WE are three weeks out from the A-League finals series, and it’s getting harder and harder to pick which two sides will fill positions five and six.
So tight is the race that the ninth-placed Melbourne Heart would have jumped to fifth if they had beaten Adelaide United last night.
The Jets are currently clinging to a top-six berth and have played their round 26 clash with Wellington already, so have one less match than all their play-off rivals to accumulate points.
Friday night’s cruel loss to Perth Glory probably means the Jets will need to win their last two matches to make the play-offs. Thirty-four points – a win and a draw for the Jets – could be sufficient, but the Jets’ poor goal difference could count against them at that total.
The Jets certainly deserved to win quite convincingly on Friday night. They were good and their opponents were conservative and lacking in ambition for much of the contest, but Danny Vukovic in goal pulled off some astonishing saves.
It’s rumoured the driver of Perth’s coach was seen donning a balaclava and running to the vehicle to get it started for a quick getaway after Michael Thwaites’s late, late goal confirmed the heist was complete.
But some will say the result merely proves the old adage that luck evens itself out over the course of a season, harking back to a couple of early-season fixtures that brought victories against the flow of the games.
Whatever your take on that, the Jets have a difficult but by no means impossible task ahead of them.
First and foremost they cannot afford to lose in Adelaide. Defeat in Friday night’s match would mean their best possible points total would be 33, and you’d imagine at least two of the four other contenders could match that tally.
Can the Jets go to Hindmarsh Stadium and get the job done? I don’t see why not. They will have enjoyed three extra days recovery compared to their opponents, who played last night, and will enjoy the good pitch in Adelaide.
The Reds have not quite gone into free fall since the departure of John Kosmina as coach, but they’ve certainly stalled a little, and the confident, flexible side that we saw in the first two-thirds of the season has lost its way a little.
Still it’s not easy to get three points at Hindmarsh.
Sydney FC have given themselves a chance to qualify with a home game against the Victory followed by a derby clash with the Wanderers at Parramatta Stadium, and a trip to Brisbane in the final round.
Frank Farina’s men have won six in a row at home, and if they can extend that to seven this weekend, you’d fancy a certain ADP would find some magic in the final two games to get them over the line.
Having said that, Brisbane, Perth and the Heart all have very winnable home fixtures among their remaining games.
Just what Tony Popovic and Graham Arnold, coaches of Western Sydney Wanderers and the Mariners respectively, do with their squads in round 27 if they are in a situation where their position is already decided, may have a bearing.
With the top two enjoying a day off in the first week of the finals series, both would probably want to keep their first XIs in match routine, a three-week break between games being too much, but players carrying injuries or facing possible suspensions could be rested.
My pet project – getting all final-round games to start at the same time – is pushed fairly and squarely to centre stage at this point of the season.
Luckily for the governing body the Brisbane-Sydney clash is the first of the final round games. Imagine if they played last, and both needed a point each to make the semi-finals!
As it stands the Mariners, who play on the Sunday in the last round, may have a big say on who eventually plays in the semi-finals.
Let’s imagine for a second that Sydney FC or the Jets sit in sixth spot but the Heart can jump them if they get three points at Gosford.
If Arnold were to rest some of his tired players after their busy schedule, which he is quite entitled to do, and the Heart won and finished sixth, they would play Melbourne Victory – undoubtedly a danger team for the top two – and in my mind would have a better chance than anyone else to beat the Victory in Melbourne.
I love a conspiracy theory and that one would be even more plausible if the Mariners finished first, because the team that finishes second on the ladder will host the highest-ranked winner of the semi-finals, meaning second cannot play sixth in their week two semi-final.
It may still happen though, because the Wanderers have tough away trips to the Heart and Jets either side of the derby with Sydney FC.
That’s no snack, and to be honest I don’t see the Wanderers winning 14 games in a row to take the title.
There are a multitude of permutations and possibilities available, and one day soon a team is going to cry foul, when they are dependent on the result of a game, and one of the other coaches fields an understrength side.
What will actually happen is anybody’s guess. Perth were unconvincing at Hunter Stadium but could very well get six points from home clashes with Wellington this weekend and Adelaide in round 27.
Brisbane face a tough trip to Gosford on Sunday but home games against the Heart and Sydney FC in the final two rounds leaves their fate clearly in their own hands.
Sydney need a minimum of four points, probably five given their goal difference, to make the play-offs.
The Heart will need to have beaten Adelaide last night to have a genuine opportunity.
The Jets need a result in Adelaide, probably a win, to keep their hopes alive before their last-round home clash with the Wanderers.
Will the picture be any clearer next week? Today?
And do you share my gut feeling that a former Jets player may somehow decide Newcastle’s fate?
Michael Bridges during Friday night’s game. Picture: Jonathan Carroll