SHOVE OFF: Melbourne City’s Daniel Arzani and Newcastle’s Nikolai Topor-Stanley race to win the ball on Thursday night. Picture: AAP
And the winner was Sid-er-nee, if I can paraphrase honest Juan Antonio, in the mini top-four contest, held in Melbourne on Thursday and Friday nightlast week.
Round 18 in the A-league marked exactly the two-thirdsof season completed, with each team to play every other side in the competition once in the last nine rounds.
That hasn’t always been the case, due to the vagaries of the draw, shared stadiums and the like, and I have to say I am a fan of the concept.
It reduces the impact or influence that two games against out-of-contention sides, in a matter of weeks, or two games against those noticeably strengthened in the January transfer window, can have.
It potentially also removes advantages or disadvantages gained by playing twice against teams with Asian Champions Leaguecommitments, so kudos to the FFA for making the final third of the season as equitable as possible.
With that in mind, the Jets v Melbourne City clash, and the Sydney FC v Melbourne Victory contests on consecutive evenings at AAMI Park, assumed a deal of importance.
No matter how you dress it up, defending champions Sydney FC emerged from the top four-festshining the brightest, but the Jets certainly would have been much happier than either of the Melbourne sideswith their result.
The racefor the Premiers Plate is all but over.
Ernie Merrick has conceded it, you know it, I know it, so the real race is all about second place and the advantages that provides in the quest for grand final participation.
And though the Jets will feel a tinge of disappointment about twice leading at Melbourne City and drawing, they will know on the balance of play, they did a good job to garner a valuable point.
That they denied City a chance to eat into the four-point gap between the sides is doubly important, when you consider the Jets will have Dimi Petratos back this week, may well be comfortable selecting Roy O’Donovan as well, and Ronny Vargas is nearing a return.
In contrast City are potentially losing their leading scorer Ross McCormack, unless a loan deal can be arranged with his club Aston Villa, and then that deal can be squeezed under the salary cap.
Of course Bruno Fornaroli, an absolute gun in this competition, could compensate for the departure of his injury replacement McCormack.
But even if he is fully recovered, it’s a lot to ask a player to perform at his peak after five months without football, straight away.
Particularly if timing and touch are key to his contribution.
The Jets can do themselves a huge favour by grabbing three points against Melbourne Victory on Saturday afternoon/evening, and all but eliminate the southern powerhouse from contention for a top-two finish.
That scenario would leave Kevin Muscat’s side 11 points in arrears with eight games to play, and even though seven of those eight are in Melbourne, surely that’s a bridge too far?
I know we pundits place a lot of emphasis on the top two, and I also know that City and Victory are capable of coming to Newcastle and winning a sudden-death match in late April.
But I’d certainly fancy Newcastle’schances much more at home, rather than down in Mexico.
Oh, and the fact that in 12 seasons, only two teams outside of the top two finishers have made it to the big dance, and neither has saluted, carries considerable historical weight.
There will be key battles in a number of areas of the pitch.Victory paid close attention to Petratos when the teams last met, and how Newcastle combat Leroy George and Kosta Barbarouses in wide areas is vital in an individual sense, and also in halting the supply to Besart Berisha.
I sense this contest will be more about mentalitythan science.
Victory led early before puncturing in a 4-1 defeat at McDonald Jones Stadium earlier in the season, and both sides were happy to run and gun in the post-Christmas clash at AAMI Park, which Melbourne won 2-1.
Both sides are more than capable of playing on the counter, but both will want to be on the front foot in general play. The midfield battle will decide who is, as usual.
In a season where every week seems to throw up a vital clash for the Jets, this one looms as absolutely key for both squads.
On the subject of importantgamesand season-defining results, a heartycongratulations to coach Craig Deans and the womenin the Jets’ W-League squad.
They qualified emphatically for the finals series with a game to spare, by thrashing Canberra 5-1 in the nation’s capital.
The first appearance for the W-League team in the finals since the inaugural seasonis just reward for a team that has worked hard, recruited well, and scored plenty of goals.
The other big news, of course, was the appointment of Bert van Marwijk as the Socceroos coach for the upcoming World Cup finals.
It’s a choice that makes a lot of practical sense.
Vastly experienced, decent knowledge of the n team through his work in opposition with Saudi Arabia in the Asian qualifying group, and a big enough name to command instant respect.
Where Ange Postecoglou had to somewhat prove himself at the last World Cup, whileencouraging his team to believe they could express themselves at this level, all while planning for a home Asian Cup (which we won), I’m sure van Marwijk will be 100 per centfocused on results in this campaign, rather than style or aesthetics.
You sense there will be a different level of pragmatism this time around.
Being bold and brave, but conceding three goals in each of the group games won’t be permissible in the Dutchman’s planning.
We certainly won’t suffer through a lack of planning or tactical nous, with a coach who went within a goalkeeper’s outstretched leg of winning the World Cup with Holland in 2010.