A-League Men 2021/22 finals preview: the contenders, the pretenders, and the best of the rest

It may not suit the football purist’s idea of the game, but after sixteen years of finals football — a rapid series of knock-out matches that rewards the fittest team on the day rather than over the course of a season — there is little doubt it has become one of the A-League Men’s most thrilling and defining features.

From Sydney FC’s inaugural championship victory in the competition’s first season in 2006 to last year’s triumph by the league’s newest dynasty in Melbourne City and everything in between, the now-or-never terror of elimination football can often throw up a slew of unexpected moments and results.

It’s perhaps fitting that this season’s A-League Men’s top six — the first to not feature a team from the Greater Sydney region since the competition began — are a reflection of the unpredictable nature of finals football.

So what have we got to look forward to as the tumultuous 2021/22 season draws to a close?

Melbourne City

Regular season: 1st (Premiers)

Head coach: Patrick Kisnorbo

First finals game: Two-legged semi-final against lowest-ranked elimination final winner

Melbourne City captain Scott Jamieson is hoping to become the captain to lead a side to back-to-back A-League Men Premier’s Plate and championship victories.(AAP: Morgan Hancock)

City are emerging as the ALM’s new heavyweights. While they took some time finding themselves after being taken over by the lucrative City Football Group in mid-2014, the club has dominated in recent seasons, becoming just the second men’s team to win back-to-back premierships (after Sydney FC in 2016-2018) and could become the first to claim consecutive championships.

The consistency of Socceroos striker Jamie Maclaren has been a big reason for that, taking out the league’s Golden Boot in each of the last three seasons, as well as the smart signings of internationals such as Frenchman Florin Berenguer and Portugal’s Nuno Reis, complemented by a scattering of young stars.

However, despite arguably looking the best on paper, City won the premiership by just a single point, earned on the final day after a resurgence from cross-town rivals Melbourne Victory.

Questions around the fitness of key players continue to swirl, and there are some creeping doubts given their failure to beat any of the other top four teams this season, but given their firm experience in finals football and the slick, lethal style that’s seen them score the most goals in the league, they’re in with a real chance of doing the double.

Melbourne Victory

Regular season: 2nd

Head coach: Tony Popovic

First finals game: Two-legged semi-final against highest-ranked elimination final winner

A soccer player in dark blue jersey and pink dyed air looks jubilant as he runs with his teammates on pitch
Former Socceroo Jason Davidson (left) put Melbourne Victory in front after 70 minutes.(AAP: James Ross)

From wooden-spooners to title contenders, Melbourne Victory’s resurgence has been one of the stories of the season. Pipped to the premiership by a single point, Victory’s turn-around under new coach Tony Popovic has been miraculous given their stuttering start to the season.

Now unbeaten in their past 15 games, Victory are one of the in-form teams heading into finals and boast the league’s best defensive record with just 25 goals conceded thanks to a back line anchored by Portugal’s Roderick Miranda and flanked by the two brilliant Jasons in Geria and Davidson.

Up front, the likes of the deadly Kiwi winger Marco Rojas and electric striker Nick D’Agostino who are blistering in transition, combined with the creativity of midfielder Jake Brimmer, has seen Victory tally up the goals and rekindle the love of a once-dwindling fanbase.

The energy of a home Victory crowd can’t be understated, particularly as the chips have fallen in such a way that the club may not even have to leave Victoria during this mad dash to the finish. 

Western United

Regular season: 3rd

Head coach: John Aloisi

First finals game: Elimination final v Wellington Phoenix

Two male soccer players, one in green and black and another in blue, chase the ball while it rains heavily
Western United and Sydney FC played out a wet, frustrating 1-1 draw.(Getty Images: Scott Gardiner)

Despite their off-field struggles to bed down a local identity and fanbase — partly driven by their lack of a home stadium, which they had to share with the two other Melbourne teams this season — Western United have managed to finish a best-ever third after joining the ALM in the 2019-20 season.

While they stumbled somewhat towards season’s close, they finished just three points behind the rampaging Victory under the guidance of former Socceroo John Aloisi, who has established the second-strongest defensive teams in the league.

Western have a unique ability to become a brick wall when required, having equalled the top flight record for 1-0 wins in a single season, marshalled from the back by stand-out centre-back Leo Lacroix and full-back Ben Garuccio, as well as veteran goalkeeper Jamie Young, though the loss of fellow defender Nikolai Topor-Stanley has been felt.

The club have also struggled to find the back of the net somewhat – particularly without injured captain Alessandro Diamanti pulling the strings in midfield – with top scorer Aleksander Prijovic often isolated, while youngsters like Lachie Wales and Dylan Wenzel-Halls haven’t always delivered. They come up against a Phoenix team that they have never beaten since their first game in 2019, and last lost to the Wellington side 4-1.

