Brisbane Roar v Central Coast Mariners: Sunday 13 March, 5pm (AEST) at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane (TV: Fox Sports 3)
HEAD TO HEAD RESULTS:
Brisbane Roar Won: 11
Central Coast Mariners Won: 3
What a difference 12 months makes. This time last year, Brisbane Roar was down in the dumps after what could only be described as the season from hell.
It all started with key injuries, then the sacking of respected coach Frank Farina for Drink-Driving, followed by a revolt by many senior players over newly installed coach Ange Postecoglou’s coaching style. In the end, Brisbane finished ninth.
With a big turnover of players for the 2010/11 campaign many observers (including me) thought it would be a long hard road – how wrong we were.
From the very first game against Gold Coast, Brisbane’s midfield passing has been a joy to watch as they have cut teams to ribbons. As a result their relentless attack has simply been too difficult to handle. Their dominance of the A-League has been such that they finished the regular season eight points clear on top having scored a league high of 58 goals.
But their greatest achievement so far is their current 27 match unbeaten run, which is the best by an Australian team in the post-war era. Their only defeat was a 3-0 loss to Melbourne Victory in Round 6. If they can make it 28 tonight, it would cap off an unbelievable season and would rightly put them amongst one of the best sporting teams ever in Australia.
Central Coast was in a similar predicament 12 months ago. They put in the worst season in the club’s history finishing eight with just 30 points. Out went new manager Lawrie McKinna who led the club to two Grand Finals and in came ex-Socceroos mentor Graham Arnold who had plenty to prove after his 2007 Asian Cup failure. Similar to Postecoglou, Arnold decided to totally transform the Mariners playing style, going from a cautious, defensive minded outfit to a team willing to attack at every opportunity. This approach has paid dividends by finishing second in the regular season and they made full use of their second chance last weekend to deservedly make the decider.
Brisbane head into the encounter refreshed following a week’s break. The two leg major semi final was a rather torrid affair, in which they had to work harder than what they would have liked to secure Grand Final hosting rights. After a rousing Mariners comeback, the Roar required second half goals from Thomas Broich and Henrique to get a draw which was good enough in the end. They will head into the match full of confidence having won 11 of the 22 times they have played the Mariners, while losing only three. They have made Suncorp Stadium a fortress this campaign winning nine and drawing five of their 14 home games.
Central Coast made good use of their double chance by defeating Gold Coast United 1-0 in a very tense encounter, with Adam Kwasnik scoring the winner after 75 minutes. It certainly was not their best performance as they struggled to break down a determined Gold Coast rear guard but they did what was required to reach their third Grand Final in six seasons. A fantastic achievement for a club like the Mariners.
Matt McKay (Brisbane Roar): The diminutive playmaker is the heart and soul of the Roar engine room. Following last year’s massive cleanout of experienced players he has taken on the captaincy while also lifting his game to another level. With the Roar having a plethora of midfield and attacking options in the likes of Kosta Barbarouses, Thomas Broich and Mitch Nichols, he can often slip under the radar, but McKay is the what makes the Roar tick and for the Mariners to have any chance in this match he simply must be stopped. His form this campaign caught the eye of Socceroos boss Holger Osieck which resulted in him being named as part of Australia’s successful Asian Cup squad. His performance was outstanding. His efforts showed not only how far he had come in such a short period, but also how players need not play in Europe to be of high-international quality.
Matt Ryan (Central Coast Mariners): When Jess Van Strattan went down with a season-ending knee injury after just three games many people were wondering who his replacement would be. Coach Arnold decided to promote from within and threw 18 year old goalkeeper Matt Ryan into the deep end. Sure, he made a howler on his debut against Sydney FC and a couple more along the way, but Arnold has stuck fat with the youngster and Ryan repaid his faith in spades. After his clean sheet against Gold Coast last weekend he now has an A-League-high of 13 clean sheets – a fair effort considering it is only his first year of professional football. A mark of his concentration and talent was his double save from Joel Porter and Adama Traore late in the game, which Arnold later described as “world class”. As a further reward for his fantastic season Ryan was named NAB Young Footballer of the Year at last Sunday’s A-League awards ceremony. It will be a tough night against the best attacking side in the competition but if he can produce one more brilliant performance, the Mariners might just have their hands on the trophy for the first time.
Brisbane looks set to head in to this crucial game with the same starting eleven from a fortnight ago. The only conundrum is whether super-sub James Meyer who scored the equalizer in the 3-3 draw against the Mariners in Round 22 can overcome a foot tendon injury. Meyer has been in full training this week and is desperate to play, but coach Postecoglou seems set to make the gut wrenching call and scratch him from the finale.
Central Coast on the other hand has some decisions to make. Patricio Perez limped off with a hamstring complaint in the Preliminary Final and faces a major battle to be fit. If he is passed fit he may have to settle for a spot on the bench where he can be used as an impact player for a short spell late in the match. This means 17 year old wonder kid Mustafa Amini is likely to start the biggest game of his career. Amini has been excellent all season and Arnold believes he will handle the pressure. Roar enemy number one Pedj Bojic is back following the red card he received a fortnight ago and will replace Trent Sainsbury at Right Back. The other big call Arnold has to make is whether to bring star striker Matt Simon back into the starting lineup. He made a twenty-minute cameo appearance last weekend and is back into full training. If he does start Danny Mcbreen is the likely man to drop down to the bench, especially after Adam Kwasnik’s heroics last week.
Like most matches the game is likely to be won and lost in the midfield. Both teams play different formations with Roar playing three across the midfield and three up front while Mariners play in a 4-4-2 diamond formation. This means Roar’s giant central midfielder Erik Paartalu will have a major role in trying to nullify the influence against Perez and/or Amini. In the first leg of the major semi final he was outstanding and hardly gave Perez a sniff by just sitting deep and opening up the space when Roar got possession. However, in the second leg the Mariners found a way to make him much more accountable and it paid dividends.
Having said that, Brisbane Roar head into this encounter as heavy favourites having lost only one match all season. The pressure is on them to win the decider and cap off one of the most brilliant seasons ever seen in Australian sport.
Grand finals are often tepid, dour affairs, but Roar really know only one way and that is all out attack from beginning to end and I simply can not see this changing. Central Coast will be desperate to get their hands on the trophy after heartbreaking defeats in the 2006 and 2008 Grand Finals. Mariners skipper Alex Wilkinson is one of only three foundation players left at the club and has spoken this week about his hurt at those defeats and his determination not to be on the losing side for a third time. This will motivate the team to finally get the job done when it counts.
Unfortunately for Alex, I think he will end on the losing side again as this Roar juggernaut should have too much class and goal scoring threats for the Mariners to handle. And the expected sellout crowd will be the Roar’s twelfth man which will get them over the line.
Brisbane Roar 2-0 Central Coast Mariners