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As far as comebacks go, last weekend’s A-League Grand Final was Manchester United vs Bayern in '99, Travolta in Pulp Fiction and Lazarus popping his head out of a cave after a ‘lie down’ all rolled into one.
Going into the final minutes of the game, Central Coast Mariners held a seemingly unassailable 2-0 lead thanks to goals from Adam Kwasnik and Oliver Bozanic. But Brisbane Roar – a side riding the wave of a 27-game unbeaten streak – refused to lay down, scoring twice in the last three minutes before taking out the ‘Golden Toilet Seat’ in a penalty shoot-out.
The Mariners looked home and hosed after Bozanic’s poke doubled their advantage with a little more than 15 minutes to play, but in the 117th minute the Roar were handed a lifeline thanks to Brazilian Henrique’s left-footed strike.
With the Fox Sports’ commentators imploring the men in orange to pump the ball into the box to find the winner, the Roar remained committed to their passing game and were rewarded with a stunning equalizer with the last kick of the game. Thomas Broich’s curling corner was met by the head of midfielder Erik Paartalu, who rose through a crowd of players to send the tie to penalties just before the ref blew the final whistle.
In the shoot-out, Roar keeper Michael Theoklitos – best known to English fans as the man who let in seven on his debt for Norwich, never to be seen from again – was the hero, saving twice from Daniel McBreen and Pedj Bojic to seal Brisbane’s heroic comeback.
On the balance of the Roar’s all-conquering season, the right team prevailed, but to say the Mariners didn’t deserve to get something from the match would be doing an injustice to Graham Arnold's team. The loss is the Mariners’ third Grand Final loss in six seasons and none will have hurt as much as this.
Outplayed for large portions of the game, Central Coast succeeded in keeping Brisbane’s much-vaunted attack at bay and after the introduction of 18 year-old striker Bernie Ibini-Isei, they looked the more likely to score in extra time. The National Youth League product was involved in both Mariners’ goals, nodding the ball on from a cross for Adam Kwasnik to power home the first and then assisting in another break that led to Oliver Bozanic calmly guiding the ball home for the second.
However, Roar are late goal specialists and their calm reaction to a seemingly hopeless situation was summed up by captain Matt McKay's words at the extra-time turnaround. “I'd given up and you could see that the boys' body language was down,” said goalscoring hero Paartalu. “Matty just came up and said that we'd scored two goals in less than 15 minutes before, so we could do it again. The boys were just tremendous. The way it finished just summed up our season.”
Reaction in Australia to the game has been understandably animated, with sister site au.fourfourtwo.com declaring Roar’s win ‘a miracle’, national broadcaster SBS calling it ‘a Grand Final for the ages’ and The Melbourne Age going all Hot Chocolate with the ‘everyone a winner’ line.
As for the two coaches, it was the usual story of joy and pain. Mariners’ coach Graham Arnold was unbowed after the defeat, saying “it will take more than that to break their spirit”, while Roar’s victorious Ange Postecoglou was full of praise for his ‘never say die’ heros.
Roar fans will be hoping Postecoglou sticks around long enough to take Brisbane into Asia, with the 45 year-old coach now being linked with the newly vacant position at Melbourne Victory. After the two-time Grand Final winners parted company with foundation coach Ernie Merrick, the Aussie press immediately pushed Postecoglou – whose family still lives in the Victorian capital – to the front of the queue of replacements.
Despite stories of escape clauses in his contract and the financial unrest Brisbane, Ange’s talk of building a legacy in the Queensland capital, as well as making a run in Asia, looks to have put Roar fan’s fears to rest for the moment at least.
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