Wednesday, February 25, 2009
ESPNsoccernet: February 26, 10:59 AM UK
Adelaide's big ask in Grand Final
Part theatre, part pure emotion, Aurelio Vidmar's infamous post-match 'spray' had the desired motivational effect of lifting Adelaide United into the A-League Grand Final.
But having made it that far, can the AFC Champions League runners-up overcome their long-time nemesis, Melbourne Victory?
After a demoralising 6-0 semi-final loss on aggregate to Melbourne on February 14th, the normally mild-mannered coach launched into an astonishing diatribe, describing Adelaide as a "piss-ant" town and declaring that internal politics were tearing the club apart. Seven days later, after closed-door meetings and training sessions, the revamped Reds upset Queensland Roar 1-0 in the Preliminary Final to win through to the A-League's biggest game.
It was a result that appeared to surprise some of Adelaide's wary fans who had apparently abandoned hope. Only 8,472 spectators turned up to Hindmarsh Stadium - compared to 14,119 in the home semi-final, first-leg, just two weeks earlier and to the 23,002 who made it to an Adelaide Oval game against Sydney last month.
But now the Reds have made one important step - which also guarantees another chance to impress on the Asian stage - they'll need far more than just desire and desperation to take the next: a giant leap. It will be the upset of the season if Adelaide can overcome a rampant Melbourne side who have five victories in their last five matches against their rivals from South Australia.
And, who could forget the 2007 Grand Final in which Melbourne trashed Adelaide to the tune of 6-0 at the Telstra Dome, with Archie Thompson grabbing five? It was the scene of another famous Adelaide meltdown that would signal the departure of coach John Kosmina and captain Ross Aloisi.
The Victory could field as many as six survivors from that game two years ago, while 2009 captain Travis Dodd is the only Adelaide player certain to turn out for a second Grand Final.
The truth is that jaded Adelaide went off the boil several weeks ago and are struggling to reproduce the kind of form that saw them win two matches out of three at December's FIFA World Club Cup in Japan.
As they approach their 34th game since mid-August, the Reds lack a cutting edge up-front, especially when playing away from their beloved city of churches. And their finals' performances at Telstra Dome have been abysmal, leaking 10 unanswered goals in their last two appearances.
Adelaide brought back Ivory Coast-born Jonas Salley as a second screening midfielder against a strangely off-colour Queensland in the Preliminary Final. But there's no guarantee the same tactic will work to control the speedy Melbourne attack marshalled by Carlos Hernandez.
The Costa Rican international has arguably become the number-one player in the A-League, but he's received excellent support in midfield from Aussies Nick Ward, Tom Pondeljak and the in-form Billy Celeski.
"Obviously we're going to take a bit of confidence from our previous results against Adelaide. I feel as though we've got the upper-hand on them," Celeski told ESPNsoccernet. "Saying that, it is a Grand Final where past results won't matter too much on the day. But we're quietly confident that we can get the job done."
The former Perth Glory dynamo was born in the Republic of Macedonia but grew up in Melbourne where he attended the Victorian Institute of Sport.
Unlike one of his Adelaide opponents in the Grand Final with Macedonian roots - Reds' defender Sasa Ognenovski who's pledged his international allegiance to the country of his father after being overlooked by the Socceroos - Celeski made his senior Aussie debut against Indonesia in Jakarta in January.
"Obviously Sasa made his decision but in my case being brought up here, I like to call Australia home and I've come through the ranks in the under-20s team and the under-23s team. For me, Australia's home and I'm very proud to represent it at international level."
Given their lack of a potent striker, Ognenovski might hold the key to Adelaide's chances of springing a surprise. If they can somehow keep a clean-sheet or at least stop Melbourne from scoring in the first half - however unlikely that seems given their recent past history - the Reds could be on their way to an upset.
It promises to be an intriguing match-up as the underdog Reds - who proved in their Asian campaign that they are the masters of punching above their weight when least expected - take on a slick and confident Victory side loaded with attacking options.
The game could bring down the curtain on the long and sometimes chequered career of Melbourne captain, Kevin Muscat. The former Rangers, Crystal Palace and Millwall hardman turns 36 in August and has held off contract talks until after the season. Melbourne would love him to play on but retirement is a possibility.
Muscat's central defensive partnership with new Socceroo Roddy Vargas is as important as the sizzling strike force of Archie Thompson and Danny Allsopp and Adelaide should again find goals hard to come by.
Given the weight of public expectation and a likely crowd of more than 50,000, the Victory have it all to lose but they're a big match team who relish the big stage. In the end, Adelaide should be tougher than in the semi-finals but ultimately not tough enough.
• Sydney-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an international broadcaster and corporate host. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.