The end is nigh.
Not the end of the world, rather it’s something far more serious than that. It’s the end of the 2012-2013 A-League season. The Grand Final. The finale.
As if to make a complete mockery of the “Top Six” finals format, it is the top two teams of the regular season who will battle it out on Sunday afternoon at a sold-out Sydney Football Stadium.
Nominally the ‘home’ team, the barn-storming Western Sydney Wanderers are riding the crest of a red and black wave that has, for the past 3 months, swept all before it. Undefeated in a dozen straight games, the A-League’s Premiers are carrying a solid run of form into the weekend’s clash as they seek to do the double – Premiership and Grand Final – in their inaugural season.
Central Coast Mariners – arguably the most consistent team over the past three seasons – will be the ‘away’ team, as they seek to capture the magical Dunny Seat, which has eluded them at three times of asking.
The two clubs’ supporters enjoy a warm rivalry and mutual respect in the grandstands, which is reflected on the sidelines, with the two coaches being former club and international team-mates. Whilst there is plenty of banter and good-natured sledging undertaken on and around game day, there are also many opportunities to see the respective fans socialising together.
Come 4pm on Sunday afternoon, however, this will all be set aside as the two tribes declare a sporting war.
The Wanderers Family are, of course, fully confident and with good reason. The team’s performances of late have been solid and successful. Regardless of injuries or suspensions, Popovic’s squad of players have shown that they can rotate in and out of the team seamlessly, capable not only in their primary role, but of stepping in and stepping up into another player’s position.
Physical condition and match fitness are key aspects of Wanderers training. Adam Waterson, the Strength and Conditioning Coach, meticulously prepares and drills the squad at their daily training sessions, a role at which he excels. The results can easily be seen. One outstanding example has been Tarek Elrich. Despite having almost no match time during the regular season, Elrich stepped in following the injuries to Jerome Polenz and Adam D’Apuzzo, delivering performances that made it hard to believe he had not been a regular starter.
This fitness level is amplified by two other dimensions in the Wanderers game-play. One of these, he one that has attracted most of the attention, has been the fantastic, fanatical support that the Wanderers supporters provide their team. It’s not a cliche any longer – the supporters are absolutely a twelfth man for their players – the vibrant displays and raucous atmosphere visibly lift the players, giving them an edge and a boost that can never be discounted.
The second is the amazing bonds that exist between the players. This is not a group of individuals running out onto the pitch each game, it really is a “band of brothers” who play as much for each other as they do for themselves.They are a team, in every sense of the word.
To witness this first-hand, at close range, has been one of the highlights of my season. These guys have bonded together into a seamless whole.
This preparation, the fitness, the bonds of mateship – all these things will be tested on Sunday as Popa assesses his options and decides on his final starting XI.
With Youssouf Hersi suspended, there will be an opportunity on the right wing. Kwabena Appiah-Kubi is always ready to step forward and bring his blistering pace into play. Although still considered by many to be “young and raw”, he represents a dangerous threat to any opposition. Having previously been a member of the Mariners’ title-winning National Youth League team last season, the pacey youngster knows the opposition well and will relish the opportunity to go up against some of his mates.
Labinot Haliti has got to be in strong consideration for a starting spot as well. In good form, scoring goals and harassing defenders for fun. His dependability and enthusiasm is infectious, his determination can be seen written on his face, and his infamous shirt-off goal celebrations are much anticipated by Wanderers fans.
Rocky Visconte, although left-footed, also presents an option on the right, playing as an inside-out winger. His blazing strike against Newcastle was something beautiful to behold. He could also play on the left, with the front row being shuffled along to cover Hersi’s absence.
Perhaps Popa is actually spoiled for choice?
So who is likely to start? Who is likely to miss the Grand Final opportunity on the pitch?
We already know that Hersi and La Rocca are suspended, Adam D’Apuzzo has returned to light training, although he will not be fit to play. There is still an injury cloud over Aaron Mooy, who has been training but with heavy strapping on his injured knee – personally I think he’s unlikely to start, although he might come off the bench. Jerome Polenz has been working his way back up to full speed after coming off early during the Semi-Final against Brisbane Roar.
Covic will obviously be starting. The A-League Goalkeeper of the Year has been outstanding this season.
The back four will be built around Beauchamp and the ever-present Topor-Stanley. They form the basis of the Great Wall of Wanderland, which has thwarted some of the best attacking players in the league. With D’Apuzzo out, Cole should start at left back. If Polenz is fully fit, he will be in his usual spot on the right – if not, then Elrich will slot right in.
The midfield I favour is the competent, although fledgling, partnership of Poljak, Perkatis and Ono. Poljak has been solid all season and goes about his work with a minimum of fuss. Ono, Tensai, Genius – after that sensational goal against Brisbane, he’s in great form and loving life in Australian football. Perkatis, recently called up to the Young Socceroos squad, has shown maturity beyond his youthful appearance. Despite a couple of nervous moments in the last game, he has again demonstrated the vision that Popa has in signing quality players.
Up front I fancy that Bridge and Appiah-Kubi will rind the wings. In the middle, as the tip of the spear, I have a feeling that Haliti might get the nod, with Kresinger on the bench – or just as likely the other way around.
On the bench I expect to see Saliadarre, either Haliti or Kresinger, Trifiro, Visconte and – if he doesn’t start – Elrich.
Whatever happens on the night, this has been a sensational season for the Wanderers. Now we’re at the final step.
Wanderers to win by a goal, in extra time.Google+