Sydney steam through for final face-off with Melbourne

Nobody died and any fire damage to castles was minimal, but it’s been a bit of an annus horribilis for the A-League.

At the start of the season officials talked it up as a possible break-out year for the fledgling competition, but at times Australia’s professional football league has looked more likely to break down than break through.

You could almost hear Football Federation Australia’s groans of relief drift down Macquarie Street to the Sydney Football Stadium on Saturday night, as Sydney FC brushed aside Wellington Phoenix to book their place in the Grand Final.

Sydney’s 4-2 win over the Phoenix was not without its controversy, as a second goal from youngster Chris Payne was clearly bundled home with the use of his hand. The ‘goal’ sparked predictable “Hand of Payne” headlines on both sides of the Tasman, but the headline writers may as well have trotted out some “storm in a teacup” clichés given the way that Sydney ruthlessly swept aside their opponents.

The Sky Blues played some of the best football seen in the finals series to date, with Alex Brosque and Mark Bridge running rampant in the one-sided encounter.

Boom: Bridge douses the Phoenix (click to watch highlights)

Sydney’s fluid passing game has sparked jokes that they will inevitably lose on Grand Final day, with Melbourne Victory’s atrocious Etihad Stadium pitch set to be re-laid before the big game.

Victory striker Archie Thompson likened the surface to a “cow paddock” after the hosts were beaten 2-0 by South Korean side Seongnam Ilhwa in the Asian Champions League last week. The lunar landscape will be replaced by a lush new green-top on Saturday, but the spongy state of the new pitch will do little to benefit either side.

The match will at least see the country’s two biggest clubs go head-to-head for the title, and it’s a showdown that the A-League desperately needs after only 13,196 fans turned out in Sydney to watch the Sky Blues win the Preliminary Final against the Phoenix.

This time around there will be a full house inside Etihad Stadium, and FFA officials have persuaded the stadium trust to move the retractable stands of a ground more commonly used for Aussie Rules into a rectangular configuration. That means that a slightly reduced but still impressive crowd of around 50,000 fans will turn out for what is the sixth meeting of these two clubs this season, after Victory triumphed 4-3 on aggregate when the two sides clashed in their two-legged semi-final a fortnight ago.

The Etihad, back when it was the Telstra Dome

FFA suits have likewise been talking up the potential global TV audience, boasting that upwards of 79 million households across the globe will have live access to the game – although there are no official figures on just how many will change channels less than five minutes after tuning in.

It has been a long, hard slog, so perhaps it’s fitting that the two most consistent sides in Australia will face off for the A-League’s ‘toilet seat’ trophy on Saturday night.

Fans will hope that it’s more entertaining than last year’s Grand Final, when Melbourne Victory wrapped up a dour 1-0 win after referee Matthew Breeze dubiously sent off Adelaide United striker Cristiano just 10 minutes in. Dour is the last thing that the A-League needs to end a largely forgettable campaign, but with these two sides backed by some of the most partisan supporters in the country, there could be fireworks at Etihad Stadium on Grand Final night – both on and off the pitch.

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