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A-League Grand Final: 50-50 challenge

Australian A-League
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A-League Grand Final: 50-50 challenge

A-League premiers Perth Glory will take on Sydney FC in Sunday's A-League Grand Final at Optus Stadium.

Steve Corica's Sky Blues finished eight points adrift of the Glory on the ladder, but will be full of confidence knowing that they beat the hosts twice in league play.

Can Sydney FC cause an upset, or will Perth Glory lift their first-ever A-League championship trophy? ESPN's Steph Brantz and Ante Jukic preview the action.

Why are they here?

Steph Brantz: Sydney FC might have failed to retain the Premiers Plate, but they've certainly grown in confidence in 2019, adapting to this season's significant changes. With the exit of coach Graham Arnold at the end of 2017-18, as well as the loss of the dynamic talents of Bobo and Adrian Mierzejewski, it was always going to be a challenge to find the same spark that made them the juggernaut they were under the now Socceroos boss.

With the exception of Adam Le Fondre, Corica's signings for Sydney FC have failed to fire for the most part of this season, but what resulted, albeit through necessity, is that a group of core players picked up the slack. All veterans of a sort, some in experience if not age, these players stood up at crucial moments and deservingly propelled the club to the Grand Final.

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Retiring captain Alex Brosque exceeded all expectations, playing a much larger role than anyone thought possible prior to the season ending injury to Trent Buhagiar. Brosque has been a true leader on and off the field, steering his side to within touching distance of a record-equalling fourth title in what will be his swansong appearance. Brandon O'Neill, too, has been consistently influential and, while Rhyan Grant has sported a questionable hairstyle, his feet have been peerless flying down the Sky Blue flanks in a standout season.

Ante Jukic: For starters, Perth Glory are in this Grand Final because Adelaide's Nikola Mileusnic, Baba Diawara and Nathan Konstandopoulos took three poor penalties. Well, okay, not entirely. On the whole, it has been a dramatic turnaround for Perth under Tony Popovic. From not having an identifiable plan under Kenny Lowe, to become only the third team to concede an average of less than a goal a game (0.85) in the past five A-League seasons is evidence of that.

There's something positively different about the A-League when Perth perform well, and going eight points clear in the regular season, this term has been no exception. The relationship between defence and attack for Perth is undoubtedly weighted in favour of the former, but in Diego Castro and Chris Ikonomidis, the Glory have match winners on both sides of the pitch.

Ultimately, Perth work hard as a collective and have sufficient individual quality in the two attacking positions to create in isolation and capitalise on mistakes. Evidence suggests that in the A-League, that's enough.

Key matchup

SB: Most eyes will be on the game-changing abilities of Castro for Perth and Milos Ninkovic for Sydney and the key for both sides will be starving these two of possession. They both boast exceptional touch in the final third but their value equally lies in their ability to track back defensively. However, as they toil at opposite ends of the field, let's focus on the real battle that will be fought on Perth's left flank: Jason Davidson (Perth Glory) and Grant (Sydney FC) are both in superb form. 

Perth Glory are renowned for their threat down the left side and full-back Davidson is a huge part of that, combining with Ikonomidis to create space. His ability to start deep and then set up the play in attack has been well documented throughout the season. However, Grant is equally devastating for Sydney in wide areas, tirelessly steaming down the wing. It's the position on the field which requires the biggest engines and these two possess that quality in spades.

AJ: Relating to key matchups, it can't exactly be viewed in the prism of a one-on-one duel, especially considering how Popovic has approached Sydney this season. Perth's defensive base will be critical, and slowing Ninkovic's avenues to advance the ball hasn't been reserved for one player. It will take alertness, communication and organisation between Ivan Franjic, Neil Kilkenny and Castro in the defensive block.

Going the other way, despite most of the plaudits going to Castro this season, Ikonomidis is similarly vital for Perth in attack. Outside of dead ball situations, if Ikonomidis can manage to isolate Grant and face goal, Castro and Andy Keogh will have added space to operate in and Perth will create the chances they would need in open play.

Ikonomidis led the A-League for successful dribbles (178) and dribbles per 90 (9.54) for players over 500 minutes this season. What his one-on-one ability and intuitive movement also does is provide an avenue for Davidson to get into relatively threatening positions. Davidson was second for key passes per 90 (0.56) among Perth players over 1,000 minutes, while the former was third (0.46) this season. A big game from Ikonomidis can also potentially serve as a defensive mechanism, if it means Grant is less inclined to overlap.

