Talking points preview: A-League Men's Grand Final
After a season spanning over seven months, multiple covid clusters, an abundance of rescheduled fixtures and even an in-season ACL campaign, Melbourne City again finds itself in the league's showpiece fixture for the third season running. The final hurdle: Western United.
All in all, it is a Grand Final comprised of deserving teams who've justified their appearance with their performances over the course of the season. City ultimately reigned supreme in first place, but despite a late-season fade out, Western presented our biggest competition throughout the journey.
The two Victorian sides have played out three tightly contested affairs so far this season, with Western grinding their way to 1-0 wins in the first two bouts, but succumbing to a two-goal comeback from our boys in blue in our most recent affair, a contest where City felt unlucky to walk away without all three points. This was a result that may just suggest City has managed to crack that Western United formula that caused so much frustration in the early parts of the season.
Saturday presents itself an opportunity to do what no Australian team has ever done before: secure back-to-back Premierships and Championships, a feat that will see this squad etch itself in the history books of the modern era.
Sitting on the brink of greatness, here are three things to look forward to heading into the Grand Final:
Griffiths or Gomulka?
If there was one thing I could put City’s success down to this season, it would be our adaptability, and Taras Gomulka is a shining example of that.
Aiden O'Neill had cemented himself as one of the most integral parts of the City machine this season, so when injury struck him down, it left huge boots to fill.
The 20-year-old has really stepped up to the plate in the latter part of the season, seemingly growing in confidence and ability as he was presented with more opportunities.
These efforts were justly rewarded as the youngster was given the starting roles in both legs of our semi-finals, in which he put more than decent performances.
However, Gomulka was subbed off on the hour mark of the second leg for veteran Rostyn Griffiths, as City found themselves in desperate search of an equaliser.
Griffiths slotted into the middle and seemed to provide game-changing stability, allowing the fresh legs of Colakovski and Tilio to attack with everything they had whilst feeling safe enough that the middle of the pitch was protected against counterattacks.
All eyes were understandably on the City front three after the relentless pressure they put the Reds under in the final parts of that contest, but without the introduction of players like Griffiths, that attacking pressure just doesn’t happen.
Griffiths has played in a total of four A-league Grand Finals throughout his career. He is a seasoned veteran and a general in the middle of the park, which is vital to any side in a Finals setting.
Taras would be extremely unlucky to miss out, but with the experience Rostyn possesses, and the way the game changed after he entered against Adelaide, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him given the nod in the middle of the park tomorrow night.
A chance to farewell some City favourites
As with any final match of an A-league campaign, fans accept that there may be significant change over the off-season as talented individuals entertain offers from overseas. It's just the nature of the league.
We have long known that academy product Connor Metcalfe would be finishing up with the club come the season's end as he looks to further his career in the German second division. An incredible and well-earned move for a player who has probably become the first name on PK’s teamsheet week in, week out over the past two seasons.
However, outside of Metcalfe, the status of loanee star Carl Jenkinson has been up in the air for a while. The Englishman has quickly become a fan favourite, leaving many City fans crying out for the club to sign him on a permanent contract. However, with the recent announcement of Olyroo full-back Callum Talbot signing with the club, it’s unlikely to see him staying on.
As the age-old footballing rule states, never fall in love with a loan player - so much easier said than done.
Finally, there are also rumours circulating that the performances of Australia’s most exciting prospect Marco Tilio have captured the attention of a few Premier League scouts, so much so that they may be in attendance for the Grand Final.
It’s important to note these are just rumours, but there is also no smoke without fire, and Tilio just keeps growing from strength to strength. So whilst the rumours can’t be confirmed that easily, they also can’t be discounted too quickly.
One thing's for sure, this current City era is the gift that keeps on giving in terms of the players on the pitch. If this is the last chance we have to see them, how fitting it would be for them to cap their time off with a second-consecutive Grand Final victory.
Let them play the occasion, we’ll play the game.
Over the course of the week, I can’t help but notice the way the two teams have gone about it: Western, if I’m honest, just seem happy to be there.
Whether it’s the carry-on in the rooms posted all over social media that resemble City’s actual premiership celebrations, but without a trophy, or the squad photos with their fans, they are ecstatic to be in the Final.
And that’s fair enough, different clubs breed different expectations. From where they were, they could probably walk away happy regardless of the result.
City, however, has a different mentality: hungry but humble. We understand that there is no point coming this far just to come this far. This was exemplified by Scott Jamison walking over to the City Terrace after the final whistle against Adelaide, instructing that there's one more game, and the job isn’t done yet.
This group is one of extreme professionals, and whilst long-time City fans still get anxious every time a big test comes around, this group seems to always find a way to get it done.
We went undefeated in ACL, we found a way to win the Premiership despite all the barriers against us this season, and we came from behind against Adelaide.
They’re just some examples from the past couple of months alone. This group has been criticised, but they have answered to every one of those critics and should have nothing but our utmost faith heading into tomorrow.
Win or lose, one thing is for sure, City will leave everything on that pitch.
Patrick Kisnorbo’s group knows what needs to be done; they did it last year. Let Western play the occasion, City will play the game.
And just like that, seven months' worth of football comes down to one final game. City has the chance to immortalise itself as one of the greatest teams Australia has ever seen.
To do something that Postecoglou's Brisbane couldn’t do, that Arnold's Sydney couldn’t do: an unprecedented back-to-back league double.
With history on the line, there is no place to be on Saturday night other than AAMI Park.