To throw a tiresome cliché around, it’s been a season like no other.
COVID interruptions, hubs and an unprecedented condensed format to ensure 160 matches are played in the space of six months has led us to this moment – Grand Final day.
Today, the two best sides in the competition will lock horns at AAMI Park with history beckoning for whoever comes home with the Championship.
For Melbourne City, it’s been over a decade in the making and after years of falling just shy of any silverware they find themselves on the precipice of finally living up to their hype.
However, in order to do that they need to derail the Sydney FC juggernaut which has ran rough-shot through all competitors for the best part of five seasons.
Another Championship for the Sky Blues will not only secure ‘toilet-seat’ number six but will secure a feat no-one has achieved in A-League history – complete the ‘three-peat’.
It all comes down to this, the Sky Blue of Melbourne meets the Sky Blue of Sydney – who will be crowned champion?
SEASON TO DATE:
It’s no secret that Melbourne City have been by far and away the best team in the A-League this season.
After a slow start which saw only two wins yielded from their opening six games, Patrick Kisnorbo pleaded for patience in his first season in charge and once the cogs started turning – there was no looking back.
A win against their Grand Final opponents back in February kick-started a run of 16 games unbeaten in 17 which included a 6-0 and 7-0 drubbing of cross-town rivals Melbourne Victory.
To put it simply during this period, City were darn near unstoppable and watching them play was like they played to the soundtrack of a heavy metal rock band.
Their front-line flourishing, their midfield controlling the tempo and their defence was near impenetrable.
However, it was the sheer ferocity of their attacking movements that became a trademark of their style – overwhelming opposition sides with pace, power and numbers.
For Sydney, they have arguably underwhelmed for much of this season but when the whips started cracking – they have hit their strides.
To quote the Mad Titan, Thanos from Avengers: Infinity War: “you should’ve gone for the head” and in Sydney’s case you should have put them down when teams had the chance.
A poor start to the campaign after returning from the Asian Champions League, saw the Sky Blues take their time to really hit their strides in the latter part of the season.
The tight nature of the top echelon of the table kept Sydney within an arms distance of a top two position and once teams started falling around them – they were able to step through the mire and secure the all-important week-off.
Steve Corica’s side arguably peaked at the right time – only losing once in their past 14 games including being bolstered by the return of last season’s top scorer Adam Le Fondre.
Despite possessing so many attacking weapons, it’s been in defence where the Sky Blues have really flourished – conceding a league’s best 23 goals this season.
Both teams will head into Sunday sweating on the fitness of key individuals.
Patrick Kisnorbo will be hoping that forward Andrew Nabbout has fully recovered from an adductor injury which hampered him in his initial return game against Newcastle.
The winger missed the semi-final against Macarthur along with fellow-winger Craig Noone who has not been sighted since their Premiers Plate securing win over the Mariners back in late May.
However, both are expected to be fit for the game but Kisnorbo will have to decide whether they displace one of, if not, both of in-form duo Marco Tilio and Stefan Colakovski.
Sydney on the other hand is also hoping Johnny Warren medallist Milos Ninkovic will recover in time from a calf complaint.
The former Serbian international missed their semi-final triumph over Adelaide but is confident he will be right to go but should he miss, Alex Baumjohann is expected to fill the wide attacking midfield role.
Unfortunately, the Socceroos’ World Cup qualifying campaign has come at a cost for both combatants.
Despite their voyage to Kuwait coming to an end ten days ago, six players between the two teams will be unavailable due to still having to serve their 14-day quarantine period.
City’s spine has taken a major hit due to Graham Arnold’s selection of Golden Boot winner Jamie Maclaren, midfielder Connor Metcalfe and defender Curtis Good who all played a major role in their surge up the table.
While Sydney’s league best defence was also pillaged as they head into Sunday without goal-keeper Andrew Redymayne, full-back Rhyan Grant and centre-back Ryan McGowan.
