The outlook for Melbourne Heart appears extremely bleak right now, but is it still possible for the club to turn its season around?
If the Heart have not yet reached rock bottom, it is hard to envisage how they could fall much lower.
After drawing their first two games of the season, they have now lost five straight, and sit propping up the table with a pathetic two points to their name after seven rounds. Their last win was back in February over Sydney FC, thirteen games ago. Of the twelve games since, ten have been losses.
The narrative surrounding the Heart this season has changed dramatically over the last few weeks. Optimism has rapidly given way to hopelessness.
Coach John Aloisi (if he did indeed have final say on transfers) opted to bring in some experienced reinforcements in the off season. Harry Kewell rejoined the A-League in Heart colours, after his largely forgettable previous stint with the Victory, as did veteran Dutchmen Orlando Engelaar and Rob Wielaert, plus Maltese international Michael Mifsud.
Aloisi himself, with a year’s experience under his belt, was expected to develop into a more formidable manager in his second campaign.
Early signs were reasonably positive. Even as late as Round Four, when Heart were defeated 3-0 by Brisbane Roar at Suncorp Stadium, Aloisi (and many pundits) maintained that the side was playing some decent football, but merely failing to put away their chances.
Subsequent losses to the Wanderers, Sydney FC and Newcastle, however, made it clear that the team’s problems ran far deeper than a lack of precision up front.
Claims that the Heart are plain unlucky have faded away with every loss, with each performance that is more dire than the last.
Is the season already a right-off for the club, then, after a mere seven games? Or can something still be salvaged, even if a finals berth is probably already beyond reach?
Whether the decision is made sooner or later, it has become clear that Aloisi must go. The former Socceroo has seemingly unlimited credit with many in the football press due to his exploits in Socceroos colours (and the fact he is a likeable chap), but the reality is, he has been given much more time to put things right at the Heart than most managers would be afforded. And the results are not turning around, nor are the team’s displays getting any more encouraging.
With a year-and-a-half left on his contract, a club of Melbourne Heart’s modest economic means can barely afford to pay Aloisi off if they do fire him, but there comes a point where they must cut their losses and deal as best they can with the financial consequences.
Under a new coach, the Heart could draw a line in the sand and look to move forward.
The list of key players who are due to return from injury at various stages is a cause for optimism. In a terrible stroke of luck, marquee-signing Engelaar, the monstrous Dutch defender, was ruled out for months when he broke his leg before the campaign even got underway.
Kewell, a man whose body is more fragile than a Middle East peace accord, will be returning much sooner, however.
The former Leeds and Liverpool man looks like he will be back to face Adelaide United this weekend. Though he will no doubt take some weeks to get back into the rhythm of first team football, and has been written off as a spent force by many, Kewell’s class and experience should not be underestimated.
Even if he can get back to just 70% of his former capabilities, and if he can stay fit, he has the skills and drive to galvanise a struggling side.
The likes of Jonatan Germano, Jason Hoffman and Dylan Macallister are all due back in the coming weeks as well.
And, though it is a well-worn cliché in sport, it remains true that momentum means everything. A scrappy win here, a late equaliser there, and the Heart players might just remember what it feels like to be a competitive unit.
This Sunday’s clash with fellow strugglers Adelaide United could be the perfect opportunity for the Heart to claw their way back towards respectability.
It won’t be easy for Heart’s players to beat against the current, but if the tide does eventually turn, season 2013/14 does not have to be a total wipe out.