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Adelaide United's season on a knife-edge

Manton St Tales

After a disappointing loss on the weekend, Adelaide United fans face the prospect of a difficult end to what was a very promising season.

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It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast between the two A-League matches played on Saturday.

But the normal order wasn’t followed as the main event was first.

And what a clash it was, pitting all-conquering Sydney FC (on the verge of becoming the first team to win back-to-back premierships in the A-League era) against the Newcastle Jets who, remarkably, have almost clinched a top-two finish less than 12 months after winning a wooden spoon.

Anyone who thought that a Sydney-Newcastle grand final might underwhelm has surely revised that view after the Jets overcame an early red card to win 2-1 and give us one of the season’s best matches.

Unfortunately, it was followed by a less noteworthy game which, frankly, could have been dubbed the we-were-famous-once derby.

After only finishing ahead of Newcastle in 2016-17, Adelaide United showed early signs of rejuvenation this season but, while a top three finish is still possible, falling out of the finals is starting to look more likely.

United’s opponent on the weekend was supposed to be one of the first teams you could rule a line through when the league kicked off in October. Brisbane Roar has several greats in its side but too many of them are eligible to play in masters’ leagues.

Still, if Roar is a retirement home, the Reds’ were kind enough to serve the tea on Saturday night.

What’s the problem? We’ve heard about United’s fighting spirit, how extra training sessions have given the players high fitness levels, and that coach Marco Kurz has great tactical nous. There wasn’t even a sending off or other costly refereeing decision to blame this time.

Perhaps then the answer is simply that the Reds lack quality on the park.

As News Corp’s Rob Greenwood tweeted on the night, they also lack a number 10.

While both Daniel Adlung and Jordan O’Doherty can play in that position, both operate (and look more effective) in deeper midfield roles.

The result, however, is that more United attacks come from wide positions. Which is fine if those moves are well executed.

But the official statistics show that, on Saturday night, while the Reds made 29 crosses (which is a lot), only four were accurate.

United’s best chance of the game came through O’Doherty, with the type of ball a number 10 plays, putting Nikola Mileusnic through on goal, but the shot was saved.

Otherwise, a disproportionately high amount of the Reds’ attacking intent was coming from fullback Michael Marrone, who started on the bench and came on for the second half. He has scored one A-League goal in 178 appearances.

Overall United fans were mostly treated (hmm, perhaps not the right word) to a display of ineffective possession. At times it was reminiscent of some of the more difficult periods during the Reds’ Catalan era.

No such problems for Brisbane which unlocked United’s defence on several occasions. Roar’s goal may have come from a free kick but striker Massimo Maccarone also missed a couple of chances he really should have buried.

The home side was good in transition and it does have a genuine number 10: Brett Holman. His ability to combine with the players either side of him – Éric Bauthéac and Fahid Ben Khalfallah – gives Roar more attacking options. Their forward forays are less predictable and, if they continue their reasonably good form of recent weeks, they might just sneak into the top six.

One of the few positives for United was the long-awaited return of Johan Absalonsen who may need to be the spark so desperately needed for the remaining five rounds.

The 1-0 loss to Brisbane means that Roar is now just four points behind United. And the Reds still have to face the competition’s top three clubs in the run home. So far this season, their record in six games against those teams is five losses and one draw.

Despite all the promise and optimism of earlier rounds, United could now miss playoff action, something that seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago. And if that happens, the 2017-18 campaign will be one of the club’s most disappointing.

Paul Marcuccitti is InDaily’s soccer columnist.

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