The Breakdown: Preliminary finals preview

Richard Garcia’s winner for Sydney FC against Perth Glory, the last kick of the game, set up an intriguing preliminary round of finals football wherein both matches are, broadly speaking, possession v counter-attack.

That is in the sense that in both games it is fairly obvious who will dominate the ball - Melbourne Victory on Friday night, Adelaide on Saturday - with Sydney and Central Coast playing more reactively, soaking up pressure and striking on the counter-attack.

In the wider scheme of things, too, possession v counter attack - simplistically, the two end of the playing spectrum - is the predominant theme of the A-League’s final six, with three sides building their approach upon control of the ball, the others upon control of the space. It is a shorthand way of summarising each side, and certain caveats must be considered, but it’s still worth considering what impact this will have on each match - particularly over the following days, where the bottom four sides battle for a place in the competition’s penultimate weekend.

Sydney FC v Melbourne Victory

Sydney have enjoyed two big, unexpected wins over Melbourne Victory this season - first in a bizarre, topsy-turvy match last year where both sides exchanged five goals in a frantic first half, before Frank Farina, seeing his team go down to 10 men, instructed his side to sit much deeper in the second half, inviting lots of Victory pressure but ultimately holding out for a 3-2 win. That period, you feel, is more relevant, especially considering his increasing shift towards defensiveness in recent weeks, best demonstrated by their lack of ambition going forward against Perth Glory last Sunday.

However, Farina will also be encouraged by Sydney’s spectacular 5-0 thumping of Victory back in January, where his use of a diamond formation outnumbered Kevin Muscat’s side through the centre. They couldn’t cope with players constantly being free to find Alessandro Del Piero between the lines, who simply ran the show. Farina hasn’t been averse to drastic formation changes this season, so a last-minute switch to a similar system can’t be ruled out.

However, of the three clashes between these two sides already this season, the preceding one in late March is the best indicator of how the knockout tie will play out. In fact, both coaches seem set to name near identical sides from that fixture, with the exception of the injured Adrian Leijer, and Farina’s preference for Milos Dimitrijevic over Matt Thompson.

The key feature of that game was the freedom of Melbourne Victory’s deeper midfielders to pass the ball forwards, exacerbated by the lack of interest from Del Piero, used upfront as a number nine, in defending. Expect those two to have a similar influence here.

However, the by-effect of Farina using Del Piero in that central advanced role is that it caused problems between the lines when the Italian dropped into deeper positions, inviting runners in behind - particularly out wide, where Richard Garcia and Joel Chianese were encouraged to cut inside on the diagonal. Ali Abbas, too, overlapped energetically from a left-of-centre midfield position, and was Sydney’s most dangerous attacking threat. WIth the wide players likely to be preoccupied in tracking back to make the midfield compact and help Sydney soak up pressure, Abbas’s forward runs might prove to be Sydney’s only, and key, attacking threat.

Central Coast v Adelaide

The following night could possibly see an even more exaggerated version of possession v counter-attack. Josep Gombau wants his side to dominate the ball more than any other side in the league, but the Mariners took a very reactive approach to Adelaide’s possession equals, Brisbane Roar, sitting incredibly deep in a 5-4-1 and attacking very sporadically through a direct, pacy front three of Mitchell Duke, Bernie Ibini and Nick Fitzgerald, supported by playmaker Glen Trifiro. The Mariners had just 25% of possession, entering the attacking third incredibly sporadically - in fact, completing an average of only 20 passes in that zone in either half.

It remains to be seen whether Moss will take such a drastic approach to a side similar in style, and it’s worth remembering that previously in this fixture this season, the Mariners have had mixed results against Adelaide’s incessant possession.

When they first met very early in the campaign, back when Graham Arnold was still in charge, the Mariners took the lead two minutes in and were content to spend the rest of the match defending against Adelaide’s passing, which lacked penetration. However, the following fixture saw a drastic turnaround in result, with Adelaide running rampant in a 4-0 win, buoyed by the return of Bruce Djite upfront from injury.He gave them an outlet for long balls, which didn’t, as some journalists suggested, mean Adelaide were sacrificing Gombau’s philosophy, but instead incorporating Djite’s ability to hold up play with his back to goal into their style. It worked a treat, with long passes into him from the back allowing Adelaide to bypass the Mariners’ defence, directly leading to the third goal, scored by Cirio.

Another key battle in that match was down Adelaide’s right, Central Coast’s left, between Fabio Ferreira and Joshua Rose - a fascinating clash of individuals that will be resumed on Saturday night. In direct 1v1s, it’s fairly even - but when Rose moves forward to provide support on the overlap, Ferreira’s pace in behind becomes incredibly dangerous. The fullback will have to time his forward runs intelligently, or risk being exposed by Adelaide’s joint top-scorer (9 goals, equal with Jeronimo Neumann).

That could be another reason Moss will be tempted to continue with the 5-4-1, which would mean the left-sided centre-back, Eddy Bosnar, would have the cover of two centre-backs if he wanted to sweep out into the channels to support Rose against Ferreira. The numerous permutations in this fixture give it particular intrigue.

Asian Champions league

A final issue to consider is the impact of fatigue. Both the Mariners and Victory have dealt with Champions League commitments this week, and have rotated accordingly. The impact of that extra match, however, along with the other group stage ties that have been intertwined with the final rounds of the regular season, could lead to tired legs and mental fatigue, which could play an enormous role should these knockout matches stretch beyond the regulation ninety minutes.

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Tim Palmer writes extensively on A-League tactics at AustraliaScout.com