And then there were two. Premiers Sydney FC will enter as favourites against Melbourne City when the two sides face off in the A-League Grand Final on Sunday (stream live on ESPN+, US Only) -- looking to continue a proud legacy while their foes seek to kickstart one of their own. Here's everything you need to know ahead of the season's grand finale.
The Form and Mood
Sydney FC stands on the edge of greatness. A win on Sunday evening would see the Harboursiders separate themselves from previously dominant quintet of themselves, Melbourne Victory, Sydney City, Marconi Stallions, and South Melbourne to stand alone at the pinnacle of Australian football history: five titles unmatched by any other side in national league history. As a delicious bonus, this title, which would be the club's third in four seasons, would be marked in the cathedral that Western Sydney Wanderers helped build; the first piece of A-League silverware lifted at Bankwest Stadium forever to be remembered as occurring not under a hail of red and black confetti associated with their native tenant but, instead, sky blue momentos of their interloping, bitter rivals.
The premiers had been in the grips of an uncharacteristic form slump in the lead into the finals series, with just a single (unconvincing) win in their six games post-pandemic break. But thanks to two early goals to Miloš Ninković and Adam Le Fondre, the Sky Blue's moved quickly to break the back of Perth's rope-a-dope game plan on Wednesday evening and cruise into their fourth grand final in six years.
But if Sydney will take the field as the A-League's traditional power, City will step forth as its nouveau riche -- at least to the extent that a 15-year-old competition can even have a nouveau riche. Purchased by the City Football Group in 2014, much was expected from the artists formerly known as Melbourne Heart upon the cashed-up takeover, especially when Spanish World Cup winner David Villa and Socceroos legend Tim Cahill were attracted to the club. Yet, perhaps to the dismay of their new Abu Dhabi-based backers, the club from Bundoora proved more than an empty husk -- an enduring legacy of failure that had permeated Heart proving stubbornly resilient to the metamorphosis to City. Time and time again, the club has wilted in the moments that mattered most; an A-League trophy cabinet standing depressingly bare compared to their overflowing W-League one.
But now, with a side largely bereft of major international names and a strong collection of young talent, City finally has a chance to break through for an elusive first A-League title -- even if the path here was wayward.
City was pounced upon and largely outplayed by a weary Western United on Wednesday evening, with the expansion side dominating vast swathes of the contest thanks to the midfield dominance of Steven Lustica, Sebastian Pasquali, Alessandro Diamanti and Max Burgess. Nonetheless, belying their fragility of old, City held out and when Jamie Maclaren won and converted a second-half penalty, the air went out of Western's push.
Steve Corica is Sydney FC and Sydney FC is Steve Corica. One might one day exist without the other but, for now, such a situation is purely the realm of imagination. The man that scored the game's only goal as the Sky Blues won the first-ever A-League grand final moved immediately into the their youth coaching ranks upon his retirement in 2010 and eventually rose through the ranks until he was named coach following the departure of Graham Arnold.
Lifting a title in that first season, "Bimbi" has continued the tactical legacy of Arnold since he ascended to the role - his intricate knowledge of the ins and outs of the gospel of Arnieball enabling the club to continue the machine-like success born under the now Socceroos boss. This scripture, however, could just as much as be Corica's biggest weaknesses and it is his biggest strength. Foes, generally, should know exactly what to expect when they come up against the Sky Blues and, though they've yet to be punished for it, such forewarning will eventually force an adaptation.
Parachuted in to instil a "City style" at the club, CFG fixer Erick Mombaerts' Melbourne City project has gone almost exactly according to plan in season one. Striding into the club's headquarters with a combination of hat, sunglasses, long coat and briefcase that made him look more like a Bond villain than an A-League coach, the former Paris Saint-Germain and Yokohama F. Marinos boss tenure has already served to reinvigorate both a team and fanbase dulled by disappointment and two-years of pragmaticism under former boss Warren Joyce.
But despite the excitement that surrounds his approach, City still possesses weaknesses that can be exploited under the soigné 65-year-old; Western's dominance of the midfield in their semi-final loss laying bare the challenges City face when they're denied the ability to get out, run, and move the ball quickly. Reports too, have linked Mombaerts with a return to his homeland in the coming off-season to take charge of CFG's potential latest acquisition -- meaning that Sunday, regardless of the result, could prove his final bow in Australian football.
