Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A-League team of the week, round five

ROUND five failed to produce the highest quality football we’ve seen in the A-League, with disappointing fixtures to start and finish the round. Certainly, the Roar-Adelaide game was the pick of the lot, especially the home sides’ performance, but even that failed to produce a goal. Indeed, only six goals were scored, equal lowest return with round one, in part due to the brilliant work of Robert Bajic and Danny Vukovic. Choosing between the two was the hardest part of picking this week’s team of the round, as was the choice of who to play up front. With left-sided players dominating the weekend’s action, there’s been a degree of re-jigging to come up with this 3-5-2 formation;

Danny Vukovic, CCM, keeper; hard to leave out Rob Bajic, who was outstanding in keeping out the Roar at Suncorp, but Vukovic produced brilliant save after save to deny the Jets. Was eventually beaten at his near post by a quick-thinking Joel Griffiths, but in the context of the Mariners season, his saves were crucial. Needs to continue barking at his defence to get out as the Mariners are defending far too deep for their own good, perhaps a sign of their lack of confidence in covering the ground.

Sasa Ognenovski, QR, right stopper; not surprisingly, the former Melbourne Knight continues to impress at A-League level with his tight and physical approach a nuisance to opposition strikers. On Friday night he frustrated Fernando Rech, a stand-out the past two weeks, into submission, forcing him to be replaced at the break. Didn’t let up in the second, helping frustrate Shengqing Qu.

Rodrigo Vargas, MV, central defender; like Ognenovski, no surprise to find him doing so well in the A-League as he was consistently one of the best defenders in the NSL. Has added some real composure at the back for Melbourne and was again solid against Perth in dealing with Stuart Young.

Andrew Packer, QR, left back; switched to the left wing-back role by Miron Bleiberg for this match, Packer was constantly in the Adelaide half, keeping both Travis Dodd and Greg Owens busy. At times he could have better utilised the space, but, with Josh McCloughan providing cover behind him, Packer was free to press on and pin back United, one of his best attacking games in some time.

Adrian Caceres, MV, right midfield; only on as a left sided replacement for Alessandro in the first half, but what an impact he made against his former club, scoring the first with a delightful first time swivel and shot, and then launching the counter-attack that resulted in Muscat’s penalty. It appeared he was brought on to provide help to Daniel Piorkowski in dealing with Leo Bertos and he was instantly back helping double-up and shut Bertos out of the game. Not content with that, he did some typically neat things on the ball. An excellent technician, his performance makes it hard for Merrick to leave him out against the Roar. Because he wandered all over the place, gets the gig on the right side of a five man midfield.

Massimo Murdocca, QR, central midfield; back in the starting line-up after sitting out the past couple, he was pivotal in helping the Roar control the game and Adelaide’s central midfield of Ross Aloisi and Carl Veart, who were never allowed a moment to breath with Murdocca and the other half of the pocket-rocket duo, Matt McKay, snapping at their heels. Murdocca also highlighted in this match how comfortable he is on the ball.

Kevin Muscat, MV, central midfield; while this wasn’t his most dominate performance of the season, particularly in the first half, his second was much better, finally getting on top of Simon Colosimo and creating the first and converting the second. Great to see the player we knew as a tough tackling right-back playing with such poise and thought in this crucial area of the pitch.

Matt McKay, QR, central midfield; gets in the team for the second week running, this time in the central role he filled alongside Murdocca and Marcus Wedau. Last week he played wide left, but this week he moved effortlessly back inside, driving from midfield and getting on the end of a couple of crosses. Magnificent workrate, played a key role in pressing Adelaide high up the pitch.

Stewart Petrie, CCM, left midfield; last season’s top scorer, it has been a difficult start to the campaign for the Scot, criticised by his own fans of carrying too much weight and failing to pack a threat in front of goal. Lawrie McKinna’s solution was to throw him at left midfield and what a sterling job he did there against Newcastle. Responsible for the cross that led to the Mariners’ first of the campaign, he teamed up well with Tony Vidmar to outplay the likes of Jade North, especially in the first half.

Joel Griffiths, NU, striker; while he played as a left midfielder for the second week straight, his tireless up and down performance on the flank gets him the gig as a striker in this team. Scored a delightful equaliser when he drove into the box off the ball and toe-poked past Vukovic and involved in the pivotal moment of the game when he should have had a penalty but was instead red-carded for ‘simulation’. Unlucky to miss the next two weeks.

Reinaldo, QR, striker; only on for just over an hour, but in the first half was a particular menace to the Adelaide defence, driving with pace both on an off the ball. Involved in one of the most contentious moments of the match when he appeared to be pulled down just outside the box by Robert Cornthwaite as he zoned in on Bajic’s goal.

