If Bentleigh Greens win the NPL Grand Final on Sunday, the Cheltenham based club will create NPL history by becoming the first team to win three NPL Grand Finals and the first ever team to achieve the feat from outside the top four, eclipsing its feat in 2017 when it won the Championship after finishing fourth on the table.
Their mere presence in the Grand Final is a lesson in overcoming the odds. Written off by many just three weeks ago after being completely outplayed by Avondale at home in the final home and away round of the season, the Greens have since shown resilience in bouncing back and defying predictions of an early finals exit by defeating both Green Gully a fortnight ago, and Heidelberg United 2-1 in last week’s semi-final to make it to the Grand Final.
Recently announced new coach Nick Tolios believes that considering the numerous coaching changes for the senior team, particularly in the second half of the season that “it’s a credit to the club and the players in particular, for being able to stick together as a group and get themselves into a grand final. It’s amazing”.
Now all that stands between them and a historical third Championship trophy in five years is the formidable Avondale FC, itself trying to create its own piece of history by winning its first ever NPL title.
Both teams will have plenty of motivation to go all the way. Last year Avondale lost the Grand Final to Heidelberg United, but only after knocking Bentleigh out of the race in a dramatic semi-final win.
Avondale takes impressive form into Sunday’s final, ending Oakleigh Cannon’s 17-match unbeaten run with a well-deserved 2-0 semi-final at Avenger Park last Saturday. Against the Cannons, Avondale started a very attack minded midfield featuring Joey Katebian as the playmaker in behind the front three, with the experienced Jonathan Germanos and Tasuku Sekiya playing a defensive midfield role to minimise the influence of Cannons playmaker Joe Guest. This tactic was very effective and it will be interesting to see whether Avondale use the same ploy against the Green’s talismanic playmaker Tyson Holmes. Bentleigh coach Nick Tolios doesn’t believe that Avondale will use Sekiya in the same way in the Grand Final, but that he’ll probably revert to his customary playmaker role.
Fans can expect an open, attacking game, between two teams which possess skilful players and like to play football and pass through the lines. In their last meeting at Kingston Heath, Avondale effectively prevented the Greens playing their preferred possession based game, by pressing them hard and high, forcing turnovers or long passes forward out of defence. The Greens no doubt will be trying to prepare for this tactic on Sunday.
The Greens attacking options will be boosted by the return to the squad of winger Daniel Stynes from suspension. This will also allow them the option of playing Velibor Mitrovic as an attacking midfielder and dropping Holmes deeper if the game requires it.
Avondale have a myriad of attacking options, so much so that their fans will feel hopeful of their team scoring enough goals to win, even if the opposition takes the lead. Golden Boot winner Liam Boland leads the front line. Out wide, they have pace to burn opponents on transition through wingers Stefan Valentini and Stefan Zinni, although Zinni is under an injury cloud after coming off early against the Cannons with what looked like a shoulder injury. Also under an injury cloud for Avondale is skipper and experienced keeper Chris Oldfield who missed the semi-final through a thigh injury. Defender Matt Reid also missed that game. But such is Avondale’s depth, those players were hardly missed against the Cannons. They are a team that will back themselves to score, whatever the situation they find themselves in. The Greens know this only too well, after having led last season’s NPL semi-final against Avondale, 3-1 with minutes remaining, only to lose 4-3 after Avondale scored three goals in rapid succession. That’s the sort of football they’re capable of.
In his former role as Kingston City coach, Nick Tolios has coached against both these teams this year.
“I think it’s going to be a very even game,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a game like the last game of the season. Bentleigh has shown it has what it takes to win a finals game the hard way, winning both their finals matches away. Avondale’s strength is their squad compared with Bentleigh Greens at the moment. They’ve done an amazing job to get back to back grand finals. It’s not easy, and with a change of coach as well. This year I think they’ve gone up another level and they’ve brought in players that complement their style. We all know they’ve probably been the benchmark all season.”
Grand Final day at AAMI Park on Sunday 15 September features the following three finals:
12.30 pm NPL Promotion/ Relegation Play-off : Bulleen Lions v Dandenong Thunder
3.30 pm WNPL Victoria Grand Final : Bulleen Lions v Calder United
6.30 pm NPL Victoria Grand Final : Avondale FC v Bentleigh Greens