The Key Battle
The longest-tenured player on the Sydney FC roster, right-back Ryhan Grant, mullet flowing in the wind, plays an critical role for the Sky Blue machine in both the offensive and defensive phases of possession - a part he has played so aptly as to earn a call-up to Arnold's Socceroos. Across from him, drafted in to replace Scott Jamieson after the City captain returned to Melbourne to support his partner during the birth of their first child, left-back Nathaniel Atkinson will have to be aware of his presence as he's seeking to marshal the right side of the Sydney attack while, simultaneously, shouldering responsibility as the primary "inverted fullback" in Mombaerts' system.
The Next Big Thing
Both Sydney and City will enter Sunday's with largely settled, veteran squads -- with Michael Zullo possibly returning to the Sydney squad at the expense of teenage left-back Joel King.
It means that the next generation of players may be reduced to an impact role off the bench -- but the likes of King, Luke Ivanovic, Calem Nieuwenhof, Moudi Najjar, Ramy Najjarine, Connor Metcalfe, and Stefan Colakovski are all capable invigorating a waning side should they be called upon in the moment that matters.
Two Others to Watch
Age may be beginning to take its toll on his physical capabilities, but the wisdom and touch of Serbian star Ninković ensures that he remains the best player in the A-League. Capable of producing moments of brilliance on the ball that leaves witnesses agape, he carries a spark of improvisation, creativity and willingness to embrace risk in an otherwise embedded tactical approach makes him an invaluable part of what the Sky Blues do. The 35-year-old knows that time is ticking away on his career - next season likely to be his swansong before a possible move into a coaching role in the Sydney academy - and Sunday thusly represents another chance to build his legendary Australian legacy.
And speaking of legacies, ever since he returned to his hometown of Melbourne in a last-minute mid-season transfer in 2018-19, Maclaren has expressed a desire to become a legend at City. And having already secured Golden Boot honours and captaincy of the PFA team of the season, he will be provided no better opportunity to deliver on that mission than by using his poaching instincts -- unmatched in the A-League -- to deliver his club their first A-League title. Maclaren's ability to score for fun at an A-League level sits in direct contrast with his previous attempts to strike out overseas but, at just 27-years-old, Sunday could serve as the pièce de résistance to another successful stint in the A-League before, once again, tries his on foreign shores.
Sydney Will Win If...
... they're able to stay focused and disciplined, deny City's ability to get out and run and, most of all, score first.
If Corica's side is able to set up their defensive shape and force City to try to play through them, rather than simply blast beyond past them, the resulting frustration and inertia in their foes will create opportunities on the counter - giving themselves the best opportunity to exploit the lethal finishing ability that Ninković, Le Fondre, and Kosta Barbarouses can provide up top.
In scoring first, not only with the Sky Blues up the imperative on City to press forward in attack, opening up more moments in transition to be exploited, but they will also begin to heap mental pressure on Mombaerts men. As demonstrated in the 2019 FFA Cup final, City doesn't exactly have the best record when it comes to responding to adversity in Cup finals.
City Will Win If...
... they score first and Florin Berenguer and Adrian Luna play well. Not to belabour a point, but the side that can make that all-important breakthrough on Sunday evening is absolutely in the box seat to take home the Toilet Seat. City's dearth of creativity when they have extended periods of possession this season has, at times, been palpable, so anything that they can do to avoid that - particularly putting the onus on Sydney to take control of the ball - is key.
It is, nonetheless, inevitable that in the pressure cooker environment that is a grand final that things won't go according to plan and that is where Berenguer and Luna come to the fore. Playing in a midfield in front of Josh Brillante - who, for all his admirable and tireless work as a holding midfielder, provides limited utility going forward - the two present two of City's more creative options almost by default, and responsibility will fall to them to provide some form of spark if Sydney can organise in front of them and City's frequent use of balls down the channels and crosses into the box come up dry.
Elsewhere around the league clubs might not have a Grand Final to prepare for, but there's still news.
Grant Brebner, who faces a daunting task returning Melbourne Victory to the summit of Australian football, formally began his rebuilding process on Thursday -- parting ways with Migjen Basha, Josh Hope, Kenny Athiu, Andrew Nabbout, Ben Carrigan, Giancarlo Gallifuoco, and James Donachie.
