Perth Glory and Brisbane Roar progressed from contrasting elimination finals to move within one game of the A-League championship decider, but it was Melbourne City’s abject capitulation against the former that grew into the story of the weekend. Uncertain in possession, apathetic without the ball, the home side looked overawed by the occasion at AAMI Park. It was a desperately timid end to a campaign that could hardly have begun with greater fanfare.
The preseason signing of Tim Cahill dominated the footballing agenda, and by the end of November the club had secured its first piece of silverware and turned in a derby victory featuring football as glorious as the competition has ever witnessed.
But from that FFA Cup final triumph it has been a slow but inexorable decline. Just six wins in 20 games tells its own story, but even those damning numbers hide constipated play and an uncertainty in tactics and selection. Sunday’s disaster was not an aberration, it was a microcosm of the slump.
The way City failed to track Glory’s runners for the two first-half goals was bewildering for a team supposedly readjusted to absorb counterattacks, including an extra defensively-minded midfielder for just that purpose. Diego Castro and Joel Chianese each delivered moments of poise to take advantage of City’s lethargy, the industry of Perth’s wide men in stark contrast to Melbourne’s mannequins.
Defensive instability has long been singled out as City’s Achilles heel but their season has also become bogged down by ponderous ineffective possession. Plan A – the one executed to perfection in round two – with the high press and punchy combinations has been absent for months. In its place has been a tortured passing game that but for one thumping of the wooden spooners has been all fart and no poo. It took 81 minutes at home to a team with the joint-worst defensive record in the competition to fashion a chance you expected to see finished.
The culprits are numerous. Nicolás Colazo has failed to live up to his marquee billing and was a passenger before he was substituted on Sunday; Bruno Fornaroli has been a shadow of the irrepressible player of last season; Bruce Kamau’s decision making continues to frustrate. Cahill has scored his fair share of goals but he is accommodated as a No10 and the lack of a playmaker to lubricate City’s attacks has been exposed often.
The City Football Group’s Brian Marwood endured the misery from the stands alongside former England manager and now coaching advisor Roy Hodgson. He has some decisions to make over the lengthy offseason, figuring out how to convert his franchise’s massive advantages into on-field success.
If the second final failed to live up to its billing, Friday’s first – in which Brisbane survived a nail-biter at home to Western Sydney Wanderers – exceeded expectations, thanks in no small part to the performances of not one but two Roar goalkeepers. Michael Theo kept his side in the contest in the first half with one of the most inspired keeping performances of the season but his heroic display was overshadowed by the end of the night by his injury replacement Jamie Young who sealed the home side’s passage in a high-quality penalty shootout.
It was a match played on the edge by two clubs accustomed to the added pressure of knockout football. Western Sydney should have been ahead by more than the one goal at half-time and Brisbane can thank the brilliant Theo for keeping them within touching distance. However, once Jamie Maclaren’s equaliser went in 10 minutes after the restart there looked to be only one possible winner in normal time. As the game stretched and the Wanderers tired, spaces opened up for sharp Roar counterattacks that looked consistently threatening. Thomas Broich reflected the game as a whole on his final appearance at Suncorp Stadium. Perhaps the best player over the A-League’s duration endured an anonymous first half only to return after the break with a performance worthy of the occasion.
Wanderers’ uphill task became the north face of the Eiger following Jaushua Sotirio’s needless red card in extra-time. Two cheap bookings just 16 minutes apart meant the 87th minute substitute would still be the first Wanderer in the showers. Other questionable decision late in the game contributed to making life hard for the visitors. Notably captain Dimas inviting Brisbane to take the first spot kick despite evidence indicating teams with the opening shot are more likely to win the shootout. Also, likely penalty takers Mitch Nichols and Brendon Santalab were both withdrawn close enough to the end of play to anticipate a shootout. But such nitpicking mainly serves to highlight how fine the margins of victory and defeat were between two evenly-matched teams.
A grand final featuring the top two sides on the ladder remains likely but Football Federation Australia will be disappointed semi-final derbies failed to eventuate. The governing body could do with the cash and the positive exposure after it was reported (and subsequently denied by head office) that the free-to-air component of the recently negotiated broadcast rights deal remains unsold and without any interest from Channels Seven, Nine or Ten.
FFA’s disappointment is in contrast to Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory’s delight. The premiers avoid the added emotional baggage of a derby and sidestep the only team to have beaten them in the A-League this season, while Victory will now host a Brisbane side recovering from a midweek Asian Champions League trip to Bangkok.
The Roar’s crucial group match with Muangthong United doesn’t kick off until 10.30pm EST on Wednesday night when temperatures are expected to be around 30 degrees at kick-off. It is farcical that a competition that places such value on three playoff rounds can handicap a team in this way.