F you were looking for surprises in the first round of the A-League finals series, I hope you weren’t holding your breath.
Three home victories, some more comfortable and convincing than others, and a good weekend for backers of favourites.
Wellington versus Sydney went to script. A tight, tense contest, often featuring the 20 field players in one-quarter of the pitch or less.
Unsurprisingly the Phoenix grabbed their three goals from set pieces, and almost equally unsurprising was Sydney’s late comeback from a seemingly impossible position.
The fact that Joel Chianese notched Sydney’s two goals hardly shocked either, and for me Sydney’s conservatism in not introducing his pace and mobility to the side earlier in the season cost them a higher-placed finish, and a home semi-final.
I was going to say that this wasn’t the prettiest of semi-finals to watch, but I’ve just sat through the Perth-Melbourne Heart battle, and the first 60minutes of that contest was as ugly as sin and nowhere as near as exciting.
The Wellington-Sydney clash was a battle to win second balls, individual contests of strength and body position, and not too much tactical science.
In a lot of ways a typical semi-final encounter with both midfields concerned more with nullifying the opposition than taking some chances to dominate the flow of the game.
We’re often bombarded with all sorts of statistics pertaining to 100 different aspects of the game, but I reckon if we counted the number of times the goalkeepers kicked long in this game it would be close to a season high.
At the other end of that scale are Brisbane Roar, who insist on playing out – at times to their own detriment when they overdo it and take extreme risks – and whose matches are usually much easier on the eye as a result.
The Roar did exactly that against the cautious and slightly subdued Central Coast Mariners in their major semi-final first leg at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night.
Their 2-0 victory was deserved and but for a combination of Mariners goalkeeper Matt Ryan and the woodwork, the grand final booking for Suncorp Stadium on April 22 would be all but confirmed.
As it is, the booking is surely on the firmer side of tentative.
I’d certainly be happy to pay a deposit at this stage if that was my brief.
The Mariners will provide sterner opposition at Gosford, but if Broich, Nichols, Berisha and co can conjure one goal in the return leg, Graham Arnold’s men will need to score four or more to host the grand final.
Given Brisbane’s record (they have never lost at Bluetongue Stadium) and what your own eyes tell you – that they are very likely to score at least one goal – the away goals rule could make the Mariners’ task very difficult indeed.
Both sides face Asian Champions League commitments this week with the Mariners at home and Brisbane having to travel to Korea midweek.
I doubt the travel will have a big enough effect to bring the defending champions undone.
The Mariners will need to change their approach significantly to help their own cause.
Perth Glory won’t have to change too much when they host Wellington in the minor semi-final on Saturday.
The Glory earned the right to host this fixture by dispatching a disappointment Melbourne Heart on Sunday night.
This was hardly the best game you will see in the A-League, but the Glory will be happy that they kept a clean sheet, content that they limited the chances of a dangerous opponent, and delighted that they won the pre-season battle for Shane Smeltz’s signature.
For the second week running the A-League’s leading goal scorer produced a finishing clinic, despite his side not having a strike on goal until the 65th minute.
Naturally enough it fell to Smeltz, as a result of his predatory anticipation, and it was executed with the confidence his present vein of form dictates.
From that point Perth took over and the Heart, one chance by Eli Babalj aside, rarely looked likely to claw their way back.
To be honest, there is probably more football in the Heart than there is in the Phoenix line-up but Wellington are more pragmatic, more hard-nosed, and more determined.
If Perth defend set pieces well, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t, they have enough in midfield and wide areas to provide the service for Smeltz and co to advance to the preliminary final.
There you would have to fancy they will meet the Mariners at Bluetongue Stadium, and they would not be without hope in that fixture.
If Wellington are to upset the Glory you would have to suspect that Paul Ifill would be influential, and that Tim Brown could perhaps provide a late run from midfield to break down an improving Glory defence.
For me, Brisbane will win the right to host the grand final, and Perth will win through to meet the Mariners.
ne thing I am hoping for is a good day for former Edgeworth and Newcastle United player Daniel McBreen on Sunday.
McBreen made a good contribution from the bench for the Mariners on Saturday in the most trying of circumstances, having lost his father, Jim, less than 48 hours earlier after a battle with cancer.
Those of my generation and perhaps those a touch older will remember Jimmy Mac as a very good footballer and a larger than life character, more often than not centre stage at any social gathering.
To learn that he accepted his diagnosis without complaint, opted for some quality of life as time became shorter, and in typical McBreen fashion washed his pain relief medication down with quality red wine, will surprise no one who knew this likeable larrikin.
Rest well, Jimmy.