Former Sydney FC coach Branko Culina expects a hard-fought Grand Final, but says Central Coast's options in attack could prove the difference.
Former Sydney FC and Newcastle Jets coach Branko Culina expects an intense and hard-fought Grand Final, but says the Central Coast Mariners' extra options in attack could prove the difference.
Culina knows a thing or two about big-match experience having coached for three seasons in the A-League and well over a decade in the National Soccer League.
He led Sydney United to a memorable season decider in 1997, when a record crowd in Brisbane turned out for one of the milestone matches of recent decades.
"I think Central Coast Mariners have a slight edge as they have more solutions up the field," said Culina.
"Now that (Youssouf) Hersi is out the Wanderers lose a bit going forward. (Mark) Bridge is under an injury cloud, and I suspect that (Mariners coach) Graham Arnold will try and restrict (Shinji) Ono's movement in front of the back four, which would leave the Wanderers' attacking options a bit limited.
"On the other hand, the Mariners have the league's top goalscorer in (Daniel) McBreen, they have (Bernie) Ibini with wonderful speed, and (Michael) McGlinchey has been brilliant.
"Those two either side of McBreen offer something extra. It may well be that the individuals turn the table when two teams are so tightly matched."
Culina believes that the Mariners could find joy attacking down the flanks with Wanderers fullback Adam D'Apuzzo out injured and fellow defender Jerome Polenz facing a race against time to be fit.
"The Mariners have strong options on either flank but the Wanderers will be so hard to break down," says Culina.
"I believe Central Coast's best option is going wide and stretching the opposition, and they have the ability to hurt. The middle of the park has been great for the Wanderers this season.
"Obviously what the Wanderers have achieved is phenomenal, but let's not take anything away from the Mariners who have been great for three years now, so in one sense they deserve it."
Culina boasts a rare perspective of the two coaching protagonists for this weekend's showdown in Sydney.
Culina's star-studded Sydney United side of 1996/97 included none other than Wanderers coach Tony Popovic and assistant Ante Milicic, while he has also featured on the opposition bench to Mariners boss Arnold on numerous occasions.
"I know both guys well, and they will not have left anything out," said Culina.
"But they (the players) have to execute that and if not then everything goes out the window.
"As a coach everything goes through your head, how to line up and what the opposition will do.
"In Popa's case he may say that he does not know what he will do on the weekend, but he knows, and will have plans A, B and C sorted."
Culina says no matter what the level of preparation, the big match lead-up is different to a normal week.
"Coaches may say this is just another game, but it is not," he said.
"Players walking out to 40 or 50,000 is a different experience and they can react differently.
"I will never forget the '97 Grand Final or away to Urawa (in the AFC Champions League). When you arrive and see a huge crowd for the big occasion you have goose bumps on goose bumps. So the coach needs to relax players and settle them.
"Quite a few players wouldn't be enjoying the hype, they just want to play. Not all players are comfortable with all the distractions in the lead-up."
One area the Central Coast Mariners definitely have an edge over their rivals is Grand Final experience. The club will be featuring in their fourth decider with the current squad boasting nine survivors from their penalty shoot-out defeat against Brisbane Roar two years ago.
"The Mariners will be hurting from 2011," says Culina.
"They may not admit but they will have been waiting for this chance for a long time. They will be well prepared, and will leave no stone unturned to win it."