One may be an established A-League superpower and the other the new kids on the block, but round 21 looms as a backs against the wall moment for the finals aspirations of both Melbourne Victory and Western United.
In Melbourne’s west, a finals berth that had at one stage looked certain now appears to be a long shot; a visit by Central Coast Mariners to Kardinia Park on Sunday afternoon followed by a murderer’s run conclusion to the season.
Five points adrift of the top six, Head Coach Mark Rudan’s side face back-to-back away games against Adelaide United and Perth Glory in coming weeks, must travel to play Sydney FC in round 26 and then follow that with derbies against Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory in rounds 27 and 28.
Compounding the difficulty, their two remaining home games, against Western Sydney Wanderers and City, are scheduled to be played at Ballarat’s Mars Stadium, a venue that presents logistical challenges that Rudan has admitted makes the endeavour feel like an away game.
“I never look too far ahead,” Rudan said when pressed about the schedule. “I didn’t even know [that’s what was on it].
“I’ve always been a coach that works on the day-to-day and being in the present, working on what’s in front of us and not worrying about the distant future or what’s behind us.”
Of course, for all the challenges confronted by the A-League newcomers, they’re still in a better position than resident Victorian heavyweights Victory.
Head Coach Carlos Salvachúa’s side sits in the ninth position on the A-League table heading into the weekend’s play, with the four-point gap between themselves and eighth the same as the distance between themselves and the bottom of the table.
Despite recording some solid wins in the Asian Champions League, including Victory’s first-ever away win in the competition against J1 League side Kashima Antlers, Salvachúa has yet to win an A-League game since he took up position at the head of the dugout; Victory’s last three-points coming against Newcastle Jets back in round 13 when Marco Kurz was in charge.
And with the gap between the four-time A-League champions and a finals place rapidly approaching chasm levels, Saturday evening’s Original Rivalry meeting with Adelaide United looms large.
"We’re still in it," attacker Andrew Nabbout said on Wednesday.
"We’re nine points away from Brisbane now, the boys are just determined to get as many points now in the next five or six games, that’s about all it is.
"It’s just about taking maximum points, taking it game by game and hopefully we can get there in the end.
"As long as it’s mathematically possible to make the finals we’re never going to give up.”
A loss to the Reds would seemingly not only serve to scupper the remote finals hopes of Victory – albeit not in the mathematically derived manner referred to by Nabbout – but also drive a dagger through any chance of Salvachúa retaining his place as the club’s coach heading into 2020/21.
Replacing the poor cultural fit of Kurz, the Spaniard – who was a holdover from Kevin Muscat’s tenure – had entered the job with a fair amount of goodwill, but a club of Victory’s mindset is not inclined to look kindly on finals absences.
“Our focus is not now on the finals - it's the next game in 24 hours against Adelaide and we put the focus in this 90 minutes,” he said on Friday.
“Now we are in the finals, and the first one is tomorrow.
“We've won three games in the last 45 days - three games. And [if we win] tomorrow [it] will be the fourth one. I know that this is the first in the A-League
“It will be the first in the league, yes, but it will not be the first win - it will be the fourth in the preparation of the last 45 days.”
Rudan and his squad will head down the highway to Geelong on Sunday to take on a Mariners side that, coincidentally, is the one side the club was able to defeat during their lean run of form – a 3-0 at Kardinia Park in round 15.
“It’s a must-win game, it’s a must-win game as far as we’re concerned,” the United boss said.
“They’re on the back of six losses [but] our form isn’t the best results wise. Our performances have to be a bit better; we haven’t scored for a number of games as well. Just in general we need to be better.
“This for us is a must-win.
“We have to be better in everything we do.
“We’ve worked a lot on the tactical side of the game, although it’s hard against the Mariners because they do chop and change personnel, they chop and change formation as well. It’s very hard to have a clear picture and paying style with them.
“So, the onus is on us and making sure that we do everything better. Without the ball to our transitional moments are better as well, staying a lot more compact when we don’t have the ball, and being better and more ruthless when we do have possession of the ball.”
On the subject of United’s profligacy in front of goal – the club not having scored since their 4-3 loss to Adelaide in round 16 – Rudan was clear on what needed to improve.
“It’s all mindset,” he said.
“Everything is a mindset, to how you apply yourself every day at training, a lot of positivity. These guys are fantastic players, they’re good, young or experienced its irrelevant.
“It’s a mindset, it’s about switching or flicking that switch in your mind.
“If you have an off day or a bad day in the office or if you have a bad touch or you don’t take your opponent on who cares? It’s a mindset, keep going.
“It’s about being positive and staying positive and keeping moving forward.”