Melbourne City (predicted XI, 4-3-3): Glover, Galloway, Reis, Griffiths, Jamieson, O’Neill, Luna, Berengeur, Nabbout, Colakovski, Noone
Sydney FC (predicted XI, 4-2-2-2): Heward-Belle, Retre, Wilkinson, Warland, King, Caceres, Brattan, Barbarouses, Ninkovic, Bobo, Le Fondre
The sides only met twice this season with City coming up trumps in the initial contest in Melbourne before a draw in the second-meeting.
Melbourne kick-started their undefeated run with a 3-2 win at AAMI Park, with Jamie Maclaren scoring a double and Adrian Luna giving them an early three-goal barrier before Milos Ninkovic and Patrick Wood struck late to create a nervous finish.
In the second contest in Sydney, the Sky Blues took the lead throw Kosta Barbarouses before Maclaren stole a point in the stoppage time from the spot.
Both teams also met in the Grand Final last season with Sydney coming out on top 1-0 in extra-time thanks to Rhyan Grant’s header.
WHAT THE PLAYERS HAVE SAID:
Tom Glover: “We want to go one step further but ultimately we can’t wait. We have got to play the game, not the occasion, I think people tend to get caught up in that pretty quick so for us it’s Round 28. It’s just another game, obviously with a few added things… but yeah it’s very exciting for everyone at the club.”
Scott Jamieson: “The biggest feather in our cap is we’ve got the monkey off the back in regards to winning a title, and that was the premiership. So I definitely feel with that in our mind, leading up to the game – not that the pressure’s off but we know what it takes to win a title, albeit the premiership but this is a one-off game. So for us we have to try and tap into some of the players that have won one or two – or even players who have lost four or five like myself.”
Alex Wilkinson: “The fact that a lot of our players have played in big games and have played in finals series, played in grand finals, I think, helps us on the occasion. There’s nothing quite like experiencing grand final day and a grand final match. We’ve got a lot of players who have been in those situations and in cut-throat games so I think that’ll probably help us more than anything.”
Milos Ninkovic: “It’s going to be really special; we are so close but we know that it’s not going to be easy because City are a good team and we know it’s going to be hard – but I still believe in our squad.”
WHAT THE COACHES HAVE SAID:
Patrick Kisnorbo: “It’s very special. It’s great for us Melburnians who’ve experienced a lot of hard times with this pandemic. It’s great for our fans to get the opportunity, but I think it’s just great for our sport. As you know, we’re not the number one sport here but I think it’s great for football lovers – whether you support Melbourne City or you don’t – to be given the opportunity to come and watch a football game which is very special.”
Steve Corica: “There’s always pressure (but) it’s no added pressure this one. It’s another grand final, they’re always something special. They’re a very good team, Melbourne City – they’ve been the most consistent team all season. So we respect them, they’ve had a great season but it’s a one-off game and we know what qualities we have in our team, and we know what they’ve got as well which is a lot.”
WHAT THE EXPERT HAS SAID:
Ernie Merrick: “I think the game will be won and lost in midfield,
“What it’s going to come down to is really, not the players that are off with the national team, but the players that are injured. If City have Nabbout and Noone in the squad from the starting 11 they’ve got a good chance, if Ninkovic is in the squad then the Sydney team is looking very powerful,
“But the midfield is what control the attacking opportunities and often they protect the backline. I would think the midfield would be an important aspect for the game.”
This shapes up to be a really exciting contest.
In recent Grand Finals, many have been cagey affairs with three of the last four deciders going beyond the initial 90 – which Sydney have won on all three occasions.
Both sides are going into finals in decent form but the result will come down to moments with much centring around how fit both Ninkovic and Nabbout are for their respective teams.
With a boisterous 15,000 fans expected to pack the terraces at AAMI Park on Sunday, City will be buoyed by finally playing in-front of their own fans for the first-time since securing the Premiers Plate.
I do believe that this is City’s time, it’s been a slow burn but on this occasion they will finally be crowned Champions.
Melbourne City 2-1 Sydney FC