What a season it has been for A-League club Adelaide United. They began 2008 at the back end of a disappointing A-League season in which they finished out of the top four for the first time.
They then had to prepare for their second foray into the Asian Champions League. Adelaide entered with high hopes but low expectations.
Their first match was an away fixture against highly rated Korean outfit, the Pohang Steelers. Adelaide won the match 2-0 and showed a good glimpse of how they would approach almost every game of their Asian journey.
They battled hard defensively and after scoring very early worked hard to limit the opportunities of Pohang. Despite going down to 10 men at half time after a second Yellow card to midfielder Jonas Salley, the Reds stuck to their tasks and Bruce Djite helped matters by scoring a second on the hour mark.
They arrived home to take on the favourites for the group, Chinese side Changchun Yatai FC. Again the Reds played a counter attacking game based around solid defence which kept the game to a hard fought 0-0 draw.
Two games against group minnows Binh Duong came next resulting in a 2-1 away win and a 4-1 home win for Adelaide.
Pohang came to Adelaide next for the return match and once again an inspired defensive effort coupled with a great goal from midfielder Diego resulted in a 1-0 win and put Adelaide on the edge of a berth in the knockout stages of the Champions League.
All they needed from the last game away to Changchun Yatai was a draw. And that's what they went there to get. They frustrated not only Changchun the team but their fans to the point that they were throwing items onto the running track around the pitch near the end of the game.
It finished 0-0 and Adelaide United had become the first Australian A-League team to make the knockout stages of the AFC Champions League in only their second attempt.
During the break between stages there was a lot of change at the club. Evergreen right back Richie Alagich retired and young stars Nathan Burns and Bruce Djite moved on to greener pastures in Europe among others.
There were also additions to the squad including returning Australians from England, midfielder Paul Reid and young left back Scott Jamieson. These two in particular would prove to be inspired recruits.
For the first time though, The Reds would have to deal with midweek games during the regular season of the A-League. It would be a test of the fitness of the Australians if they could stand up to the rigours of four games in 14 days.
Their first leg quarter-final matchup was away to the Kashima Antlers of Japan on the 17th of September. The game was going almost perfectly to script after Captain Travis Dodd put Adelaide ahead in the 36th minute but it went pear shaped just on half time when defender Robert Cornthwaite unwittingly redirected a cross into his own net.
Fortunately it didn't inspire the Kashima team to go on with it and the game ended 1-1, a good result if ever there was one.
One week later back at a packed Hindmarsh Stadium, knowing that their away goal was good enough to see them through and also expecting the Antlers to come at them with everything, the Reds played the defensive side of the game almost to perfection.
And then midway through the second half redemption came in a way that only sports can provide.
Cornthwaite, who a week ago thought he had consigned his team to defeat came full circle and headed home the only goal of the match to see his team through to the semis. No-one saw this result coming and it made the football world stand up and take notice.
Adelaide didn't have to wait long for their next challenge as Uzbekistan outfit Bunyodkor with their recently acquired midfielder, former world player of the year Rivaldo arrived in town for the first leg of the semifinals.
Everyone expected the strong Uzbek team with many internationals on its list and the experience of Rivaldo to steamroll Adelaide out of the competition.
Everyone that is except for Adelaide. Fans turned out in force to see their team hold off a rampaging Bunyodkor in the first half and then turn on a second half display that was completely unexpected.
An inspired half by Brazilian midfield import Cassio created a 3-0 rout that sent the home crowd into raptures and put one foot into the final. The team knew the tie was not over and a long and arduous journey to Uzbekistan awaited to face a team that was embarrassed and determined to set things right.
The Uzbeks talked a good game and promised a 4-0 home rout to get the final they felt was rightly theirs to attend. Unfortunately for them they came up against a team equally determined to gain the reward they had worked so hard for.
The Reds played the foil as well as could be expected and it was only a 78th minute strike that was cause for slight alarm.
However it was a wonderful result for Adelaide as they encountered their first defeat in the Champions league tournament but only by 1-0 which was not enough for the Uzbek team.
A few days later the team arrived back in Adelaide to a heroes welcome. They had achieved a feat only a few people would have dared dream about at the start of the tournament.
They had ridden a wave of hard defensive work and a large slice of good fortune at times all the way to the AFC Champions League final with Gamba Osaka.
The Japanese team was brimming with talent and expectation but was currently suffering through a horror J-League season. This was their chance at silverware and glory for the year and they were determined to take it.
Meanwhile Adelaide were performing admirably in the A-League despite their hard schedule of matches and travel. They were firmly entrenched in the top four and at times were heading the ladder.
The team was in a constant state of flux with personnel changes galore but their remained a core belief in the group.
On the fifth of November that belief was shaken to its very core. Gamba Osaka jumped on every loose pass and mistimed tackle and tore Adelaide to shreds with their clinical play led by their midfield maestro, Yasuhito Endo. He was everywhere and helped consign a gallant but overall disappointing United to a 3-0 defeat in the first leg.
