And so here we are.
It’s hard to believe that Adelaide United has not secured a spot in the A-League finals, but that’s the unfortunate reality.
United need just a solitary point against Western Sydney to confirm their place in the top six. Ideally a win would be better because it could mean Adelaide has at least one home final.
But if the Reds lose tonight, their fate will lie in the hands of others. And based on what we’ve seen from United recently, it’s not out of the realms of possibility.
At times this season, Adelaide has looked unstoppable but, other times, completely unpalatable.
Their performance against Sydney FC last Saturday was a strong reminder that the Reds have lots of work to do.
Sure, Sydney is stacked. Their line-up reads like an A-League all-star team: Le Fondre, Bobô, Ninkovic, Caceres, Barbarouses, Brattan, Wilkinson, McGowan, Grant and Redmayne occupied 10 of the starting 11 spots.
Most teams would struggle against a team of that calibre. But it’s impossible not to criticise the tactics in Saturday’s game. United could have lost by seven or eight goals. Whatever their game plan was, it didn’t work.
Tactically, the Reds have become predictable. Teams are quick to compress against United and stop them playing their preferred free-flowing game. This affects Adelaide’s ability to involve its key players.
From the top of the southern stand at Hindmarsh last week, I could clearly see how Sydney structure and organisation strangled Adelaide. They compressed the half-spaces, were tight vertically and horizontally and Adelaide couldn’t break them down.
It meant the Reds were forced to try and play long balls to Al Hassan Toure. It was chicken feed for Sydney’s centre-backs Wilkinson and McGowan.
Squad selection has also been peculiar.
Foremost, I would love to have been a fly on the wall when Carl Veart explained to Louis D’Arrigo that he was being dropped from the starting 11. He has been on the bench for the last four straight games, playing an average of 20 minutes.
The young holding midfielder is the one who makes Adelaide’s engine room work. Without him, we look a mess.
I can’t be the only one who has noticed thi,s and yet D’Arrigo finds himself benched. I accept we aren’t privy to what happens at training and behind closed doors, but on the face of it D’Arrigo’s form wasn’t so bad that he deserved to be dropped.
As much as I like Ryan Kitto, there are better options at left back – namely Javi Lopez, Josh Cavallo and Noah Smith (remember him?).
Kitto has performed admirably in a position that isn’t his natural spot, but the Reds’ best patch of form this season was with Javi Lopez playing left-back.
It seems logical to restore the Spaniard into the defence tonight, with D’Arrigo joining Cavallo and Mauk in midfield.
Veart confirmed in his pre-game presser yesterday that Michael Marrone will replace the suspended Jordan Elsey in the starting line-up.
Marrone came on last Saturday and, as always, performed with a consistency that has been the hallmark of his career.
This could be the last time we see Marrone in a United shirt. With his contract ending, he’s been a bit-part player at best this season and it seems likely he won’t be retained.
The immediate question becomes: why not George Timotheou? Veart has made no secret of his preference for a right-foot/left-foot combination in central defence and that’s probably got Marrone over the line. But, Marrone is not a natural centre-back while Timotheou is. And the inclusion of Marrone makes Adelaide very small defensively. It’s another curious decision, especially considering that Timotheou may be the only centre-back left at United come seasons end.
Veart confirmed there would be more changes to the squad, alluding to sore bodies and tired players, which is concerning considering its crunch time.
Someone who will be a welcome addition is striker Tomi Juric but Veart stopped short of confirming if the Socceroo will start the match or play off the bench.
“He’s done the full training for a week-and-a-half with the group,” the United manager explained.
“So he’ll come in and provide a good focal point for the team.”
When questioned if Adelaide missing out on finals would be a failure, Veart agreed.
“As a club we always want to play in the finals, we’ve said that from day one,” he said.
“We expect to make finals. We believe our squad is good enough to win the championship.
“So for us to get a pass mark, we have to make the finals and do well in the finals.”
Tonight’s game therefore becomes the biggest of the season for United.
This will be the last time we see this talented group of players together, with rumours already circulating about possible moves for some players.
If Adelaide were to slip out of the finals, it would be a sad way them to finish.
Spiro Karanikos-Mimis is InDaily’s soccer columnist.
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