by Jonathan Tay and Kieran Yap (13/4/23)
Above: Cortnee Vine (left) and Mackenzie Hawkesby (right) hold up the premiers plate for top-placed Sydney FC. Photo: Kris Goman for Impetus.
The regular season is over, and the top four has been decided. Melbourne Victory will face off against Melbourne City on Saturday afternoon. The winner will play either Sydney FC or Western United who meet on Sunday. Whoever comes out on top between the top two sides will enjoy a week of rest and a spot in the Grand Final.
Melbourne City vs Melbourne Victory:
How they can win:
When you come up against Melbourne City, you know what to expect; you can bet on them attempting to monster possession, to play every goal kick short, to pass through every press. They crave control over the game and seek to exert this by providing the opposition with as little of the ball as possible. But for City to be successful, the message is simple; they need to make their domination of possession count towards the one stat that really matters – the scoreline.
It’s something they’ve done in fits and starts this season, and scoring goals is the least you’d expect of a team boasting a forward group of Maria Rojas, Holly McNamara, Hannah Wilkinson, and Bryleeh Henry. However, the Melbournians have had to deal with the disruption of injuries and international duties over the course of their campaign; the issue of availability affecting the fluidity within their squad.
The good news though, is that rounding into Finals week they look to have close to a full-strength side to choose from. When it clicks, their possession-heavy style of football not just looks aesthetically pleasing, but also creates hatfuls of chances. In Leticia McKenna, Rhianna Pollicina, and teenage sensation Daniela Galic, they have three midfielders who are maestros with the ball at their feet, and Melbourne will need them at the top of their game in dictating the play and linking with their attackers. If City can be efficient in their speed of game processing, and in taking their opportunities when they’re presented to them, they’ll have a shot at winning the title.
Where they’re vulnerable:
Despite an inconsistent end to their campaign, there’s no doubt Melbourne City deserve to be amongst the top four teams in the Liberty A-League. Where their problems begin though, is when coming up against the best sides around them. During the regular season, they were not able to break through against any of Western United, Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC, producing a record of zero wins, two draws, and four losses in six games played.
City have also not been helped by a defence which has been exposed in several games. Katie Bowen has been responsible for a number of salient errors at the back, Emma Checker looks to have lost a step after her early-season injury, and neither Sally James nor Melissa Barbieri have wholly convinced in goal. Coupled with the loss of defensive midfielder Leah Davidson to a season-ending injury, there are legitimate concerns, as they’ll face teams who historically feast on the counter-attack.
The difference-maker: Holly McNamara
After a devastating ACL injury wiped her out for 12 months, Holly McNamara has wasted no time in showcasing her ability once again. Still just 20 years old, last season’s Young Footballer of the Year has turned plenty of heads in the five games she’s played in since returning, including that of Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson, who brought her back into the Australian squad for the most recent friendlies in England.
Seemingly playing without any inhibition, McNamara’s pace is still electric, and her vision on the pitch looks to have also gone to another level, illustrated in her fine display against Canberra United last match, where she notched a goal and two assists. She has the dynamism to break open a game in a moment, and to elevate this Melbourne City team’s performance as they seek to win the championship for the first time since 2020.
How they can win
In their last meeting, Melbourne Victory defeated their cross-town rivals with a dominance of the midfield. The absence of Jess Nash left them potentially vulnerable to City’s creative and versatile attack, but Jeff Hopkins’ midfield cut off supply and pressured every pass.
Victory won that game by taking their chances, a penalty kick was converted and Paige Zois scored a screamer from long range.
Crucial to this game plan was the work of Amy Jackson. City’s midfield was pressured into hurried passes and Victory were able to capitalize. Jackson is one of the league’s best specialist defensive midfielders, in a knockout game, the presence of a player who can help determine the flow and momentum of a game cannot be understated. Against Melbourne City, that importance will be magnified.
Her opposition counterpart will likely be Leticia Mckenna. The talented midfielder has been crucial to City, but is still learning the role in the absence of Leah Davidson she will be tested against a team that has winning experience in finals.
Victory can win because they have before. They may be missing players since last season’s semi-final triumph but will have Nash back in the squad since these two sides last met.
Their chances will rest on who Melbourne City have available. Dario Vidosic has options in attack and Naomi Chinnama’s return to full fitness has been a huge boost. The Young Matildas defender was a substitute in March. Her presence was missed from the start and her intervention prevented a third goal being scored by Victory.
Holly McNamara was unavailable on that occasion, and her fitness remains under a cloud after being withdrawn from Matildas duty.
There remain very strong caveats, but Victory know how to play against Melbourne City. Beating them requires hard work and 90 minutes of almost error-free concentration, but they have done it before. They can do it again.
Where they are vulnerable
Victory’s defence and midfield are settled and capable of controlling a game, but if they get into a shootout with City it will be dangerous.
Lia Privitelli is a star, but has been battling injury in the tail end of the season. Catherine Zimmerman limped off in the final round against Wellington Phoenix, and Ava Breidis is prodigious but yet to score at senior level.
Much of Victory’s goal scoring threat relies on Alana Murphy from long range or Melina Ayres from anywhere else. On the other side, City have too many weapons to fit into one line up.
Maria Rojas Hannah Wilkinson, Bryleeh Henry and Holly McNamara are all senior international strikers. Daniela Galic and Rhianna Pollicina are sublimyly talented and imaginative playmakers, while McKenna has a cannon of a shot.
