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This weekend, Brisbane Roar and Central Coast Mariners will battle it out for Australian football supremacy in the A-League Grand Final. Here are five big questions ahead of Sunday’s big game.
Can the Roar handle the pressure?Brisbane come into the Grand Final on the back of a 27-game undefeated run – the longest in Australian football history. Coach Ange Postecoglou is taking part in his fifth Grand Final as a player and coach and has yet to taste defeat. Roar own Central Coast in head-to-head, losing only three times in 22 games, and have scored 14 goals in five games against them this season.
All set up nicely for a Brisbane win, then? Not so fast, says Central Coast coach Graham Arnold. Turning up the heat during the week, Arnold noted that all the pressure is on Roar to take out the championship: “For them, it's the Grand Final they need to win for what they have done this season. They're going into the game under a lot of pressure, 27 games unbeaten, so the pressure keeps mounting on them every game that they win.”
Postecoglou is having none of the mind games. “I'm not going into this Grand Final thinking, ‘What could go wrong?’. I'm really feeling good about the season we have had and our form – if we play to our ability we will go well.”
Roar have played in enough big games this season – including a couple where the winning streak was in jeopardy – to not feel stressed by the pressure of a final. Both coach and players have been relaxed all week in the build-up and will see Arnold playing the pressure card as a way to take it off his own team, reinforcing the Mariners’ underdog tag. If the Roar fail to win the championship, it won’t be because they wilted under the pressure.
How will Matt Ryan handle the biggest game of his life?Mariners’ keeper Matt Ryan has enjoyed a whirlwind start to his professional career since stepping in between the posts following an injury to first choice Jess Vanstrattan in Round Four. The 18-year-old has kept a season-high 13 clean sheets, won the A-League Young Player of the Year Award and will become the youngest keeper to ever play in a Grand Final, breaking a record held by, among others, a certain Mark Schwarzer.
While he’s proved he has maturity beyond his years, playing in front of a 50,000 sell-out in Brisbane will be unlike anything he’s experienced before and much of the pre-game press has focused on how the youngster will fare on Sunday.
Well, if last week’s Preliminary Final is anything to go by, Ryan and the Mariners will be fine. In a do-or-die game against Gold Coast United, he put in a solid performance, pulling off a stunning double save to preserve the lead and commanding his area during an aerial bombardment in the final 10 minutes. That’s not to say Roar won’t want to test the youngster early and often, but Ryan has already proved that he’s no weak link in the Mariners’ defence.
Can Brisbane’s attacking weapons be stopped?When it comes to trying to stop the Brisbane Roar attack, it’s a case of pick your poison. If you concentrate too much in shutting down speedy frontmen Kosta Barbarouses and Mitch Nichols, space opens up for the roving Jean Carlos Solorzano. Pick up the Costa Rican, however, and you leave space for dynamic midfield duo Matt McKay and Thomas Broich. Then just when you think you’ve done a pretty good job holding them out, on comes the “Slippery Fish” – Henrique to his friends – to run you ragged for the final 20 minutes or so.
The Mariners are under no illusions as to how difficult the task of keeping the Roar at bay will be. The performances of full-backs Josh Rose and Pedj Bojic will be key. If they can find a balance between keeping the Roar wide men under wraps and getting forward themselves, the job of central defenders Patrick Zwaanswijk and Alex Wilkinson will be that much easier.
Can Central Coast survive without influential Patricio Perez?A2005 U20 World Cup winner with Argentina, Perez has been the Mariners’ matchwinner this season but a hamstring injury in the Preliminary Final has seen his place under question this week. Arnold says he will wait until the very last moment to make a decision on whether he’ll play but in Mustafa Amini, a 17-year-old Afghan/Nicaraguan/Australian with the wildest afro this side of Marouane Fellaini, they have a ready-made replacement.
More of an impact player coming off the bench at the beginning of the season, Amini has improved with every game and looked calm and composed as the creative fulcrum against Gold Coast. If Arnold sees starting the teenager as too risky, his other option would be to start veteran John Hutchinson – a player with more experience and bite in the middle – and unleash Amini for the final third of the game.
Which players will have the most influence on the game?For all the offensive firepower in this game, two players with defensive duties will play the biggest role in deciding who wins the trophy known as the ‘Golden Toilet Seat’. For Central Coast, Dutch defender Patrick Zwaanswijk will need to call upon all of his 12 years of European experience to keep the Roar forwards in check. A two-time Dutch Cup winner with FC Utrecht, the 36 year-old’s influence will also extend to mentoring the younger players around him as they play in the biggest games of their careers.
“[My experience] comes in handy when the young boys ask what the atmosphere is going to be like, what to expect, what is going to be different,” says Zwaanswijk. But it’s the young players on the opposition he will need to worry about the most, keeping tabs on the constantly rotating Brisbane attackers, especially sensational German import Thomas Broich.
Brisbane’s key man will be defensive midfielder Erik Paartalu, a strong physical player who played in Scotland for Gretna, Stirling Albion and Greenock Morton before signing for Brisbane. The 24-year-old sits just in front of the back four and is key distributor in the Roar’s patient passing game, as well as being the team’s chief disruptor on the defensive side. If Paartalu can impose himself early and neutralise the Perez/Amini/Hutchinson threat, then the Mariners could be in for a very long night.
The A-League Grand Final is live in the UK on Sky Sports 1 on Sunday, with coverage starting at 6am.
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