Sunday, July 16, 2006

Status quo as the A-League is back on the agenda

A-League pre-season cup, round one wrap - Teams north, south, east and west looking for better results

THE World Cup now a memory that will be impossible to top, the attention is back on the domestic competition, the A-League, and while it's hard to read too much into the opening round results of the pre-season cup, it's almost a case of as we were.

That's because last season's top three, Adelaide United, Sydney FC and the Central Coast Mariners all kicked of their campaigns with tight one-goal wins, while last season's fourth placed team, Newcastle Jets, managed a 1-1 draw at New Zealand, a game they are reported to have dominated, a pleasing result given the depleted nature of Nick Theodorakopoulos' squad.

While most managers will argue, rightly, that the result isn't all that important still a month or so out from the season proper, they will also be keen to get the confidence flowing ahead of the campaign, particularly those teams which finished outside the four - Melbourne, Queensland, Perth and New Zealand.

Of the four teams at the extremes ends of the A-League compass, North, South, East and West, Queensland and Melbourne decided to keep faith in their managers, while New Zealand and Perth have had tumultuous off-seasons to say the least.

After each failed to kick-off the season in style on the weekend, the pressure for a result will mount, particularly for Ernie Merrick and Miron Blieberg, both of whom suffered first up losses to their nemesis' from last season, Adelaide and Sydney respectively.

Once again both managers trumpeted the 'unlucky' call after the game, but for fans of either team, who's patience was tested at times last season, 'unlucky' will only wash for so long.

Ultimately the results have to improve, but both should be given time to blend their new signings into the side. Merrick in particular has much work to do to blend the likes of Claudinho, Fred, Alessandro, Brebner, Vargas and Caceres into his first 11, while Bleiberg will be hoping that Milicic can provide the cutting edge his attack lacked last season.

Ultimately, for both, it will be a case of balancing the flowing attacking football they demonstrated most of last season with the need for results. Pierre Littbarski's championship winning team rarely played the most exciting or free flowing football last season, but it was winning football, powerful and efficient.

Both will get their chance next weekend, when the 'bottom four' face off, Melbourne travelling to Perth and Queensland hosting New Zealand on the Sunshine Coast.

The Knights, led by Englishman Paul Nevin, certainly had a more positive beginning to this campaign than they did last year, when they were only together for a couple of weeks before their first up hiding at Sydney. Nevin has had more time than John Adshead and hinted that his team were at least on the same "wavelength" against Newcastle. At the very least and given that key midfielders Neil Emblen and Richard Johnson were outinjured, they should narrow the significant gap from last season.

Newcastle are also under new management, Theodorakopoulos known in the NSL for promoting attacking football. It is a philosophy he will try and bring to the A-League and much could depend on how he utilises Nick Carle, one of the most creative players in the country. Last season, under Richard Money and after a great start, Carle appeared burdened by a greater defensive responsibilty, no doubt an asset to his game, but one that detracted from Newcastle's cutting edge.

For New Zealand and Newcastle it is a fresh start, but both have pressure to deliver, on and off the field. A reported crowd of under 1000 fans at North Harbour wasn't the greatest start for the Knights, especially when measured against crowds of 5,000 plus at the other three fixtures.

Perth are perhaps the most unsettled of the clubs, currently controlled by the governing FFA while owners and a new manager are found.

Indeed, these are interesting times not only for Perth but the A-League in general. Even the teams that won on the weekend, last year's power, have question marks over the composition of their squads and style of play. There has been much debate about how Sydney will play under Terry Butcher, fascination over who will take over from Shengqing Qu if he fails to re-surface at Adelaide and intrigue over how the Central Coast will cope without Michael Beauchamp and Dean Heffernan.

At the very least all will be encouraged by first-up wins on a weekend that proved this season is likely to be as close as the last, perhaps moreso given New Zealand's likely improvement. But it also emphasised that last year's 'bottom four' will need to continue working hard.


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