The Reds appear to have made significant progress under their new Catalan coach, and could be a genuine threat next term if they play their cards right
Josep Gombau has certainly had an eventful first season on the bench at Adelaide United. The former Barcelona youth coach made all the right noises about progressive, possession-orientated football upon his arrival but his team made a slow start to the 2013-14 campaign, prompting questions about how long the patience of the club's hierarchy would last and sparking that fiery exchange with a local journalist.
The Reds came good after a thumping 4-0 win over reigning champions Central Coast in December and for a time looked like dark horses to contend for the title. Their charge ended with something of a whimper when they lost to the Newcastle Jets in the final round of the regular season, before going down 1-0 away to the Mariners in the first week of the finals.
But the wave of enthusiasm which accompanied their best form saw Gombau voted coach of the 2014 A-League All Stars, and the Spaniard was also rewarded with two-year contract extension.
Goalkeeper and skipper Eugene Galekovic hasn't quite matched his exemplary performances of 2012-13, when he was arguably the competition's best goalkeeper, along with then-Mariner Mat Ryan. The 32-year-old did have the honour of becoming the first player to make 200 appearances for Adelaide, having adapted well to the demands of playing out from the back at all costs under Gombau's risky new approach. It remains to be seen if he will squeeze into Ange Postecoglou's World Cup squad as likely back up for Ryan or Mitch Langerak.
The Reds don't have a designated international marquee player, but have Argentine playermaker Marcelo Carrusca, Portuguese winger Fabio Ferreira and Spanish duo Isaias and Cirio to thank for firing them into the top six. Jeronimo Neumann found himself behind Bruce Djite at times in the pecking order this season, while Cassio's campaign was ruined by injury.
Hindmarsh hero? | Carrusca has been among Adelaide's best players this season
Adelaide don't pay an Australian outside the salary cap and would appear unlikely to make a big-money move for an Aussie in the off-season. Djite and the versatile Osama Malik, comfortable playing at centre-back, right-back and in midfield, have been the Reds' best domestic players, while emerging youngster Awer Mabil has shown plenty of promise.
The 5-1 thrashing of Wellington Phoenix in Round 21 was the high point of Adelaide's season, dealing a major blow to the New Zealand's side own fading finals hopes and seemingly setting Gombau's side up for a genuine tilt at silverware. Jeronimo bagged a brilliant brace in the game, with Cirio, Ferreira and Mabil also on the scoresheet.
The hapless 3-0 loss away to Melbourne Victory in Round 7 wasn't pretty and seemed to raise legitimate doubts about the suitability of Gombau for the job. Two flat defeats away to Newcastle and Central Coast was a disappointing finish to another promising, positive effort.
Where to next?
With the services of Gombau and key player Carrusca secured, the Reds need a handful of top-quality acquisitions to give them the quality they need to really challenge next season. First-choice centre-back and vice-captain Jon McKain is yet to sign to a new deal, while it remains to be seen if Michael Zullo will stay on following his loan spell from Utrecht. A replacement must be found for Steven Lustica, who jumped ship for Brisbane Roar mid-season, allowing Cameron Watson to flourish in midfield.
There's plenty to like about this Adelaide team and their coach. If they get it right in the transfer market and make a faster start to 2014-15, the likes of the Roar and the Wanderers, who are both set to lose key players in the off-season, will be looking over their shoulder.