Kaitlyn Torpey can be lethal from range or at full pace, and Julia Grosso is lightning quick. City have goal threats all over the park. If Victory allow them to attack, they will find it hard to outscore them.
The Difference Maker: Melina Ayres
Melina Ayres. In last season’s finals series she was crucial in Victory’s run to a second Championship. If she plays anywhere near her potential, she can turn the game in a second.
Whether she has her back to goal, is pushed wide, or forced deep, Ayres is a goal threat. She is also a vital link player and can use her passing range to set wingers free. As Wellington were reminded, even in relatively safe positions, Ayres is a constant danger.
Melina Ayres is the definition of a difference maker. She will be a handful for City’s defenders.
Sydney FC vs Western United:
How they can win
Sydney FC have quite clearly been the form team of the regular season, and were deserved Premiers Plate winners. They’ve had the most impressive squad, but also more specifically the best midfield of any side too. Mackenzie Hawkesby, Sarah Hunter and Shay Hollman have complemented each other incredibly well, both on the offensive and defensive end, helping the Sky Blues not only tally the most goals of the campaign but also concede the fewest too.
No one in the competition is better in transition than Hawkesby, and Hunter’s touch, passing, and vision mark her out as a future Matildas star in the making. It is mind-boggling how smoothly Hollman, at 17 years old, has replaced Taylor Ray (ACL) at the base of Sydney’s midfield, which is a huge credit to head coach Ante Juric for placing his confidence in the teenager.
Their ability to press and counter-attack with precision through the middle of the park is second to none, and this is all without mentioning their fearsome forward trio of Cortnee Vine (seven goals, eight assists), Princess Ibini (seven goals, five assists) and Madison Haley (eight goals, three assists). If Sydney play up to the level expected of them, it will be a very difficult proposition to stop them from going all the way.
Where they’re vulnerable
Is this the year Sydney FC finally makes it back to the summit? After three consecutive Grand Final runners-up medals, the Sky Blues are hoping this is the year they conquer the dragon. They’ve certainly shown a consistency over the course of the regular season to grant them the favourites tag.
It’s difficult to find any weaknesses with this Sydney side, but the same could have been said of them last year too. How they cope with the pressure of being front-runners will be something to keep an eye on. They again come into this Finals series with the youngest team average age, at slightly over just 22 years old, but many of their squad have developed battle scars as members of previous campaigns. Have they got the mettle to convert all those chances that they squandered against Victory last time out? Will they be able to withstand the pressure during the highest leverage moments of the calendar?
Zooming out, this may be the last go-round for a number of players, including Vine, Ibini, and Hawkesby, so whether that extra weight helps or hinders their performance adds an extra layer of intrigue.
The difference-maker: Madison Haley
There are plenty of candidates for Sydney’s most important player. Hawkesby and Hunter play crucial roles in midfield, whilst Jada Whyman is arguably one of the top-two goalkeepers in the league. Cortnee Vine’s gaudy pace and counting stats put her squarely in line for the Julie Dolan medal.
However, if fit, forward Madison Haley has the ability to not only make a difference but take this Sydney FC team into the stratosphere. Rachel Lowe has filled in admirably as a makeshift number-nine, but Haley is everything you want in a striker; agile and strong, a duel-winner, run-maker, and space-finder all in one.
The 24-year-old has shown she can take on any defender she comes up against, and seems to always be at the right place to finish goals unerringly. The American has put together some highlight reel this season, from the sensational chipped finish against Brisbane to her overpowering all-round display against Melbourne Victory. Haley came off the bench for the last three games of the regular season after returning from a hip injury, so Sydney will be hoping to have her impact from the off on Sunday.
How they can win
Western United have a settled team, with momentum, confidence, and versatility. Hannah Keane the league’s top scorer. Her pace and height make her a danger from general play or set pieces. In midfield, captain Jaclyn Sawicki has grown into the season and is capable of matching Sydney FC’s star-studded trio of young guns.
Most importantly, they have two excellent fullbacks. Against the threats of Princess Ibini on one wing, and Cortnee Vine on the other, (depending on her injury report) they have players that can match them.
Stacey Papadopoulos has returned from injury in a nick of time. She has the pace and experience to match Ibini. On the other side, Vine could be matched with Angie Beard. The former Melbourne Victory captain will have no fear of the Matildas winger. Western United are one of the few sides in the league to have an answer for Sydney FC’s star attacker.
Where they are vulnerable
Experience may play a factor. Many of Western United’s players are trophy winners with Calder United, the Victorian NPLW club who won everything available to them in 2022. Sydney FC are a different proposition though.
They face a side that habitually makes Grand Finals and has finished top three seasons in a row. They have beaten the 2022/23 premiers once this season, but lost fairly convincingly when they had to travel north to face them.
There are no obvious weaknesses in either side, but the fact that the leagues newest side has not been on this stage before is the only obvious thing going against them.
They can win, but there is no bigger task than playing Sydney FC in Sydney right now.
The difference maker: Chloe Logarzo
Her fitness levels remain unknown. Her talent is indisputable. Chloe Logarzo returned to Western United to help them make history, and make a push for Matildas selection. She has the ability to change games in a moment, and her name on the line up can change the odds of the game.
Logarzo has helped Western United beat Perth Glory and Melbourne City with classy, crucial interventions. The stage is set for another big performance.