Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Good signs for another close A-League campaign

IT’S early days yet, and there is still a bonus round to come, designed to encourage open football, but if the signs are any indication, than this season’s A-League will be as tight as the first, perhaps more so given the improvement across the ditch.

Midway through the pre-season cup, 12 games down, and already we’ve had seven draws, four of them finishing goalless. Of the five results, only one, Saturday night’s come from behind win by the Mariners in Melbourne, has been decided by a margin of more than a goal.

It’s been tight, competitive stuff, and augers well for the season proper, when a close competition will help keep bums on seats.

That was the case in the inaugural season, when almost 70 percent of the regular season games (58 of the 84) finished as either draws (21) or one goal winning margins (37). It meant that most games had edge of the seat appeal, heightening the mainstream appeal.

It was even tighter in the finals series, when all six games were decided by no more than one goal.

For a sport that had historically been typecast in Australia as being ‘dull and low-scoring’, A-League season number one helped brake down the myth, proving to that low-scoring can equal exciting.

Among the many things that stood out, for this correspondent at least, was the number of games that had you gripped as the 90th minute approached.

If the intention of the administrators in having a salary cap was to ensure the competition remained as close as possible, crucial to maintaining interest in an eight team format, then they are clearly on the way to achieving that.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign this second pre-season cup has been the improved results from New Zealand, three draws and only two goals conceded proving that the hard work put in by Paul Nevin and his new-look crew is working.

If it continues, at the very least they will narrow the gap between seventh and last. At best, they will mount a finals challenge. Whatever happens, there appears little doubt the competition will be tighter than last year. Of the 26 games decided by more than a goal in 2005/2006, the Knights were responsible for nine. Little wonder they finished so far behind the rest.

Indeed, in this pre-season, only one team, the Victory, have lost more than once. Only three teams, last year’s top three - Sydney, Adelaide and the Mariners - have won, and only the grand finalists have won more than once, re-emphasising that the remainder have work to do to close the gap.

While yet to register a victory, Newcastle, Perth, Melbourne, Queensland and New Zealand have shown evidence that one isn’t far away.

And if it comes in this weekend’s bonus round, where the two groups cross-over for a brief affair, then a win, coupled with some goals, could skyrocket a team currently outside the top two in its group into a semi-final spot.

The administrators have made a call to experiment with the pre-season by introducing a bonus point round this weekend, meaning that, on top of the normal points for a win (three) and draw (one), teams will earn one bonus point for scoring two goals, two points for three goals and three extra points for four goals or more. It means a team can come away with a maximum of six points. Even a team that loses can score four points.

While there has been negative feedback from some fans about the experiment, the move should generally be applauded. If managers can use the pre-season cup to tamper with personnel and formations, then the rule makers should be allowed the latitude for some off-field innovation.

Anything that encourages open, attacking football should generally by encouraged, particularly after a world cup that was dogged, in the main, by defensive mindsets.

For next year’s pre-season cup, perhaps there is scope to tinker with the bonus points system so that it rewards teams who score goals as well as keep them out, all food for thought.

Whatever the future, the present bodes well for an exciting fourth round, with teams currently outside the top two now in with a chance of making the top-four playoffs if they can win and bang in the goals.

Perhaps the most enticing of the cross-over games pits last placed group A outfit the Melbourne Victory against equal third in group B, Newcastle Jets. Without the bonus points incentive, Melbourne, on one point, would have no chance of leap-frogging second placed Adelaide, on five points, but if United fail to get anything out of their home clash with the New Zealand Knights, the door opens of Ernie Merrick’s men.

In truth though, Merrick’s focus won’t be on any bonus points, simply on achieving a result that will not only instill his men with some much needed confidence ahead of the season proper, but silence his band of doubters, many of whom re-emerged after an indifferent display against the Mariners on Saturday night.

Merrick appears to be using the pre-season to tinker with a new 3-5-2 formation, a move away from the 4-4-2 of last season. Here he deployed a three man defence featuring Rodrigo Vargas at sweeper, flanked by Adrian Leijer and Steve Pantelidis as stoppers. The latter has made way for Kevin Muscat in holding midfielder role.

This system appears in part a way of accommodating the attacking-minded left sided flyer Alessandro (pictured above, courtesy of www.melbournevictory.com.au), the Brazilian who is reported to have made a eye-catching debut that not only attracted the attention of the watching Victory gallery, but of the opposition, who disappointingly resorted to physical means to stop him.

Merrick admitted after that game that he might have to get Alessandro to do some defending, an area opposition sides might try to exploit.

Less eye catching is said to have been the performance of Vince Lia on the opposite side, while there still appears work to be done in Merrick’s central midfield, where Muscat teamed up with Grant Brebner and Fred. After a good start by Fred, Lawrie McKinna moved new recruit Vuko Tomasevic onto him and shut-down the supply to Archie Thompson and Danny Allsopp, re-inforcing the reputation he gained last season as one of the most thoughtful tacticians around.

Newcastle have also moved away from the 4-4-2 of Richard Money last season to the 3-5-2 favoured by Nick Theodorakopoulos at both Wollongong and Parramatta, and has strengthened his squad with the addition of Socceroo striker Joel Griffiths, who should add more experience and thrust alongside Vaughan Coveney after his European adventures.

Like Melbourne, there has been some tinkering at the back at Newcastle, with Ned Zelic and Allan Picken no longer around. In the pre-season, the back three has had a less familiar look; Paul Okon at sweeper with Andrew Durante, back from a second broken leg, and Jade North, converted from a right back, playing as mobile stoppers, while impressive Kiwi international Steven Old is close to putting pen to paper. Between the sticks, Liam Reddy has gone north to Queensland, with Ben Kennedy filling in while the Jets attempt to strike a deal with Jess Van Stratten.

Theodorakopoulos is re-building nicely, but could well do with the addition of a defensive central midfielder, a direct replacement for Richard Johnson.

Both Newcastle and Queensland, on two points each, could go above the Knights (three points) in group B if they can conquer Melbourne and the Mariners respectively.

But the smart money would be on the established order - Sydney, Adelaide and the Central Coast - to get through with one other. The beauty for the rest is that they’ll get another two games regardless, crucial as they continue to build towards the real stuff.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great Article cant wait for the real stuff

Wed. Aug. 02, 11:13:00 pm AEST  

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