A week later they returned to Hindmarsh Stadium to attempt the improbable, claw back from the brink of disaster. Before a full house in Adelaide they only had to wait four minutes to realise this would be impossible.
Gamba's Brazilian import Severino Lucas jumped onto a loose ball spilt by young goalkeeper Mark Birighitti who was thrust into the role after Eugene Galekovic was suspended after the first leg.
Lucas again was in thick of it on 14 minutes and made the final a no contest with his second goal. Adelaide United fought hard and could have had a penalty and a few goals but it was not to be as they went down 2-0 and 5-0 on aggregate.
They had come so far and eventually were found out by a much more experienced and overall classy team. But still they were the second best team in Asia and had qualified for the Club World Cup later in the year. They had so much to be proud of.
In December they arrived back in Japan to face New Zealand minnows Waitakere United for the right to again face their nemesis, Gamba Osaka, this time in the Club World Cup. Adelaide had to fight hard in their opening game but were good enough to finish 2-1 winners over the gallant kiwis.
This gave United a chance at redemption and if they were successful a date with another United, Manchester United. The Reds played so much better than they did in the AFC Final but still were undone by a classy display by Endo and it finished 1-0.
They were consigned to the fifth v sixth playoff against the Egyptian team Al Ahly, the African Champions. Again the Reds showed that they can match it with the best when they play their game and a wonder strike from forward Cristiano gave them a 1-0 win.
They arrived home on a high but with the knowledge they had A-League game to catch up on and a tough run home before the finals series. During January, they struggled to recapture their best form but continually ground out results to get them into the top 4.
On the last day of the season they had to beat Central Coast Mariners at their home by two goals to capture top spot. They ended up with a 1-0 win which consigned them to second behind Melbourne Victory. Their second second of the season.
The Major Semi-Final legs of the finals were a complete disaster. Melbourne won the the away leg 2-0 and then travelled back to Melbourne to gain a 4-0 result and a 6-0 rout of Adelaide.
This caused a major meltdown in manager Aurelio Vidmar. He launched into a post match press conference with claims of conspiracies and unrest and sabotage.
His tirade caused a tidal wave of opinions and discontent both in Adelaide and around the country. He spent the rest of the week trying to hose down the firestorm he had created.
Adelaide still had a chance to regain their spot in the Grand Final if they could beat a rampaging Queensland Roar who for the six or seven weeks of the season had been the best performed team going around.
The Reds somehow regrouped and in front of a very disappointing home crowd they found their defensive game again and through a wonderful individual goal by midfielder Fabien Barbiero somehow fought out a 1-0 win.
This gave them another shot at Melbourne. Everyone expected another rout by the all conquering Victory. The Reds remained quietly confident and in a low key approach to the game came into the Grand Final with nothing to lose.
The final was played at a ferocious pace right from the start but then Referee Matthew Breeze started his stand as the central figure of the game that would continue until the end. In the 10th minute he consigned Adelaide striker Cristiano to the stands after a controversial red card for an elbow to the head of Victory defender Roddy Vargas.
The red card has since been rescinded by the league for being a mistake but it did not help Adelaide who now had to play nearly the entire game a man down. Despite this setback Adelaide fought as if their lives depended on it.
At times they were playing 12 men with Breeze time and time again interjecting against Adelaide whilst allowing Melbourne to play as normal.
At half time it was 0-0 but the talking point was the sending off. Into the second half Adelaide had their best period of attack and almost created two goals, one of which was brilliantly saved by Victory keeper Michael Theoklitos.
On the hour mark the defining moment of the game was set forth by Melbourne midfielder Tom Pondeljak. His low curving shot around a few players in the box was unsighted by United goalkeeper Galekovic until it was too late—1-0 to Melbourne.
Referee Breeze was soon in the thick of the action again when a scuffle broke out in the Adelaide United penalty area with the end result being Melbourne striker Danny Allsopp being sent off, a decision which has also since been rescinded by the league.
This error resulted in at least one positive thing, the numbers were even again. This enabled Adelaide to fight the good fight and went close a few times but was unfortunately unable to level the game up.
Nearing the end of the game Breeze was again the centre of attention when he controversially allowed only three minutes of injury time despite the fact that the Allsopp sending off had taken three minutes, there was an injury to a Victory player that required a three-minute stoppage and there were five substitutions.
A cursory glance at the facts would result in at least six minutes if not more being added.
To make matters worse, one of the minutes was taken up with removing Vargas from the field after his head wound started to bleed again. All in all though perhaps Melbourne deserved their second A-League title but not in the way it was achieved.
But once again Adelaide United were left with nothing in second place. It was a year that took The Reds to the highest of highs and on a journey that no-one really expected but in the end left them hollow because for all their success they were left with no silverware to remember it by.
This season has been one of so close yet so far. Hopefully next season they can go one better and bring home a title to a city that is still proud to call them their own.
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