At this point in last year’s season, we were watching the Mariners and Wanderers in a tight race for the premiership, with third-placed Melbourne Victory a comfortable 10 points further back.
Riveting to watch, there was little doubt heading into the finals campaign both deserved their first and second places, and fans were eager at the prospect of the two juggernauts of the competition meeting on the biggest stage, the A-League grand final.
This season, the last four rounds of the A-League have seen an incredible three different teams hold second position on the ladder. While this weekend will see the Western Sydney Wanderers fighting off four other teams for runners-up, we need to remind ourselves that Brisbane wrapped up the Premiership title three weeks ago and remain an incredible 13 points clear of their nearest competitor.
Is there any team that can compete with the Brisbane Roar? One that can match the exciting brand of football the Roar have produced this year, and ensure this year’s grand final is the spectacle it should be?
At the halfway point of this season, we were all expecting a repeat by the Wanderers. By Round 14, Western Sydney was only four points behind league-leaders Brisbane, and held a five-point advantage on Melbourne Victory. Their record sat at seven wins, five draws and only two losses.
However, the form that propelled them to the A-League Premiership in 2012-13 was not to last, and their indifferent form since New Years has seen the gap above widen and the one below erode.
In their defence, and as Tony Popovic pointed out in his post-match press conference this week, the Wanderers have only lost two more than they had at this point last season, which would seem to suggest that the competition has been fiercer this year.
The statistics would tend to agree: by the end of Round 26 last season, teams placed fourth to seventh had a total of 126 points, however at the same point for this year we find them with 137. Lower placed teams have refused to go gently into the night and have instead made strong end-of-season runs. This has stifled the number of games the top two teams could reasonably expect to win, and explains why their collective points this season are a full 14 below where they were at the same time last year.
However, does this close competition for other finals positions translate to success in their match-ups against Brisbane Roar? The answer is an overwhelming no.
Against the current top-six teams, the Roar have a record of nine wins, three draws and two losses, with only one of those losses coming after the third round of competition. Only Newcastle appear to have the wood on Brisbane, beating them in all three fixtures this year. I am sure they will be praying to get another crack at the Roar in a finals context.
So should we expect differently from other top-six teams against Brisbane in this season’s finals? History shows it may be unlikely, with the A-League champion having placed in the top two of the premiership every season since 2005-06.
Even more telling is that the A-League grand final has been contested between the Premiers and runners-up an incredible six times in the last seven seasons.
If this is the case again this year, then can the Wanderers, Mariners, Victory, Adelaide or Sydney favour their chances when they have managed just two wins out of 14 matches this competition?