Melbourne get away with Mrdja in dodgy transfer

Imagine Manchester United borrowing Jermain Defoe to replace the injured Wayne Rooney in a last-day title decider against Chelsea. As Mike Tuckerman explains, a similar thing has happened in the climaxing A-League...

As if to downplay its reputation as a bit of a tin-pot competition, the A-League has suddenly burst into life with the sort of drama more commonly found in the blogs of La Liga Loca.

It all started with the news that Melbourne Victory’s record goalscorer Archie Thompson would miss a month of action after breaking his foot against Wellington Phoenix.

“No worries,” reckoned coach Ernie Merrick, who insisted that his side still had plenty of striking talent available to steer Victory through the opening rounds of the finals.

Either Merrick is a filthy liar or the prospect of fielding untested youth team striker Aziz Behich suddenly lost its appeal, because the po-faced tactician promptly got on the phone and gave Central Coast Mariners a call.

The result of Merrick’s chat with outgoing Mariners coach Lawrie McKinna was Victory’s signing of veteran striker Nik Mrdja on a short-term “injury replacement” deal.

It's obviously not a loan, as the transfer window closed at the end of January.

Only Mrdja hasn’t replaced the injured Archie Thompson, but instead has joined as cover for holding midfielder Billy Celeski, who was ruled out for the rest of the season way back in September.

The move has the rest of the league spitting chips – not least Sydney FC, who blasted Football Federation Australia over the loan deal in the pages of the News Limited press.

“Approval of these kinds of player movements at such a critical stage of the season seriously undermines the credibility of the A-League,” raged Sydney vice-chairman Scott Barlow.

Such a reaction was predictable given that Sydney FC host Victory on the final day of the regular season, with the two giants jostling for top spot – and the 2011 AFC Champions League place that comes with it.

Sydney are two points behind their southern rivals going into the Sydney Football Stadium blockbuster, so nothing less than a win will see Vitezslav Lavicka’s team snatch top spot.

Sydney officials could be forgiven for rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of the Valentine’s Day clash, were it not for the fact that the Sydney Football Stadium pitch may be virtually unplayable.

Last weekend the Edinburgh Tattoo was in town, forcing Sydney FC to take their home game against Perth Glory to Parramatta Stadium as the A-League played second fiddle to marching militia.

Unfortunately for the Sky Blues, the effect of dozens of marching bands trampling over an already fragile surface amidst a torrential downpour was so severe that the match venue was rumoured to be changing.

Sydney officials were quick to scotch those rumours, and nervy A-League fans must now hope for the best in a season that has been blighted by the sorry state of certain pitches.

It has been a surreal build-up to what should be a momentous clash, and Gold Coast United could still stand to profit from the highly anticipated showdown.

Miron Bleiberg’s side were controversially beaten 1-0 at home by Wellington Phoenix last weekend, but they will nevertheless finish second if they defeat North Queensland Fury and see Sydney FC lose the following day.

A top-two finish ensures a double chance in the six-team play-offs, but for now there’s still the final round of the regular season to negotiate.

It’s shaping up as one of the most anticipated rounds in the A-League’s brief history – full of the kind of conspiracy theories, dodgy officialdom and good old-fashioned argy bargy that the rest of the world’s more colourful leagues take for granted.

And if Nik Mrdja scores a dramatic late winner on Sunday afternoon, expect to hear an outcry all the way from Sydney to FIFA’s head offices in Zürich.

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