But in most seasons you reach a point when you realise that, even if your team will probably see playoff action, it’s not likely to get very far without a sudden surge of form or a lot of luck (or both).
That would be unprecedented too. Since the current finals format was introduced in 2012-13, in every season the top two teams at the end of the regular rounds have also been the grand finalists.
Three years ago, I felt Adelaide United had a genuine shot at winning the (2014-15) title right up until the Reds suffered back-to-back losses in rounds 25 and 26. They would still go into the playoffs from third spot but I just couldn’t see them lifting the old toilet seat.
Similarly, Saturday night’s performance against Melbourne Victory was that of a team that isn’t going to play in the grand final.
We can reach for all the excuses we like but the Reds were well beaten by a club that had lost its last three A-League games and played in China four days earlier.
Perhaps even more instructive is that United hasn’t defeated a team outside the bottom three since its last match against Melbourne Victory on 8 December.
Sure, unavailability has been a problem but there are fewer injuries now and the Reds’ line up has been more settled in recent weeks.
And even though a United player was sent off again on Saturday night, the Reds were already two down at that point.
Ah but there’s always a referee to blame, isn’t there?
Wait, no, blame Football Federation Australia. It appointed young Alex King for this game – only his sixth in the A-League.
What a terrible decision! Don’t people KNOW that matches between Victory and United are different; that professional footballers will be more (or less?) professional in those matches than they would be in others?
Like any player, if a referee is good enough, he’s old enough. And while King made two errors at United’s expense, he didn’t have a bad game (indeed I was impressed with the way he allowed advantages when players were fouled).
Yes, a free kick should have been awarded to George Blackwood in the lead up to the first goal. But does that absolve the Reds’ hesitancy at the back which gifted Victory the lead?
And yes, Jordan O’Doherty was brought down on the edge of the penalty area later in the half. But when the whistle wasn’t blown United played on and created a better opportunity than the free kick would have been.
I can’t agree with fans who think King shouldn’t have shown a red card to Džengis Čavušević. A playful slap might be harder than the one United’s new signing hit Rhys Williams with. But most refs are still going to see that as a sending off offence.
It was not dissimilar to the infamous David Beckham – Diego Simeone incident 20 years ago (in which Simeone fouled Beckham and, while on the ground, the English midfielder retaliated by flicking his leg at his Argentine opponent who then made the most of it – Becks saw red too).
We all get flustered with officials of course but it really is time to put a lid on debates (if we can apply such a lofty word) about refereeing. It’s not criticism any more, it’s hysteria.
Unfortunately, coaches and players know that talking about match officials can take the spotlight off their performances and results.
But if they – and fans – truly think we need better referees coming up the ranks I’m not sure dishing out a weekly barrage of abuse will help.
The story of Saturday night’s match, certainly for the Reds, is that they were clearly second best against a direct rival for ladder position.
Next weekend offers an opening. While United travels to Brisbane the two teams above the Reds will face each other in the Melbourne derby. But then it’s a tough road home with Melbourne City, Newcastle Jets and Sydney FC to come in the last five rounds.
Maybe a fit Johan Absalonsen in the form he began the season with could provide a spark. Or Čavušević might redeem himself (after he’s forced to cool his heels next weekend).
But having waited so long for a test that would tell us more about how United matches up against the teams around it, I fear the answer is: not as well as we’d hoped.
Paul Marcuccitti is InDaily’s soccer columnist.
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