The topsy turvy nature of this year’s A-League season has led to predictions a team that doesn’t finish in the top two could win the title for the first time, and Melbourne City coach John van ‘t Schip doesn’t disagree.
The Dutchman takes his City team to Adelaide on Friday night for a game which will have a big bearing on how City’s season pans out.
Van ‘t Schip has a full squad to choose from, barring long-term absentee Corey Gameiro and midfielder Anthony Caceres, who strained his quad at training earlier this week.
He will have to shuffle his midfield to cover for Caceres’ absence and also has the option of recalling defender Connor Chapman at the back.
The fact that City kept only their second clean sheet of the season last week in the 3-0 win over Sydney FC is, however, an argument for him to stick to the status quo, with Paddy Kisnorbo and Alex Wilkinson anchoring the backline.
So far this season Sydney, Melbourne Victory, Brisbane, Western Sydney and now Adelaide have been at the top of the ladder, and with six rounds to go there is plenty of scope for the current pecking order to change dramatically.
Adelaide are currently four points ahead of City, on 39 points. Win on Friday and City are back in the battle for the minor premiership. Lose, and it is hard to see City regaining lost ground against the Reds, who are currently on the back of a club record 14 game unbeaten streak.
“At the end of the league the momentum where you are is very important,” said van ‘t Schip, at training before his team flew to South Australia.
“It’s that close, it’s changing all the time. Brisbane, Western Sdyney, now Adelaide is on top. If we have a good result in Adelaide we are there in the mix as well. It could all change in the play-offs.”
His sentiments would be shared by Kevin Muscat, coach of defending champions Melbourne Victory, who languish in fifth spot and face a potentially season-defining game in Brisbane on Saturday night, and Kenny Lowe, coach of rapid improvers Perth Glory.
The Glory knocked Sydney out of the top six when they defeated Newcastle Jets on Monday night and like Adelaide they are a team riding their form, having only lost one of their last eight matches.
For Perth a top-two spot is probably out of reach, but they can be a finals wrecking ball from the bottom half of the draw.
For City it is very much a possibility, especially if they can get three points at Hindmarsh and bring the Reds’ run to an end.
Inspired by Aaron Mooy, City ran out 4-2 winners early in the season when the teams met for the first time. Both were in very different places then: Adelaide were winless, and City wildly inconsistent.
Van ‘t Schip won’t put too much store in that last meeting, admitting that despite the scoreline the game could have gone either way.
“I think Amor [Reds coach Guillermo Amor] kept telling people that they were playing well. Maybe they were having transformation because of the coaching change [from Josep Gombau to Amor]. It was a very open game when we won there 4-2. They had chances … sometimes games get decided on certain moments, we just took the moments better than they did.”
He is under no illusion that the task this time will be harder.
“After they started winning it’s all going their way. You can’t be undefeated for 14 or 15 games in a row without being a good team. They have confidence, and they are on fire.”
Van ‘t Schip has urged consistency from his squad, but it has been hard as he has hardly ever been able to field the same starting 11.
“We used a lot of players, especially that first part. Connor Chapman is now fit. He could play a role, but it’s now about competition and waiting for your chance. When you get it you have to be ready. If players are performing then they can continue.”
The clean sheet against Sydney was a significant boost for the side, says van ‘t Schip.
“It’s very important, the boys understand that if we get that part right [defending] we can really play a big role in the last part of the league and into the play-offs.
“If you don’t get it right it brings uncertainty to the team. We get a great test on Friday against a team that is always playing good football. “
Argentinan midfielder Marcelo Carrusca is the heartbeat of the Adelaide side but it is not just about keeping him quiet, van ‘t Schip says.
“He can set things up, he can dictate, he is intelligent, he is without a doubt a very important player for them. But it’s not all about him, it’s their whole team.”
French winger Harry Novillo, suspended for two weeks by the club for his involvement in a domestic dispute, returned last week against Sydney and is likely to play again.
Van ‘t Schip was reluctant to get drawn into a debate about the volatile striker, content to say he had integrated well on field on his return.
“We have done what we had to do as a club. We talked about it with Harry and the players. He fitted in well with the players, worked hard and that’s the best way to show that he wants to pay [the club] back.”
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