Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Grand final; Defence and crowd crucial

As we look forward to the grand final on Sunday and ponder what may separate Sydney FC and the Central Coast Mariners at the end of 90 or 120 minutes, or perhaps even penalties, the only obvious conclusion is there is very little between them.

While Sydney won the two pre-season clashes, the three regular season games have resulted in a win a piece and a draw in the most recent clash in round 18 at Aussie stadium, when an Iain Fyfe blunder on half-way lead to a wonderful opener from Tom Pondeljak, which was equalised by David Carney.

The Mariners have the edge at Aussie, winning the first clash there in round four 3-2 thanks to a last minute deflected winner from Noel Spencer.

Of the two, the Mariners have been the more consistent team throughout the season, particularly in the second half of the season. In their 24 games to date, they have lost only once on the road, and go into the decider not having conceded a goal away from Gosford in the finals.

Indeed, their 1-0 wins at Newcastle and Adelaide gives them confidence that they can go away and defend, knowing that at the other end they have scored in all but one game this season, believe it or not against the wooden spooners New Zealand Knights six months ago.

There is a theory in football, as in most sports, that defences generally win the big games, and the Mariners, while they’ve ridden their luck at times, have scrambled wonderfully in defence, particularly in the finals.

For this, they have the blistering pace and courage of Andrew Clark, Michael Beauchamp and Dean Heffernan to thank, as well as the midfielders’ willingness to get back and create an extra barrier in front of the back four.

Importantly, they have been able to keep the same back four of Alex Wilkinson, Beauchamp, Clark and Heffernan throughout the finals. While there was a degree of chopping and changing early in the year as Lawrie McKinna searched for the right formula, there is no doubt the undefeated streak has coincided with a settled line-up.

Sydney meanwhile have had to chop and change at the back due mainly to the injury sustained by Jacob Timpano in the first leg against Adelaide, and now the suspension of right back Mark Milligan for the big one. It has been the story of its season, with the only constant being left back Alvin Ceccoli.

Interestingly, Sydney has failed to keep a clean sheet in its past six games,
conceding three in the finals to the Mariners’ one.

Perhaps of more concern is that the likely back four of Andrew Packer, Mark Rudan, Jacob Timpano and Alvin Ceccoli has yet to start a game together this season. When Rudan was out of the side, Fyfe was partnering Timpano, while Packer’s run in the side was when Rudan was bidding his time on the bench.

But Sydney, like the Mariners last week, will take heart from their ability to weather the storm Adelaide threw at them in the second half a fortnight ago. While the post came to their rescue a couple of times, there’s little doubt they are defending better now than they were a couple of months ago.

Sydney has had an up and down season, but when it has really mattered, like just before they went to Japan and just before the finals, they have lifted considerably. Clearly they are a big occasion team and have now built some nice momentum into the grand final on the back of four undefeated games.

While there are still signs of frailty at the back, at the other end the outlook is more positive. Since Pierre Littbarski and Ian Crook changed the system from a 4-4-2 to a 4-4-1-1 following the round 19 loss to Queensland, Sydney have looked a more cohesive unit in attack.

That night the midfield was ripped open by the Roar’s marauding young midfield, with Robbie Middleby failing to take his opportunity on Sydney’s left. So, the following week away to Perth, Ruben Zadkovich was deployed there, Steve Corica was brought in to play in the hole between midfield and attack, with David Zdrilic making way up front. He hasn’t been sighted since.

Sydney have since looked a more dynamic and mobile attacking force, scoring two goals in each of its past four games, compared with the Mariners, who have only been able to muster one in each of its three finals.

Indeed, some of the ruthlessness in front of goal that typified Central Coast’s form a month or so back has been missing lately. In analysing last week’s win over Adelaide, McKinna made a point about his team’s final ball options. While some of their counter-attacking was shift and incisive, the lack of quality on the final delivery was at times concerning. No doubt it has given McKinna something to focus on this week.

If the Mariners can get this delivery right, there is no doubt they will create chances against Sydney, particularly with a midfield and left back keen to get into the opposition’s box.

Sydney, for its part, played a controlled tempo game against Adelaide, meaning they mainly played within themselves and only attacked sporadically, when they felt they needed to. This was usually on the back of some intense prompting from the crowd, particularly a burst of 15 minutes in the second period when Rudan scored, Packer had another disallowed for off-side and Sasho Petrovski shot just wide.

There’s no doubt the crowd, prompted by the team’s thank you message before the game, made a major difference in the semi final, and could again play a significant role.

How the Mariners handle this intense support, especially from the Cove, will be crucial, particularly since they have had relatively small away crowds to deal with in their two finals to date.

While they have been exemplary to date, the back five feature a number of inexperienced guys in Wilkinson, Heffernan and goallkeeper Danny Vukovic. How they handle the occassion will be pivotal.

So will it be the Mariners solid defending or the improved attacking potency of Sydney FC that comes out on top on Sunday? Perhaps the crowd may make that little difference in Sydney’s favour, but if the Mariners can score first and defuse the crowd, the pressure will shift to the home side.

For a complete tactical preview, be sure to visit later in the week.


Anonymous Pierre said...

"lead to a wonderful equaliser from Tom Pondeljak"'ll find that Tommy actually opened the scoring in the 52' and it was Carney who equalised in the 61'. Pedantic yes but its very annoying reading an analysis with such errors. Otherwise well written and I look forward to your next article.

Thu. Mar. 02, 08:58:00 am AEDT  
Blogger The Round Ball Analyst said...

Thanks for the pick up and feedback Pierre, have now corrected piece. Glad you enjoyed.

Was at the game and seem to remember Pondeljak equalising, but perhaps I've watched too much football this year...never!

Enjoy the gf, and btw, who do you think will win?

Thu. Mar. 02, 09:32:00 am AEDT  

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