If this season was represented by a motor race, it would be the one where the leader opens up a large gap and the second-placed driver also runs away from the car in third. So the director of the television broadcast focuses on the wheel-to-wheel action from third to eighth while the commentators occasionally remind us about who’s out in front.
Inevitably we now ask whether the Reds’ Absalonsen fabulous form (see what I did there?) of the last two weeks can continue and how far it can take them.
Some luck might run their way. Sydney will be buoyant after last night’s stirring Asian Champions League win over Suwon Bluewings but the trip will have been taxing and, when the Sky Blues face Adelaide this weekend, they’ll have nothing to play for having already secured top spot.
The problem, however, is that the two Melbourne clubs (currently sitting third and fourth) both get to play hapless Wellington in the last two rounds. That’ll make it hard for United to climb higher than fifth – now the Reds’ likely finishing position.
I’ve maintained that third wouldn’t be a bad spot to enter the playoffs from this season. The team that finishes third will – if it wins in the first week of finals – will go to Newcastle for a semi-final instead of Sydney. Sure, the Jets would still be tough opposition – despite their two recent losses – but that fixture remains less imposing than an away semi against the Sky Blues.
So Adelaide can now forget a route to the grand final which avoids a week two trip to face Graham Arnold’s all-conquering machine, right?
Maybe not. I’m going to shelve this column’s normal pessimism and present a possibility that fans rarely consider.
Unlike the finals system used by the Australian Football League and the National Rugby League, not every team in the A-League’s playoffs has a fixed path through them.
Yes, teams one and two get a week off before hosting semis. And the first week sees elimination finals in which team three hosts team six while team four hosts team five.
But we can’t yet say for certain where all the elimination finals winners would go in week two. That’s because the highest ranked winner will face the team that finished the regular season in second place; the other winner goes to play the team that won the Premier’s Plate.
The normal order can be upset if team six (probably Brisbane or Western Sydney this season) defeats team three (probably Melbourne City) in week one. That would mean the highest ranked winner from the elimination finals would be the winner of fourth v fifth (likely to be Melbourne Victory v Adelaide United) and that team would then play team two (i.e. Newcastle) in a semi-final, not team one (Sydney FC).
We rarely discuss this possibility because team three enjoys home ground advantage over team six and should, in any case, be better. Indeed, in the five completed seasons with the current finals system, sixth is yet to beat third in week one.
But we’ve certainly been close to a surprise in that fixture. Five years ago, Melbourne Victory needed extra time (after scoring a late equalising goal) to squeeze past Perth. When Victory finished sixth in 2015-16, it was only denied winning the 3 v 6 playoff by two late Brisbane Roar goals.
Last season Brisbane again finished third and its elimination final against Western Sydney went to penalties. Roar survived.
United fans might be cheering Brisbane on in two weeks. The Queensland team is currently sixth and might be heading for that third v sixth final again, this time as the lower-ranked team. And given Roar’s form (only Sydney has more points from its last 10 matches), you couldn’t rule them out.
I still can’t see the Reds winning the title but the wonderful thing about finals is they always provide hope. And there’s plenty to look forward to with a likely match against Melbourne Victory in week one. The impact of a certain Danish player should ensure there isn’t a repeat of United’s terrible performance when the teams met in February.
And maybe, just maybe, if the Reds win their first playoff, the other elimination final will give them the easier route to the title decider.
Paul Marcuccitti is InDaily’s soccer columnist.
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