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A-League Grand Final: 50-50 challenge

Australian A-League

Melbourne City, Melbourne Victory looking for upsets in A-League semis

The top four A-League teams have predictably ended up in the semifinals, but there could yet be surprises in store for the season's end.

On paper, Sydney FC remains the strongest side and firm favourites to claim championship glory. Having beaten their upcoming opponents Melbourne Victory in their last seven encounters, this status is more than justified.

However, the Victory showed a steely resolve in their come-from-behind 2-1 win over Adelaide in Sunday's elimination match, and will be confident in front of goal with key players Besart Berisha and Leroy George both scoring.

As strange as it may sound, Kevin Muscat's side also gained some confidence as a result of their most recent losses to Sydney.

Last season's Big Blue Grand Final went to penalties with the game ending 1-1 after 120 minutes. The Victory were not outplayed when the two sides met just a fortnight ago when the Sky Blues eked out a 1-0 home win.

As it stands against Sydney FC, Muscat and his side have nothing to lose. That can only mean a fierce battle is about to unfold.

His counterpart Graham Arnold, meanwhile, will have enjoyed the week off to prepare for this do-or-die contest.

The Sky Blues will, as ever, attempt to dominate possession in midfield through Josh Brillante and Brandon O'Neill, freeing up Milos Ninkovic and Adrian Mierzejewski to create opportunities for the likes of Bobo to finish.

Though that seems a daunting group of players to stop, Sydney's jibes in the media this week through captain Alex Brosque and Michael Zullo could be another motivating factor for the Victory.

No A-League side has ever won the FFA Cup, premiership and championship treble, and Sydney have to avoid getting caught up in mind games to ensure they can still achieve that goal this season.

A grand final appearance is no sure thing for Sydney FC after struggling to beat Melbourne Victory in their last match.
A Grand Final appearance is no sure thing for Sydney FC after struggling to beat Melbourne Victory last time they played.

Certainly, teams that press early with sharp and direct attack bursts have troubled Sydney. The squad to do that most effectively this season has been the Newcastle Jets, but the team from Hunter will first have to contend with a dangerous Melbourne City outfit on Friday night.

City won both their games in Newcastle this season, including a 3-0 triumph earlier this month, and Warren Joyce's side will feel they have a number of attacking weapons ready to fire after defeating Brisbane Roar 2-0 in their elimination playoff.

Stefan Mauk and Nick Fitzgerald scored last weekend, but Bruno Fornaroli's smarts will be key to City's attack. The Uruguayan's ability to hold up the ball and bring Daniel Arzani and Dario Vidosic into the game could cause the Jets' defence problems once again.

Newcastle, though, will have a near-record home crowd behind them and will be buoyed by the likely return of defender and captain Nigel Boogaard.

At the other end of the pitch, they will rely on Roy O'Donovan and Dimi Petratos creating chances, and will hope that thumping the Mariners 8-2 in their last outing two weeks ago will bring the whole squad some swagger.

And that's where City's real test will lie. Can they be strong enough mentally away from home against a side accustomed to playing free-flowing attacking football with a place in their first-ever Grand Final at stake? It's a high-pressure situation.

Newcastle and Melbourne City will both genuinely fancy their chances of progressing to the decider, which is sure to make for a uniquely intense contest.

So, it's still all to play for this A-League season. Despite being underdogs, neither Melbourne side should be written off this weekend. Indeed, both semifinals are shaping as tight tussles, and will be decided by the mental resolve of the four best teams around.

Rob Brooks writes about Australian football and the A-League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @RobNJBrooks


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