It may have come under some of the most unusual circumstances under which a team has ever had to win their league but, in the end, it was an outcome that carried a distinct air of familiarity and expectation. Once again, Melbourne City are the premiers of the A-League Men.
Knowing that nothing but three points would suffice, Patrick Kisnorbo's side downed Wellington Phoenix 2-1 to seal back-to-back regular-season crowns on Monday, finishing their campaign one point clear of crosstown rivals Melbourne Victory at the top of the table.
With 49 points, they secured the latest addition to the trophy cabinet at Casey Fields with the same tally that they won the league with last season, with just two goals fewer scored and only one more conceded. For the third consecutive season, striker Jamie Maclaren has taken the league's Golden Boot -- his fourth overall. Inevitably, questions will again be asked throughout the offseason if the 28-year-old will head overseas to give a bigger league another crack.
All very familiar. And if the consensus of preseason previews and predictions were any indication, an outcome that was largely anticipated by most. In truth, such is the depth of talent, facilities and sheer resources at the City Football Group-owned club, anything else would be considered a disappointment. That is the standard that City, both in Melbourne and as a global footballing conglomerate, have set themselves. Winning trophies, frankly, is what they're supposed to do. Such an evaluative framework may come across as an exercise in tall poppy syndrome but, in truth, it's a marker of respect. Nobody agonises over losers losing, after all.
City captain Scott Jamieson admitted as much in the days leading into the game, acknowledging that any season that didn't end with the club adding further silverware constituted a flop when he said: "Winning things is part of the game and this is a big boy league. This isn't a participation competition."
Well now, City's season will not be a failure in the eyes of their skipper. The club now becomes just the second side in ALM history to win back-to-back premierships, joining Graham Arnold's dominating Sydney FC sides of 2016-17 and 2017-18. Should they go on to secure a second-consecutive premiership and championship double, they would stand alone as the only team to achieve the feat.
And yet, even if Kisnorbo and Jamieson holding up the premiers' plate on the AAMI Park surface was the widely prophesied scene heading into Monday evening, the 90 minutes that preceded it were anything but routine.
Generally, standard practice would dictate that the final matchday of a season is staged with simultaneous kick-offs; ratcheting up the tension and removing any potential advantage to be gleaned from forewarning of other results and the subsequent ramifications. But with the 2021-22 ALM season's schedule already torn asunder, fans were instead presented with a scenario in which the three sides that could still win the premier's plate played on three successive days: a conga line of permutations and pressure. Thus, City took the field at AAMI Park well aware that Melbourne Victory's hammering of Sydney FC on Saturday meant nothing but a win would secure them the crown.
Of course, this also meant the Victory faithful were also aware that an improbable Phoenix upset would deliver them the league. This led to the bizarre spectacle of a contingent of their fans, roughly equivalent in size to the City supporters up the other end, cheering in the vain hope that a youthful, largely second-string Phoenix could pull off a miracle. Some bore scarves of AFL side Richmond, just to have something yellow-and-black to display in support. This led to remarkable scenes in which, at times, a New Zealand side that has had to base itself out of Sydney for the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic had more vocal support than the side looking to go back-to-back at home (at least when the one-night-only Nix fans remembered to support them rather than actively troll City).
Yet symbolically, the presence of these fans and their attempts to challenge their rivals in any manner that they could harkened to one of the greatest differences between this year and last for City. This time around, their noisy neighbours are actually good and not just a pathetic punching bag for bolstering goal difference. Just a year on from finishing bottom of the table and claiming their first ever wooden spoon, they've returned from the abyss under Tony Popovic to challenge for the crown that they once called their own. Despite the undeniably impressive nature of City's back-to-back premierships, Victory, riding a 15-game unbeaten run, appears more than capable of spoiling the party. Or perhaps, it will be someone else.
For as strong as they are, this is a City side that does not engender the same sense of inevitability that their 2020-21 iteration did, where a title felt assured despite losing four members to international duty. The defending champions ended their season having failed to defeat the other members of the top four -- Victory, Western United and Adelaide United -- in nine attempts. While they were unlucky in some of these games, others demonstrated clear foibles in their approach and ability to fashion high-quality shots when in possession.
Further, questions loomed over Kisnorbo's ability to adapt to changing circumstances and adjust when things weren't going his way heading into the Asian Champions League and despite the unfortunate circumstances that led to his undefeated side's early exit, they remain heading into the crucible of finals football.
Don't be mistaken, City will enter the finals as favourites. A club that has wrought the benefits of its long-term planning to become the standout club in the land, they've earned that right.
But in a season defined by unpredictability, nothing can be taken for granted once the knockouts begin. The unexpected, perhaps, should be expected.