Thursday, August 24, 2006

2006/07 A-League Season Preview

Every team under the microscope

ON the eve of the second A-League campaign, TRBA takes you through each team, looking at where they've strengthened or weakened from season one.

New Zealand Knights; things can only get better, surely. Season one can only be described as abysmal, both on and off the field. Less than two months into the inaugural campaign, sitting rock-bottom, and coach John Adshead was forced to concede the Knights had underestimated how competitive the league would be. A third of the way in and he was already conceding it was time to rebuild, drafting in youngsters like Jeremy Brockie. Only one win, 20 points from their nearest opponent and average crowds of less than 4,000, it was a sad state of affairs. Changes had to be made and now Paul Nevin, who spent years fine tuning his football know-how at Fulham, has taken the reigns, putting together a squad that is well placed to be more competitive than last season. Unlike last year when the squad came together a couple of weeks out from the pre-season cup, this squad has been building for months and their pre-season form indicates they’ll be tough to knock off. In have come some experienced players like Che Bunce, Richard Johnson, Scot Gemmill and Matt Karbon, as well as some promising youngsters like Portuguese striker Dani Rodrigues, Jonti Richter and defender Sime Kovacevic. Defensively the team looks more solid than last year, particularly if they can keep Bunce, Neil Emblen and Michael Turnbull on the pitch, and they have a real aggressive edge about their midfield, with Johnson and Gemmill joined by Africans Malik Buari and Jonas Salley. If Nevin can get the best out of quick wide men Richter and Noah Hickey, then Rodrigues can expect decent supply, but he does appear to lack a genuine foil up front. Sean Devine was arguably the luckiest player to survive the chop from season one and will need to improve considerably, while Adam Casey will need to make a quantum leap. Nevin’s team appears better equipped to keep out the goals, but can they find enough quality in the final third to win the tight games? Much, it seems, rests on the shoulders of Rodrigues, reported to have impressed in the pre season. Being without him and Hickey for the first few games is a major blow.

Perth Glory; like the Knights, a major clean-out after a tumultuous first season, with a new coach, new front office team, new players and caretaker owners, the governing FFA. The biggest problem last season it seemed was a lack of unity evident before a ball was kicked. If Ron Smith focuses on one thing only it should be the spirit in the dressing room. From the moment Steve McMahon walked in, with his son in toe, the signs weren’t good. The fact McMahon Jr. was among the worst imports to play in Australian couldn’t have helped, nor could the manager’s decision to allow Brian Deane to rock into camp in the week of the first round. Little wonder the fans stayed away and results fluctuated. Since then long time reformist Nick Tana, evidently sick of coughing up the cash, has sold up and the FFA are on the look-out for a buyer. It means that things are tight, streamlined, leaving Smith with little choice but to work with a blend of youngsters (like David Micevski, Josip Magdic and Luka Glavas) and veterans (like Jamie Harnwell, Stan Lazaridis, Simon Colosimo, Stuart Young, Jason Petkovic, Ante Kovacevic and Bobby Despotovski). One of the biggest losses from last season is driving midfielder Nick Ward, but if Micevski continues to develop at the rate he showed towards the end of last season, we could be witnessing an emerging midfielder of real class. Out wide Naum Sekoulovski, Lazaridis and Kiwi Leo Bertos offer good drive and pace, but there are question marks about whether this squad has the overall class to be among the front-runners. One of the fascinating observations will be how Smith steps up from a development and technical director background.

Queensland Roar; one of the most entertaining units last season, they were ultimately undone by a lack of experience, particularly in the front third. Alex Brosque, Jonti Richter, Michael Baird, Massimo Murdocca and Matt McKay all played with incredible energy, buzzing around all over the place, but when a game needed someone to slow it down, put a foot on the ball, show some composure, there was no-one. Eventually Miron Bleiberg found a solution in Brazilian target man Reinaldo, and Brosque profited, but it was too little too late. Defensively the Roar was as solid as any team, but simply couldn’t find the goals, perhaps the most frustrating team to watch. They look even stronger at the back this season with the addition of Liam Reddy, Sasa Ognenovski and Andrew Packer, while they have strengthened their frontline with the addition of two experienced front men in Ante Milicic and Yuning Zhang, complemented by Scot Simon Lynch and promising young local Dario Vidosic. With Reinaldo still on the roster, clearly the Roar has more attacking potency than ever, the loss of Brosque included. Bleiberg hasn’t stopped there, strengthening the midfield by adding German Marcus Wedau, expected to organise the midfield along with one of the stand-outs from last season, Harold Seo. With McKay and Murdocca buzzing around them and the likes of Packer and Spase Dilevski out wide, Bleiberg has all the ingredients for a successful campaign, but his biggest task will be to keep his five strikers happy.

