A-League Grand Final Preview: Brisbane Roar v Western Sydney Wanderers
Played: 7, Wins: Roar 1, Wanderers 4, Draws: 2
Wanderers 1-1 Roar, April 5, 2014
Past five matches (in all competitions):
Here it is then, the big one. Having finished first and second on the ladder, you can't say these two teams don't deserve to be vying for the top prize on the final day of the season.
Taking to the field on Sunday evening will mark an impressive comeback from the Roar, who, after losing Ange Postecoglou to Melbourne Victory, looked to have fallen apart. At the start of last season they were a shadow of the team that won successive grand finals in 2011 and 2012, but Mike Mulvey righted the ship to get them as far as the semi-finals.
A year later they've gone one better, and are now within 90 minutes (or possibly 120 and penalties) of claiming their third title in four seasons, a feat which would surely see this group of players heralded as the best team in the A-League's brief history.
The Wanderers meanwhile have made a huge impact on the competition since their inception, not least with their noisy and colourful supporters, who will ensure a good portion of that orange fortress, Suncorp Stadium, turns black and red this weekend.
They couldn't repeat the premier's plate triumph of their debut season, but the Wanderers have been mightily impressive in 2013-14, balancing their domestic commitments with an AFC Champions League campaign that will last beyond the end of the A-League season, win or lose in Brisbane. Tony Popovic will have no intention of granting the Roar a straight forward coronation on Sunday.
The big issue:
Roar - We've had plenty of time to get used to these two sides and they're not going to change now. Brisbane will seek to dominate possession through Liam Miller, Matt McKay and Luke Brattan, with Thomas Broich linking midfield and attack to supply Besart Berisha and Dimitri Petratos with ammunition. Petratos picked up a knock against Victory and while Mulvey has claimed the young forward is likely to recover, he also has Henrique and Jean Carlos Solorzano to call on.
Wanderers – Tony Popovic isn't going to alter his tried and tested counter-attacking 4-3-3, it's just a question of which personnel the coach, not averse to some selection surprises, chooses to employ. Mark Bridge, usually first choice in a wide attacking role, is set to miss out due to injury, meaning one of Labinot Haliti or Shannon Cole is likely to come into the first XI.
The game breaker:
Youssouf Hersi. There are so many potential match-winners to choose from on either side, with Berisha and Broich the Roar's chief dangermen, and Ono, Haliti, Santalab and Juric all capable of making the difference for Western Sydney.
But we're going for Youssouf Hersi as the one to watch. Absent from last year's grand final through suspension, the flying winger hasn't quite matched the heights of last season, but when he's on, the Wanderers fire. The Ethiopian-born Dutchman scored a crucial goal away to Melbourne Heart in Round 27 to seal an all-important top-two finish for the Wanderers, and also opened the scoring in the semi-final at home to Central Coast last weekend.
Prediction: Brisbane Roar 2-1 Western Sydney
Mulvey's team have been the best side over the course of the season and we feel they have the slightly stronger line-up on paper. Their classy central midfield trio of Brattan, Miller and McKay are capable of robbing Iacopo La Rocca, Mateo Poljak and Ono of possession, while Broich will be a constant menace cutting in from wide left.
Nikolai Topor-Stanley and Matthew Spiranovic have been excellent at centre-back for the Wanderers, but that's no guarantee they can keep Berisha from scoring. At the other end, if Santalab starts he could find himself well marshalled by Matt Smith and Jade North. Perhaps the x-factor provided by Tomi Juric, likely to be off the bench, will be required to give Western Sydney their best chance of spoiling the Roar party.