The A-League has served up a veritable feast of high-class football since the competition resumed a month ago.
Now, the top six has been decided and it’s time for finals football.
Australian football icon Mark Bosnich joined Tara Rushton in a special edition of the Fox Football Podcast to run the rule over the finals contenders – and remarkably, he says: “For the first time that I can remember … I truly believe that any team in the six can win the Grand Final.”
Listen to the Fox Football Podcast in the player below!
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Wellington Phoenix (3rd) v Perth Glory (6th).
Saturday, August 22, 5:00pm AEST. Bankwest Stadium
Brisbane Roar (4th) v Western United (5th)
Sunday, August 23, 6.00pm AEST. Bankwest Stadium
Perth Glory: 6th
“Their record tells a story in itself, in that they’ve lost four of the last six games,” Bosnich said. But there’s little doubt: “they have the weaponry to go the whole way in this competition.”
However, that arsenal does not include captain Diego Castro, with the star forward having not rejoined the squad following the competition’s return.
As Bosnich pondered, “How will they make up for the loss of Castro?”
His answer: “It’s not easy. A lot will fall on the shoulders of (Bruno) Fornaroli.
“In Fornaroli up front, you’ve got one of the best players in the league.”
That’s not all. They also boast: “A lot of experience, a lot of players who have been there and done that, who know what it takes on the big occasion to win a game.
“Which is why I’m actually leaning towards Perth winning this one. They’ve flown under the radar, I have seen glimpses (of their best), and because I know Tony (Popovic).”
Coach Popovic has plenty of experience in knockout tournaments, having guided the Western Sydney Wanderers to Asian Champions League glory – the only A-League side to have claimed the prestigious continental title.
Bosnich believes that ‘one of the keys’ for Perth to succeed this finals series is getting influential veteran Neil Kilkenny on the ball and in space, giving him freedom to instigate quality attacking moves.
As Bosnich said, “When (Neil) Kilkenny has a good game, majority of the time Perth win.”
Wellington Phoenix, 3rd.
Written off by many pundits and fans before the season as having little hope of making the finals, Phoenix stunned the competition with a delightful brand of attacking football.
Led by the A-League’s first-ever Mexican, Ulises Davila, and a host of young talents, the Phoenix will be hoping to build on an exceptional season in their first finals series since 2012.
However, they have to turn around a middling run of form since the restart. And they have to do it without former Premier League striker Gary Hooper and talented defender Tim Payne.
But Bosnich believes there’s plenty of reason for hope.
Bosnich said: “There’s been no-one who hasn’t put in good shifts. Their record of results really hasn’t (reflected) how well they’ve played.”
And he named young fullback Liberato Cacace as the potential difference-maker for the Kiwi side.
“He’s such a fantastic player. To say that about a left back is really saying something.
“They (need) to get the ball to him so he can start running at people, which is one of the things he’s best at.”
“When he goes (at defenders) it’s either going to be a shot on goal, a cross for a goal, or even we’ve seen him brought down for a penalty.”
So far, Wellington has never won a finals match on Australian shores. They’ll be hoping to turn that around this time out.
Brisbane Roar, 4th
Brisbane Roar’s success this season comes on the back of a woeful campaign last time out. It’s been a remarkable turnaround – but the coach who masterminded that success, Robbie Fowler, has left the club.
“Last season they conceded 71 goals and finished second last,” Bosnich said.
“Robbie Fowler came in and he turned the whole thing around. He did a wonderful job with them.”
Even with Fowler having been replaced by local coach and ex-Roar player Warren Moon, Bosnich is buoyant about the Queensland side’s prospects.
“I see Roar’s chances as very good,” he said. “And not just for this game – I mean going all the way.”
“They’ve lost one of the last seven games … And that was a game that they deserved to get something out of, there’s no doubt about that.”
Crucial to their success so far this season has been turning a leaky defence into one Bosnich labelled ‘stingy’.
“They’re very well marshalled at the back,” he said. But, “they’ve got very exciting players all across the pitch.
“On their day, this team can beat anyone.”
Western United, 5th.
Western United have enjoyed a superb inaugural season, notching the “fantastic achievement” of reaching finals in their maiden attempt.
And, Bosnich said, they are “one of the favourites” to go all the way.
They have been led from the front by influential captain and Alex Tobin Award winner Alessandro Diamanti and clinical striker Besart Berisha.
“We all know about Diamanti and Berisha,” Bosnich said.
