United came through the January gauntlet, but now face a different test

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Adelaide United face Wellington Phoenix on Saturday evening on the back of the league’s longest unbeaten run. The Reds have shown thoroughly improved performances in the last seven games, and find themselves inside the top six, a rare position for them this season. Despite United scoring a late equaliser against the Heart last Saturday, the Reds felt it was a game they should have won, with coach Josep Gombau suggesting as much post match:

“For me it’s two points lost more than one point that we win.”

Gombau also suggested that his team weren’t quite producing the style that he wanted to see, saying:

“Today I think that the problem is that we don’t feel comfortable with the ball…we don’t have confidence to have passes, passes, passes, passes and to keep the ball, and this maybe means that we don’t create so many chances.”

This was despite the United defenders often playing out from the back to the nth degree, so perhaps we can expect to see an even more patient and possession orientated Adelaide side in future weeks.

The Phoenix have also been improved in recent games, but failed to capitalise upon a good first half against the Brisbane Roar last week, ultimately succumbing to a superb late strike from Luke Brattan to lose 2-1. Since the turn of the year Wellington have shown that they can match up to any side in the competition, but they tailed off towards the end of the game last week, struggling to maintain their intensity.

They will need to produce close to their best for 90 minutes against the reds this week, with Gombau again stressing the importance of his side playing until the final whistle:

“Until the last minute that the game finishes, the ball is in and every single minute is important. Score in the first minutes like last week that we score in minute three, or score in 88th or 90th like today.

“Every single goal and every single moment is important.”

But the revelation that Steven Lustica has asked to be released immediately to join fellow A-League side and former club Brisbane Roar has given the Reds a new problem. Lustica’s untimely request, along with his absence from training this week, has meant that Gombau has excluded the midfielder from the squad to face the Phoenix.

The dispute between player and club appears to have come from nowhere, with Lustica and United having already verbally agreed terms for a new contract. But Brisbane’s interest in Lustica appears to have sparked a desire to leave Adelaide and return to his former club. The exact reasoning behind his wish to move on, and why Lustica wants out immediately, is not known at this time.

Adelaide are unlikely to want to lose a player mid-season with few stand out replacements available in the marketplace, and for no compensation. The club have stated that they are willing to work things out with Lustica, but it remains to be seen if this can be achieved.

Also excluded from the United squad this week, though for very different reasons, are Cassio (hamstring), Michael Zullo (hamstring) and Jacob Melling (knee). Zullo is expected to return next week for the clash with Sydney, with Melling expected to be unavailable for around three weeks, while Cassio’s return date is still not set in stone.

The Reds welcome back Daniel Bowles and Sergio Cirio, the latter in the squad for the first time since January 3rd. The Spaniard’s return gives Gombau a raft of attacking options with Bruce Djite, Jeronimo Neumann, Awer Mabil, Fabio Ferreira, Ryan Griffiths and Cirio himself all fit. That’s plenty of firepower for playmaker Marcelo Carrusca to find with his vision and passing range.

Zullo’s injury means Tarek Elrich will continue to deputise at left back, with Osama Malik likely to occupy the right fullback position, leaving Cameron Watson to play in midfield. The other option Gombau has is to play Bowles at right back and push Malik forward to plug the Lustica-shaped hole in United’s midfield.

Wellington welcomes back Matthew Ridenton from injury, as well as Carlos Hernandez and Kenny Cunningham. They were unavailable for the Brisbane match after being released by Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick to play in a friendly for Costa Rica, where they had the chance to stake their claims for a World Cup berth.

Cunningham’s combination of strength and pace will pose a threat to United’s goal, as will Hernandez’s shooting ability and vision. Hernandez is tied with Brisbane’s Thomas Broich for the league’s top assist provider, with five.

But the main danger for the Reds could be Stein Huysegems, the league’s top scorer with eight goals to his name. The Belgian striker is a handful physically for any defence, but has also shown his technical quality this season. His touch, spin and finish for the final goal in the Phoenix’s 5-0 rout of Melbourne Victory two weeks ago was stunning.

This should be a great clash with both sides desperate for the points to continue their fight for a top six place and finals football. Adelaide will look to extend their unbeaten run to eight games, while the Phoenix are looking to bounce back from a loss for the first time since their rearranged round six clash with Central Coast on December 19th.

Expect goals with both sides looking to go out and attack from the start, with United scoring 13 of their 24 goals this season in the opening half hour of matches. Meanwhile Wellington’s attacking intent has been there for all to see recently, scoring ten goals in their last four games.

Andrew Cussen

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