It’s been a crazy, long, disrupted A-League season but it all comes down to one last match.
Melbourne City, with its riches and glamour versus Western United, new kids without a home. They’ve already played three times in the A-League this season and City are yet to win.
That, however, could easily change on Saturday night because Melbourne City under Paddy Kisnorbo have tended to do enough on the big occasions and, in the A League, the occasions don’t come any bigger.
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Much has already been written about City’s wealth of talent, especially up front where they feature four Socceroos (MacLaren, Leckie, Nabbout and Tilio). They’ve got another Socceroo in Connor Metcalfe driving their midfield, and yet another in Curtis Good holding their back four together.
Complementing these internationals are more exceedingly strong players such as Scott Jamieson, Nuno Reis, Carl Jenkinson, Florin Berenguer, Taras Gomulka and Rostyn Griffiths (another Socceroo?). Oh, and they’ve got an Olyroo keeper for good measure.
This is a seriously strong roster which has surprisingly failed to beat any of their Melbourne rivals this season.
On their day, I don’t think anyone else in the A League can cope with them. Their press in defence is unrelenting and they move the ball at pace in attack. They literally pull defences apart with their dazzling movement and have very quick players who can exploit those gaps ruthlessly.
Andrew Leckie has probably been in his best ever (A League) form in the last month and I expect him to really stand up in the Grand Final. He and Nabbout will be creating chances for the master finisher, Jamie MacLaren, and Marco Tilio will come on to finish the job.
That’s how I’d expect it to play out, but it hasn’t done so previously this season.
When you realise Alessandro Diamanti has been out injured almost all season, it puts United’s efforts into sharper relief. Diamanti is one of my favourite players – incredible touch and vision (as you’d expect from an Italian international) so it’s been tragic we’ve not been able to watch him this year.
Instead, John Aloisi has had to make do with the likes of Conor Pain, Lachie Wales, Dylan Wenzel-Halls and Aleksandar Prijovic up front. There is no comparison with the City front four, and yet they have been effective. Wales is a much improved player and Prijovic, in particular, is starting to look lethal, although he can be managed. The Mariners kept him quiet in Round 26 and no doubt Kisnorbo will have analysed that match carefully.
United’s strength is in their defence. They are very tight at the back with veteran keeper Jamie Young in excellent form.
If Nikolai Topor-Stanley is still injured, that will be a big loss, swinging the pendulum further City’s way. But United still have the likes of Josh Risdon, Ben Garuccio, Tomoki Imai and Leo Lacroix who have shown great resilience all season.
United also have a strong, industrious midfield featuring Neil Kilkenny, Steven Lustica and Leo Skotadis, although Lustica might also be in doubt through injury.
Kilkenny has long been one of my favourite players – another with great touch and vision – so I’d be happy to see him win some success in the Australian game.
United’s participation in their first Grand Final (in just their third season) is a massive tribute to Aloisi who has built a team that is so much more than the sum of its parts. Their shape and system has allowed them to rise above the loss of key players (especially Diamanti) and it’s the system that City will have to beat on Saturday. United do not match City in terms of big name players but they have beaten City twice already this year so must be regarded as a chance of doing that again.
Having failed to beat United in three attempts this season, City will be going all out to blow them off the pitch in the first 20 minutes. If City score an early goal it could be carnage, but if United can hang on until halftime their chances will dramatically improve as City start to get frustrated.
I do wonder what it’s like for the City players, having their manager so vocal and demonstrative on the sideline like a manic traffic cop. It could be like having an extra player – a guiding consciousness keeping everyone aligned. Or it could be a right pain in the arse and a real distraction as the pressure mounts.
If Kisnorbo is comparatively calm in the second half it will mean that City are on top. I think they are definitely favourites and, if they win, could do it in some style.
United are a chance though and the longer the game remains scoreless the more the likes of Prijovic will come into reckoning – feeding off Kilkenny’s and Wales’ excellent delivery.
Three times out of four City should win this match, but that won’t comfort their fans. The one thing I can say with reasonable certainty is that we will be watching an epic encounter.
Adrian's books can be purchased at any good bookstore or through ebook alchemy. His first sci-fi novel will be published by Hague Publishing in 2022.
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