I reckon it took me a while to really ‘get’ Adrian Zahra’s greatness. The Warriors have boasted an astonishing array of A-grade show-timers in their ranks for the past three years, so it’s been hard to be a headline in a team full of headliners. And I reckon Zahra maybe steals his own show with the flamboyant encore. I mean we love to see him score, but I reckon we love his trademark off-one-step summersault celebration even more. But I’ll be watching Adrian Zahra closely this coming Sunday. It’s his kind of game.

Coming off a dispiriting finals exit, the Warrior wonder-boys have now set themselves for once last lunge at era-defining glory in the national NPL Cup series. Heidelberg hosts Perth at Port’s Shark Park on Sunday evening. And it’s a big game, very big. And I’ll be watching Zahra especially, because big games are what the ‘Mexican’ does best.

Five minutes into last year’s grand final Zahra closed the deal for me. It takes special quality to quell the big game nerves, especially around goal. But Zahra’s clinical chip over the keeper, as he ran full clip and pumped with adrenalin was stone cold. That goal left Avondale on the back-foot from the get-go and set up the win. Early going in big games should be all nervous anxiety, shallow breathing, tension, tightness and perhaps a little fear. Nup, Zahra just went whack and turned the game on its head, as if it were a regulation training drill. ‘Y arriba’!

And a retrospective on games since, in virtually every significant match in 2019 the little ‘Mexican’ has turned his game up to eleven when it counted. Re-watch the Avondale win in the final round. Zahra was a beast that day, I suspect covering in excess of the roughly 11 to 12 kilometres of ground that he does on a regular basis. Relentless running. Inspirational. Case closed.

At first glance, Sunday’s clash with Perth doesn’t exactly reek of big game status, but it is a hugely meaningful first of a potential three games that the ‘Invincibles’ must win to clinch this NPL series. For now, much is unspoken, but this remarkable playing group must be sensing the inevitable change and regeneration of the current squad many suspect may commence when stumps are drawn on 2019. And, with footballing mortality looming, with it comes the urgency of taking one last amazing ride together. Let’s roll, boys. One more time.

And with so much at stake, keep a keen eye on Zahra leading the charge. That declared, Zahra is hardly inconspicuous on a weekly basis, but even his coach, George Katsaskis, buys into the bigger the game and better the ‘Mexican’ theory. Kats credits Zahra’s A League experience with “the quality he has bought to this club since he joined us”.

“And yeah, I reckon if you do track back and look at all the big games we’ve been involved in in recent years, you’d have to say he’s played a big part in success in those game, with few exceptions” he continued. “He’s been critical in turning us into as successful team and bringing the group together. And I don’t think people realise his leadership qualities, either. He is very, very strong in his messages to the group”.

Zahra is a difficult match-up. He is very quick and scoots along at quite a clip, but his low trajectory also makes each stride powerful and he is rarely caught nor buffeted off the ball easily. Momentum and fearlessness carry him through aspirational tacklers. He bobs and weaves deftly in heavy traffic.

He is perpetual motion, the Energiser Bunny. Maybe the Tassie Devil, spinning and growling to make a second effort count. And his size allows him in and under, where he can fairly dig the ball out through a sea of legs. And Zahra plays crash, bash and intimidation with gusto. Oh, and he’s also quite the polished finisher. If ever a game was turned and a team regenerated by the example of few, re-watch Zahra and O’Brien’s herculean performances in the last round at Avondale. Zahra’s fierce attacks on the footy had Avengers reeling. Zahra makes us smile.

Zahra, who celebrates his 29th birthday next Tuesday, has become something of a talisman for Warrior success, having landed at Catalina Street just in time to play 96 games over the three remarkable seasons of 2017 through 2019. Should the Warriors go on to win the national NPL title again this year, Zahra will finish the season on 99 club games and eight winner’s medals. That’s a medal every twelve games or so. Nice work if you can get it.

And so it’s game day once again. Shark Park. The boys are back and ready to rumble. Get loud. Be proud. Warrior Nation. It’s where we live.

FOOTNOTE – If you’ve not worked it out already, give yourself a whack. But for those slow on the uptake, “el grande juego especialista” translates to, yep, you guessed it, the big game specialist.