Strikers trade goals, as the Heart go into their maiden finals and Adelaide look forward to their continental campaign
Adelaide United and Melbourne Heart have shared the spoils 1-1 in a dour and lacklustre affair at Hindmarsh Stadium on Friday.
A first-half Sergio van Dijk penalty looked enough to separate the teams, until in-form Heart striker Eli Babalj intervened and made his dominance pay with a superb solo finish in the second half.
Adelaide took a shock lead on 37 minutes when van Dijk slotted from the spot, after defender Daniel Mullen had been wrestled down in the box by Heart vice-captain Simon Colosimo.The Heart managed to equalise however in the 68th minute as the two sides settled for a draw in the closing stages.
The result leaves Melbourne at risk of dropping into sixth if either Newcastle or Sydney manages to claim maximum points in their pivotal clash for the last finals spot on Sunday at Allianz Stadium.
The point assures Adelaide of ninth spot and condemns Gold Coast to the wooden spoon.
The opening half was starved of chances as neither side took the initiative to press forward and threaten in the final third.
Melbourne dominated possession early while Adelaide soaked up the pressure and counterattacked the visitors when they could.
The first realistic opening of the match came a 22 minutes when Heart target man Babalj flashed a glancing header wide of Adelaide goalkeeper Mark Birighitti's – in only his ninth A-League appearance for the Reds – goal.
The chance sprung Melbourne into life, as they breached Adelaide's rear-guard with back-to-back efforts just minutes apart.
Bablalj had the first on 26 minutes when he collected the ball, turned and fired a blistering first time shot that produced a diving athletic save from Birighitti.
Heart star and Australia Under-23 international Mate Dugandzic then tested Birighitti moments later when he slithered into United's area and fired a low drive that the Reds custodian smothered well.
With the game turning lethargic once more, Adelaide surprisingly found the net first on 37 minutes via van Dijk's penalty.
Stand-in Reds captain Cassio swung in a teasing cross that was initially cleared, only for the referee to have adjudged Melbourne stopper and former Socceroo Colosimo had brought down Mullen.
Van Dijk stepped and sent Heart goalkeeper Clint Bolton the wrong way to score his first goal since January 25, when Adelaide drew 1-1 with the Newcastle Jets in Bathurst.
With one eye on the AFC Champions League, coach John Kosmina substituted marquee star Dario Vidosic at the interval and brought on Reds debutant Liam Wooding.
The second half began much like the first with the first opportunity of the stanza coming in the 62nd minute when the ever-present and threatening Babalj blasted a 20-yard shot that whisked narrowly wide.
The highly-rated 20-year-old wasted no time in menacing Adelaide's defence again when he combined for a neat one-two - capped with a silky back-heel - with industrious Heart midfielder Matt Thompson, only for the former Newcastle Jets man's shot to deflect wide.
Babalj struck a free header at Birighitti from the resulting corner before he finally made his dominance pay on 68 minutes with a classy solo effort.
The former Under 17 and Under 20 Australia representative received the ball 10 yards from Adelaide's box, where he ghosted and darted his way past three Reds defenders before wrong-footing Birighitti with a crafty finish.