Are the Mariners and Phoenix the heroes that the A-League so desperately needs?

On Friday, the Central Coast Mariners headed down the Pacific Highway to take on Sydney FC in the first leg of their A-League Men semifinal clash, returning to Gosford later that night with a 2-1 advantage. Then, on Sunday, Wellington Phoenix met Melbourne Victory at AAMI Park, grinding out a 0-0 at a venue that has traditionally haunted them. Neither result was pretty. Nor were they anything close to decisive. But for their supporters they represented yet another important step on their Hero's Journey.

You're almost certainly familiar with the concept of a Hero's Journey, even if you've never encountered that exact phrase before. First popularised in American academic Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the monomyth, as it's also known, is one of the most enduring and recognisable of narrative archetypes, a basic building block of myths, epics, and tall tales from antiquity through to the present day, from Heracles to Luke Skywalker. And if one is inclined to frame things a certain way, it's also the chronicles of the Mariners and Phoenix in 2023-24.

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Right now, we're at a spot with those two wherein the ordeal of their regular season has been overcome, and a reward has been bestowed not in the form of a sword in a stone or a golden fleece but through a premiership and AFC Cup for the Mariners, as well as securing a space in next season's Asian Champions League Elite. Both have vastly surpassed expectations to reach this point, belying the anticipations of those such as the unfortunate YouTuber whose portrait is now pinned to the Phoenix's dressing room wall that expected them to refuse the call and fall down the table.

Along the way, first-year coaches Mark Jackson and Giancarlo Italiano have emerged as two of the premiere mentors in the competition, preparing their sides, Gandalf-like, to cross the threshold into finals football. There were tests that needed to be met and a series of enemies to be overcome but the Odyssey is now almost complete; halfway through the semifinals, the final few steps that need to be taken on the road back await, as the two upstart contenders seek a potential home Grand Final and their resurrection as A-League Men champions. And both possess the edge heading into the second leg of their ties, particularly the Mariners.

Not only did the newly crowned premiers overcome the travails of travelling back from Oman after winning the AFC Cup earlier that week, but they did so while the Harboursiders -- already without the injured Joe Lolley -- lost Jack Rodwell and Corey Hollman to red cards, and Jake Girdwood-Reich to injury. A remarkable subversion of expectations given that, on top of the logistical challenges being faced by the Mariners, they were meeting the only side that had beaten them twice this season.

The Phoenix, meanwhile, faced down the challenge of heading to a venue where they were winless in their last 20 appearances, where they hadn't beaten Victory since 2017, and emerged almost entirely unscathed.

Now, they return home for the decisive second leg at a Sky Stadium venue they've only lost once at all season (3-0 to Newcastle, go figure) and at which they've twice broken Victory's hearts late this season, first to snatch a 1-1 draw in January and then a 1-0 win last month. The biggest game in the club's history, it is hoped there will be close to a sellout of the venue's 34,500 capacity, all of which bar the most dedicated of travelling support will be desperate to see the Kiwi side qualify for a first-ever Grand Final, at the expense of one of the league's traditional bullyboys.

"I want everyone to come out to the game," said Italiano. "Even if you [only] have a faint interest, the buzz around town and ... the feeling that we're giving our fans is something that may never come again.

"If we're good enough to make the final we'll make it. And if we're not, it'll still be a celebration; we've still broken a lot of records this year and our players should be proud, our fans should be proud, the clubs should be proud. I'm actually pumped for this game."

Of course, looking beyond the narratives and at the actual games themselves, the rhetoric becomes slightly less soaring. Indeed, it's safe to say that in the third season since the reintroduction of the two-legged semifinal format -- sold by the A-League as "captivating drama for supporters and viewers" -- we're still waiting for the opening game of a tie to deliver a near-fatal blow (or set the scene for an astonishing comeback). Just twice in the six first legs that have been staged under this format has a side scored more than a single goal in the first leg and, on both occasions, it was the Mariners securing a 2-1 win -- last year against Adelaide United and this past Friday against Sydney. Not that this should have come as a surprise, especially without the introduction of an away goals rule to provide an added incentive.

"People say beware of the wounded animal," Jackson said as he looked forward to Saturday's return fixture. "We've got to be prepared for what they're going to bring."

Wound is probably the operative word for these kinds of games. It can't be kill, because even if some maulings can prove more mortal than others, the very nature of these contests means there's always a flickering glimmer of possibility heading into the second leg of games. Just ask Paris Saint-Germain who took a 4-0 lead into the second leg of their UEFA Champions League tie with Barcelona back in 2017, only to promptly fall to in the game which is now known as the Remontada. But across this weekend's games, all four A-League competitors largely adopted varying degrees of pragmatism rather than landing a telling blow on their foe.

Despite playing at home and their existing no away goals to punish them, Sydney and Victory deployed what would be pitched as more stout XIs for the first legs, the former partnering Jordan Courtney-Perkins and Girdwood-Reich with Luke Brattan in the midfield and the latter replacing the attack-minded Daniel Arzani, Ben Folami, and Jake Brimmer in their starting line-up with the more pragmatic Nishan Velupillay, Roly Bonevacia, and Salim Khelifi. Now, 90 minutes done, this perceived pursuit of resoluteness sees them chasing their ties on the road, coming off games where, even acknowledging Joel King's deflected goal, neither particularly looked like scoring; Sydney created just 0.38 expected goals off four attempts and Victory 0.75 from their 20 shots -- an average of just under 0.04 per effort against the league's statistically best shot-stopper, Alex Paulsen.

The Mariners, conversely, are better placed but will hope they don't get chased down and punished for not putting more past a Sydney side that was not just struggling to create -- Max Burgess 19th minute arrival sparked improvements but not enough to save him being subbed following Rodwell's red card -- but also down to 10 players on the hour and then down to nine when Hollman saw red in the 83rd minute. Really, only the Phoenix, who have built their campaign off being tight on the road and rampant at home, will likely have ended their clash with Victory feeling mostly satisfied with the way things played out, outshot 20 to six (but not giving up any big chances) and denied transition but still ready to pounce next week.

Indeed, next week the Phoenix story continues, as does the Mariners. And while Sydney and Victory are telling their tales of their own -- it's difficult to find a more apt sporting example of refusing the call and meeting the mentor than Sydney's abject start, the axing of Steve Corica and Ufuk Talay's arrival -- they have largely assumed the role of the antagonist this fortnight. A hero is only as good as their villain, after all, and given that 2023-24 offers a momentous opportunity for one of the league's traditional former punching bags to taste glory, the league's two original powers standing in their way represents a supremely fitting hurdle.

And the pair are good at playing this role, for they know what it's like to be reviled. Indeed, they probably prefer it, because the disdain that they have fostered is a special concoction brewed not just from resentment toward their traditional excess of resourcing or large and vocal fan bases but also from legacies of on-pitch success. Being the villain in games like these, in the eyes of Victory boss Tony Popovic, is "beautiful."

"We should embrace the hostility," he said. "Enjoy every moment on the park, trust ourselves and know that we're good enough to go through."

Here's hoping Popovic brings back the all-black suit next weekend.