The reality of a brutal schedule and a star-studded injury list is biting the Melbourne Victory, with coach Ernie Merrick admitting the A-League champions face critical crossroads.
The Victory crashed 1-0 to Beijing Guoan in their Asian Champions League opener in China on Tuesday night, with former A-League star Joel Griffiths netting the winner.
Merrick admitted D-Day loomed in their A-League major semi-final second leg against Sydney FC on Sunday week, which will be followed just two days later by their second ACL fixture against Korean side Seongnam Ilhwa.
Defeat to Sydney FC would add another match to the Victory's packed schedule - a preliminary final the following weekend.
Merrick admitted that could prove one match too much for a squad already groaning under the weight of tough scheduling and player availability issues.
"We're fortunate enough now to have almost a two-week break before our next game in Sydney against Sydney," Merrick said from Beijing on Wednesday.
"The challenge is to win that game because it saves us playing another qualifying game for the grand final.
"The tough one is going to be to play Seongnam two days after. It's just a ridiculous draw when you think about it.
"So the next game is rather crucial for us as a club."
Merrick said injured duo Archie Thompson and Robbie Kruse were back in light training, and what role they played in the A-League finals and ACL would become clearer early next week.
The club is also sweating on this week's appeal over striker Nik Mrdja's two-match ban for elbowing Sydney FC's Shannon Cole in the head in last week's game.
That could force Mrdja out of the A-League grand final, though it has no effect on the ACL campaign.
Merrick admitted he was considering blooding several youth players in the ACL fixture against the K-League runners-up should Thompson and Kruse remain sidelined.
Seongnam Ilhwa currently sit top of Group E, beating Japan's Kawasaki Frontale 2-0 at home on Tuesday night in their ACL opener.
"I've got a feeling I'm going to have to use a number of youth team players ... there's a number of youngsters who'll be in consideration for that," Merrick said.
Griffiths, who boasted 'a goal every two games' record against Melbourne while playing for the Jets, put on a clinic for Beijing on Tuesday night to make a statement about his repeated omission from the Socceroos.
The striker, who has not figured for his country since 2008, scored a classy 50th minute winner in a deserved win for the home side.
Griffiths' superb first touch ghosted him past Victory defenders Kevin Muscat and Rodrigo Vargas before the former Johnny Warren Medallist slotted home.