This weekend saw the final round of a thrilling A-League season and it was all to play for with 9 out of the ladder positions in doubt. Premiers Brisbane Roar were the only team to cement their final position going into this round and the major battle-line was drawn over which of 5 teams would take 2nd spot, which guarantees an Asian Champions League slot. Also the ‘wooden spoon’ for last place was between 3 teams as well so that battle would also go down to the wire. The only major drawback from this round, given all the intrigue, was that the games were not played at the same time and instead were staggered over the weekend.
Newcastle hosted Adelaide in the first match of the round with the hosts knowing that only a win would give them any hope for qualifying for the Finals, and even that was not a guarantee depending on other results. For Adelaide they had a massive chance to draw first blood in the battle for 2nd spot with a win here and put pressure on the other challengers. Newcastle was saying good-bye to ex-Leeds man Michael Bridges who was retiring after this game and they sent him home a happy man. Newcastle’s pragmatic style of play served them better when their backs were against the wall in this one and despite having less than 40% of possession stole the game with a 2-0 victory through goals by Golden Boot winner Adam Taggart and Joel Griffiths. This win therefore meant that Newcastle drew level on points with 6th placed Sydney with a slightly inferior goal difference, meaning that they were now relying on a loss for Sydney in their game against Perth. For Adelaide this was an opportunity missed and could now not finish any higher than 5th and will have to play their Final’s games away from home.
Melbourne Victory made the long trek to Wellington early on Saturday evening knowing a win would put them in interim 2nd position and not only earn Champions League football again next season but gain a valuable week’s rest in the first week of the Finals. Wellington needed a win to be guaranteed of not finishing last but Melbourne’s motives in this one were greater and they walked away with the 4-1 victory. Melbourne scored after just 2 minutes through Archie Thompson and when they went 2 up 20 minutes later, via James Troisi, they were never headed. Further goals to Gui Finkler and Mark Milligan put the icing on the cake whilst Jeremy Brockie got a very late consolation goal for the home side. This was a great statement of intent by Melbourne who temporarily at least moved 2nd at the full-time whistle and the pressure therefore was on Western Sydney and Central Coast. Wellington now faced an anxious wait to see if they would finish with the wooden spoon.
So onto Melbourne where the Melbourne Heart were playing Western Sydney Wanderers in a game that signalled Harry Kewell’s last ever professional game. Kewell has been a great servant to Australian football over his illustrious career and a healthy crowd was on hand to see if he could give one last effort for his team to drag them off the foot of the table. For the Wanderers, they knew that a win would all but seal 2nd spot and earn them a week off, after a trip to Korea midweek. In an open and thrilling encounter the Wanderers struck first when Nicolai Topor-Stanley headed home in the 28th minute but their lead didn’t last long as Orlando Engelaar thundered home a long range effort to tie the scores soon after. Jason Hoffman’s solo effort on 72 minutes gave the Heart the lead and it looked like the Heart would finish off the bottom and deny the Wanderers 2nd spot. The Wanderers though are renowned for their resilience and they struck back on 81 minutes through the controversial Brendan Santalab (more on him later) and pushed on late and were rewarded with a scrappy goal to Youssouf Hersi to steak a 3-2 win and deny Kewell a final win. For the Wanderers this result was massive and it meant, barring a huge win by Central Coast, that they would finish 2nd. For the Heart this result confirmed a last place finish for them and was possibility their last ever game with its current name and colours as they’ll no doubt be wearing sky blue and have a City moniker in ode of their new owners, Manchester City, before next season kicks off.
With the Wanderers winning the game between Brisbane Roar and Central Coast Mariners was largely inconsequential in the race for 2nd spot as the Mariners would have to have won by 10 goals to steal this from Western Sydney. With the pressure somewhat lifted then the Mariners set out on trying to gain some kind of mental victory over Brisbane before the Finals and that’s just what they did with a commanding performance to beat the Premiers 2-0. Goals to former Roar man Nick Fitzgerald and youngster Anthony Caceres took not only the points but a home Final’s game back to Gosford. For Brisbane, who were playing their full strength team, this result was a blow to team morale and momentum ahead of a week off next week and then a straight elimination set of games to win the Championship. Brisbane did finish 10 points clear at the top of the table so it remains to be seen whether this setback will scupper their hopes of doing the double but coach Mike Mulvey will be furious with his side allowing a title rival such a confidence boost so late in the season.
The final game of the round and the regular season then was in Sydney where Sydney FC were up against Perth Glory where a big win for the away team could have ended Sydney’s season and no doubt Alessandro Del Piero’s career. For Perth the pressure was off after Melbourne Heart’s loss the night before and they would finish the season in 8th no matter the result here, but they were saying good-bye to the retiring, and also ex-Leeds man, Jacob Burns. In a low-quality game Terry Antonis lit proceedings up with a cracker of a goal for the home side after 38 minutes but this was cancelled out by Rostyn Griffiths just before half-time. With the game petering out to a draw Richard Garcia summoned up one last effort on the stroke of full-time to win the game 2-1 for his side and move them up into 5th spot on the ladder. It was a great way for the team to say good-bye to retiring club stalwart Terry McFlynn, who was also the subject of a great tifo diplay.
So the wash-up of all of this is that the final ladder finishes
This means that we say good-bye for this season to Melbourne Heart, Wellington, Perth and Newcastle who can enjoy their post-season festivities. The Top 6 now move into the cut-throat straight elimination 3-week Finals series which will see Brisbane and Western Sydney sit out the first week whilst Central Coast host Adelaide and Melbourne Victory take on old foe Sydney FC. For the losers of these 2 games its curtains and the winners will move into week 2 where the highest ranked winner will travel to Parramatta to face the Wanderers and the lowest ranked winner to tackle Brisbane. The two winners from these 2 games will then face off in the Grand Final (to be played at the home venue of the higher ranked team) for the crown of Champions of 2013/4. It will be a thrilling 3 weeks with many more thrills ahead.
It’s also briefly mentioning the aforementioned Brendan Santalab and the racism furore that has dogged him of late. Santalab was the key player in a very unsavoury ending to the recent Sydney derby, wherein the Sydney FC player Ali Abbas (who was born in Iraq) was visibly upset at Santalab in the latter stages of the game. Abbas alleged after the game that Santalab had racially slurred him during the game and Sydney FC made a formal complaint against Santalab to the FFA. The FFA took 5 weeks to investigate this matter and released their findings this week. The final decision that the FFA has reached in this matter was to clear Santalab of any wrong-doing in this incident after they accepted that crowd noise during the game (there was over 40,000 at the game) meant that Abbas misheard what Santalab had said to him and mistook what he said as something racist. This decision from the FFA was made in spite of other Sydney FC players backing up Abbas’ claims and has raised suspicions of FFA bias towards the Wanderers, whom are currently owned by the FFA. The length of the process and the farcical excuse given for exonerating Santalab has left a bad taste in the mouth of the football-loving public in Australia and for a sport that is rightfully seen as best representative of the multi-cultural society Australia is it frankly is not good enough for the FFA to have dealt with this matter so appallingly. It also opens up the possibility of this case being setting a precedent for how a defendant should answer a charge that has been bought upon them. The Wanderers themselves also took no action against Santalab and surely this incident can be used as a test case of what not to do in a similar situation in the future.
League table courtesy of FIFA.com
Click on Rogier’s name above to follow him on Twitter.