Besart Berisha ready to haunt Brisbane Roar, Perth will rely on Diego Castro
The first week of the Finals Series will see two more teams bow out of contention for this season's A-League championship. It's all on the line for Melbourne Victory, Brisbane Roar, Melbourne City and Perth Glory. Defeat means the end of another season, but triumph will take them one step from the pinnacle of Australian club football.
Here are five things to watch out for as four teams aim to keep their seasons alive:
1. Melbourne star controversially cleared
Without question the biggest talking point of the first week of the A-League Finals Series has surrounded the availability of Melbourne Victory striker Besart Berisha.
The fiery marksman was originally suspended for two matches in round 26 for an altercation with Wellington Phoenix defender Andrew Durante. However, following a lengthy appeal, the second match of that ban was this week overturned, clearing Berisha to face his old club Brisbane Roar in a sudden-death clash this Friday night.
As part of the appeal, Berisha claimed that Durante "was pushing down on my throat", a claim the Wellington skipper took umbrage to via Twitter.
What a bunch of disgraceful lies. Grabbed him by the throat?? Can I please get sent that footage? I won't have my name tarnished by lies.- Andrew Durante (@A_Dura22) April 12, 2016
Regardless of the details of that incident, the inclusion of Berisha is certainly a huge boost to Kevin Muscat's men, who have gone unbeaten in their past four matches. With their tails high, there is perhaps no better time to face Brisbane, a side who have never lost a final on home soil.
That Berisha is set to face the club he once won two championship titles with only adds further drama to this match. Expect no relent to the passionate approach he usually shows, with Brisbane defender Jade North -- a long-time friend of Durante -- to show no mercy.
2. Roar ready after blowing regular season chance
Having arguably exceeded expectations throughout the regular season, the final round was an anticlimax for Brisbane Roar. A 0-0 draw away to Melbourne Victory was not enough for coach John Aloisi to hoist the Premier's Plate. Instead, Brisbane finished in third place behind Adelaide United and Western Sydney Wanderers, who will both enjoy the week off as they await the two winning sides in the semifinals.
Despite the heartbreak, Aloisi will not be dwelling on those two competition points lost last start. The former Socceroo now has the perfect motivational tool at his disposal to lift his side.
Veterans such as Thomas Broich, Matt McKay and Corona will be even more hungry than they once were to make their fine season count when it comes to handing out silverware. Indeed, the ability for Corona to vary the game's tempo in the middle of the pitch could be the key to this intriguing contest.
3. City favourites despite Novillo absence
This season has been a real up-and-down affair for Melbourne City and, ominously, it's been a similar story for their winger Harry Novillo, who will -- pending the outcome of an appeal -- miss Sunday's final against Perth Glory.
Novillo will miss the elimination match, as he serves a two-game ban for his part in a melee which took place in and around the tunnel at half-time of last week's 2-0 defeat to Adelaide. Though the absence of the 24-year-old comes as a blow to City, with the likes of Aaron Mooy and Bruno Fornaroli around there is still more than enough firepower to edge out Perth.
City will, however, need to ride out what is anticipated to be a tense opening to match after both sides suffered defeats last start -- Perth losing 4-0 to seventh-placed Sydney FC.
Should their defensive leaders Patrick Kisnorbo, Alex Wilkinson and Ivan Franjic hold strong through this period, Mooy and Fornaroli will be able to shine as the match wears on.
4. Castro the key to Glory's hopes
Enigmatic Spanish midfielder Diego Castro has undoubtedly been one of the main reasons behind Perth's rapid rise into the top six in the second half of the season, and his likely return from a hamstring complaint could not come at a better time for coach Kenny Lowe.
The Glory were rudderless in their shock loss to Sydney last Sunday, a result which prevented the West Australians from attaining what would have been a valuable home advantage for this clash.
Make no mistake, Castro's inclusion will resolve this issue. His combination with striker Andy Keogh in particular is the main avenue through which the Glory can hurt City. Given this fixture will now take place in Melbourne, they will need both attacking players to be at their best.
5. Socceroos draw offers hope for A-League players
As more and more of Australia's national team squad is filled with locally-based players, this finals series will see plenty of Socceroos in action.
This week, while preparing for their biggest club matches of the year, players such as Mooy and Wilkinson from City, McKay from Brisbane and Josh Risdon from Perth will have had one eye on the next round of World Cup qualification.
The draw for the final stage on the road to Russia took place on Tuesday night, with the Socceroos placed in Group B alongside Japan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Thailand. No easy beats there.
As champions of Asia, Australia should relish the opportunity for such a challenging path to world football's biggest stage. As such, those players on the fringes of the national team should see the A-League finals series as their chance to prove they belong in that company.
Rob Brooks writes about Australian football and the A-League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @RobNJBrooks