Nabbout and Donachie already have agreements with other A-League clubs, at Perth and Newcastle respectively, while Athiu is likely to explore a possible move to Southeast Asia. Tasmanian-born Josh Hope has been rumoured as a target of Harry Kewell's new club Oldham Athletic.
Popa don't preach
Almost immediately following his side's semi-final defeat to Sydney, rumours began to swirl that Perth Glory coach Tony Popovic was set to enact a get-out-clause in his contract and depart the club to take charge of Greek outfit Xanthi FC -- albeit with both Popovic and Glory owner Tony Sage both issuing denials when quizzed on the matter.
Two of the three Melbourne sides are understood to have investigated the possibility of attempting to lure the Glory boss east during the season, Victory needing a full-time boss before the hiring of Grant Brebner and City doing their diligence in case Mombaerts did depart, but both concluded the 57-time-Socceroo wouldn't be a good fit for their organisations.
Back in (Green and) Black
Tomoki Imai was a key part of Western United's run home following the league's post-pandemic resumption, able to fill in both as a centre or wing back in a back five, but the 29-year-old defender's contract with Western United had been set to conclude following the 2019-20 season.
Head Coach Mark Rudan, however, believes, or at least hopes, the re-singing of the former Omiya Ardija, Kashiwa Reysol and Matsumoto Yamaga man was imminent.
"From my understanding, it's all but done," he said. "I'm not too sure, I'm just the coach -- I just tell them I want to sign him and the rest is up to people at the club to ensure that that happens."
The Principles of Reading the Room
Speaking exclusively with ESPN, FFA CEO James Johnson revealed to ESPN earlier this week that the pursuit of a long-awaited National Second Division would be boosted by the upcoming independence of the A-League and the newly released XI Principles. Those XI Principles were initially met with some scepticism by segments of the footballing community precisely because they didn't include a definitive reference to a national second-tier -- something Johnson says has been heard loud and clear.
"We've gone through a consultation process, both publicly and also with the stakeholders that have been able to give input and it provided meaningful opportunities to shape this living document that this XI Principles has been published as," Johnson told ESPN.
"Those consultations have now closed, so we finished that stage with the XI Principles. We will re-issue a second version of those XI Principles so it will move from a living document to a document.
"And I can already say, in relation to the NSD, or national second-tier competition, that there already is a very strong sentiment amongst the footballing community that would not only like to see a second tier be established but also it be a priority for the game. This came through very strong in terms of football community sentiment."
Standing with Victoria
Though it pales into insignificance when compared to the human tragedies that have occurred as a result of the virus, COVID-19 has hit the Victorian footballing community hard. Grassroots football at all levels of the game has been suspended in the wake of lockdowns brought in to combat the virus, and governing federation Football Victoria has been forced to stand down significant numbers of staff.
Parents and children, the vast majority of whom reside in community clubs and simply want to engage in the game they love with their families, friends and communities, have been left in limbo as they await news on when they'll be able to play again or what will happen with fees already paid for a cancelled season. Clubs, many of whom represent key touchstones and carry important historical implications for the communities they serve, have been left fighting for survival.
"I think, firstly, on a human side, my thoughts are with everyone in Melbourne and also in Victoria during this period," Johnson remarked when asked what the FFA could do to help Victoria recover post-COVID.
"Our organisation is committed to helping Melbourne and Victoria. I would like to see some Socceroos and Matildas matches played in Melbourne. I think everyone would. It's always a great spectacle, we've got great stadia, we've got great passion for sports and our code in Melbourne. So we will work with the Victorian Government to make sure we can bring international to Melbourne when we get out of this pandemic.
"We're also going to look at other ways in which we can bring national team football to Victoria, but we're going to look at it also in the junior levels of national teams and possibly look at ways in which we can play Junior Matildas, or Joeys AFC Qualifying tournaments in regional Victoria. I think that would be another benefit to the state.
"And then lastly we've obviously got the Women's World Cup in 2023 and Victoria will play a very meaningful role and will have a number of meaningful matches that will be played in 2023, we're working through this detail at the moment. But Melbourne is certainly going to be an important part of that competition."