MELBOURNE Heart's festive season took a turn for the worse on Boxing Day when Croatian striker Josip Tadic was forbidden from flying to New Zealand with his teammates for the clash with Wellington Phoenix on Thursday.
The forward did not have the requisite visa to travel, so had to wait at the airport while the rest of the party took off.
But club officials were able to make the necessary calls to ensure Tadic had the right papers to allow him to travel on a later flight.
The next three games - against the Phoenix and at home to Newcastle and Brisbane - could shape Heart's season as it battles to stay in touch with the top six and snare a finals spot.
John Aloisi's squad travelled to Wellington already weakened by the loss of first-choice centre-backs Simon Colosimo and Patrick Gerhardt to suspension, while Socceroos Aziz Behich and Richard Garcia have been left in Melbourne to give them time to rest after their busy schedule through December.
Irishman Steven Gray, a mature-age recruit who began his career with English Premiership club Southampton, is likely to be given a Heart debut in the centre of defence alongside teenager David Vrankovic. Gray joined Heart after playing in the Victorian Premier League.
Jason Hoffman could come in for Garcia in an attacking role, while Sam Mitchinson, who deputised for Behich while the latter was with the Socceroos in Hong Kong, looks the obvious replacement at left-back.
Jeremy Walker, who impressed in a couple of games earlier in the year, and newcomer Ersin Kaya, have also been promoted to the squad from the youth team.
Aloisi will weigh which of the pair might be more useful providing cover on the bench. Kaya is a winger, while Walker has played as a full-back in his previous A-League appearances.
Heart's football manager, John Didulica, said the decision to leave Behich and Garcia behind had been made for strategic reasons.
''They played in a lot of those Socceroos matches in the East Asian championship, returned for the game against the Mariners and then played in the derby [against Melbourne Victory],'' he said.
''They have had a lot of football in December, and with the big games against Newcastle on New Year's Day and the short turnaround to the game with Brisbane on January 6, John Aloisi decided he wanted them to freshen up for them.''
The Phoenix showed it would be right up for this game with a 1-1 draw against league leader Central Coast at the weekend. Ricki Herbert's team is missing key forward Paul Ifill, who has had an ankle operation which could keep him out for up to six weeks.
But the Phoenix showed plenty in the draw with the Mariners, when Herbert put his faith in teenagers Tyler Boyd and Louis Fenton, to suggest that Heart's makeshift rearguard could be in for a torrid time.
''We did some good things the other night and if we can keep building on that I don't think we will be too far away,'' Herbert said.
''I don't think I'll change the team, but there are things we need to be better on. We talked about the crossing, and the set play delivery in particular wasn't where it needs to be, so someone else [will] take up that role.''