Who would have thought the current Australian A-League season would turn out to be one of the most exciting in memory? Not this writer, that’s for sure. Ahead of the start of the season in October, the league seemed to be setting itself up for a fall.
The big two of Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC looked set for a season of domination, picking up where they left off from May’s Grand Final. Attendances were wobbling, at least three clubs in a 10-team league were going through some form of crisis, and there was a distinct lack of star power around the league, bar Victory’s Albanian striker Besart Berisha. The ingredients were there for a nasty bump to earth following a stellar 2015 for Australian soccer.
And yet, here we sit with one round left to go for one of the closest ever Premier Plate races ever recorded. What’s more, regardless of who tops the regular season table, any one of the six are capable of winning the Grand Final, unlike last year’s procession between the Big Blue pairing of Sydney and Victory.
Sitting at the top of the league going into the final round are Brisbane Roar. This is the same Roar who were nearly taken over by the sport’s governing body, the FFA, at the start of the season due to mounting debts and winding up orders issued against the club, and an Indonesian owner who looked like they wanted to be anywhere but Queensland. The same Brisbane Roar who decided the man to lead them to glory was John Aloisi, a Socceroos legend who oversaw a 17-game winless run while in charge of Melbourne Heart, and looked a broken man at the end of his experience.
And the same Brisbane Roar who have been capable of playing exhilarating football in seasons gone by earning them the nickname “Roarcelona”. It’s fair to say no-one say Aloisi as the second coming of Pep Guardiola, but the Queensland club have been irresistible at times, with young striker Jamie Maclaren scoring 18, fuelling calls for a Socceroos call up. While not quite reaching the heights of two seasons ago, when Roar swatted aside all-comers, they are well worth their place at the top of the table.
But Roar are just one of four sides who could be lifting the Premier’s Plate come Sunday. Adelaide United recovered from an eight-game winless run at the start of the season to sit just a point behind Brisbane going into the final round. Western Sydney Wanderers rediscovered their mojo after a dreadful 2014/15 and sit one point behind Adelaide, while the competition’s top scorers Melbourne City are three points behind Roar and need a lot of luck if they’re to overhaul the three teams ahead of them. Behind City the remaining post-season finals spots are filled by Perth Glory and Melbourne Victory, both of whom are hitting form at just the right time.
But while Victory may yet end up with another Grand Final, this season has been anything but easy. After the opening rounds where another Victory / Sydney procession looked a formality, both sides have fallen away badly. Victory never quite recovered from the departure of midfield anchor Mark Milligan and the loss of defensive stalwart Carl Valeri to a virus that left the Victory skipper with a brain inflammation. Faced with the loss of their spine, Victory have crumbled. Frequently.
But Kevin Muscat’s team have two consolations. Firstly, there are four other teams worse than them. And secondly, they’re not Sydney FC. If Victory have wobbled, Sydney have collapsed, creating a club record winless run in the process.
Coach Graham Arnold, who looked to have finally established order last season at the often-chaotic Sky Blues, has looked helpless to arrest Sydney’s slide. With a lack of cutting edge up front, a quiet season from marquee signing Filip Holosko and a defence that more regularly resembles a comedy troupe than a back four, the A League’s self-styled glamour club find themselves yet again outside the top six.
Sydney and Victory’s pain, though, has been the A League’s gain with the assumed narrative ripped up leading to one of the most thrilling finishes the competition has experienced, with all four title chasing teams playing football that has commentators reaching for superlatives.
A-League still faces challenges
However, while events on the pitch have gone better than the FFA could have imagined, there are still a number of issues to be fixed and on occasions, the authorities’ default position has been to repeatedly shoot itself in the foot. A leaked list of banned fans led to such tension between supporters and the authorities that many chose to walk out of games in protest. Liverpool may have made headlines in the UK for a supporter walk out over ticket prices, but in Australia, virtually every club saw mass mid-game walkouts. It took several weeks of silence from the FFA before any steps to resolve the issue were taken.
In addition, the on-going discussions over Wellington Phoenix’s licence have left a sour taste in many Kiwi fans’ mouths, while Newcastle Jets are still in financial limbo and the Central Coast Mariners seem destined to become the league’s perennial whipping boys.
For once, though, the FFA can go into the final weekend breathing a sigh of relief. Several of the division’s big beasts will compete in the finals, there’s a genuine sense of excitement around the final few weeks and this season has created new superstars out of Maclaren, Melbourne City’s Uruguayan striker Bruno Fornaroli and fans are talking about the football again. Close season will yet again bring tough questions for the FFA, as it always does, but right now it’s looking like a positive end to a testing season.