Hamish McCabe celebrates firing Modbury Jets into the 2023 NPL SA Grand Final (Image: Adam Butler/80Kms.)

The NPL SA Finals Series has produced multiple surprises and in a Grand Final tno one predicted, that trend will undoubtedly continue.

As recently as a month ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find even a single non-partisan member of the South Australian football community that would have predicted either Adelaide United Youth or Modbury Jets to make the NPL Grand Final. Fast-forward a few weeks later and both sides have either regained players or found form at the right time of the season to set up an unlikely Grand Final clash.

For the majority of 2023, the expectation was that Premiers MetroStars would be facing Campbelltown City, as they did in the Federation Cup Final, but with both falling a week short of their intended target, the stage is set for a South Australia to add a new Champion to its history books. As we edge closer to Friday night’s kick-off, The Inner Sanctum takes a look at the talking points that surround the decider.

Modbury’s dominance over Adelaide United in 2023

Adelaide United enters the 2023 NPL SA Grand Final as firm favourites, with multiple players with A-League experience, who have already featured in the Finals Series, expected to play a part on Friday night. Despite that, the “underdogs” enter the match having beaten Airton Andrioli’s Young Reds in both of their encounters this season.

The most recent match, which took place at Smith Partners Stadium, saw the Jets dominate and win by three goals on a wet June afternoon, but Adelaide United had the excuse of multiple absentees due to the mandatory A-Leagues off-season break and international duty commitments. When the two teams faced off in early April, an encounter which the Jets once again won, the Young Reds’ starting lineup boasted of players such as Panashe Madanha, Asad Kasumovic, Bernardo, Luke Duzel, Luka Jovanovic, Musa Toure, and even featured Nathan Amanatidis off the bench.

The Reserve sides of both clubs also faced off in the Federation Cup Final in June which the Jets once again won. Modbury has proven that it will not be pushed around or be dictated by its opposition, and it will once again look to hit the talented Young Reds on the break, something which has proved effective in 2023.

Can the free-scoring Jets keep out A-League firepower?

One problem the newly-promoted Jets have not faced on their fairytale run to the NPL SA Grand Final is a lack of goals. In fact, Maurice Natale’s men scored 46 goals, the third most in the competition, in the regular season, and even scored five goals in two games in their Semi-Final clash against MetroStars, a side that had previously only conceded 17 goals in 22 games.

With Hamish and Liam McCabe, along with Stefan Matteo, Joshua Hernandez, Cooper Wegener, and even captain Jesse Francesca, who has scored both his 2023 league goals against the Young Reds, Modbury will once again be looking dangerous in front of goals, but the concerns lie on the other end of the pitch. Despite their high-scoring ways, Modbury conceded 50 regular season goals, which meant it entered the Finals Series with a negative goal difference; making the Grand Final is a tremendous achievement but a stacked Adelaide United side poses a difficult proposition.

With young stars such as Luka Jovanovic, Nestor Irankunda, and Panashe Madanha expected to lead the Adelaide United firing line, and creators like Ethan Alagich, Luke Duzel, and Fabian Talladira in the midfield, the Jets’ defence will be working overtime. The key for Modbury will be its physicality, it is what has helped get it to this point and it will be the key to unsettling a talented Adelaide United side into misfiring on the big night.

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A makeshift center-back partnership against the league’s chief agitators

Adelaide United began its 2023 NPL SA campaign with the defensive partnership of Kane Vidmar and Panagiotis Kikianis which led the team not only defensively, but offensively too. It is a testament to the talent of the young side that it has been able to reach the Grand Final off the back of Vidmar exiting the club after receiving a contract from A-Leagues side Western United, and Kikianis’ foot injury which ruled him out of the Finals Series.

Airton Andrioli seems to have settled on a newly formed partnership between Fergus Lynch and Jeanpaul Mbembe to combat the notable losses. The pair has performed admirably when you consider the former is a fullback, undersized for the central defensive slot, and that Mbembe is a utility player who can play across the backline or as a defensive midfielder and has not been able to secure a consistent starting position in the side until recently.

The pair will undoubtedly be tested on the weekend, with the McCabe brothers, Stefan Matteo, and Joshua Hernandez all thriving when putting pressure on their opponents, something which they have profited from recently. The Modbury press forced the usually unflappable MetroStars into uncharacteristically costly errors, and if the Young Reds, and the aforementioned center-back partnership, are not careful they may be added to the highlight reel of Jets goals in a fairytale season.

Will the goalkeeping prove decisive?

For Adelaide United, its two Semi-Final games against Campbelltown City were the tale of two magnificent goalkeeping performances. In both legs, Ethan Cox and Steven Hall conceded early before holding their ground and denying the Red Devils any further goals which allowed their teammates to find the back of the net and win the tie convincingly, with both goalkeepers adding to their catalogue of saves throughout the games.

With Cox on Olyroos duty, Hall will be entrusted between the sticks and will be kept busy by the vast firepower Modbury possesses. On the other side of the field, Ryan Neild will more than likely start, and being one of the few NPL players with international experience, he will be unfazed by the occasion or the big names that he is coming up against.

Modbury may hold a secret weapon on its bench, one Adelaide United knows painfully well, and that is backup goalkeeper Luke Luongo. Luongo was Modbury’s goalkeeper when it beat the Young Reds in the 2023 Reserves Federation Cup Final, and the young goalkeeper performed exceptionally in the penalty shootout, making multiple saves in the process. The goalkeeper’s man-of-the-match performance and confidence between the sticks at such a decisive moment may just be a trick up Maurice Natale’s sleeve if the match is to be decided by the lottery that is a penalty shootout.

Luke Luongo saving one of the multiple penalties he kept out in the 2023 Reserves Federation Cup against Adelaide United (Image: Adam Butler/80Kms.)

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