, perhaps even the best.
Their premiership challenge was all but extinguished just after Christmas at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium – this is the main reason I’m predicting they will bow out at the semi-final stage. That night, everything had fallen into place and they still couldn’t get the job done against Sydney FC.
Apart from the one, admittedly not to be sneezed at, outlier – the 2016 FFA Cup triumph – City have a history of going missing when the stakes are high. Well, there’s going to be a grand final appearance on the line when they take on the highest-ranked victor from the elimination finals, and I see them as a side who don’t have the mettle to lift their game for such an occasion.
They will get bounced at the first time of asking.
Wellington Phoenix Ufuk Talay has done an admirable job in his first season as a head coach in the A-League. We’ll see if whispers about him taking over the vacant top job at Melbourne Victory have affected him or his squad, but I’m betting on not.
Wellington’s defence has laid a platform for the team’s success all season, with A-League veteran Andrew Durante and ex-Newcastle United man Steven Taylor playing the majority of the campaign as the first-choice centre-back pairing. Expect Phoenix to be stingy at the back in the finals.
Attack-wise, I’m expecting goals from the New Zealand side. Mexican midfielder Ulises Davila has had a stellar campaign in the yellow and lack, hitting the back of the net 12 times and laying on another five assists for his teammates. It’s unclear who will get the start up front for Wellington in the finals, but Gary Hooper and David Ball are both capable of finding the goal.
It’s a clash between two sides that have stuttered towards the finals when Talay’s men take on Perth Glory, but the Nix will prove too strong. Beyond that, there’s no reason for them not to fancy their chances against anyone, and I have serious reservations about Melbourne City – who Wellington will definitely play if they get past Perth – so a grand final appearance, or more, may well be on the cards.
Brisbane Roar To add to the disruption caused by the COVID break, Brisbane have had to deal with ex-boss Robbie Fowler’s decision to return home to England, as well as the subsequent legal kerfuffle surrounding the Liverpool legend’s exit.
Now under Warren Moon’s watch, the Queensland side come into the finals series in uninspiring form – they managed just one win in their return to action and that was over Melbourne Victory, whose season was long since over.
As mentioned, they come up against expansion side Western United in the second elimination final and I’m afraid it’s not a good match-up for them. Brisbane’s defence has been stingy enough in the return, but their attacking output has been too low at an average of one goal per game. Their lineup does contain attacking weapons, but one goal isn’t going to be enough to get past United.
Expect to see Moon’s side bow out in the second elimination final on Sunday.
Prediction Some upsets will need to occur for this to eventuate, but I’m going for a Western United versus Wellington Phoenix grand final. The new boys to triumph on the day 2-0.
A-League finals fixtures
Elimination final 1 Wellington Phoenix vs Perth Glory – Saturday, August 22 5:00pm (AEST) TV: Fox Sports 507 Live stream: Kayo Sports, My Football Live
Elimination final 2 Brisbane Roar vs Western United – Sunday, August 23 6:00pm (AEST) TV: Fox Sports 507 Live stream: Kayo Sports, My Football Live
Semi-final 1 Melbourne City vs (highest-ranked EF winner) – Wednesday, August 26 5:00pm (AEST) TV: Fox Sports 507 Live stream: Kayo Sports, My Football Live
Semi-final 2 Sydney FC vs (lowest-ranked EF winner) – Wednesday, August 26 8:10pm (AEST) TV: Fox Sports 507 Live stream: Kayo Sports, My Football Live
Grand final Winner SF 1 vs Winner SF 2 – Sunday, August 30 6:30pm (AEST) TV: Fox Sports 507 Live stream: Kayo Sports, My Football Live
All 2020 A-League finals series matches will be played at Bankwest Stadium in Sydney. You can catch all the live scores action on The Roar.