A-League: elimination finals deliver with late drama and pure brilliance

In their respective fashions both elimination finals showcased the best the A-League has to offer; tension, drama and moments of pure brilliance

Going by scorecards alone this was a textbook elimination final weekend.

Typical of A-League finals the higher-ranked pair progressed. Typical of the season both home sides won. Typical of Bruno Fornaroli and Besart Berisha both strikers scored. Typical of Brisbane Roar they prevailed at the death.

But to appraise such an absorbing pair of matches with that level of brevity would be to do all participants a disservice.

The two numbers next to Fornaroli’s name on the scoresheet do not adequately convey the athleticism of his overhead kick opener nor the regal arrogance of his free-kick sealer.

2-1 Brisbane does not accurately tell the tale of a Roar side listing like a stricken liner washed against rocks by wave upon wave of Victory attack.

It can’t capture John Aloisi’s tormented grimace, dark and warped like a touchline gargoyle as the game drifted beyond his control. Icons and abbreviations fail to illustrate the foolishness of Jason Geria’s yellow cards.

The first final was a better contest than the second. It was played at a higher intensity with crisper skills. Kevin Muscat’s up-tempo strategy dictated terms. The presence of Carl Valeri calmed his colleagues and rattled the Roar. Brisbane attacks were drawn towards Matthieu Delpierre with such regularity the massive Frenchman appeared to have his own gravitational pull.

But this is where the black and white of the morning after tells a tale of piercing clarity. It took Victory 86 minutes to score. They should have scored sooner and they should have scored more often.

They failed to convert their apparent advantage into a tangible one, and they paid the price. Fahid Ben Kalfallah’s wayward finish midway through the second half was the one that got away.

Perhaps fate determined Berisha had to score the opener? The Albanian provided so many of the sub-plots before this encounter it seemed as though until he scored the game’s storyline was somehow unable to advance. True to form the A-League’s deus ex machina liberated the encounter with what was supposed to be the late winner.

On the contrary, Berisha’s goal sparked Brisbane into life. Within seconds Matt McKay equalised. Poking the ball through a forest of legs the Socceroo finally mortalized Lawrence Thomas, a man almost two full games into his mission to deny Brisbane Roar ever scoring another goal.

At a stroke the fog of apprehension that grew through Victory’s dominant performance cleared. The ten-man visitors, with Field Marshal Valeri now substituted, were ripe for the picking. Could a winner be snuck before Kevin Muscat had chance to eyeball his troops and regroup?

Responsibility fell to Corona, poor on the night by his high standards. His corner from the left, Brisbane’s sixth, had to find a target. By the time it arrived at the edge of the six-yard box it had cleared the first defender. Here it dipped, cautiously, as though controlled by Hong Kong wire fu operators. So precise was the delivery it appeared almost to hover, in patient expectation of the careering Thomas Broich to plant it into the back of the net.

Perth Glory never enjoyed enough of a foothold at AAMI Park to replicate such drama. Melbourne City asserted themselves early, Anthony Caceres performing like a man on loan from Manchester City, Fornaroli like a man on loan from another planet. By contrast Diego Castro didn’t look match fit and Andy Keogh like a man playing by his own offside rule. Glory’s only period of ascendancy was in the early stages of the second half and Gyorgy Sandor should have made it count. His miss was redolent of Ben Kalfallah’s, and similarly costly.

Melbourne City’s roster is studded with household names towering in status over the bulk of the squad and Fornaroli, Aaron Mooy and Thomas Sorensen contributed greatly to Sunday’s success. But the lesser lights were not shaded. With a fully fit squad none of Paolo Retre, Jack Clisby or Ben Garuccio could have expected to start in such an important fixture. All turned in the kind of performances City (and Heart) have been criticised for failing to deliver.

In such a full-blooded contest with bodies colliding all over the field Fornaroli’s moments of clear thinking stood out like the empty seats inside the less than half-filled AAMI Park. The Uruguayan has obliterated A-League goalscoring records and, if you care to believe there was football in Australia before 2005, his haul of 25 is now behind only Damian Mori’s all-time season record of 31.

Once again, raw numbers do not do justice to the accomplishment. Fornaroli is not his side’s penalty taker, he is in his first season in a country in which he doesn’t speak the language, and his goals have been varied in execution and crucial in context. On Sunday he was both artist and acrobat when it mattered most.

In between times he was an indefatigable battering ram. Castro has already pocketed one of the A-League’s individual accolades. If the remainder available are not delivered to Fornaroli, John van’t Schip should call for a Royal Commission.

Where to from here? For Brisbane a trip to Western Sydney Wanderers to face an opponent they’ve defeated twice this season. For City, a journey to Adelaide United, one they’ve made on two occasions already this campaign for two victories. Post-rationalising the semi-finals may not be so straightforward.

Of the vanquished, Melbourne Victory face the biggest questions. Two of the fearsome forward foursome are already on their way with doubts lingering over a couple of veterans and a swag of squad players.

Despite bowing out in the first week of the finals Perth Glory can look forward with optimism to next season. If momentum from the turn of the year can be maintained and key talent retained, the future looks bright. Adam Taggart’s signature alone should help ease the offseason blues.


Jonathan Howcroft

The GuardianTramp

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