A match in round 24 of the 2014/15 A-League season proved to be pivotal in the race for the premiership.
Surprise leader Wellington Phoenix hosted Melbourne Victory in a top-of-the-table clash and a win for the New Zealand team would make it almost uncatchable.
But the dream began turning into a nightmare after just 34 seconds when Victory’s Gui Finkler ran onto a Besart Berisha pass and scored. The visitors would win the game 3-0, take top spot and stay there.
Wellington would see its season collapse. With only one win in the remaining three rounds, Phoenix dropped to fourth (which would have been fifth if not for Perth Glory’s demotion for salary cap breaches) and was then knocked out in week one of the finals.
Saturday night’s round 24 match between Western Sydney and Adelaide United could be as instructive in this season’s premiership battle. It’s second versus third and will be played a day after fourth placed Melbourne City hosts the ladder leader, Brisbane Roar.
Both the glorious path that Melbourne Victory took at this stage last season and the rocky one Wellington found itself heading down are staring at the Reds.
Four straight wins won’t guarantee top spot as United can’t overtake Brisbane if the Queensland team wins its remaining matches. Nevertheless, given Roar’s poor away form – and that it has two of its remaining games in Melbourne – there’s a good chance it’ll stumble at least once.
The only trouble is that Adelaide’s run home is even harder with three out of its last four matches on the road. Moreover, the Reds have never won an A-League game at Parramatta Stadium, the venue for this Saturday night’s clash with Western Sydney.
United also travels to Melbourne in the final round to face the team that just ended the Reds’ long unbeaten streak – Melbourne City.
There’s no disgrace in losing to City but some of the reaction to that result has been puzzling, particularly the sudden discussion about how much depth United’s squad has.
It’s a sure sign that we sports fans have a tendency not to focus on potential weaknesses when things are going well because there’s no revelation here.
Only five weeks ago, before the Reds’ Asian Champions League playoff against China’s Shandong Luneng, I pointed out that in United’s 23-man (ACL) squad, seven hadn’t played more than 90 minutes in the A-League.
So that left 16 players with any real senior experience. For the rest of the A-League season that number is 17 as, due to respective competition rules, Pablo Sanchez and Iacopo La Rocca were ruled out of the Asian campaign while United was able to name Sergio van Dijk for it. As InDaily revealed last week, he is now back in Netherlands.
Among those 17 players are Stefan Mauk (20 years old, 41 A-League appearances, 17 of them as a sub), Bruce Kamau (20 years old, 23 appearances, 18 as a sub), George Mells (18 years old, 20 appearances, 10 as a sub) and Jordan Elsey who, before November, had only ever started one A-League game – and that was in April 2014 before a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament would sideline the young defender for a year.
Those four contributed to United’s superb form in recent months but it’s always going to be a tougher gig when an increasing number of more senior players are unavailable.
And injury problems were mounting for the match against Melbourne City. Tarek Elrich and Pablo Sanchez couldn’t be named in the squad, Isaias (returning to the team earlier than expected) started on the bench and Marcelo Carrusca didn’t reappear after half time.
Mells and Elsey copped some blame for the Reds’ performance but goodness that’s harsh.
Elsey, whose re-emergence has been one of the season’s great stories, was moved from his normal position in the centre of defence to left back (to cover Elrich) where he isn’t as well suited.
And Mells (who has a more impressive CV than most 18 year old Aussie players) was expected to hold the midfield together in the absence of Isaias.
Then throw in that those two young chaps spent a lot of the game facing two of the best attacking players in the competition: Harry Novillo and Aaron Mooy.
While Guillermo Amor is confident that Isaias is clear of injury, Elrich will miss the match against his former team, Western Sydney. We’re still no wiser about Marcelo Carrusca and Pablo Sanchez.
And that could be crucial. Without Carrusca firing, United is more likely to head down the path Wellington ended up on last season than the road that took Melbourne Victory to silverware.
Depth or not, the Argentine midfielder is irreplaceable and United’s record is far better when he’s playing than when he’s sidelined.
Paul Marcuccitti’s soccer column is usually published in InDaily on Mondays. He is a co-presenter of 5RTI’s Soccer on 531 program which can be heard from 10am on Saturdays.
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