Almanac Soccer – A-League 1,000: The Now Edition



1,000-ish words, thoughts and musings on the grand final of the 2016/17 A-League. Sydney FC, who won the Premier’s Plate comfortably by 17 points, will host second-placed Melbourne Victory in the decider.

Sydney FC v Melbourne Victory, Sunday – Allianz Stadium
The Harbour City will host its fourth grand final, and the first to feature a side from outside New South Wales, as Sydney FC bid for a third A-League final day triumph having swept aside Perth 3-0 in the semi-final last weekend. Victorian rivals, Melbourne Victory, are in their fifth denouement of ‘new football’ and bidding for what would be a competition-record fourth crown. This would see them join South Melbourne and Marconi as four-time grand final winners across the National Soccer League and A-League.

Sydney FC have won only one of the three deciders played in Sydney to date (05/06) but they didn’t play in the other two when Newcastle (07/08) and the Mariners (12/13) won their maiden crowns. Victory won through to a fifth grand final after Besart Berisha’s header gave the Melburnians a 1-0 win over Brisbane. Graham Arnold is looking for a fourth straight win in A-League finals as a coach, with his sides 6-0 in this period. Prior to that, the former Socceroos coach lost a grand final on penalties with the Central Coast (10/11) and exited the playoffs at the preliminary final stage when also beaten from the spot by Perth (11/12) – the season the Mariners won their second premier’s plate.

A Sky Blue triumph would be the fourth season running in which the Premier’s Plate-winner also wins the grand final. Interestingly, every time the Victory have won a grand final they have also won the ‘first-past-the-post’ competition that season, but their one grand final defeat was the climax of the 09/10 season when a Sydney FC side, under the guidance of coach Vitezslav Lavicka, prevailed via penalty shoot-out after the match was 1-1 after 90 and then 120 minutes. This was a season when Sydney FC were lucky to get the decider after the ‘Hand of (Chris) Payne’ incident in the preliminary final against the Wellington Phoenix.

That season’s final was also notable (not just for Kevin Muscat’s penalty miss) in that, due to Asian Champions League commitments, some Victory staff left the game during extra time! This was so they could get the team’s gear to the airport for the flight they were taking to Japan that night before an ACL game on the Tuesday (which they went on to lose 4-0). No such distractions this time around as neither side is in the continental tournament this season but will be in 2018.

In the three contests this season it has been all Sydney. As recently as March, Bobo’s goal was enough for Sydney to take the three points, while one goal was also the margin in January when FC came from behind in Melbourne to win 2-1. The Sky Blues also prevailed 2-1 in November in another match which saw Sydney concede first when Mitch Austin gave Melbourne the lead before David Carney’s double saw Sydney home. The Sydney-sider’s unbeaten run over the successful Victorian club goes back to last season when the two sides drew their round 21 encounter. Prior to that, a Matt Jurman own goal in January 2016 was the difference the last time the Navy Blues recorded a win in this rivalry.

From the last game at Allianz Stadium between the two sides it is perhaps illustrative that the contest featured prominent role to flankers. On that night, Jai Ingham and Marco Rojas created some chances for Melbourne but so did Sydney’s wide defenders, Michael Zullo and Ryhan Grant. After his sublime ball which saw Berisha score last weekend, we would expect Fahid Ben Khalfallah to start ahead of Ingham here as usual but the newly capped All White could play a key role off the bench. So too could Carney for Sydney, given his penchant for scoring against their opponents. The former Newcastle Jet would likely come on for Milos Ninkovic.

Both sides are at all but full strength with Bernie Ibini the only likely absentee for the home side after he limped off in the preliminary final. The forward has been influential in his mainly substitute appearances this season and this downgrades Sydney’s bench, but not by much.

Leading goal-scorer, with Brisbane’s Jamie Maclaren, Besart Berisha has 20 strikes for the season, while Bobo (15) is Sydney’s leading marksman. Skipper Alex Brosque also has 11 for the premiers, with Kiwi Rojas (12) Melbourne’s next best in front on goal. Sydney’s advantage is their more accurate third rung of goal-scorers, with Ninkovic (nine) and Filip Holosko (eight) a constant threat. Both sides have capability from the dead ball situation, with Melbourne’s James Troisi and Sydney’s Brandon O’Neill great free kick exponents.

Aside from attacking spark the goal-keepers are an interesting study in this match. Melbourne shot-stopper Lawrence Thomas usurped the number one jersey from now-Sydney stopper Danny Vukovic during the season of their eventual run to the grand final win over Sydney FC in 2014/15. Vukovic’s move to back to NSW this season after his demotion was largely for family reasons, but has reinvigorated his game and resulted in 17 clean sheets this campaign. Thomas and Melbourne have the next best but that is nine. This is what could be the difference, and probably will be. Last week at AAMI Park, the Victory could, and should, have had a few goals inside the opening half hour but were stymied by Jamie Young in Brisbane’s goal. Given Vukovic’s record in goal, Melbourne probably need to score early. However even if they do, as Sydney have proved twice this year they find it easy to relax and use the time they have to rally back into the game.

Big game for: Waiting, waiting. Given Sydney’s ability to score late against this opponent, the Sky Blues will likely play a waiting game. Holosko’s 38th minute goal in the second encounter between the sides this season is the earliest Sydney have scored against Melbourne, the four other goals have all come in the second half.

The ‘I’m really looking forward to’ bit: VAR. Despite the apparent smooth introduction of the Video Assistant Referee, there remain issues, chief amongst them the time taken for decisions and the related time added on. After Melbourne didn’t get a genuine penalty claim even reviewed last weekend it still seems the use of the technology is having teething problems in direction and focus of it’s use.

The betting bit – One serious one not
Probably should have gone Sky Blue all season. Would it mock them to get on board the bandwagon here? Either way Sydney to win, in 90 minutes ($1.75). After a historically great domestic season, not just in the A-League but in the annals of Australian football, it would be a shame if the hosts were tripped up here. But if it happened, I’m sure it would be a fun contest, much like when the ball-kid took the corner flag from Tim Cahill! That’s not a prediction for this game just something I still chuckle about from season 2016/17.

Record: 9/29
Profit: -$107.60

This football preview first appeared on From the sideline of sport

About Hamish Neal

Born in Lower Hutt New Zealand Hamish is forever wedded to all things All Black, All Whites, Tall Blacks and more. Writing more nowadays in his 'spare time' (what is that anyway?) but still with a passion for broadcasting. Has worked in various sports development roles in England, Northern Ireland and Australia.

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