As the race to secure a spot in this year's A-League finals heats up, Central Coast coach Alen Stajcic says the competition has reached a level of excitement not seen in years.
Stajcic's Mariners head into Wednesday's clash with Brisbane at Moreton Daily Stadium in fourth place on the ladder, with the Roar just two points behind in seventh place.
Beyond league leaders Melbourne City, who are now nine points clear at the top of the table, the race to reach the top six is incredibly tight.
With between five and seven games remaining among those in contention, just five points separate second and ninth on the ladder.
Perth's 2-1 win over Melbourne Victory on Sunday also has them as an outside chance of sneaking into the six, nine points behind sixth-placed Western Sydney but with two games in hand on the Wanderers.
Stajcic said given all the challenges thrown at players during the campaign, including COVID-19 shutdowns, travel restrictions and fixture chaos, it was laudable just how good the season had been.
"It's been an unbelievable competition this year," Stajcic said.
"It's probably, if I was a neutral, the most exciting A-League in years, in terms of levels of closeness.
"The level of excitement within matches, the players have really performed.
"I think the players across the board deserve a lot of credit, from every club, they've had to sacrifice a lot this year and more than any other year.
"Whether it's living away from home, whether it's excessive travel, whether it's the small turnarounds between matches - it's just never had to be done before in the A-League."
The Mariners, who spent much of the early part of the season leading the league, will be aiming to end a five-game stretch without a win when they play the Roar but Stajcic is wary of an opponent that pushed City all the way at AAMI Park on Sunday despite losing 3-2.
"They've had a good run of form and even in a game where they were dominated against Melbourne City, they showed a good level of resilience," Stajcic said.
"We're coming up against a good opponent but I know if we play at our best that we can certainly be successful on the night."