The preview is over, now the serious business of finals football begins.
This awkward, 27-game bundle of leftover matches was at risk of becoming a strange, limping conclusion to the regular season — particularly as the coronation of Sydney FC as premiers was all but guaranteed.
However, the truncated sprint to the finish delivered plenty of drama and quality, sufficiently whetting the appetite for the post-season.
Was that due to the tournament-style format eliminating the turgidity often associated with the monotonous necessity of repeat fixtures in an 11-team league?
Perhaps players relished playing in cooler conditions as opposed to the stifling summer heat they’ve become used to, as plenty of former players have surmised.
The fact is almost every game had an impact on who would qualify for the finals.
But now the finals participants have been decided, who is going to come out on top?
Melbourne City, Western United the apparent front-runners
If you’re going on form since the restart — which, considering the 100-day-plus gap enforced by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, is the only form you can consider — then it’s difficult to see the title going anywhere other than Victoria.
Of the six finalists, the two best teams on form are Melbourne City (P3, W2, D1) — the obvious caveat being they’ve only played three matches in the hub — and Western United (P6, W4, L2).
The final match of the regular season between these two offered a tantalising glimpse of what could be in store should they meet in the finals, but very little about how that match might end.
Western United manager Mark Rudan significantly shuffled his pack for the game, leaving ace striker Besart Berisha and midfield joker Alessandro Diamanti on the bench until after the hour mark, while centre back Andrew Durante was rested.
City — without top assist-maker Craig Noone — still impressed, launching sweeping attacks with typically incisive passes from just about anywhere on the pitch, using the flanks to feed the insatiable goalscoring appetite of golden boot winner Jamie Maclaren.
Maclaren scored his fifth and sixth goals against Western United this season, bringing his overall tally for the campaign to a goal-a-game 22, as City recorded a third-straight victory over their local rival this year.
But Melbourne City’s 3-1 win was far less indicative of form than the sweeping 2-0 victory over Sydney FC earlier this month.
Second place is Melbourne City’s best-ever finishing position — and 47 points their best-ever return in an A-League season. Can they seal a maiden grand final to go along with that?
If they do, they’ll have to do it without captain Scott Jamieson, who opted to stay in Melbourne after the birth of his first child.
Brisbane Roar could wreck Western United’s plan
Rudan said nobody would want to play Western United after the victory over Sydney — and he’s right.
“Results don’t lie,” Rudan said.
“We’ve got momentum at the right time of the season.”
That’s true. Final-day defeat aside, when Western United meet Brisbane Roar in the second preliminary final on Sunday, they’ll have won four of their six matches in the hub — the most of any team.
However, the Roar pose the biggest threat to Victorian teams dominating the finals.
Not withstanding the subplots of Berisha and Scott McDonald lining up against their former sides — nor the feisty post-match encounter earlier this season up at Lang Park — these two sides were very evenly matched earlier this year, during which spoils were shared at one win each.
New coach Warren Moon has not changed much in his four games in charge, but has recruited two impressive midfielders in Matt Ridenton and Danny Kim — both of whom have excelled in their new roles and whose range of passing could pose issues for United.
Although the Roar have won just one game in the hub, they only lost one too, and that was almost entirely as a result of the heroics of Adelaide’s Paul Izzo.
Up front, Dylan Wenzel-Halls has looked rejuvenated under Moon, while the evergreen McDonald — kept from facing his former club during the regular season — is also in form and no doubt keen to make a point.
The Roar’s ace card though, is still Jamie Young.
Young has made a mockery of opposition strikers since the resumption, clawing goal-bound efforts out of the air with almost alarming regularity — alarming for the Roar that he had to make such dramatic saves, and alarming for the opposition that he made it look easy.
What of the premiers, Sydney FC?
Let’s put it out there — Sydney has not been great since the restart.
In fact, they’ve been a shadow of their former selves — the benchmark team in the competition over the past four years humbled by the chastened circumstances they find themselves in.
Despite wrapping up the Premier’s plate early in the restart, the Sky Blues have won just the first of its six hub matches, drawing two and losing three since beating Wellington — their longest winless streak in four years.
Sydney lost just two of its 20 matches leading into this final stage of the season, highlighting how dramatic this form-slide has been.
Manager Steve Corica has acknowledged they have been “not good enough” since the restart — but remained convinced his team could win the back-to-back championship that previously eluded them.
As champions, they have a bye in the first game of the finals — plenty of time for Corica to re-energise his team.
Are Wellington or Perth a chance?
Wellington and Perth have both had a mixed time in isolation.
Just one win in five matches suggests the Phoenix have struggled in the hub, failing to find fluency in the unfamiliar environment — much like their preliminary finals opponents, Perth.
Perth had one of the stingiest defences in the competition heading into the COVID break.
Now, without their best player Diego Castro, Tony Popovic’s side are almost being carved open at will — conceding four against an otherwise hapless Melbourne Victory side and five against Adelaide — limping into the finals as the sixth-placed team.
The Glory have conceded 2.33 goals per game in the hub — more than any other team and far higher than their pre-hub record of 22 goals in 20 games (1.1 goals per game).
That’s most un-Popovic-like, and that inconsistency and defensive fragility will be what costs Perth a serious tilt at the championship.
No team lost more games in the hub than Perth aside from the Melbourne Victory (four).
However, Perth still created chances in the 2-1 defeat against Wellington and will fancy themselves against a Phoenix team that has failed in its last four games — the second longest win-less run in the league.
That uncertainty is what makes this unusual finals series, in this most unusual of seasons, so interesting.