Mariners close in on premiership, derby delight for Victory, Irankunda omitted from Olyroos


It wouldn’t be a week in Australian football without drama, as Nestory Irankunda was left out of Tony Vidmar’s Olyroos squad, and there’s plenty of on-field action to discuss as well.

Here are your A-League talking points.

Mariners reclaim top spot as third premiership looms

Sealing victory in the top of the table clash at Industree Group Stadium on Saturday evening, the Mariners leapfrogged Wellington and again have their premiership destiny in their own hands. Mikael Doka’s classy second-half strike won it for Central Coast, who are now just a handful of wins away from a third regular season A-League crown.

Whatever transpires over the course of the next few weeks, both of the top sides have already far exceeded expectations. Throughout the campaign Phoenix boss Giancarlo Italiano has regularly said his team are essentially playing with ‘house money’, and this season can be a stepping stone to a sustained period of success in the New Zealand capital as Auckland FC enter the competition in 2024-25 to provide a much-needed rivalry.

Giancarlo Italiano (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Credit must also go to Mark Jackson, who navigated a tremendously difficult beginning to his tenure in Gosford to have his side close to just their fifth piece of silverware.

Few might recall that Central Coast lost their opening four fixtures to start their championship defence as the team was decimated by the departures of stars including Jason Cummings and Samuel Silvera over the off-season.

Victory closer to home final after come-from-behind derby triumph

With rumours swirling around manager Tony Popovic’s future, and down 1-0 in the latest edition of the Melbourne Derby, it was difficult to see a Victory comeback at AAMI Park. Damien Da Silva had other ideas, though, as the French centre-half bagged all three points and confirmed finals football for his side with a late header from a set-piece.

For the club that are often cited as the largest in the land merely finishing in the top half of the table isn’t necessarily an achievement, but even that was in contention after a mid-season slip threatened to derail Victory’s campaign.

If Popovic is to depart at season’s end, anything less than a strong showing in the finals will ensure his tenure in the city of laneways and coffee ends in failure.

The premiers have failed to defeat their crosstown rivals in the last four attempts, and this latest loss could be quite costly. City are now just a point ahead of the plucky Brisbane Roar and four points back from Western Sydney in sixth. The clash between the two clubs in Parramatta in two weeks’ time could well be the difference in qualifying for the finals or not.

Irankunda prominent omission from Olyroos squad

As I wrote in the intro, it’s a rare week that goes by without some form of off-field issue in Australian football, and this one was no exception as there was a notable name missing from Tony Vidmar’s latest Olyroos squad: teenage sensation Nestory Irankunda, just days removed from his brilliant match-winning hat-trick at Coopers Stadium.

Since that news broke there’s been no shortage of rumours and speculation across Twitter and what’s remaining of the old-school football media. I’m a proponent of always selecting the best available players for a national team squad – a very innovative strategy, I know – but clearly something’s happening behind the scenes here. Vidmar does have a duty of care towards these young men and Irankunda is still in quite a formative stage of his career.

If the manager believes it’s best for Irankunda’s personal life, or his career development – or both, perhaps – to sit out the U23 Asian Cup that’s his prerogative. But with just a cryptic explanation provided by Vidmar, should Australia fail to qualify for the XXXIII Olympiad in Paris, this decision will only come under harsher and harsher scrutiny.

Nestory Irankunda of Adelaide United celebrates a goal. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Quick hits

-Western United, finally, played their first home game in Tarneit, upsetting the visiting Bulls side 4-2. It’s been years in the making and there are myriad issues with the ground, but baby steps. At least they are in their own stadium, where they can do a proper job of building a fan-base and not taking their travelling circus around the country.

-I wrote last week that it’s difficult to know what to make of the Wanderers. After another poor home loss, this time to top-six hopefuls Brisbane, Marko Rudan’s men could be in a dogfight to make the finals themselves, especially if they drop points at Allianz Stadium on Saturday.

Rumblings about trouble in the dressing room just won’t go away – so can the manager get his side all pulling in the right direction?

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