As much as the underdogs might implore you otherwise, pressure is heaped upon all parties when results matter most in sport. The remainder of the A-League Finals Series will be no different despite the expectation of a Big Blue decider between Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC. Melbourne City and Adelaide United are not absolved.
The first side through to next weekend’s Final will be determined on Friday night, when Etihad Stadium hosts the most anticipated Melbourne Derby to date. Victory lead the overall head-to-head record with six wins to five, including 5-2 and 3-0 victories this season. The outsiders, though, are not without knowledge that their more established rivals are beatable, courtesy of Erik Paartalu’s 90th minute winner in their second of their three meetings for the campaign.
Any belief, warranted or not, hasn’t kept City coach John van’t Schip from swiftly shifting all expectation to his opposition. “Everything can change in one moment,” he told Fox Sports immediately after dumping Wellington Phoenix out of the Finals Series. “The pressure is on them. We’re happy to be there and we’ll give it a go.”
Kevin Muscat’s response has been measured, as if straight from the copybook of his predecessor Ange Postecoglou. Victory, it must be acknowledged, are a club already familiar with anticipation. “That whole pressure thing, ultimately we think we’ve prepared very well for these situations,” Muscat said. “This is where we wanted to be on day one of pre-season. We’ve spent a long time preparing for that (pressure).”
Some argue the “form book goes out the window” in derbies and van’t Schip must certainly hope that proves true, as Victory – this season at least – are simply the better side. Teams cannot win 27-round competitions without significant abilities to deal with pressure. The only way they will wilt is under fire from a team performing at full capacity.
Enough talent exists in City’s starting eleven for that to occur. A midfield three of Erik Paartalu, Aaron Mooy and Robert Koren is capable of controlling any contest. It’s further back where concerns exist.
Shackling all of Besart Berisha, Fahid Ben Khalfallah, Kosta Barbarouses, Archie Thompson and Gui Finkler is a monumental task. While Patrick Kisnorbo has excelled in recent weeks, his defensive allies are likely to find the job too tough. Expect an early onslaught.
The second Semi-Final could well be a more tentative affair. Sydney FC have suffered three home defeats to Adelaide United this season: twice in the A-League, in addition to a chaotic FFA Cup Quarter Final loss. It’s enough for the Sky Blues to err on the side of conservatism in the early stages of Sunday’s match.
Graham Arnold claims he isn’t concerned, especially by Eugene Galekovic’s contention that Sydney are scared of the Reds. “They say they don’t talk about the opposition but that’s all we’re hearing, is what Adelaide is saying,” Arnold said. “For us it’s all about ourselves. I said at the start of the season our biggest opponents is going to be ourselves all year.”
Like City, the away side’s defence have the toughest job of all. Marco Janko is the important inclusion of the weekend. The Austrian striker, who bagged 16 regular season goals, will punish Adelaide in the manner Brisbane Roar couldn’t when presented with opportunities in the Elimination Final.
Equally, Josep Gombau’s side possess enough attacking assets to continue their unbeaten run against Sydney. Bruce Djite is expected to return and create space for the more damaging Marcelo Carrusca and Sergio Cirio to operate, while last week’s matchwinner Awer Mabil will inject energy off the bench, as he did in scoring the winner at Allianz Stadium in April. Arnold won’t only concentrate on his own side as much as he insists otherwise.
If Adelaide do cause an upset, it will owe more to superior planning and execution than any perceived pressure.