Nine points clear on top of the table and strolling toward a club-first piece of A-League silverware, Melbourne City have been a class above the rest in the 2020/21 campaign under the guidance of first-time head coach Patrick Kisnorbo - but is the City boss the coach of the season?
According to Daniel Garb and Robbie Cornthwaite, there's another horse in the race: Central Coast Mariners head coach Alen Stajcic. In his second season at the helm in Gosford Stajcic has taken a team with three consecutive last-placed finishes into second spot on the A-League table heading into the final weeks of the regular season.
City can clinch the Premiers Plate on Saturday, May 22 when Kisnorbo and Stajcic go head-to-head at AAMI Park - but the Mariners won't be willing to concede defeat easily against the league-leaders, as they look to go a step closer toward securing Finals Series football for the first time since the 2013/14 season.
As the top-of-the-table clash approaches, Garb and Cornthwaite discussed on the ABC Grandstand Football Podcast whether either coach of the top two sides stands out as the best of the 2020/21 campaign to date, whilst assessing how the experienced Andy Keogh turned Perth Glory into a Finals Series contender with his memorable four-goal haul in Matchweek 21.
Nothing to separate Stajcic and Kisnorbo in top-coach conversation
"You weigh the two up and I think it’s a really close call. It’s hard to split at this stage."
They're two very different coaches on respective journeys with the ambition to buck the trends developed over a number of seasons at both City and the Mariners.
There's Kisnorbo, the first-time head coach leading a club with high standards and enormous expectations into another season where a first piece of league silverware is of paramount importance. The 40-year-old replaced Erick Mombaerts in the role: the Frenchman who took the club to a maiden A-League Grand Final which ended in heartbreak in 2019/20.
Then there's Stajcic, at the helm of a club with ambition to improve after going six seasons without Finals Football, and three successive campaigns finishing bottom of the pile. Stajcic has blown that ambition out of the water, taking his side into early favouritism for the Premiers Plate before Kisnorbo's City launched up the table to get to within one win of clinching it for themselves.
Ahead of City's clash with the Mariners on Saturday night, Garb and Cornthwaite posed the question: has Stajcic's Mariners transformation outdone Kisnorbo's launch of the City juggernaut in the conversation for coach of the season?
"(Stajcic) is doing a fantastic job," Cornthwaite said.
"When it comes to the end of the season we always talk about players, team of the year, player of the year and all of these sort of individual awards.
"Where does he sit in your mind Garby for coach of the season? Patrick Kisnorbo in his first year is looking like he’s going to claim the Premiers Plate at least. Has Alen Stajcic done a better job than Patrick Kisnorbo?"
"A really close call, isn’t it, between Patrick and (Stajcic)?" Garb replied.
"When you look at how close the season is, for Melbourne City to be that far ahead, that maybe edges it towards (Kisnorbo). Then there’s the aspect of him being in his first season as a head coach.
"You weigh the two up and I think it’s a really close call. It’s hard to split at this stage.
"If I am forced to pick I’m maybe just going with (Kisnorbo), just because of the dominant nature of Melbourne City’s season, the football they’ve played, the fact that it’s his first season in the job coming off a good campaign.
"That’s a difficult thing to do, to step into the shoes of a manager who has done well and lifted the club up a level, then continue that on - that’s tough. Just (Kisnorbo), but not with much confidence, because the Stajcic story is unbelievable."
"For me, I’d love to see Alen claim it," Cornthwaite added.
"With the finals still to play, I know these awards are often given before the end of the finals, but if Central Coast Mariners went on and won the whole thing then potentially that puts him over the line.
At the moment it’s a line-ball. I just think with the fairytale sort of story, I think more people would probably be pleased for Alen to get it, if I look at it that way.
But as you say, it could go to either of the two."
Keogh goal-fest ignites Perth's Finals Series charge
"I have to put my hand up and apologise to my people in Perth, because the Glory are back in this race."
Perth Glory head coach Richard Garcia has orchestrated a revival out West that not many watching on may have predicted at the beginning of May.
Perth lost 3-1 to Melbourne City at home on the fifth day of the month, extending their winless run to six games. But three consecutive wins were to follow - all at HBF Park - as Glory cash in on their bank of home fixtures to build momentum and spark an unlikely run to the Finals Series.
Garcia's side notched an unconvincing 2-1 win over ten-man Melbourne Victory to start the run, but have been superb in the two games since. A 3-0 win over Western United preceded a whopping 5-1 demolition of Western Sydney Wanderers in which Andy Keogh netted his first four goals of the A-League season in one incredible 90-minute display.
With two more home games to come on the run of eight on the trot at HBF Park, Cornthwaite and Garb believe the ninth-placed Glory are on track to sneak into the Finals Series on current form.
"Andy Keogh’s story is incredible," Garb said.
"The leading goalscorer in the A-League for Perth Glory in their history hasn’t scored all season.
"He left the club lets not forget because of that feud with Tony Popovic, had a fallout after he was dropped from that (2018/19) Grand Final, goes on hiatus overseas... comes back, can’t find the back of the net, and then on his (35th) birthday nets four times in a game including goal of the season and a massive win to get his team back in the Finals race."
"What it showed for me as well is when you get a bit older… you might lose a bit of pace, you might lose a bit of sharpness but you're still so intelligent," Cornthwaite said.
"For me, when he said he remembered (Daniel) Margush being off his line at training a lot when Margush was at Perth, he didn’t even look up when he scored that goal, he just thought ‘you know what, he likes to be off his line sometimes’. I’m sure he thought about it before the game: ‘I’m just going to take a chance here’.
"To be honest, I think Margush should have saved it.
"He got himself in a panic, he got lost almost. it’s gone over the line at almost waist-height. I thought if he could have composed himself and stopped running around in circles he probably could have just caught it.
But the piece of brilliance from Andy Keogh, to get four goals, Perth all of a sudden, without Neil Kilkenny, three wins on the bounce and look like they can be a dark horse for finals again."
Garb believes the impressive run of form can be put down to the simple fact that Perth paid early doors for the hectic travel schedule, and are now reaping the rewards in the back half of the season.
Perth played just three of their first ten games at home to start the campaign.
"You’ve got the Glory who we put a line through, they’ve won three in a row and I have to put my hand up and apologise to my people in Perth, because the Glory are back in this race," Garb said.
"Three wins in a row when you thought they had no chance, Richard Garcia had a little dip (after beating Western Sydney 5-1) and you know what? Fair play to him.
"I asked him after the game ‘what’s led to this? Everyone thought you were done?’ And he said ‘maybe those people need to have a closer look at things’, and I’ll put my hand up and say you have to.
"He said ‘teams are going through what we went through on the road’.
"Look at Western United, they’ve gone on this 'Contiki Tour' that Mark Rudan spoke about, and their season is seemingly falling in a heap while the Glory have been parked at home, sleeping in their own beds, playing in front of their fans like they did last night and cruised to three wins in a row with two more home games to come.
"He said ‘you just have to look at the schedule and look at what we had to go through, and what other teams are going through now, that’s how quickly it can change’, and it has done for the Glory."
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