Melbourne Victory; another team, like Queensland, that lacked experience and goals from midfield last season. Like Queensland, their coach, Ernie Merrick, survived calls to oust him. Like Queensland, they are expecting to make the finals and, you guessed it, like Queensland, they have strengthened their squad by targeting perceived weakness. Like New Zealand, they started last season off scratch and were left with little choice but to rely on youth. Few of the kids made the grade, meaning Melbourne lacked goals and drive from midfield. Other than Richard Kitzbichler, now departed, the Victory couldn’t find anyone to take the pressure off Archie Thompson. So in has come a bevy of attacking options, including Brazilians Fred and Claudinho in the front third, their compatriot Alessandro out on the left and another wide-man in Adrian Caceras, under-used and under-valued at Perth. Merrick also identified, rightly, a lack of control from central midfield, and has moved Kevin Muscat into the holding role, while another Scot, Grant Brebner, is expected to be nearby. Part of Muscat’s switch has been a move away from a 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2, with Rodrigo Vargas brought in to marshal the defence and provide a buffer in front of either Eugene Galekovic or Michael Theoklitos, both of whom need to step up after indifferent seasons. It’s also time to produce for the likes of Danny Allsopp, Kristian Sarkies, Mark Byrnes and Vince Lia. There is little doubt the Victory has more depth and a better preparation than last season, but has Merrick the smarts to pull the right moves, keep everyone happy and the detractors away? Like Queensland, only results will talk.

Newcastle Jets; last season was one of ups and downs for the Jets, an average start followed by a brilliant middle before things went downhill towards the end. Ultimately though they made the finals and only bowed out to the eventual grand finalists by the odd goal. So it was far from a disastrous season, yet problems seemed to dog the club everywhere you looked, both in the football and administrative departments. On the field their appeared friction between the manager, Richard Money, and some of his senior players, while the word on the street was of some off field tension between the club bosses and the governing FFA. Money has been one victim of the off season cleanout, along with the likes of Ned Zelic, Richard Johnson, Ante Milicic, Mateo Corbo and Alan Picken. When Nick Theodorakopoulos came on board there was another departure, Liam Reddy. But since then the former Wollongong and Parramatta manager has been building steadily, adding some experience through the likes of Paul Okon, Milton Rodrigues and Joel Griffiths and some youth through the likes of Adam D’Apuzzo, Steven Old and Tolgay Ozbey. The return to fitness of Andrew Durante and Mark Bridge, two players who missed the majority of last season for different reasons, will feel like the addition of two new players. Evidently, Theodorakopoulos is looking to play a more attractive, ball on the ground style with mobility and adaptability as the hallmarks, a style modeled on the Guus Hiddink formula. Whether he has the cattle is the biggest question. One area the Jets appear light on is in the defensive central midfield, where Stuart Musalik is on a steep learning curve taking over from Johnson, one of the Jets’ best last season. The Jets will look to build things up from the back through central defenders Okon and Durante, both good users of the ball, and Musalik, along with Nick Carle, will be crucial in providing the link between them and the attack of Griffiths, Bridge and the evergreen Vaughan Coveny. With the drive of Matt Thompson from wide midfield and the pace of Labinot Haliti, Ozbey and Tony Faria off the bench, Newcastle should, at the very least, be easy on the eye.