Rhyan Grant and Jason Davidson
Jason Davidson's ability to shackle Rhyan Grant could swing the A-League Grand Final in Perth's favour.

Weak link

SB: Not having to travel plays into Perth's hands (though technically Optus Stadium is not strictly home), and the hosts will be buoyed by the fact that Sydney have a questionable away finals record, winning just one of eight games on the road. Sydney, however, have all the big-game experience compared to the Glory and believe they will have a chance if they are still in the game with 15 minutes to go. Popovic has seen his side concede a whopping 38 percent of their goals this season after the 75th minute mark. In fact, 11 of their 15 home goals conceded this season, have come after the hour mark. Perth's legs may fail them again on Sunday.

Additionally, if you look at the psychological aspect, it's advantage Sydney. They know Perth are beatable and have proved it in two of the three meetings this season. Historically, they also hold the mental edge, dominating Perth over the years with 10 wins in the 11 past matches.

AJ: I'm not so sure if it's advantage Sydney. It must be noted, they haven't faced a Perth side with Ikonomidis, Castro and Keogh all at once. Defensively they're shaped differently, but considering attacking points of focus, Sydney and Perth are almost a mirror image. Keogh and Le Fondre take up different positions but both teams largely attack with central midfielders who sit deep and square for ball circulation, with everything going forward tethered to two attacking midfielders who concentrate on finding the ball in the half-space.

If Sydney's primary attacking means of transition and the dead ball can be nullified, stopping them then becomes a matter of not allowing Ninkovic to receive the ball and turn. He can wriggle clear of defenders in tighter spaces, though, meaning Perth would have to at least create a need for extra touches to slow progression of the ball in central and wider areas.

Essentially, if Perth can put the responsibility on O'Neill and Josh Brillante to break lines, their conservatism in possession can be exploited. Although the duo work well on triggers to compress the pitch defensively, teams can also make them turn towards their own goal, isolating the Sydney defence. Ikonomidis and Castro are good enough to manipulate positions from there.

Brandon O'Neill
Centre-midfielder Brandon O'Neill will be key for Sydney.

Which club has more to lose?

SB: While Perth are attempting to reward supporters with their first title since lifting the trophy in the last season of the NSL some 15 years ago and undoubtedly start as favourites, Sydney FC really need this win. After failing to retain the Premiers Plate, as well as losing the FFA Cup Final and bowing out of the Asian Champions League, they will be desperate to take something from this season.

Sydney FC are high on confidence after last week's emphatic 6-1 win over fierce rivals Melbourne Victory and they need to capitalise on that and give their own fans a reason to come back ahead of the nomadic season that lies ahead for them in 2019-20.

AJ: Almost two decades on, the Matt Horsley Game cruelly lingers in the minds of Perth Glory fans old enough to remember. The Glory made it a third time lucky at Subiaco in the 2003 NSL Grand Final, but if there was an argument to be made for who has more to lose, I'm with Steph. Although Perth streeted the regular season, it's Sydney.

They fell very short in the run to the Premiers' Plate, along with losing the FFA Cup Final against an Adelaide United side comfortable sitting off them. Along with elimination in the AFC Champions League group stage, it is not particularly satisfactory reading from a Sydney perspective. Furthermore, a loss makes that 6-1 thrashing of Melbourne Victory last Sunday look far more random than manufactured.

Steve Corica
Does Sydney FC manager Steve Corica have more to lose than his Perth Glory counterpart?

Crystal ball

SB: Sydney FC go behind in the first half but recover to win 2-1 in extra-time. Oh and one for the stat nerds: Keep an eye out if Sydney FC are ahead at the break. The Sky Blues have not lost any of the 21 matches against Perth when they have the lead at half-time (won 17, drawn 4).

AJ: I'm going to reference Jorge Valdano's column from Saturday, because football really can be as slippery as an eel when making predictions. Volatility reigns supreme. What is certain, Popovic and Corica are far from cavalier in approach and given a greater need for risk neither are inclined to make against a defensive block, whoever scores first will have a natural and significant ascendancy.

If I had to guess, Perth win 2-0 in the 90.

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