Asked about the grind of early Grand Slam matches, Pete Sampras—not a guy overburdened with personality on or off the court— is supposed to have said that while “you can’t win a major in the first week, you can sure lose one.”
What’s true for tennis is truer still for soccer teams in February. It’s a month where competitions can’t be won, but can frequently be lost.
That’s exactly where Adelaide United are.
Let’s re-cap. Heading into the game at Coopers Stadium against Sydney FC on February 5, the Reds were nine games undefeated.
A 2-2 draw stretched that to double figures, but not without a cost. Firstly, Iacopo la Rocca, outstanding in central defence since returning from injury… went off with a knock. He’s since been cited for an off-the ball incident involving some part of his arm and Sydney FC striker Matt Simon’s head (a fantasy scenario for many A-League fans).
At the time of writing he’s been rubbed out for three weeks, although the club has announced it will appeal.
Second, Adelaide gambled ahead of their ACL qualifier against Shandong Luneng by keeping Bruce Djite and, more pertinently, Craig Goodwin and Marcelo Carrusca on the pine.
Sadly the house won and the Reds bust, mustering only a draw to Graham Arnold’s charges and then losing, in fairly traumatic circumstances, 1-2 to the fluorescent Chinese, drawing the curtain down on Sergio van Dijk’s second stint with the Reds (the “has he signed?” hoopla going on for much longer than he did).
As for Carrusca, the gun Argentine attacker kept fresh by Guillermo Amor will probably hear the thud of ball against crossbar in his dreams for weeks to come.
Adelaide won against the Mariners in Gosford in (maybe unnecessarily) nail-biting circumstances to stretch their unbeaten run to 11 and leap three full places in the table.
Adelaide United are up to 3rd. Third.
Go back through the history of this column to when the Reds were without a win in their first eight, when many fans were openly asking whether Guillermo Amor should lose his job, and reflect on that a moment.
But, in football it’s easy come, easy go.
It’s so tight below the top two of Brisbane and Western Sydney that, had they lost yesterday, Adelaide would have still been 6th. That underlines the point I’m making: that Adelaide United are halfway through the most important fortnight of their season, a run of fixtures that will go a long way to determining whether the Reds are contenders or pretenders, yet again.
The games against Sydney, Shandong and Central Coast have been played. But as each one of those games recedes from view, another, lurking in the minds of neurotic Reds fans for weeks, now shows us its face.
That’s this Friday night’s game, against Melbourne. The original Melbourne. The “Victory”. The team Adelaide fans most love to hate, led by their orcish provocateur-in-chief Kevin Muscat.
There’s no bigger game for Adelaide United fans.
Why? Well there’s the continuation of the famous, fierce interstate sporting rivalry. Vics vs Croweaters.
But it’s really about the pain of regular defeat. No A-League team has been better at delivering a swift kick to our guts. Reds fans remember the slowly unfolding horror of that 2007 Grand Final, the instant agony and “what could have been” of the 2009 decider or any number of narrow, flukey losses during the regular season. Melbourne is our bête noire, and it rankles. We love to beat them more than any other because we don’t do it often.
As Paul Marcuccitti has pointed out, it wasn’t always this way, until the intervention of a callow kid called James Robinson.
Without John Kosmina or Josep Gombau there might not quite be the needle of old, but Friday’s game will still have a lot of feeling, and a lot riding on it. Win, which Adelaide can absolutely do, and we can reflect on a strong fortnight and, “freed” from the commitments of the Asian Champions League, plot an assault on the top two places from the relative security of a consolidated 3rd spot.
Lose—and Melbourne would love to stamp our fingers off the ledge they’re clinging to—and Adelaide are back in the thicket of the bottom part of the top six.
Adelaide can do it. They’re ahead of Victory in the table. They have the players. Their tails are up. Carrusca and Goodwin are humming, Bruce Djite is scoring, the defence looks solid and Stefan Mauk has hit the ground running.
Of course, it’s very rare that Adelaide don’t have a team capable of inflicting a defeat on Melbourne.
It’s about how they handle the magnitude of the occasion, how well they swallow those lumps in throats and knuckle down to the task. Win, and not only will Amor have impressively steered his team to third, but he’ll have done something that Gombau never did. Win, and Adelaide prove they can go all the way this season.
In case I leave any Reds fans with a dangerous sense of optimism, there’s a sobering piece of trivia to chew over. In the 11 and a bit years of the A-League, Adelaide United have won only three regular season games (and no finals matches) against the Victory in Melbourne.
Those games have all been played at different venues: in the first season of the A-League, Adelaide escaped from Olympic Park with a 2-1 victory. The next year, the game best known for Muscat and John Kosmina having a set-to near plastic lawn chairs actually finished 1-0 to the Reds. The other occasion was the oh-so-sweet 4-1 win at AAMI Park on January 9, 2011. Do you remember who was untouchable for the Reds that day, walloping a free kick into the corner of Melbourne’s net?
Sergio van Dijk, recently departed—again.
Mateo Szlapek-Sewillo is a co-presenter of 5RTI’s Soccer on 531 program, which can be heard from 10am on Saturdays. His fellow presenter Paul Marcuccitti will return next week.
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