Case for defence presents penalties to settle A-League grand final

It’s common to bemoan the ending of a football match in such fashion, but not in Perth on Sunday night

Seven kicks. A championship season 140 matches long spanning seven months came down to seven kicks. Sport can be grotesquely cruel.

Those seven kicks formed the A-League grand final penalty shootout after 120 minutes of combat between Perth Glory and Sydney FC ended in stalemate. A record crowd of 56,371 saw five of those seven kicks find the back of the Optus Stadium net. Crucially, they saw two of them repelled by goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne to steer the Sky Blues to a fourth championship trophy.

It’s common to bemoan the ending of a football match in such sudden death fashion, but not on Sunday night. Penalties were welcomed in Perth like Betjeman welcomed bombs in Slough. Never mind 120 minutes, these two teams could have played 120 hours without scoring or even looking like breaking the deadlock.

We’ve been spoiled in recent months. Fed on a diet of absurd Champions League comebacks, a thrilling English Premier League title race, and no shortage of grandstand finishes domestically, we’ve come to expect goals, drama and controversy. Football isn’t always like that. It can be attritional. Defences can dominate. It may reduce the ongoing entertainment but it doesn’t diminish the intensity. The stakes of next goal the winner – whether it’s the first of the night or the seventh – remain exhaustingly high.

The regulation 90 minutes of the grand final were played almost exclusively between the two defensive lines. In that space Chris Ikonomidis and Adam Le Fondre buzzed, Diego Castro and Joe Marston medallist Milos Ninkovic probed, but both sides executed near perfect defensive displays. Rarely was a man out of position. Runs were checked, ball carriers in the attacking third were double teamed, and turnovers in vulnerable areas were kept to a minimum. Even a flaming airborne dragon would have struggled for penetration such was the organisation and communication on display.

The most nuanced passages of play involved the full-backs. For Sydney Rhyan Grant was a pest down the right flank, engaging in a running battle with Jason Davidson. The pair carried on like Bash Street Kids, occasionally tumbling over in knots of limbs a cloud of dust away from a comic strip. But it was Michael Zullo down Sydney’s left that created the clearest chance of the opening half. Or did he? Zullo was ruled offside by the assistant referee as he struck the cross that led to an own-goal, a decision VAR refused to overturn for failing to reach the margin of error threshold. In a match lacking in incident this decision will be sliced and diced like the Zapruder film.

It was a similar story for Perth with Ivan Franjic’s sorties down the right posing the greatest threat. His dinked cutback to Castro forced Redmayne into one of the rare saves of the match in the second half and on 75 minutes his cross failed to find a purple shirt after his overlapping run was honoured beautifully by his skipper. That was perhaps the only precisely executed attacking set play of the night.

If there was one criticism amongst this admiration of defensive resilience it was the lack of chaos embraced by either coach. Only on rare occasions did a defender or midfielder look to break the first line while further forward attackers were so fixated on combinations the unpredictability of a speculative long-range shot or a wrecking ball dribble were declined. Five of the six players with the most possession during the match formed the central phalanx of Glory’s rearguard. Just three shots on target in 120 minutes tells its own story.

While the defensive strategists and their foot soldiers deserve credit there was no shortage of highly credentialed creative talent on display. Much has been expected of Siem de Jong, for example, but the former Ajax and Newcastle schemer ended his maiden A-League campaign an expensive ghost while Tony Popovic’s decision to start Joel Chianese and test Sydney’s back four with split strikers ended tamely after 73 minutes.

And so in a game where both sides were playing chicken, each waiting for the other to make a mistake, the plot overtook all protagonists and demanded an error. Glory blinked first.

It is heartbreaking that Brendan Santalab’s last act in professional football was to miss one of those seven kicks. It is heartwarming that Alex Brosque’s was to lift the championship trophy.

At the end of a long challenging night, at the end of a long challenging season, it all came down to seven kicks.