Battling their way to a 1-0 home victory over Korea Republic club Pohang Steelers on Wednesday, Aurelio Vidmar's Adelaide United maintained their two-point lead in Group E of the Asian Champions League. The Reds are now within reach of a historic quarter-final berth, in only the second year of Australian participation in Asian football's premier club competition.
Vidmar was full of praise for his charges after another tough Asian test. "I thought the boys were absolutely brilliant, really rock solid right across the back four, through the midfield, even up front," said the former Socceroo striker. "It will be really harsh if we don't qualify, 13 points in five games, it would be a real pity if we couldn't qualify like that, but as I said a lot of work is still to be done."
Adelaide have achieved their commendable results without a number of key players, too. Star striker Bruce Djité, who may be bound for Europe in June, suffered a hamstring strain in March, which has kept him out of Adelaide's last three Champions League fixtures. Paul Agostino, a former Socceroo regular who returned to Adelaide last year, has missed the entire Asian campaign through injury. And Brazilian left-back Cassio, one of Adelaide's most consistent performers, ruptured his cruciate ligament in a friendly game in late April.
Yet other stars have emerged, not least another of Adelaide's Brazilian imports, Diego. The stocky, hard-working midfielder scored the only goal against Pohang, and was also on target in both of Adelaide's victories over Binh Duong of Vietnam. In a bitter blow for the Reds, however, Diego will miss the trip to China on 21 May after picking up his second yellow card of the campaign against the Korean side on Wednesday.
The match against Pohang was particularly emotional for veteran defender Richie Alagich, who was appearing for the last time before his adoring home fans; the blond right-back will be retiring after the Champions League group stage. Alagich was made captain for the evening, and led the team out onto the pitch at Hindmarsh Stadium accompanied by his young son Ethan. 90 minutes of typically stout defending later, this great servant of Australian football made a lap of honour in front of a tearful Adelaide crowd.
"It was fantastic, and I'm very humbled and
appreciative by the support I have received over my career, and
hopefully that has just repaid them a little bit for the support
they've given me," Alagich said afterwards.
Aurelio Vidmar knows that Changchun, with whom Adelaide could only draw 0-0 at home, will provide a very stern test for his depleted troops in two weeks' time. But he remains quietly confident. "I think we'll just go there the way we've been setting up for this whole competition. We keep things really tight, nice and compact, our shape as a team has been very good and we'll go there with the same frame of mind."