“I love finals. I live for this. It’s something special I don’t take for granted; you don’t know when you are going to play again.” Those were the emotions of Melbourne Victory striker Besart Berisha, still on a cloud following his spectacular 88th-minute bicycle kick that eliminated Adelaide United from the 2017-18 A-League finals. Not only was it a goal to remember, but it was also a perfect encapsulation of what finals football is about.
The premiership that is awarded to the top-placed side at the end of the regular season rewards consistency and sustained excellence, but the fight for the championship is all about being the best side on the day. A ubiquitous part of the Australian sporting calendar in any code, finals provide scope for twists and drama that cannot be matched outside of the framework of knockout competition.
This is manna from heaven for league administrators – especially those who have had to face down a season disrupted by Covid, weather, a lack of tension, and own goals. And much like this year’s women’s equivalent, the coming ALM finals – the first that will feature two-legged semi-finals – have a number of storylines capable of etching out their own place in folklore.
Seeking to forge a dynasty, Melbourne City will look to become the first team in A-Leagues history to do the premiership and championship double two years in a row. Melbourne Victory will seek to complete their “Popalution” under coach Tony Popovic with a remarkable worst to first turnaround. The Central Coast Mariners will do their best Al Michaels impression and ask Australian football if it believes in miracles.
Here’s how the six contenders shape up heading into the first week of finals.
Regular season: Premiers
Coach: Patrick Kisnorbo
Key player: Florin Berenguer
First match: Two-legged semi-final against the lowest-ranked elimination final winner
Why they’ll win it: On paper, City have the best team, especially if mercurial Frenchman and Johnny Warren medal contender Berenguer can return from the injury that ruled him out of the Asian Champions League. It hasn’t been as evident as it was in 2020-21, but they remain a side capable of killing games off in merciless 10-minute stretches. After doing the double last season, they also know what it takes to win and this time around, they won’t be losing the likes of three-time Golden Boot winner Jamie Maclaren to international duty.
Why they won’t win it: Kisnorbo’s side has failed to beat any other top four teams – Victory, Western or Adelaide – in nine attempts this season and will need to prove they’re not flat-track bullies. Despite the embarrassment of riches they have in attack, they have at times struggled to capitalise on the sum of their parts and create high-quality chances from open play against teams content to sit back and give them the ball. Tom Glover has at times looked shaky after the departure of goalkeeping coach Neil Young last offseason.
What they say: “Away from the cameras, day in and day out, the want to get better is so high in our football club. We want and need to get better and we’ve shown that we’re capable of doing the pretty things and the dirty and tough things.” City captain Scott Jamieson.
Prediction: Grand finalist
Regular season: Second
Coach: Tony Popovic
Key player: Marco Rojas
First match: Two-legged semifinal against the highest-ranked elimination final winner
Why they’ll win it: Unbeaten in their last 15 games, a club record, Victory enter the playoffs in red-hot form and, in a further boost, Victoria’s most well-supported club likely won’t have to leave the state during the finals. Possessing the league’s best defence, the four-time champions have improved every week in Popovic’s first year and are already resembling the best of his sides: hard-working, detail-focused and lethal in transition.
Why they won’t win it: Popovic has somewhat lost the benefit of the doubt when it comes to grand finals; he has reached four and lost four across his ALM coaching career. As is the case with their cross-town rivals, Victory are also questionable when required to be the active side in possession and in the crucible of finals football could face issues with overturning deficits.
What they say: “It’s a massive advantage if we don’t have to travel anywhere. We can play on the stadium that we’ve always played on and it feels like a home game for us. We’ll have all our fans here.” Victory captain Josh Brillante.
Regular season: Third
Coach: John Aloisi
Key player: Leo Lacroix
First match: Elimination final at home against Wellington Phoenix
Why they’ll win it: If they’re able to score first, Western are perhaps the most difficult side in the league to break down, equalling the national league record for 1-0 wins this season. They may have cracked at times as the season went on, but on their day Western’s defence is capable of keeping anyone out and goalkeeper Jamie Young has the capability to turn into a brick wall. Under Aloisi, the dressing room appears to be happy, which can get a team over the line in close games.
