And so, the 2021-22 A-League Men season is down to two. Just two belligerents left standing, with a collision at AAMI Park on Saturday night now put in place to determine which will stand alone.
In one corner stands the champions, Melbourne City; the reigning heavyweights that, despite being under strength, finally realised the destiny they had long been prophesied for when they climbed the mountain for the first time last year. Now, fighting out of a worldwide City Football Group stable heaving with gold, they seek the much more difficult task of keeping themselves at the summit and establishing the dynasty that they have long looked capable of producing but have not established yet. Indeed, the line between immortality and ignominy is a thin one, a separator that frequently swings on moments and twists of fate rather than any sense of justice or reason, and the differentiation between a realised dynasty and a wasted one may come down to the difference between becoming the first A-Leagues side to ever record back-to-back Premiership and Championship doubles against one Grand Final win in three straight appearances. Just ask the Buffalo Bills how much comfort a lot of appearances in the decider are.
Across the ring stands the unlikely challenger, Western United. Rising off the canvas to stun Melbourne Victory in the second leg of their semifinal on Saturday, the third-year side may have denied promoters their dream of a City vs Victory, light blue against dark blue Melbourne Derby Grand Final but they don't really care. Under the guidance of coach John Aloisi, United is a side used to not being liked. Ever since the expansion process that saw them tapped to enter ALM, the promises that they would deliver a stadium of their own has hung a metaphorical lodestone around their necks; an unrequited elephant that meanders, unwelcomely, into the room wherever they attempt to mark any form of accomplishment.
Yet despite the (deserved) scrutiny and mentions that continue to follow the club around, there have been accomplishments. Though they can't be mistaken as having been profligate in their attempts to do so, the side from Melbourne's west has staged an unlikely turnaround this season to go from third-bottom of the league in 2020-21 to one of two last standing. Thumbing their noses at those waiting for the jig in their approach to be up, they secured a highest-ever finish of third in the regular season -- entering the final day of the season still with a mathematical chance of winning the premiership -- before winning through to a first-ever showcase game. Having pulled up a chair at the last chance saloon in accepting to take charge of United, coach Aloisi has fostered a dressing room of positivity and belief that now gives him the chance to, finally, win some coaching silverware.
Nonetheless, despite the momentum and spoiler narrative that has propelled United to this point, City will be the favourite to lift the toilet seat come Saturday evening. None in ALM possess the same level of raw talent as the champs -- yet more fighting spirit (just ask Ron Vlaar) added to their arsenal since their breakthrough triumph a year ago- and the bounty of resources bestowed upon them by overseas patrons means their needs, relatively, are few. This is supplemented by a hellacious work ethic forged in preseasons from hell under coach Patrick Kisnorbo and a clear understanding of a game plan instilled within them by a dapper Frenchman that has long since departed.
In truth, no ALM rival should be able to lay a glove on City. They are chock-full of Socceroos talent and for years cultivated one of the richest academy pipelines in Australia. The pieces are all there for this group of players to not just lead, but dominate the competition. And these are the benchmarks that, repeatedly, have been set not just by external observers but in the language deployed by those at the club themselves: Jamie Maclaren's dynastic declaration to the latest in a long line of statements demonstrating the standards they aspire to.
But therein lies the rub, the weakness that means Saturday's meeting can be framed under the guise of a prizefight rather than a sacrifice. For all the talent assembled at Casey Fields, City's ability to realise that and operate at or even above the sum of their parts has not consistently been a feature of theirs this season. The air of invincibility that accompanied their run to glory a year ago has waned and despite scoring just two goals fewer this campaign, that ruthless edge that struck fear into bystanders, let alone opposition, hasn't been ever-present this season. Kisnorbo became increasingly belligerent as it was repeated to him at the season's conclusion, but it's an indisputable fact that his side failed to beat any of their top-four rivals in nine attempts during the regular season. The triumph over Adelaide United on Sunday to book a spot in the main event finally broke that hoodoo but if one wanted to be smugly technically correct -- the best kind of correct -- then one can observe that City still remains winless against top-four sides inside 90 minutes. Fail to beat Western United on Saturday, and the accusation that they were a premier whose record was bolstered by tin cans will hover like a dark shadow.
And Western will absolutely fancy their chances. City is the better, healthier, and more well-credentialed team on paper, but in Serbian striker Aleksandar Prijovic the side in green and black field a No. 9 that possesses both knockout power and a jab capable of setting the table. Up the other end of the pitch, goalkeeper Jamie Young gives them one of the strongest chins in the league, behind a guard of Leo Lacroix and Tomoki Imai. On the flanks, Lachlan Wales and Dylan Pierias, the latter of whom hasn't been starting regularly this season but who always seems to lift against City, can do damage.
In some ways, United are effectively playing with house money. Few expect them to win and even fewer likely want them to. That will be liberating. But on the flip side, it cannot be discounted that there is also pressure on them. Not the same kind as City, but pressure nonetheless. Saturday represents perhaps the best ever opportunity Western United have had as an entity to garner real acknowledgement and respect from the broader Australian football public. It won't be complete respect and acceptance, that cannot and will not come without that aforementioned stadium and further efforts to grow and bolster their fanbase and a distinct identity, but an ALM Championship in just their third season, just a few weeks on from announcing an A-League Womens side, and with a burgeoning academy will provide them with a real footballing foundation.
That, possibly, is the defining storyline of this weekend. Beyond the local rivalry angle (even if that, too, is a juicy one) or the narrative of two expansion sides going at it. On one hand, Melbourne City will head to the ring looking to deliver on and maintain their burgeoning tradition of excellence: meet the expectations that come with being the man. On the other hand, United will be fighting to be seen in that manner, to be acknowledged as more than just a nothing entity attached to the unfilled promise of a field in Tarneit. On Saturday, both City and United will be fighting for the ALM Championship, but also for respect.