Top spot rams home reality of knockout for Wanderers

On the mend: Shinji Ono trains with the Western Sydney Wanderers on Friday. Photo: Anthony JohnsonIn his own mind, Tony Popovic knows his Western Sydney Wanderers have already won the league, regardless of what happens from here. But whether he, the Asian Football Confederation or a legion of traditionalists who prefer the first-past-the-post model like it or not, the honour of being Australian champions is only bestowed upon the grand final winner.
Nanjing Night Net

Popovic and his men must swallow the slightly gruesome reality of knowing that while his team are just two wins away from being crowned champions, they are also 90 minutes from elimination.

You read it right. Despite all their amazing deeds, a mistimed tackle, own goal, errant pass or sending off might be enough to end the Wanderers’ season.

Welcome to the new look finals series, where, in an attempt to spice up the playoffs, Football Federation Australia has made every game a knockout match.

It’s a complete reversal from the system of previous years, one skewed so heavily in favour of the top two teams, the remaining four were virtually no chance of claiming the title. Indeed, no team ever won from outside the top two, and only twice did a third-placed team make it to the decider (one time being when only four teams were in the finals). Teams from fourth, fifth and sixth never figured.

Now there’s great hope for any team that has the good fortune to make it to April. The difference between Perth and Western Sydney being champions from here? Perhaps no more than a penalty shootout.

However, the benefit for the Wanderers and Mariners for finishing in the top two – an extra week’s break – shouldn’t be underestimated, especially considering their respective fitness issues.

Instead of taking risks with their players this coming weekend, the premiers can now nurse Aaron Mooy, Jerome Polenz, Adam D’Apuzzo and skipper Michael Beauchamp – who managed to push through Friday’s 3-0 win over Newcastle – back to full health.

But the man who really needs the break is Shinji Ono. The 33-year-old has been cleared of any deeper damage to his groin but an extra fortnight of rest will do him the world of good.

Such has been his impact this season that neutrals across the country will have their fingers crossed he comes good in time. It would be a real shame to have him miss the finals.

The Central Coast Mariners just need a break, full stop. They’ve won their final three games of the regular season but they’re an exhausted batch – just ask Graham Arnold. If only they could use the whole fortnight to rest, but that’s not the case. They have to front up on Wednesday night at home to Chinese side Guizhou Renhe in the third game of their ACL campaign. With one point from two matches, a win is a must to keep their continental hopes alive.

To rub it in, they have to back up six days later for the return leg in Guiyang. Their A-League semi-final is five days later. At least the FFA had the good sense to schedule the game on a Sunday, but the coach will feel the planets have aligned against him once more.

Yet while some may accuse Whitlam Square of creating a finals series too cutthroat for its own good, nobody can accuse it of being boring. We’ve seen the marathon, now we’re about to get the sprint. It’s going to be one wild dash to the finish.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.