Adelaide United

Regular season: 4th

Head coach: Carl Veart

First finals game: Elimination final v Central Coast Mariners

Craig Goodwin celebrates FFA Cup strike
Craig Goodwin said scoring twice in a cup final was the stuff dreams were made of.(AAP: David Mariuz)

Rounding out the top four is Adelaide United, who won just one game in their opening ten rounds, but managed to claw their way to points throughout the season, often with last-minute game-snatching winners.

Only four of their games this campaign have been won by more than two goals, with several decided in the dying stages, but the ability to continue to push for goals in these high-pressure moments arguably make the Reds one of the teams to watch in the finals series, particularly as they come into it on a five-game winning streak.

Under the stewardship of Carl Veart, Adelaide have also developed a dressing-room culture and fanbase that is one of the envies of the league. This season has seen the re-emergence of on-again off-again Socceroo Craig Goodwin, who has led Adelaide’s attack with nine goals as well as seven assists, while experienced Spaniard Javi Lopez has been one of the league’s best full-backs.

But it’s the kids who Adelaide fans are really excited about, especially 18-year-olds Mohamed Toure and Bernardo Oliveira – son of the former Brazilian great Cassio — as well as 16-year-old Nestory Irankunda, who has scored some of the league’s most net-ripping goals coming off the bench.

Central Coast Mariners

Regular season: 5th

Head coach: Nick Montgomery

First finals game: Elimination final v Adelaide United

A soccer player wearing yellow and navy blue dribbles the ball along the grass during a game
New Mariners signing Jason Cummings called out distended VAR checks and mid-game drinks breaks in a post-match interview that has been deleted from the league’s social media accounts.(Getty Images: Robert Cianflone)

One point below Adelaide in fifth is Central Coast Mariners, a club revived under head coach Nick Montgomery and beginning to embrace their dazzling young players such as 17-year-old Garang Kuol, 20-year-old Max Balard, and 22-year-old Josh Nisbet.

They enter finals on a hot-streak spear-headed by the genius signing of Scottish-Australian striker Jason Cummings, the club’s top-scorer (10) despite joining in late January, as well as Brazilian attacker Moresche, who have given the Mariners both dimension and penetration in the final third.

At the opposite end of the field, the Mariners have begun to plug the gaps that saw them topple down the foot of the ladder over the past several seasons. Gloveman Mark Birighitti has had one of his most outstanding club seasons to date in between the sticks, while the emergence of both Lewis Miller and Kye Rowles as dependable defenders has helped the club maintain a more acceptable defensive record than in years past.

However, their young core may be to their detriment, as history shows success in ALM finals football trends towards the older, more experienced squads. 

Wellington Phoenix

Regular season: 6th

Head coach: Ufuk Talay

First finals game: Elimination final v Western United

A soccer team wearing yellow and black huddles in a circle in front of fans
Wellington missed finals last season by a single point in a pandemic-interrupted campaign.(Getty Images: Icon Sportswire/Steven Markham)

Finally, Wellington Phoenix — the league’s only New Zealand club, who have been temporarily relocated to Wollongong over the past two seasons due to lockdowns — ended their scattered campaign in sixth spot after a final-day 2-1 loss that handed City the Premier’s plate.

Their presence in finals football is somewhat surprising given they have the leakiest defence in the league with 49 goals conceded in 26 games, including some whoppers like a 6-0 drubbing by City and a 5-0 thrashing by Central Coast, despite having one of the league’s stand-out keepers in Oliver Sail.

The Nix have also struggled in the final third, coming into finals with the fewest goals scored across the top six (34). 

The expected return of key players from injury should help in many respects, particularly midfielders Nicholas Pennington and Clayton Lewis, as well as winger Reno Piscopo and joint-top scorer Jaushua Sotirio. The Nix also have history on their side coming into their elimination final against Western tonight having won six of their eight games against the Melbourne club since 2019.

A-LEAGUE MEN FINALS

Elimination finals:

* Match A: Western United (third) v Wellington Phoenix (sixth), Saturday 14 May, AAMI Park, 7.45pm AEST

* Match B: Adelaide United (fourth) v Central Coast Mariners (fifth), Sunday 15 May, Coopers Stadium, 4.05pm AEST

Semi-finals

* Winner match A v City or Victory, May 17/18

* City or Victory v Winner Match A, May 21

* Winner match B v City or Victory, May 18

* City or Victory v winner match B, May 22

Grand final

Saturday, May 28, 7.45pm AET

Reference-www.abc.net.au

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