Berisha, the competition’s all-time topscorer and third-place finisher in this season’s golden boot standings, has competed in the A-League finals in each of his eight seasons in the competition.
He is, Bosnich said, “a phenomenal player and a serial winner”.
“They’re a formidable side,” he said, with plenty of depth and flexibility – highlighted by the eight changes made to the starting side for Wednesday’s final match of the regular season (a close loss to Melbourne City).
“All these young players – the list goes on and on – it’s been discovery after discovery. It must be heartening for the club that so many players have come and play well.”
“They can play quite a few ways, which is one of their great strengths.”
And he predicted the match would be: “a real tight one. This is a game that can go all the way to extra time and penalties. But I’m leaning towards Western United.”
Melbourne City, 2nd (Play the highest-ranked winner of the Elimination Finals).
Bosnich was full of high praise for the Melbourne City side, featuring golden boot winner and Socceroos star Jamie Maclaren. “They play beautiful football. Some of the football they played against Sydney and the first half against Adelaide was as good football as I’ve seen in A-League history.”
They’ve improved their position year-on-year in the league but concerns still remain over their ability to put the 90 minutes together when it really counts.
“Every year they’ve gone up a spot,” Bosnich said. “The only remaining question is the ‘r’-word – resilience.
“We remember the FFA Cup final when the stakes were high, and last year against Adelaide in that Elimination Final.”
In both matches, City fell apart under pressure – the elimination final seeing them concede the only goal of the match in the 119th minute, just one minute before a penalty shootout.
Bosnich continued: “The game against Sydney, just after Christmas. They were 1-0 up, (Sydney’s) Rhyan Grant gets sent off, then all of a sudden they collapse like a house of cards!
“That was the game that cost them the title in terms of the Premier’s Plate.”
It hints at a deeper problem in City’s mentality, Bosnich believes.
“Melbourne City have got a few scars they’ve got to get rid of,” he said.
“I don’t worry about them when they’re at 0-0. I don’t even worry when they’re down – I worry when they’re cruising and doing well!
“When you play beautiful, sweeping football and when you’re winning, sometimes you get a little bit lax. Then teams score against you and all of a sudden you’re under pressure (and Melbourne City fall apart).
“I think psychologically they’ve got a problem with that … They’ve got to learn how to kill games off.”
Bosnich said City have to end that habit of falling apart on the big stage.
“They’ve got to put those ghosts to rest … They need to win trophies to validate that (beautiful) football.”
Sydney FC, 1st. (Play the lowest-ranked winner of the Elimination Finals).
The reigning champions and runaway premiers, Sydney’s form before the break was impeccable. Things haven’t been the same since, with the Sky Blues entering the finals on the back of a five game winless streak
Bosnich said he is “A little bit (concerned)” about the form-line, but “wouldn’t be reading a great deal into the results.
“It all goes out the window now. They’ll be ready and primed.”
The bigger issue for Sydney, according to Bosnich, is a tactical one – and it also has to do with the weather.
“Have teams worked them out? That’s a little bit of a concern for me.
“If you stop Ninkovic and Baumjohann, make sure the supply doesn’t go to their two wing-backs, it’s going to be very difficult for them to create chances.”
The A-League’s shutdown not only took away Sydney’s red-hot form – it also took away the warmer weather. And that’s had an impact too, Bosnich believes.
“They’ve got wonderful technical players – Ninkovic, Baumjohann, Brattan – but in terms of the pace and power department, maybe not as proficient as some of the other teams.
“Their technical prowess really comes to the fore in the summer months when the game isn’t being played at such a high pace.
“I think they’re finding it difficult (in winter) – they’ve got five or six players in the team that don’t have that type of speed and power – and it’s starting to hurt them a little bit.”
Despite his firm stance that each of the six remaining teams could go all the way, Bosnich delved into the crystal ball to predict the outcome of the entire finals series.
He said: “I think Perth will beat Wellington, and I think Western Utd will beat Brisbane. That will mean Melbourne City v Western United and Sydney vs Perth (in the semi-finals next Wednesday).
“I believe Sydney will beat Perth and I believe Melbourne City will edge past Western Utd.
“I believe we will see Sydney vs Melbourne City in the final. And I think the winner will be sky blue – which will be either one!”
But he did end up making his pick for the A-League’s next Champions.
“At the start of the season I said Melbourne City will win the grand final – so I’ll stick with that.”