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Long and the short of it: United already look more competitive

Manton St Tales

United's first showing in the fresh A-League season gives fans hope that last year's disappointments will be left behind, writes Paul Marcuccitti.

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It’s only after the first round of the A-League that you realise that it isn’t a short season.

Sure, the big leagues of Europe have longer campaigns. And our off season seems excessive.

But with 26 rounds to go, what can the first weekend really tell us?

A year ago, Adelaide United opened with a rather dull 1-1 draw in Newcastle. When the season ended, the Jets were the only team that finished lower than the Reds.

And yesterday United again drew with a team that is expected to finish closer to the bottom of the table than the top.

That, however, is not bad news. An away point is usually a good result. Despite all its difficulties in 2016-17, Wellington Phoenix lost just five matches at home.

The other good news is that, well, it’s a long season. And United will need time to get the best out of its squad.

That there has been a lot of turnover since the Reds were crowned champions in May 2016 is hardly a revelation, but specifying just how much change there has been gives some perspective.

Seven of the 16 players in Adelaide United’s squad from yesterday joined (or, in a couple of cases, re-joined) the club in the off season; five debuted for the Reds in 2016-17, and just four were around for both the triumphant 2015-16 campaign and the disappointing title defence.

Two of those four had long-term injuries last season: Michael Marrone, who missed more than half of it, and Jordan Elsey who missed it all.

Another of the four, young reserve ‘keeper Daniel Margush, has made just three A-League appearances so captain Isaías was the only United player in Wellington yesterday who has been a near ever present in the last two seasons.

Despite several FFA Cup matches and friendlies in recent months, you could forgive some misunderstandings and moments of poor coordination with this group in round one. But while few fans will be rushing to watch replays of yesterday’s encounter, the new-look Reds put in a fair performance.

And one of the best moments of coordination resulted in a goal with a well-timed and well-directed cross by Nikola Mileusnic met by Johan Absalonsen’s header.

… with a little more polish, the Reds might even be contenders.

At a time when it’s fashionable to say that the competition doesn’t provide enough opportunities for young players or those who star in the state-based National Premier Leagues (partly because of clubs preferring to sign foreigners and existing A-League players), it’s worth noting that those two chaps represent polar opposites in recruitment.

United signed Mileusnic a year ago as he was completing a superb season in the NPL here in Adelaide; Absalonsen had only ever played for teams in his native Denmark when he joined the Reds in July.

Perhaps some teams don’t do enough to give young players a chance in the A-League but United has a reasonable record of developing them – several have made it into Socceroos squads in recent years.

And that’s despite the Reds continually filling the five spots for overseas players that the A-League allows. Apparently you can chew a little gum while you walk.

Absalonsen’s goal made it 1-1 in the 10th minute as Wellington had just gone ahead through former United playmaker Dario Vidošić.

But that was the end of the scoring. The Reds’ best chance after that fell to striker George Blackwood but his fine effort was denied by the outstretched knee of Phoenix ‘keeper Keegan Smith.

Twenty year-old Blackwood is another potentially good signing. His selection for yesterday’s game meant that Baba Diawara, who was impressive late last season, watched from the bench. It’s going to take a while getting used to the idea that we have more than one genuine centre forward at the club.

Blackwood’s arrival, however, also reminds us that Sydney FC remains the team to beat. The Sky Blues released him at the end of last season and that says more about the strength of their squad than it does about the young striker’s potential.

Still, there’s reason to believe that United will be much more competitive this season. And with a little more polish, the Reds might even be contenders.

The next few weeks might tell us a little more – they’ll certainly be challenging.

After the long trip to New Zealand the Reds will be travelling again, to Brisbane, for a Friday night meeting with Roar. The Queensland team was underwhelming in its opening match against Melbourne City but has had an excellent record in home matches in recent seasons.

Then it’s home games against the Victorian teams: Melbourne Victory at Adelaide Oval followed by Melbourne City at Hindmarsh.

It’s been a long wait but the return of the A-League will help Reds fans put last season’s disappointment behind them. And a more positive campaign awaits.

Paul Marcuccitti is InDaily’s soccer columnist. He will track the Reds’ progress throughout the A-League season.

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