And then there were two. 174 days after the 2020-21 A-League season began, we find ourselves right back where we were last year: Melbourne City and Sydney FC set to battle for the title of Australian champions. Beyond that, Staj has left the Mariners, Arnie issues a plea and coaches are on the move.
A fitting Grand Final
In the words of Ric Flair: "If you wanna be the man, you gotta beat the man."
And in the A-League, Sydney FC is the man.
Winners of three of the last four championships, the Harboursiders booked a place in this week's decider with a 2-1 win over Adelaide United on Saturday evening -- keeping alive Sky Blue dreams of a historic three-peat.
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History suggests that Sydney don't tend to lose these games: winners of five of the six they have competed in and already the most successful side in national league history. A sixth title on Saturday would expand their lead over Melbourne Victory, Sydney City, Marconi, and South Melbourne in the all-time national championship table to two.
And really, nobody should be shocked to see the Sky Blues still standing on the last day of the season. The dynasty that has been constructed at Moore Park is built on a foundation of consistency in mindset and approach that, almost inescapably, allows them to find a way to win.
"Everyone knows their job, whoever steps in knows their role," coach Steve Corica said after their win over Adelaide.
No matter how sputtering their early season form or chaotic the results around the league were, there was an overarching sense of inevitability that Sydney would eventually figure out a way to get their attack firing to supplement their rock-solid defence and drive them up the table.
Winning, quite simply, is what Sydney FC of the Arnie-ball epoch does. And lacking a reformational wave in approach across the rest of the competition, it's what they will continue to do.
For all the praise that Melbourne City has received over the last two years for building a new identity, superseding Melbourne Victory as the best run team in Melbourne, and winning their first A-League trophy, their loss to the Harboursiders in last year's Grand Final still looms large of coach Patrick Kisnorbo's side.
Given a new purpose over the past two years, there could be no more fitting foe to vanquish in delivering on the potential that was promised when moneybags City Football Group took over luckless Melbourne Heart in 2014. Of course, for Sydney, there is no better upstart to put down than City to remind the rest of the A-League that yes, they remain the man.
Sydney FC's wily veterans
In Bioware's Mass Effect 3, Salarian scientist Mordin Solus volunteers himself for a dangerous mission with a simple declaration: "Had to be me. Someone else might have gotten it wrong."
For Sydney FC, that sentiment appears to hold for their attacking duo of Bobo and Adam Le Fondre. The Sky Blues travails finishing their chances before the pair's mid-season acquisitions well documented, everyone else, it seems, was getting it wrong.
Despite missing his side's opening five regular-season games, Bobo finished equal fourth in the A-League Golden Boot race and led Sydney in goals this season. If anything, he could have had more; his 11 actual goals lagging behind the 12.4 xG he produced across his 21 appearances.
Yes, the Brazilian may not have filled his boots with barnstorming runs or 35-yard yard thunderbolts but a well-taken close-range finish taken after getting into a dangerous pocket of space counts just as much on the scoresheet as the most acrobatic of bicycle kicks.
And since Le Fondre returned from his title-winning stint with Indian Super League side Mumbai City, he and his strike partner have contributed eight of the Harboursiders 12 goals -- with the club's 2-0 win over Brisbane Roar in the final week of the season the only occasion where neither of them found the net.
For all the celebrations surrounding young players in 2020-21, 36-year-old Bobo and 34-year-old Le Fondre -- who scored their two goals against Adelaide -- may be set to reaffirm the A-League truism that experience brings titles.
Good Football Thing of the Week
Youngsters winning a crucial semifinal for their side -- one of them a childhood fan of the club? Things you love to see.
The Grand Final location
Of course, at time of publication, we still have no idea where the Grand Final is set to be played.
Pencilled in for next Saturday, City won the rights to host the fixture at AAMI Park by winning the premiership but, as shown by their "home" semifinal win over Macarthur at Jubilee Stadium, such promises aren't worth much these days.
"With Melbourne City now having the right to host it is our intent to try and find a way for them to play it at AAMI Park next Saturday night," APL commissioner Greg O'Rourke told Fox Sports on Sunday.
"We'll go through the same process we did this week to try and have Melbourne play their semifinal at home, which was to have a number of options on the table. We had 25%, 50% and above as well.
"We'll go through exactly the same, talk to the Victorian government and try to get the maximum crowd possible.
"As to where it goes after that, we haven't decided. A number of governments have spoken to us about taking the Grand Final away but that's really a distant Plan B for us. We want to push everything we have to put this back in Melbourne and give City the right they deserve."
For the sake of competitive integrity -- which is already shaky due to the uneven regular season fixture and has taken an absolute battering these finals with Socceroos absences -- anything less than a Victorian hosted game would cast a deep shadow over the entire finals' process.
Melbourne being Melbourne, though, the APL might be best served by simply hoping the AFL does the heavy lifting for them.
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Continuing her treatment for Lymphoma, Rebekah Stott remains the most inspiring story in Trans-Tasman football.
