When Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory faced off on Valentine’s Day, in the final round of the Hyundai A-League regular season, it was winner take all. This was first versus second, the ultimate final game of the season for fans and neutrals alike. Win or draw and Victory would take the minor premiership.

Sydney had it all to do and they did it, dispatching Melbourne 2-0 to claim the silver plate of Minor Premier Victory and become, for the very first time, league champions. You would have thought that was that. 27 games had been played; the team with the most points had won it. Not so.

Enter the finals series. Whilst Sydney’s victory ensured they’d be taking part in next year’s Asian Champions League there was another ACL spot still to play for and it wasn’t just them and Melbourne eligible. The top six teams play off to be Grand Final Champions and for Sydney, first up, came Melbourne, as first played second over two legs for a guaranteed spot in the Grand Final.

Melbourne got the advantage in their home leg, winning 2-1. Third placed Gold Coast Utd then took on sixth placed Newcastle Jets in the first sudden death play-off. Despite having the league’s top scorer in Shane Smeltz on the pitch it was a goalless draw and Newcastle got through in penalties.

Next up fourth placed Wellington Phoenix took on fifth placed Perth Glory. This time there were goals but at 1-1 after 120 minutes it went to penalties and two great saves from the Phoenix’s Liam Reddy secured the win for the New Zealand side. Phoenix, in Paul Ifill, had the form player of the competition, who scored and created like a man on a mission. Having briefly graced the English Premier League he more than had the makings of any defender he came up against in Australia’s national competition.

When Newcastle and Phoenix met in the minor semi-final it was all eyes on him and he didn’t disappoint with an all action display. Although locked after 90 minutes, Ifill broke through just on the stroke of extra half time with a firm shot before the large Frenchman, Eugene Dadi, tapped in from two yards to seal the win.

Back in Sydney, Melbourne came calling to finish the major semi-final tie. For the winner, a spot in the grand final, the losers, a second chance, at home, against Wellington. Not that this was an easy prospect. Wellington coach Ricky Herbert had proved his pedigree already this season, having taken New Zealand (his other job) all the way to the World Cup.

Sydney’s captain and playmaker Steve Corica was out injured, his retirement brought forwards, whilst on Melbourne’s bench sat one of the league’s most potent threats in Archie Thompson, fit enough to play some part at least. In front of a decent sized home crowd Melbourne struck first, striker Robbie Kruse turning smartly and releasing a ridiculously well-placed shot in to the top corner, Sydney keeper Clint Bolton at full stretch but unable to do anything about it.

Sydney, however, got back in to it. First, striker Alex Brosque got bundled off the ball in the area and went down. The ref pointed to the spot and Karel Kisel stepped up to dispatch it in to the back of the net. Then, showing composure and skill in equal measure, Mark Bridge squirmed his way around the penalty area and released a sharp shot across the keeper and in.

The tie now level, attackers Archie Thompson and Marvin Angulo quickly entered the fray and it was end to end stuff, deep into injury time. Clint Bolton saved Sydney repeatedly as Melbourne began breaking through for one on one chances, but at the other end it was only slow thinking or slow feet that was stopping Sydney scoring again. In the end, however, experience and luck combined to see Melbourne through. The ball smacked Sydney midfielder Terry McFlynn in the face and the ref called for a free kick, thinking it was handball. Kevin Muscat, the wily old pros’ wiliest oldest pro slid a quick free kick towards the six yard area and Archie Thompson was the only man who reacted, dashing in to put Melbourne straight into the finals.

The series rolled on. Saturday 13th March: Sydney met Wellington at the Sydney Football stadium in the preliminary final. It was barely a contest with Wellington looking confused and shell-shocked. Sydney’s newly appointed PFA Coach of the Year, Vitezslav Lavicka, had kept his line up unchanged for the match, having been happy with the work they’d done the previous week against Melbourne, but it was a change forced on him that changed the game.

Sydney were dominating possession, creating chances galore when veteran striker John Aloisi pulled up lame with a hamstring twinge. On came young striker Chris Payne and a minute later he had the ball in the back of the net with a deft finish. Against the run of play Phoenix captain Andrew Durante managed to knock one in from a well worked free kick but straight down the other end it was Payne again who got the pun-loving headline-writers salivating when he reached out his head for a cross, missed and connected with his upper arm to send the ball in to the top of the net.

It would be unfair, in truth, to say this changed the game and Wellington complaints to that affect don’t stand up to scrutiny when you look at how in control Sydney were. And, to say the least, comparisons made by Herbert to Thierry Henry’s winner to take France to the World Cup are optimistic, at best.

Strikers Alex Brosque and Mark Bridge both added to the tally to make the result stick and it was pure consolation when Dadi knocked in a late goal to make it 4-2. Deja vu for Wellington who’d not managed to beat Sydney all season. Indeed, back in November after their visit Ifill wrote in his blog:

“Well, what can I say about our trip to Sydney. Sorry to all those that made the trip or were watching at home because those first 45 minutes must have been excruciating. We seemed to forget the basics and nothing seemed to fall for us.”

He may well be writing the same again today.

On 20th March, 2010, Melbourne and Sydney will meet in Melbourne to decide the champions. In between there’s been a lot of running about, some good goals and a lot of football, but ultimately you have to wonder if the finals series is worthwhile. Because for the fourth season in a row, it’s being contested by league places one and two.


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