When Ryan Kitto had scored in the dying moments of regular time to equalise for Adelaide United in Friday’s semi-final, it was easy to start thinking that momentum had shifted, and that Perth Glory had squandered their opportunity for an A-League championship.
Then, Scott Neville gave his team the lead in the first half of extra time to put those doubts to bed – or so we thought. Michael Marrone levelled the scores once again, but still, Glory continued to push, even though they could not find a winner in the final few minutes of extra time. Captain and talisman Diego Castro missed the second penalty, and still, they did not give up.
The match against Adelaide proved Glory’s biggest hurdles this season, but they managed to get through it and have now set up a date with Sydney FC in the grand final at the Optus Stadium, which is headed for a sell-out attendance.
The reason for the team’s success is more than a change to a back three formation or new players coming in. There is a belief in this team that it is the best and it is that mentality that manager Tony Popovic has instilled into Perth that has transformed them into a championship contender.
Following the semi-final win against Adelaide, Popovic said that the journey was as much to do with the details that cannot be measured as it was to with the quality skill-set his side possesses.
“The skill-set is one thing but there are a lot of things that you can’t measure, you can’t get a stat for which this squad has in abundance,” he said in his press conference.
“It’s not just tonight. They’ve shown it all year and I believe they thoroughly deserve to play in the grand final.”
Turning the eighth-best team last season into premiers and grand finalists is no small feat, especially when compared to the dynasties Perth was up against in Sydney and Melbourne Victory, boasting an abundance of riches.
The Asian Champions League-winning manager has found a way to improve players whose careers felt like they were just beginning to plateau, like left-back Jason Davidson, who is now a serious contender to win back his berth in the Socceroos squad, or the rejuvenation of Chris Ikonomidis, who deservedly won the Young Footballer of the Year Award at Monday night’s Dolan Warren Medal.
Meanwhile, players like Neil Kilkenny and Castro, who were already some of the best in the league, have hit a new level and have become crucial cogs in the well-oiled machine that is Glory.
That everyone has a role to play rather than it being one man carrying a heavy load is what makes watching this side so attractive. Sure, you might be able to stop Castro’s dazzling feet or Andy Keogh’s ability to hold up play, or the threat of Davidson and Ivan Franjic on the flanks, but there is very little chance you can prevent all of them at the same time.
With all this considered, in addition to the backing of a passionate city eager to get their first taste of a championship since the A-League begun, Perth go into their encounter against Sydney as favourites.
A win on Sunday night would be the final step in the journey that would see a city relive its glory days of the NSL era.
Even if they fail to lift the trophy, all despair would not be lost. Popovic, alongside his namesakes Tony Pignata and Tony Sage, have built a structure which will help the club maintain its position at the top of the A-League ladder.
The impending arrival of Bruno Fornaroli will help Glory compete in the A-League as well as the Asian Champions League, their first foray into that coveted competition.
Popovic, of course, will not be looking too far forward. He has been present at all the finals games, meticulously scouting his opposition for the big day.
For Perth supporters, it will be encouraging to see that even with the team’s excellent performances over the course of season, Popovic is not showing any degree of complacency considering Sydney will have to adapt to him rather than the other way around.
Of course, this was always his style. Popovic leaves no stone unturned and it could propel his team to their first A-League championship.