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Underdogs Adelaide United and Macarthur FC extended their seasons by at least another week after both survived nail-biting A-League elimination finals over the weekend. Playing away from home, the lower-ranked sides rode their luck in a pair of contests that testified to the higher intensity and drama of knockout competition.
Both finals contained many of the themes that have made this such an enjoyable season.
Most obviously, three of the four goalscorers were individuals who only made their names this year, all of whom can now look forward to much brighter futures. The opening goal on Saturday evening was stabbed home by 23-year-old Charles M’Mombwa, making just his ninth start. The clincher was finished on the burst by 18-year-old Michael Ruhs, the youngster with only one full 90-minute appearance on his CV but the confidence and poise in front of goal of a veteran. Finally, 21-year-old Alex Parsons sparked Brisbane Roar into life after entering the game as a half-time substitute, but his deft header could not prevent the Roar losing their first ever home final.
M’Mombwa and Ruhs have benefited directly from the addition of Macarthur to the competition. The debut of the 12th franchise in the league has meant an extra couple of dozen professional contracts. Inevitably some of those were going to be awarded to promising kids, like Ruhs, and players whose ceilings had yet to be established at previous clubs, like former Central Coast Mariner M’Mombwa.
It is also probably more than coincidence that all three have emerged during this pandemic-influenced campaign of cost-cutting. Young players have flourished across the country after being entrusted with responsibilities not yet commensurate with their experience.
This season will be remembered as a modern standout for Australian goalkeepers, and this weekend added further weight to that argument. The most striking moment of the first half in Gosford was a wonderful save from Mark Birighitti. The parry, low to his left from James Meredith’s header, drew legitimate comparison with Gordon Banks’s iconic reaction to deny Pele at the 1970 World Cup. The following day in Redcliffe, James Delianov survived a late Roar onslaught, bravely repelling Golgol Mebrahtu from point-blank range.
It was little surprise both matches provided such tight contests, so even has the competition been since the opening round featured a draw and three matches separated by a solitary goal. Six-months later only four points separated third from seventh on the ladder, with Wellington Phoenix missing the finals despite boasting a superior goal difference to the four sides above them on the standings.
With such wafer-thin margins, the Mariners were unfortunate to be without Ruon Tongyik and Oliver Bozanic – two of their most crucial players – for their biggest fixture in seven years. Skipper Bozanic, a contender for A-League player of the season, was especially missed during a one-sided opening half dominated by the Bulls’ midfield. Adelaide coped better with the absence of their star man Craig Goodwin, but the threadbare nature of all four squads demonstrates the dangers of back-ending such an arduous competition, especially with the risk of overlapping international commitments.
Last, but certainly not least, it would not be a marquee round in the A-League without further confusion over the game’s laws, their application, and the appropriate intervention of the VAR. Meredith’s red card was harsh on Macarthur at the time but even more so later on alongside the yellow card issued to Jack Clisby for a wild two-footed lunge. Meredith’s sending-off also contained the latest example of the unsolvable riddle that is the handball law. Interpreting offside fared little better when Daniel Bouman found the back of the net, only to spark a debate around the definition of what constitutes a defender playing at the ball. Someone should add the Ifab’s decision-making protocols to the G7 agenda.
Following in the footsteps of Western United last year, Macarthur’s debut outing will take in a semi-final against Melbourne City, and the newcomers will have cause for optimism heading into their date with the premiers. City have won only one of their past five matches as injuries and international call-ups have ravaged their best XI. With the Bulls also forced into a number of fitness-related substitutions on Saturday, this could be a significantly compromised fixture.
Adelaide’s reward for their first finals victory outside South Australia is a trip to Sydney FC. The Sky Blues, competing for their third championship in a row, now deserve to be favourites after scorching into the play-offs on a five-match winning streak. They have also lost starters to the international window but since the late-season arrival of Adam Le Fondre a familiar swagger has returned just at the right time.
Only three matches remain in what has been a season containing much to admire. Between them, hopefully Adelaide, Macarthur, Melbourne City and Sydney FC can top it off with a suitable climax.