A-League finals pursuit hits top gear
Wellington Phoenix continue to surge in the A-League but have struggled for crowds (Image: AFP)
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With only six weeks remaining before the conclusion of the home and away A-League season, the race for a place in the coveted top-six is beginning to take centre stage.
A mere five points separates the fifth-placed Newcastle Jets from Adelaide United in ninth position.
While the top two clubs stuttered in week 19 – Central Coast and Wellington both tasting defeat – the chasing pack illustrated their intent to play a part at the business end of the campaign.
Newcastle, Melbourne Victory, Sydney and Adelaide stepped it up a gear, claiming victories over their respective counterparts, for the most part in impressive fashion.
The Jets skyrocketed its way to an emphatic 3-0 trouncing over a confidence-ridden Heart outfit. With an eye on making it four consecutive victories, the Hunter Valley club travels across the boarder to face a rejuvenated Perth Glory team in what will be an arduous assignment for Gary van Egmond’s troops.
The Jets are in fifth on 28 points and look good to finish in the top-six, although the same cannot be said about the Heart. The red and whites are winless in their past eight outings, coinciding with the absence of captain Fred, unable to conjure a win since it poleaxed the Sky Blues 4-0 in late December.
Lacking depth and an injection of confidence, the A-League’s newest club put in, what was arguably their worst performance of the season last weekend, lacking any sense of imagination or creativity throughout the 90 minutes.
Suspension to young defender Curtis Good will test Heart’s depth, with a flurry of players unavailable due to injury and Olyroos duties, while the inclusion of midfield architect Fred will come as an added bonus when Heart entertains cellar-dweller Gold Coast United, a club in turmoil.
The Surfers Paradise club will field a vastly inexperienced line-up with only two players over the age of 23, while the bizarre decision to hand 17-year-old A-League debutant Mitch Cooper the captain’s armband has caused drama, with club owner Clive Palmer standing-down coach Miron Bleiberg indefinitely for allegedly belittling the club’s decision at a media conference on Wednesday.
However, given the catastrophic circumstances surrounding the glitter strip club, Heart has no excuses to fall back on if it cannot sweep aside a depleted team on home soil. Anything but a win will be acceptable, and if accomplished, could possibly springboard a resurgence towards a maiden finals showing.
Meanwhile, Victory – inundated with poor results, off-field drama and for the most part, an uninspiring game-structure – finally had reason to cheer last weekend, prevailing over A-League pacesetter Central Coast in a confidence-boosting display at AAMI Park.
The 2-1 triumph was Jim Magilton’s first victory – after being restricted to a frustrating four draws and a loss – since taking over the reins from Mehmet Durakovic mid-January.
In a commanding performance from the navy blues, crowd favourite Carlos Hernandez was back to his flamboyant best, scoring an awe-inspiring goal in the opening period, while playing a pivotal role in getting his side across the line. Harry Kewell also scored a stunning goal, which eventually proved to be the winner.
The result was important; although it will give Victory’s ardent supporter base a sense of optimism knowing it can play an attractive, yet imposing brand of football against the best in the competition.
While many may believe the work of Hernandez and Kewell were the primary catalysts to claiming the three points, it was the reshuffle by Magilton which proved to be a coaching master stroke.
With Spanish recruit Ubay Luzardo deputising in the heart of defence, Mark Milligan shifted into a holding midfielder’s role – demoting the out-of-favour Leigh Broxham to the bench – while young prodigy Jimmy Jeggo, 19, was given his starting-debut in the first team, playing a central midfield role just in front of Milligan.
The reorganisation worked a beat, as it allowed for a fluid transition in the centre of the park, linking coherently in the attacking final third – an area Victory was rather lethargic in recent weeks.
With a change in personnel and optimism surging around the squad, it could well be the vehicle for a tilt at playing finals football. Saturday night’s trip to Suncorp Stadium against defending champions Brisbane Roar will be a stern test for Victory, as it endeavours to replicate the style of football it showcased against the Mariners.
Sydney FC’s prospects of making the top-six received a boost, putting in a brilliant second half performance to overcome Perth Glory 2-1 at the Sydney Football Stadium.
Remarkably, it was only the home side’s third win on home turf this season, and although it hasn’t reached the lofty heights many anticipated with Socceroo Brett Emerton on its books, the Sky Blues know destiny is in its own hands, now equal on points with the sixth-placed Heart, who are in a torrid run of form.
With Emerton arguably playing his best game for the club over the weekend – which included a scintillating strike that evoked memories of his English Premier League era – and playmaker Nicky Carle linking well in the final third, Sydney is every chance of making the play-offs, most probably at Heart’s expense.
Finally, Adelaide, near the foot of the table in ninth position, kept its season alive with an important 2-1 feat over Gold Coast. After trailing early in the piece, the Reds rose above its opposition, courtesy of a Bruce Djite goal on the cusp of the interval, before marquee Dario Vidosic placed his free-kick into the back of the net after 60 minutes.
It leaves John Kosmina’s men on 23 points – four points shy of the finals platform it aspires to reach – heading into Sunday’s pivotal clash with rival Sydney FC at Hindmarsh Stadium.
In what is a hectic week for the South Australian club, a gruelling schedule will see it play two games over a three-day period – with Thursday night’s Asian Champions League qualifier against Indonesian outfit Persipura Jayapura coming from left-field, after the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling the Indonesian team eligible to participate in Asia’s continental tournament.
In a battle against adversity, the Reds know a loss on the weekend will most definitely kill off any ambitions of playing in the A-League finals. While a draw will mathematically keep it at bay, a win a home is a must, if Adelaide seriously considers itself a realistic contender for the top-six.
Courtesy of Goal Weekly. Follow Robbie on Twitter @RobertDiFabio.