Updated: Aug 13, 2020
Melbourne City got a vital point to solidify its grip on second place, but squandered an opportunity to immediately clinch a semi-final spot as goals from Kristian Opseth and Ben Halloran in the match’s last 12 minutes and injury time rescued Adelaide United from the dead and enhanced its own finals hopes of their own in a 2-2 draw at ANZ Stadium on Tuesday night.
The Reds’ late show cancelled out first-half goals from Adrian Luna and Jamie Maclaren that put a rampant Melbourne City 2-0 up at halftime, but City were seen to hang on for dear life after Craig Noone received a deserved straight red card with 23 minutes to play.
“It was disappointing for us going down to ten men, but Adelaide are a good side,” said Maclaren afterwards.
“They put our backs against the wall for the last 23 minutes, and it was a grind. We could have conceded that third goal so easily. But we were disappointed overall,” added Maclaren, who scored his league-leading 20th goal of the campaign, but could have added to that tally on a few other occasions that would have seen his team cruise into that semi-final berth.
Meanwhile, Adelaide United interim coach Carl Veart – whose side has to sweat out results from the remaining handful of A-League regular-season matches to see if the Reds will be playing in the single-elimination finals series starting on August 22 – paid tribute to his team’s never-say-die spirit.
“Proud of the boys, I think we dominated well for most of the second half,” Veart said.
“We did well to put them under pressure.
“We spoke about being more direct and taking the game on, and run at their fullbacks, and we did that well. Would have been nice to get another goal, but this was a good result for us,” Veart added.
Both teams opened the match by taking turns in establishing runs of concentrated possession, with their defences responding in kind by maintaining good shapes and thereby limiting any counter-attacks. But Melbourne City were not to be denied, with two well-struck headed goals within a six-minute stretch to give them their halftime superiority – and the one foot into the semi-finals that coach Erick Mombaerts’s side craved.
Midfielder Florin Berenguer was the architect of the first goal in the 34th minute, providing an incisive slide-rule ball from the left-hand flank for Noone to send a perfect cross for Adrian Luna to lean to his left to head past Izzo.
Then in the 40th minute, Luna turned provider for Maclaren. The Uruguayan midfielder made a run down the right, then swung a cross deflected by Reds defender Ryan Kitto which Maclaren rose highest for to head emphatically past Izzo.
While Melbourne City began the second half with a collective swagger which comes with a two-goal cushion, Adelaide United were reduced to a 45-minute session that could mathematically make or break its season.
And six minutes after the restart, Maclaren came within the width of the woodwork of sealing the deal, smashing his first-time shot from a Noone left-sided cross against the near post with Izzo frozen in his tracks.
With Berenguer and Noone pulling the strings in the midfield, Melbourne City were enjoying two vital elements – the maintenance of possession to go alongside its two-goal lead, with a constant threat to add a third goal.
But just as important was the shape of its back line, with the likes of Harrison Delbridge, Nathaniel Atkinson, Richard Windbichler and Curtis Good in front of goalkeeper Tom Glover providing a virtual wall of resistance, even despite substitute Al Hassan Toure’s incisive but occasional dribbling runs for the Reds.
Then came a second turning point – arguably, to go along with Maclaren previously smashing a shot against Izzo’s goalframe – in the 67th minute.
Match referee Alex King – who had been warning Melbourne City all throughout the match that even pushing and shoving on dead-ball situations was going to be more tightly scrutinised – was given the easy call to send off Noone with a straight red card for a tackle that was late and high on Michael Jakobsen.
Noone could have had no complaints, and Mombaerts was forced to shuffle his deck and tactics in order for Melbourne City to cling onto their lead.
Mombaerts introduced Scott Galloway for his team’s other winger Lachlan Wales, thereby giving the team’s outside backs more responsibility on the flanks and Berenguer given more freedom in the midfield, on the very rare occasions that Melbourne City were able to get possession from this point onwards. Instead, Adelaide United took advantage of the new gaps to throw more players forward and create more chances, and thereby dominated possession for the remainder of the match.
Kristan Opseth gave the Reds a spot of hope with 12 minutes to go, converting a penalty past Glover after Luna had brought down substitute Pacifique Niyongabire, and Adelaide United had the incentive to follow up its great recent spells of possession by throwing more numbers forward against their ten-man opposition.
Glover then produced a match-saving effort three minutes from time, saving Halloran’s point-blank effort – but ultimately, Halloran wouldn’t be denied in the first minute of stoppage time, coasting past Galloway on the dribble before beating Glover to the far post.
The equaliser was Halloran’s fifth goal against Melbourne City in four head-to-head matches, and clearly his most important goal of the season in the context of the Reds playing finals.
“We showed tremendous spirit tonight,” said Halloran. “We had our backs against the wall over the back end of this year, but we gave ourselves a bit of hope tonight.”
Melbourne City can still clinch second spot with either of two scenarios: if third-placed Wellington lose to Newcastle on Thursday night, or do it themselves with a win over derby rivals Western United in the regular season’s last match on August 19.
But this match would serve as a case of what could have been, with a game to spare.