Six teams, five games, three weekends, one winner. It’s finals time in the Hyundai A-League starting tomorrow (Friday night) in Brisbane.
With the stakes immeasurably higher, the drama ratchets up markedly in the Finals Series and this season’s climax will be no different.
The 2016/17 champions will soon be crowned and the ingredients for an unforgettable Finals Series are all here.
UNSTOPPABLE SKY BLUES?
After their dominant season, Sydney FC are at short odds to secure their third championship.
By almost every metric, it’s been an extraordinary campaign for Graham Arnold’s men.
The most wins and points ever in an A-League season. The least goals ever conceded. And many more records besides.
A watertight defence, multi-purpose midfield and dangerous attack, backed by a bench which is the envy of many other clubs.
Bernie Ibini, Milos Dimitrijevic, David Carney and Matt Simon can’t even get a start.
And most impressively, they’re not showing any signs of slowing down.
Arnold has his team fully focused on its quest for constant improvement.
With two games to go it seems the Sydney FC juggernaut is simply irresistible.
Finals games are often tight. They can swing on moments of magic and flashes of inspiration.
And the providers of those split-seconds are all here and in the form of their lives.
Milos Ninkovic is the favourite to snare the Johnny Warren Medal at the Dolan Warren awards night on May 1.
Sydney’s super Serb has had a sublime season, creating countless chances for his front-line of Alex Brosque, Bobo and Filip Holosko, and netting nine of his own.
Down in Melbourne, Marco Rojas has returned to the Hyundai A-League with a bang.
The “Kiwi Messi” has been magnificent in Victory’s run to the Finals Series, supplying a dozen goals and 11 assists.
Across town, Caltex Socceroos legend Tim Cahill is plotting Melbourne City’s route to a first ever championship.
His big-game experience could be crucial in driving City deep into the Finals Series.
And out west, Spaniard Diego Castro is the jewel in Perth’s crown.
Quite simply, he is magnificent and certainly has the weaponry to bring any side to its knees.
With Castro supplying the bullets for Andy Keogh and Adam Taggart – as well as firing off plenty himself – the Glory Days could yet return to nib.
The A-League’s maiden goalscoring centurion Besart Berisha just loves finals time.
He has seven Finals Series goals (second only to Archie Thompson’s ten) and three championships with Brisbane and Victory.
But he’s never satisfied, thrives on the big occasion and will want nothing more than to add to his 19 goals this season and 100 overall.
Jamie Maclaren reacted in the best possible way to being benched at Brisbane mid-season – by hitting the net.
He matched Berisha’s 19 goals and would have taken the Golden Boot but for a saved penalty in Roar’s last outing.
“Macca” wants three things – more goals, some silverware and a Caltex Socceroos recall.
Achieving the first two may well lead to the third.
And while last season’s runaway leading scorer has gone a bit quiet lately, you write off Bruno Fornaroli at your peril.
He may not have scored in the last four matches, but his goals per game ratio is still the best in the 12-year history of the Hyundai A-League.
City’s Uruguayan skipper could yet have a big say across the season’s final three weekends.
And let’s not forget Brendon Santalab.
Western Sydney’s freshly-crowned Player of the Year has had an exceptional season, scoring 14 goals, easily his best ever return.
When Wanderers need goals, Santa delivers.
DOUBLE THE DRAMA
Who could forget last season’s nine-goal thriller at Pirtek?
A Romeo Castelen-inspired Western Sydney came back from 3-0 down to lead Brisbane 4-3 and eventually win 5-4 in extra-time to reach the Grand Final.
That was just a week after Roar themselves had staged an epic comeback to beat Victory 2-1 in injury time, having gone down 1-0 with just four minutes remaining.
Ah, finals football. You’ve gotta love it.