Finals race heats up as W-League gets set for bumper run home

Full story first published in SBS’ The World Game:

With less than a month to go until its regular season concludes, the sprint for the W-League’s top four continues to rage; five clubs battling it out to secure one of the four final’s places on offer as well as the chance to host a semifinal and possibly even a Grand Final.

Whereas the early exchanges of the season were marked by their chaos, those still realistically in the hunt for a chance to play off for the 2020-21 W-League title are largely familiar names to long-time followers of the women’s game: current league leaders Sydney FC and Brisbane Roar accounting for five titles between them. Canberra United also have two domestic titles to their name and Melbourne Victory was 2018-19 Premiers and have gone to back-to-back semifinals. 

Notable in their absence, however, are reigning champions Melbourne City. The four-time W-League champs will miss finals for just the second time in their history this season after proving unable to replace the exodus of Matildas and international stars that departed the club following their record-setting 2019-20 Championship winning season. 

Instead, City’s role in the hunt for W-League supremacy will this year be played by Adelaide United; the underdogs from South Australia already setting team-records as they seek to qualify for a first finals campaign in club history. 

How the race stands

Sydney FC

Though never say never, with eight wins, no draws and just a single (albeit heavy) defeat against Brisbane Roar to their name, that the Sky Blues loom as the W-League’s side to beat heading into the playoffs can seemingly be taken as writ.

Under the guidance of coach Ante Juric, Sydney has ridden a free-scoring attacking triumvirate of young Australian’s Remy Siemsen, Cortnee Vine and Princess Ibini, the ever-consistent midfield presence of league assist-leader Teresa Polias and a strong back four that is conceding less than a goal-a-game to the top of the competition’s tree heading into its final three games. 

It continues the astounding legacy of women’s footballing success that has been established by Sydney Harbour: the Sky Blues never having missed the playoffs in the W-League’s history. 

Though based on form, and with a five-point buffer between themselves and second-placed Brisbane, it shouldn’t prove too difficult, Sydney’s primary task in their three games to come will be to secure home-field advantage for their coming semifinal and a potential Grand Final against three sides in finals contention. Unfortunately, they must also deal with the devastating news that a ruptured ACL is set to keep Matilda Ellie Brush out for the remainder of the season and dash any Olympics hopes she may have held. 

They are set to face Adelaide – in a fixture that could have huge ramifications for the Reds’ finals hopes – in South Australia later today, before hosting Melbourne Victory on March 20. They will then finish their campaign away against Canberra United, who at that point could be playing for their finals lives or been eliminated from contention, on March 26.

Brisbane Roar

While they may find themselves looking up at Sydney on the W-League table, Brisbane Roar holds the honour of being the competition’s last undefeated side – albeit with coach Jake Goodship’s slow-starting side having recorded a league-leading four draws so far in 2020-21. 

It took until their fifth hitout for the Roar to record anything other than a draw but since they did – bursting to life to down Melbourne Victory 6-0 at the Gold Coast Sports Centre – the side in orange and black has not stopped winning: their five game-winning run the longest active streak in the competition. 

With one of those triumphs being a comfortable, 4-1 win over Sydney FC, Roar looms as the biggest threat to Sydney’s aspirations of lifting a fourth W-League crown come finals time. Based on form, they may be able to mount a convincing case that it is they – and not Sydney – that should carry the tag of favourites heading into the playoffs as they seek their first championship since 2010-11. 

With assistant coach Kelly Crow set to be in the dugout after Goodship opted to remain in Queensland with his pregnant partner, the Queenslander’s regular-season run home will commence away to Canberra tomorrow afternoon. They then welcome Adelaide to the Sunshine State on March 12 and regular season will conclude with a visit from Newcastle Jets on March 28. 

Melbourne Victory

While it may not yet be mathematically certain, Victory all but secured their place in finals football for the third straight season on Thursday night with their 1-0 win over Western Sydney Wanderers – a result that seemingly also ended the Red and Black’s hopes of back-to-back finals appearances. 

Those three points, which also stretched the 2018-19 Premier’s run of games without defeat to five, ensured Victory sits third on the W-League table heading into the final weeks of the season; a point clear of fourth-placed Adelaide and five points clear of fifth-placed Canberra United. While the side from the nation’s capital does retain a game in hand on the Melburnians, two of Victory’s remaining three games will see them face a struggling Perth Glory – who have secured just a single point from their six games this season. 

Coach Jeff Hopkins’ group’s other remaining fixture is away to Big Blue rivals Sydney FC on March 20, at which point the Sky Blues may have already secured the Premiership and have little to play for. Triumph in that contest, as well as maximum points from their Glory fixtures, will likely be a necessity should Victory realistically seek to overhaul Brisbane to secure a second-consecutive second-placed finish and a home final. 

Adelaide United 

Is it finally Adelaide’s year to play some extra football? It very well may be, as under coach Adrian Stenta, coach-turned-head of women’s football Ivan Karlović, and with a focus on finding and nurturing local South Australian talent, the Reds’ long, long wait for their first taste of finals football has never been closer than it is in 2020-21. 

Stenta’s side resides in fourth position on the W-League table heading into their final three games of the regular season and with the gap between themselves and fifth-placed Canberra currently four points, can’t fall out of the finals positions even if their green-clad rivals win their game in hand. 

Nonetheless, the road ahead of the Reds is a perilous one. Sydney FC is set to visit the City of Churches this evening, which will then be followed by a trip to face Brisbane Roar next Friday. A home clash with Western Sydney will then conclude their regular season on March 21. 

If the South Australians are to reach the promised land that is finals football, they will also have to absorb the blow of not having skipper Dylan Holmes leading their charge. The 23-year-old Reds’ skipper was last week sold to Swedish club BK Hächen mid-week for an undisclosed fee; set to play her final game for her hometown club in their crucial game against Sydney this evening before departing for Scandinavia. 

Canberra United

A series of impressive performances to begin 2020-21 had many touting Canberra as being genuine contenders to add to their two W-League titles. However, just a single win in their past six games now sees coach Vicki Linton’s side engaged in a dogfight for the last finals position.

With just eight games on their ledger compared to their final-rival’s nine, Canberra will seek to use their game in hand to shrink the gap between themselves and fourth-placed Adelaide to just a single point when they welcome Brisbane – who they drew with earlier this season – to the nation’s capital tomorrow afternoon before then making the trip across the Nullarbor to take on Glory on Thursday night. 

Likely needing other results to have fallen their way to remain in contention, a visit to the Jets will then be staged on March 20, before their regular season concludes at home against Sydney FC six days later. 

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