Over 36.5k raised! 🤯🤯🤯— Rebekah Stott (@stotty_13) June 14, 2021
Completely overwhelmed. Thank you SO much to everyone who contributed and helped me raise vital funds to help support families doing it tough and to assist blood cancer research. ❤️ #worldsgreatestshave pic.twitter.com/DFYLCkWDWi
One of Graham Arnold's favourite refrains is that the backbone of the Socceroos comes from a strong Olyroos program -- a refrain that he took up once again last week.
"I truly believe that the strength of the Socceroos is the Olyroos," the dual Socceroo and Olyroo coach said.
"By the age of 20 or 21 [players] should already be knocking on the door and tapping the older players on the shoulder wanting their position. To add some pressure on those older players."
But if the strength of the Socceroos is the Olyroos, it stands to reason that the strength of the Olyroos is drawn from the Young Socceroos and Joeys (Australia's under-20 and under-17 sides) -- which presents something of a long-term problem.
Neither has played a game since the descent of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, with players such as Louis D'Arrigo, Lachlan Brook and Ryan Teague robbed of opportunities to strut their stuff in the Green and Gold as a result.
"It's got to happen. It must happen," Arnold said of Australia's junior sides returning to action.
"[Football Australia] needs to find a way to do it, with the [Young Socceroos] missing out on the World Cup and the [Joeys] missing out on the World Cup because it all got cancelled.
"If we don't replace that with something, the kids won't get any exposure. So, it's crucial that we replace that."
A fair call from Stajcic
Alen Stajcic, as first revealed by ESPN, is no longer the boss of the Central Coast Mariners; the 47-year-old, alongside longtime assistant Nahuel Arrarte, stepping down from their positions in Gosford this week.
The departure of Stajcic, who took the Mariners from bottom to third in his second full season in charge, represents a hammer blow to the nascent hopes of a footballing revival on the Coast -- the club now forced to find a new coach at the same time they fight to retain the core of the squad shocked Australian football in 2020-21.
Alou Kuol and Daniel De Silva are already off to VfB Stuttgart and Macarthur respectively, while Jack Clisby has been heavily linked to Perth Glory and clubs are circling recently capped Socceroo Ruon Tongyik. Mariners' insiders are hinting that things may get even worse.
But as difficult as the situation is for Coastie fans, Stajcic, from a career perspective, absolutely made the right decision to exit.
Coming off his side's remarkable turnaround and the beneficiary of almost universal goodwill, his stock is riding the crest of the wave and, looking at the landscaping facing the Mariners, could only go down from this point.
As explored last week, the team had already begun to show signs of being found out and keyed in on after their blistering first half of the season.
Combine this with the aforementioned loss of players and the league's slow re-emergence from COVID increasingly allowing the bigger side's non-roster advantages to shine through, and the task of taking that next step back to the promised land in Gosford begins to look an insurmountable task.
Somewhat making a mockery of the idea that the salary cap serves an equaliser, Sydney and City's progression through to next week's Grand Final now means that teams from metropolitan Sydney and Melbourne have filled 11 of the 14 places available in the past seven deciders.
To counteract this inevitable urban bias, Stajcic would have needed a not insignificant increase in resources but, given the glib tone taken by wantaway Mariner owner Mike Charlesworth midweek in reacting to his exit, such backing wasn't likely to come.
"I'm not sure of the real reason, though I suspect he wanted a bigger budget to play with," Charlesworth told ESPN of Stajcic's exit.
Faced with this miserliness and the task ahead of him increasingly Sisyphean in nature, one can hardly blame Stajcic for leaving.
The A-League coaching carousel
Observers and Mariners fans have been quick to throw the name Ben Cahn forward as a potential replacement for the departed Stajcic, the former Mariner assistant and youth coach currently the boss of NPL QLD side Olympic FC.
The 2020 NPL men's coach of the year in the Sunshine State, Cahn has long been tipped as an A-League coach in waiting and the success of former Lions FC and current Brisbane Roar boss Warren Moon and Sydney United and former Wellington Phoenix and Western United coach Mark Rudan shows that NPL coaches are more than capable of making the jump.
Whether Cahn or any other up-and-coming coach would want to embrace the challenge of managing the Mariners' under its current ownership is another question, however.
For his part, Stajcic was quickly linked with the vacant Western job, alongside former Melbourne Victory coach Kevin Muscat and current caretaker John Anastasiadis. All three would bring different strengths to the role.
A legendary coach with NPL Victoria powers Bentleigh Greens and also long considered an A-League coach in waiting, Anastasiadis looms as the sentimental favourite for the job, would ascend to the position with a deep understanding of the local Victorian scene and, ostensibly, a strong grasp on the strengths and weaknesses of the squad.
Stajcic's ability to make a side function at a level greater than the sum of its parts was on full display during the 2020-21 season, important for a club staring down the barrel of a significant roster rebuild. His work to maximise the attributes of Matt Simon could also bode well for aging figures such as Alessandro Diamanti.
Let go by Belgian side Sint-Truiden last December, a returning Muscat would bring a track record of results in the A-League, even if there were signs of diminishing returns at the end of his Victory stint, and supercharge the club's bubbling rivalry with Victory.
As first revealed by ESPN, Muscat's former stomping grounds will now have ex-Professional Footballers Australia boss John Didulica making coach appointments after he was named the fallen A-League giant's Director of Football this week.