Adelaide United; the most consistent team throughout the regular season, their title challenge dissipated soon after they held aloft the minor premiership. That team was straight out of the manager’s mould – physical, competitive, feisty and efficient. Not surprisingly it appeared among the most united of A-League squads, perhaps a reflection of the fact most of the team had been together in the NSL and then throughout a long pre-season. John Kosmina is a man who believes in continuity and team harmony, fostering a siege style mentality and protecting his players above all else, as witnessed against Brisbane and Sydney. But he is also a man with a keen football mind and worked diligently alongside Aurelio Vidmar to get the best out of his men last season and again in this pre-season. While much remains the same from last season, particularly in defence and deep central midfield, he also identified a lack of creativity in midfield and has tried to address this by signing veteran Dutch player Bobby Petta, a keep ball merchant who will make up for the loss of Lucas Pantelis to injury. With Shengqing Qu, Fernando Rech, Carl Veart, Travis Dodd and Greg Owens all clamouring to be first team regulars, Kosmina’s hardest job will be keeping them all content. Youngsters Jason Spagnuolo, Dez Giraldi and Nathan Burns offer genuine alternatives off the bench. Last season Adelaide battered most teams into submission and it appears they are looking to add a little more flair to their game this season.

Central Coast Mariners; played the most flowing football last campaign, always easy on the eye, fluid and at times seemingly effortless. Like Kosmina, manager Lawrie McKinna treats team spirit as the king and has attributed much of his team’s success to their appetite to work hard for each other. It is a simply recipe but often the hardest to achieve. Like Kosmina, this shrewd Scot somewhat undersells himself. Clearly McKinna in among the most thoughtful managers in Australia, often seen at state league games of any level, scouting and surveying the scene, judging a footballer not on reputation but on what he produces on an off the pitch. Knowing that you can’t stand still and that he needed to replace the departed Michael Beauchamp and Dean Heffernan, he has bought sparingly over the off-season, drafting in Vuko Tomasevic to replace ‘the Heff’ and Vidmar for Beauchamp. But McKinna also sees the big picture and the importance of engaging a community of new football converts, so he has brought in locals Brad Porter, Jamie McMaster, Oliver Bozanic and Matt Simon, the latter on a short term contract. Beyond that he will be looking for big goal-scoring season from two of his big guns, Tom Pondeljak and Nick Mrdja. The squad is full of adaptability and if they remain united, with McKinna pulling the string, it is hard not to see them figuring at the business end of the campaign. The only issue is the expectation from outside. Last season the Mariners were essentially seen as a fairytale, even though there was internal expectation. This year everyone expects.

Sydney FC; the bling, glamour FC, call them what you will, the fact is that Sydney delivered on all the expectation last season despite not always playing the most fluid stuff. When it mattered most, they delivered, peaking at the business end of the campaign and showing the investments in Pierre Littbarski and Dwight Yorke were enough to deliver the short term dividends. But the investment also cost the club dearly, reported losses approaching six million dollars, bringing about all sorts of boardroom rumblings, speculation about managers and players coming and going, all tumultuous stuff. Then came the appointment of Terry Butcher and so started a philosophical debate into how Sydney is likely to play. The World Cup helped calm the mood and on the back of its success last season and the subsequent impact the Socceroos have had, interest in Sydney and the game in soaring. Butcher has endeared himself to the FC faithful with some strong pre-season form and a few jokes along the way. The signs are there that he will venture away from the 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1) he has used for much of his coaching life to the 4-2-3-1 that Sydney achieved its success with in the finals, where they looked in synch. Listening to him speak at a recent Soccer NSW seminar, there seems little doubt Butcher will deploy Alex Brosque, Steve Corica and David Carney behind one striker, likely to be Sasho Petrovski, with Dwight Yorke likely to slot alongside Mark Milligan in the deeper midfield. If that’s the case, it is a potent front five, full of drive, movement, good technique and scoring ability. If, as hinted, Milligan is switched to the midfield, that opens a spot at right back, with Iain Fyfe a potential candidate. Regardless of the starting 11, Sydney appear to have cover, with David Zdrillic and Robbie Middleby seeing more time under Butcher so far, while Terry McFlynn, Ufuk Talay and Jeremy Brockie will be hoping for opportunities to impress. The foundation to last season’s success was the efficiency across the board, whether in defence or attack, so it will be intriguing to see what stamp Butcher imparts on the team.


Anonymous Pinuts Pethia said...

Nice preview TT. Apart from the relatively settled squads of Sydney and Adelaide, all other clubs appear to have several changes to their playing rosters for season 2. It will be intersting to see which teams settle quickly and play as a unit.

I hope to see some attractive free flowing football. I also hope the football loving public get out and support the league.

Fri. Aug. 25, 09:40:00 am AEST  

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