Taken as a fact on its own, having a crowd of 33,126 to play in front of can’t be anything other than a good thing. A crowd of that size, energised and raucous, would make for a super atmosphere, whipping up a thunderous storm of smouldering noise that careers around the stadium, filling the very hearts of the players. Our voices are strong when united and they can raise our team to victory, if not the dead along with them. Unfortunately, such a crowd can be neutered by the venue they congregate within, and their battle-cries can, like the ball, slide off the slippery pitch and trail away, now barely a whimper, into the night. Adelaide United hosted the Melbourne Victory at the Adelaide Oval last night and such was the scene. The grass was short, the ball greased and the atmosphere more impotent than a… well, perhaps best not to finish that metaphor.
But, let’s turn away from the acoustic failings of the Adelaide Oval and swivel neatly to look at what happened on the pitch. The play was so frantic, and both teams seemed utterly unwilling to funnel the ball through the middle because of the difficulty the playing surface created. As soon as the ball was kicked with any potency, it hit the pitch and slipped off faster than a bride’s nightie. Even if they’d wanted to, or had the perfect technique required to control the ball under the circumstances, neither team were able to pass successfully through the midfield. Inevitably, the ball was forced out to wider areas, and the use of longer passes, pinged up the touchline to wingers running behind the fullbacks, became the way that both teams prospered for most of the match. In fact, that was exactly how the opening goal was fashioned.
The first half saw Craig Goodwin enjoying relative success on the left for Adelaide, attacking the Melbourne full back using direct, jet-heeled pace. Similarly, Kostas Barbarousas was also finding life fine on the same side of the pitch for Melbourne, and was the Victory’s main attacking threat. With the passing through the midfield haphazard at best, and balls over the top a non-starter due to the quick surface, the flanks were, by default, the best way to move the ball with any purpose. Goodwin swung in a whistling cross around half an hour into the match, struck sweetly with his left foot, that was only barely cleared by the desperate Victory defence. Earlier, Barbarousas had collected the ball out wide, and danced infield, niftily creating a shooting opportunity for Gui Finkler, whose volley was wayward.
But, with both goalkeepers very alert to passes in behind, and thus ready to sweep away with swiftness and commitment, chances were few. Adelaide had the best of the pittance on offer, but were still limited to a couple of odd shooting opportunities, and some more presentable ones from set pieces. One such moment should have resulted in the opening goal, but Sergio Cirio couldn’t put his diving header outside of the clawing grasp of Nathan Coe. What became incredibly clear quite quickly was that such flank-centric play and slippery turf was not conducive for the talents of Victory striker Besart Berisha. The Albanian isn’t blessed with prodigious pace, though he has a powerful stride and a sort of neck-clenching, head-banging, vigourous inertia when he runs. One flitting Barbarousa dribble in the first half saw Berisha barely even attempt a run to the near post, and throughout the evening he was denied any sort of delivery to feet up the middle. Crowded and often miscontrolling, his was a disappointing night, and he will not look forward to playing on pitches as hard and slick as this one again.
The game aged, grew testy, and became more bedraggled. Cirio gave the contest, which had been heading towards an embittered stalemate, a Vincent Vega-style dart of adrenaline to the sternum when he was released via a sliding pass, out of defence, down the left hand side. The Spaniard had switched flanks, and was immediately running clear. Mark Milligan, back from international duty for the Victory, was tracking back to cover, but was bamboozled by Cirio’s high-octane, full-speed nutmeg and was removed from the equation rather embarrassingly. Cirio then smacked a perfect bending shot into the far corner. It looked, for all intents and purposes, that Cirio’s goal would be the match-winner.
But the Victory, who had been under a lot of pressure earlier in the match from a handful of Adelaide set-pieces, equalised a minute or two later through a corner of their own. A desperate, bargy rumble in the box allowed Finkler’s clipped cross to drop all the way down to foot level right in the middle of the area, and Khalfallah speared first time into the top of the net. 1-1 and parity was breathlessly and suddenly restored. The game then shifted uncomfortably until the final whistle.
The state of the pitch was a talking point post-match. Hard pitches, with deadly quick surfaces, are not uncommon in Australia, which means that pacy, scurrying wingers can be major assets, as they were in this match. You can see why Ange Postecoglu is fostering a highly dynamic, wing-oriented style at national level, with Matthew Leckie and Tommy Oar haring around manically. Selecting heavily, as Postecoglu plans to do, from the A-League means selecting players who have been nurtured in this environment. One worries, however, that pace and directness will be too heavily valued as a result, to the neglect of more considered, pitch-central skills. Playing on hard pitches will not allow midfield intricacy to flourish.
The match, patronised heartily but sterilised by the stands’ distance from the pitch, should have been an awesome spectacle. But, in the end, what we got was a fairly scrappy match of few clean, satisfying moments, the opening goal aside. A draw flattered the Victory, who had created few chances, and Adelaide will be annoyed they couldn’t hold on to the lead for the last few minutes. Like a roast chicken, the juiciest bits were on the wings, and both teams remain unbeaten after two rounds.