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United's stunning comeback shouldn't shroud reality

Manton St Tales

Adelaide United’s biggest challenges lie ahead, writes soccer columnist Paul Marcuccitti, who wonders at the double-standards applied to certain figures in the A-League.

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Two goals down, just 10 players on the pitch, and half an hour to go.

Of course, you’d take a draw at that point. And the rally that gave us the final 2-2 score in United’s match against Central Coast on Saturday night also gave Reds fans one of the most exciting matches of the season.

Given how well United played when defeat seemed inevitable, it almost seems churlish to point out that, before the game, most fans would have seen a draw as a bad result. But it is a big setback in the run to the finals.

With seven rounds left, the Reds are fourth, four points behind Melbourne City and three ahead of both Melbourne Victory and Western Sydney.

But now United only has one more match against a bottom-three team: at home to Wellington Phoenix in round 25.

Both Melbourne clubs still have games against Phoenix, Perth Glory and the Mariners; teams they should beat. The importance of the Reds’ next match – away to Victory – has gone up another notch.

It’s a difficult one to predict. United’s last three games have all been against the strugglers. Old rival Victory has lost its last three but two of those were against the competition’s leaders: Sydney and Newcastle.

I know I talk about the strength/ability of opponents a lot but as supporters, we are, understandably, more focused on the clubs we follow. A win and you worry more about what you did well than what the other team did badly, and the reverse is true after a loss.

But no matter how many positives there were from Saturday night’s stirring comeback, it was against a team that has now stretched its winless run to 11 matches.

Even with an extra player, Central Coast all but invalidated one of the great quotes about the game (by Jean-Paul Sartre): “In football everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team.”

And it seems no one around the country is genuinely talking about just how bad the Mariners are. While several observers are busy bashing Wellington and positing that the league would be better off without the team from New Zealand, Central Coast has, in the last few seasons, been even worse.

Since last making the finals in 2013-14, the Mariners’ finishing positions have been eighth, tenth, eighth and, without a massive turnaround this season, a fourth consecutive finish in the bottom three beckons.

Even more extraordinarily, there seems to be little or no pressure on Central Coast’s coach, Paul Okon. It’s his second season in charge and, after 47 matches at the helm, his record is nine wins, 13 draws and 25 losses.

In testing that view – that media weren’t laying a glove on Okon – I typed his name into a search engine with “under fire”. The first results were from December and the “under fire” coach wasn’t Okon, it was Josep Gombau who, at that point, had been Western Sydney’s coach for just five games. [In that report the Mariners coach was furious about the video assistant referee; surprisingly he wasn’t on Saturday.]

I tried another favourite of sports journalists: “embattled”. That didn’t produce anything recent and the first hit was a story from August 2016 … about how Okon was given the coaching job at the “embattled Mariners”.

And all of this suggests something I’ve mentioned before: double standards.

Wellington Phoenix – of New Zealand – doesn’t contribute enough to the A-League? Answer: kick the Kiwis out. But who’s talking about how little we get out of Central Coast?

Josep Gombau – from Spain – oversees three bad losses with the Wanderers (with a team he inherited) and he’s “under fire”. But under Okon, who is now able to use several players that he recruited, the Mariners are in freefall. And… silence.

Central Coast has now led while having a one-player advantage twice in its last five matches. Both ended in draws. For that to happen once may be regarded as a misfortune…

Any review of Saturday’s match at Adelaide United’s training centre is likely to acknowledge the superb fightback while recognising that it was a match the Reds expected to win. But the focus must shift quickly to the crucial next three weeks which sees encounters with both Melbourne teams and Brisbane Roar.

I’ve said before that these matches will be the ones that tell us where the Reds truly sit in comparison to their rivals. It’s becoming increasingly likely that they’ll also play a big role in deciding where United finishes on the ladder.

And that ride might be as thrilling as that last half hour against the Mariners.

Paul Marcuccitti is InDaily’s soccer columnist.

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