Race for the Championship

Last Friday’s draw with Brisbane Roar set the platform for a thrilling run-in to the 2013/14 Hyundai A-League Grand Final.

Winning the premiership at the first attempt as a club is worthy of all the superlatives bestowed upon NRMA Insurance Western Sydney Wanderers last season.

Only an opponent more desperate for Grand Final glory than any other prevented further silverware. But every great narrative needs a complication, lest its payoff be anything but sweet.

Brisbane Roar wilted in two preliminary finals and a premiership chance before graduating to greatness. Central Coast Mariners did it even tougher, losing three deciders by a goal or less. Now the Wanderers have their reason for redemption.

So last Friday-s draw with Brisbane Roar set the platform for a thrilling run-in to the 2013/14 Hyundai A-League Grand Final with the first versus second battle a potential preview for the Grand Final in May.

With a trophy per season conversion rate to maintain, it doesn-t require Tony Popovic to publicly state the championship is where his gaze is fixed. Despite Graham Arnold-s campaigning for the regular season title to be recognised as the ultimate achievement it was his own reactions that illustrated the emotional high finally reached last year.

Arnold himself said it best: “Our fairytale has been achieved.”

For Wanderers fans harbouring lingering feelings of despair, the former Central Coast boss- words should offer hope in knowledge the best is yet to come. Can it be expected this season?

Round 17-s 2-2 draw away to Newcastle Jets, having led up to the 88th minute, was in keeping with any troubles to date. No deep wounds inflicted, just mild headaches. Hyundai A-League history confirms it could be far worse than for the Premiers than owning second place after 18 rounds.

The Beauchamp/Topor-Stanley/Spiranovic question looked to have been momentarily settled with the latter-s successful move to midfield though the match against Brisbane re-opened that kettle of fish. Regardless, options abound from back to front. For Popovic it-s about timing those choices. Any doubts over his precision in doing so would be unfounded.

The decisions, of course, are informed in part by the fast-approaching AFC Champions League - a prestigious opportunity.

Brisbane Roar would consider themselves in pole position. When it comes to winning Grand Finals the league-leaders can claim superior know-how to their nearest competitors.

A dozen wins from their 18 matches, each more important than the last, tied to a stats sheet of most goals scored and fewest conceded all contribute to early favouritism for a third championship in four years but as Wanderers fans will know, a large lead in the regular season does not necessarily translate to ultimate victory.

Round 17-s result meant plenty in terms of the championship race; coupled with Kwame Yeboah-s stunning arrival back in Round 5, it means Brisbane are two from two over the reigning champions.

Shadowed by Western Sydney-s dominance of Roar in 2012/13 was the orange men-s record of one draw and two losses to their rivals in yellow. A combined three and zip against that vintage-s top two this time around suggest Mike Mulvey-s men are back to doing it when it matters most - a necessary art in finals football.

There is frankly little cause to doubt them as championship material, save for the potential of their closest competitors.

Friday-s test at Pirtek Stadium was not a new one; it was, however, one needed to be conquered for the Wanderers. The draw prevented further clear space for Brisbane but importantly the performance dealt a mental blow for future meetings if they are to meet in the decider.

Any talk of the race for the championship cannot be complete without mentioning the reigning champions. An efficient machine with its cogs turning ever closer to full capacity. Graham Arnold has gone, but so too have the fears his loss would cause irreparable damage.

His becalmed successor Phil Moss, though, must heal two heavy blows landed upon his squad on transfer deadline day. Despite being at opposite ends of both the pitch and career spectrum, the departures of talented defender Trent Sainsbury and veteran forward Daniel McBreen from Gosford are in equally damaging terms. Removing two key players in January would cripple the championship hopes of many clubs but the Mariners- regenerative powers are above and beyond most.

Moss has already moved to replenish. A sooner sale of Sainsbury might have resulted in the promotion of a youngster to replace the 22-year-old but, coupled with the sale of the vastly-experienced McBreen, the Central Coast boss has welcomed the assured presence of Eddy Bosnar, 33, to his squad. But years are one thing; goals are another - and now one of Matt Simon, Mitch Duke or Bernie Ibini must spearhead the charge as McBreen-s league-high 17 goals did last term. South Korean Kim Seung-yong has been acquired to help.

Obstacles abound, but when have they not for the Gosford based outfit?

The knock-out nature of the finals series of course means the championship race is not limited to three. The trio of coaches will certainly argue that point. Nonetheless Brisbane Roar, Western Sydney Wanderers and Central Coast Mariners are best placed to contest it. The narrative is now.

Image Credit: George Suresh