Why they won’t win it: The league’s oldest team, Western have been ravaged by injuries as the season progressed. Nikolai Topor-Stanley was the latest casualty and the team faded down the stretch to go from holding their premiership destiny in their own hands to winless in their last three and missing out on a week off. Now, they play a Phoenix team they haven’t beaten since their first ever game back in 2019-20 and lost 4-1 to last time out. As with others at this stage, they’re also far better as the reactive, rather than active, team: all but one of their seven losses this season featured them winning the possession battle.
What they say: “After we’ve won a grand final, we celebrate and I bring the trophy to Italy, to share it with my friends!” Injured Western captain Alessandro Diamanti.
Regular season: Fourth
Coach: Carl Veart
Key player: Craig Goodwin
First match: Elimination final at home against Central Coast Mariners
Why they’ll win it: Quite simply, Adelaide don’t know when they’re beaten. Or at least, they don’t care. Time and time again, Veart’s side has stormed back to turn defeats into draws and draws into wins in the final minutes – to the point now where it’s a pattern and not a coincidence. This, perhaps, is down to one of the strongest cultures and healthiest dressing room dynamics in the league. Further, Goodwin is widely tipped to challenge for the Johnny Warren medal and is in match-winning form for a side riding a five-game winning streak.
Why they won’t win it: For all the excitement that comes from late comebacks, a less-heralded aspect is that a team have to be losing to even make them possible. Comebacks don’t come as easily in finals. Beyond that, the Reds are capable of playing, to put it charitably, some uninspiring football and, despite the hype that accompanies them, the Spanish midfield duo of Isaías and Juande aren’t the type to dictate the ebb and flow of a game to their side’s advantage.
What they say: “Adelaide’s a bit of the underdog, and we like that. We’re very close as a group, we’ve got that good fighting mentality, we won a lot of games late and we really believe in ourselves.” Adelaide defender Ryan Kitto.
Prediction: Elimination final
Central Coast Mariners
Regular season: Fifth
Coach: Nick Montgomery
Key player: Jason Cummings
First match: Elimination final away to Adelaide United
Why they’ll win it: A few sides are entering the finals with momentum, but none feel they are doing so with quite the same amount of verve and good vibes as the Mariners. Montgomery’s side is the team nobody wants to play in these finals. They work hard, for each other, and won’t be easily beaten by anyone. Like Young, keeper Mark Birighitti is also capable of flicking a switch and refusing to be beaten. Since signing in January, Cummings has been the most dangerous attacker in the competition and transformed this team into an even better unit than the squad of 2020-21.
Why they won’t win it: The Mariners have a young core of players, primarily academy grown, that have earned plaudits but that may come back to bite them as the air becomes thick in finals football. Historical data shows that in the ALM, experience brings silverware and as their last defeat – a 5-0 loss at the hands of Sydney – demonstrated, they’re not immune to going to pieces. Further, due to the challenges of recruitment and resourcing in Gosford, the Mariners are also a step below the haves of the league when it comes to depth of top-line talent.
What they say: “Everyone can look at each other in the charge room and know everyone is going to work hard for each other. That’s what we’ve set up to do this year and enjoy it along the way.” Injured Mariners captain Matt Simon, who isn’t ruling out a possible finals return from a long-term neck injury.
Regular season: Sixth
Coach: Ufuk Talay
Key player: Oli Sail
First match: Elimination final away to Western United
Why they’ll win it: Brisbane Roar coach Warren Moon has described the Phoenix as the best team in the league in transition and, with a number of players coming back from injury, they’re bolstered at the right time. Should they progress through to the semis – and they’ll be playing a Western side they have the wood over – they’ll also earn the right to host a game in Wellington. Good luck beating them in that environment, after they’ve effectively spent two years in exile due to Covid.
Why they won’t win it: Phoenix’s goal difference is -15. No other team in the finals are close to having a negative goal difference and the New Zealand side’s tally is the worst of any to play finals. Especially when forced to chase a game, this is a team that is capable of getting blown out of the water when things go wrong. Like the Mariners, depth of top-line talent is an issue and questions can also be asked about the ability of their returning players to contribute at 100%.
What they say: “Honestly, we deserve it. Not just because of what we’ve been through but because of how we’ve done this year.” Injured Phoenix skipper Alex Rufer.
Prediction: Elimination finals