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United stays in The Chase

Manton St Tales

Did we enjoy the beginning of “The Chase”? Has it made the remaining A-League rounds more exciting?

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Now don’t tell me you’ve forgotten that back in June FFA announced, with some fanfare, that the “run-in towards the Hyundai A-League 2017/18 Season Finals Series is set to reach even greater excitement levels thanks to a new feature of the draw known as ‘The Chase’.”

Described as a “thrilling new twist to the draw”, it sees every club play each other in the lead in to the finals the last nine rounds.

But you could be forgiven for missing that the round of A-League matches just played was the first in “The Chase” as it’s had less publicity in the last few days than it did when it was announced. Apart from those words finding their way into a few previews on the A-League’s website, they’ve been largely absent.

The reason might have been that it was also “Rebel Sport Play Football Round” – a promotion of junior registrations and a campaign that you wouldn’t want diluted by other messages.

More than two years ago – and at a time when matches between Adelaide United and Newcastle weren’t reaching great heights – I lamented that the teams had just played each other for the second time in 26 days (thanks to the A-League’s odd fixture list).

And I pointed out that in most countries teams face every opponent the same number of times (usually twice) and the second league meeting between two clubs doesn’t occur before those teams have played all the others.

So “The Chase” should really be a normal part of the draw. Indeed, true normalisation will come when both the first nine rounds and the second are also round robins.

The fixture list has delivered both good and bad for Adelaide United in recent weeks. Despite its momentous change, it still scheduled two meetings between the Reds and Perth Glory in 29 days.

Which is good because ideally you’d get to play Perth every week… and bad because, now that we’re in “The Chase”, United won’t play Glory again.

Glory have been so bad defensively that they’re on track to be the first club to concede an average of more than two goals a game in an A-League season since the dismal Central Coast team of 2015-16.

And that has boosted the chase the Reds are involved in – the chase for third place (which I was perhaps a little premature in giving up on a fortnight ago).

While it may have been stating the obvious, I also said that a squad that was fully fit (or close to it) would help. For Saturday, United’s list of injured players was down to four. Not low but given the season’s difficulties on that front it doesn’t seem so bad.

Three of the unfortunate four (Vince Lia, Baba Diawara and Johan Absalonsen) have only managed a combined total of 17 appearances in 2017-18; Tarek Elrich has been recovering from the anterior cruciate ligament injury he sustained in April.

And because we’ve seen so little of those players, it’s hard to guess how big their impact would be now. If fit, Lia could come in for Jordan O’Doherty; Diawara for George Blackwood; Elrich for Ryan Strain or Ben Garuccio; and Absalonsen for Ryan Kitto or Nikola Mileusnic.

But while that may look a better side on paper, it might not be on the pitch, particularly given how underdone some of the sidelined quartet are and how well the chaps who’d potentially make way have been playing.

That perhaps makes the squad’s potential for the rest of this season a little easier to assess but while the closer-to-full-strength teams of the last fortnight have picked up two crucial wins, they’ve been against clubs in the bottom three.

Next up is the other struggler – Central Coast – which is winless in its last 10 games. It’s a potential banana skin but also a game which might not leave us much wiser about where the Reds truly sit in comparison to their rivals.

And with the game against the Mariners being two weeks away, we have to wait until 24 February for the next encounter with a club United is in a direct battle with on the ladder – Melbourne Victory.

The Reds moved ahead of Victory and in to fourth place on the weekend but their old foe is likely to be tougher to beat next time than it was when the sides met in December: its two recent losses have been against the competition’s leaders.

We may not have needed to brand these closing weeks as “The Chase” but at least here in Adelaide our club is truly involved in one.

Paul Marcuccitti is InDaily’s soccer columnist.

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