Monday, September 25, 2006

A-League, round five round up

The four games

New Zealand Knights 0 v Sydney FC 1; both sides came into this game with a re-jigged formation. The hosts, recognising they had to get more support for Dani Rodriguez, went from a 4-5-1 to a 3-5-2, with Noah Hickey pushed up front, fullbacks Gregory Duruz and Darren Bazeley pushed into the midfield to provide the width and Sime Kovacevic joining Che Bunce and Neil Emblen at the back. In truth though it was more like a 5-3-2, with Bazeley and Duruz offering very little in attack. Sydney meanwhile went away from the diamond midfield to a flat four, with Mark Milligan joining Terry McFlynn in the middle, Ruben Zadkovich brought in on the right and Jeremy Brockie partnering David Zdrilic up font. The absence of Sasho Petrovski was puzzling. At the back Matthew Bingley came in in the middle, pushing Nikolai Topor-Stanley to the left. Whether the formation changes played a role or not, both sides struggled to get the ball on the ground and play football. Instead we saw fullbacks from both sides playing long-balls either straight or diagonal, and a sloppy contest, hard on the eye, ensued. Sydney, it appeared, was trying to get Topor-Stanley in down the left, but too often balls were over-hit and Bazeley had his measure. At the break Sydney assistant manager Ian Crook looked a perplexed and disappointed man. His message was that Sydney had the get ball on the deck (as bumpy as it was) and try and play through the likes of Mark Milligan, Alex Brosque and Terry McFlynn. It was a mixed message to what we’d seen in the first half. In any case, Sydney eventually settled down a bit post Mark Rudan’s great strike, Brockie shifting to the left, Milligan pushing to the right, and Brosque and Zadkovich more central, playing off Zdrilic. Finally, at least Sydney were attempting to string some passes, keep the ball alive, but they still had to survive one late moment when Malik Buari skied a Scott Gemmill knock-down. Terry Butcher arrived promising to grind out results and get the job done and after only two points in the past three weeks, the three points on this far-from-memorable evening will be welcome relief for him and the club, but do little to silence the detractors.

Queensland Roar 0 v Adelaide United 0; a battle of two in-form heavyweights, this match, while not quite living up to expectation in terms of the final score, provided everything the Knights-Sydney match didn’t – good passing, fluency and plenty of goal-scoring opportunities, particularly from the hosts, who did everything but provide the knock-out punch. This was largely down to the brilliant work between the sticks from the much improved Robert Bajic who time and again kept the Roar scoreless. Miron Bleiberg pulled all the punches from the dug-out, outsmarting his great nemesis John Kosmina. Recognising that Adelaide have won their past two matches by dominating the flanks, Bleiberg re-jigged his unit, starting with a back three, shifting Harold Seo to the right and Andy Packer to the left. It did two things, controlling both Jason Spagnuolo and Travis Dodd, as well as pinning Greg Owens back. Also recognising that Adelaide are as ruthless on the counter-attack as any team, he deviated, for the first time this season, from the three-man forward line, relegating Ante Milicic to the bench and partnering Simon Lynch with Reinaldo. It allowed him to play a three man central midfield of Marcus Wedau flanked by Massimo Murdocca and Matt McKay, who outnumbered and dominated both Carl Veart and Ross Aloisi. With Seo and particularly Packer stretching Adelaide and the likes of Sasa Ognenovksi, Chad Gibson and Josh McCloughan in control of Shengqing Qu and Fernando Rech, the Roar were dominant all over the pitch. Pressing Adelaide high, the likes of Murdocca and McKay were able the control the game, and when Qu was sent off for a silly moment of retaliation, Adelaide could do little but hang on. In truth, Kosmina had made a good adjustment at the break, pushing Angelo Costanzo into midfield to even up the numbers. Rech was sacrificed as Mike Valkanis came into the backline. It was a move built around containment, and even before Qu’s send off, Adelaide looked happy to come away from Suncorp with a point. The appetite already wets at the prospect of a return bout in Adelaide later in the season.

Central Coast Mariners 1 v Newcastle Jets 1; there is something about this derby that sets the pulse racing. Rarely does it disappoint, and again on this night, with much to play for, there were many talking points, including an outstanding performance in goal from Danny Vukovic, another error in judgment from Paul Okon, the Mariners’ first goal of the season and an indifferent performance from referee Simon Pryzdacz. Trying to find the elusive goal and winning formula, Lawrie McKinna made some interesting adjustments to his team, relegating the out-of-form Vuko Tomasevic and Adam Kwasnik to the bench, shifting Tony Vidmar to left back, starting Stewart Petrie in the unfamiliar left midfield role and partnering John Hutchinson up front with Tom Pondeljak. Early on it appeared to be working, Petrie providing the cross that ultimately fell to Hutchinson for the Mariners’ opener, of the season. Newcastle had also made some interesting changes to their defence, starting with a back three for the first time, Paul Kohler partnering Andrew Durante as twin stoppers, covered by Okon. With Jade North pushing into midfield, the Mariners were able to exploit the space on the right and dominate most of the first half, but for a couple of brilliant Vukovic stops to deny Milton Rodriguez and Matt Thompson. The second stanza was different. Desperate to protect their lead, the Mariners dropped deeper and deeper, inviting the equally desperate Newcastle on. Let the Jets play and they have the players to conjure up chances and the character, as they proved last week, to keep coming. So it proved when Rodriguez turned a delightful flick inside for Joel Griffiths, who toe-poked past Vukovic. Newcastle, despite Okon’s red-card, had the momentum and continued to press forward, unlucky not to grab all three points after Pryzdacz erred on the side of caution when Alex Wilkinson appeared to clatter Griffiths inside.

Perth Glory 1 v Melbourne Victory 2; in hot conditions, it was hardly surprising that this game was far from a classic. Both sides appeared to feel the pinch and after an incisive first few minutes from the visitors, the first half settled into a stalemate, Perth dominating possession but failing to find a cutting edge in the final third. The times they did trouble Melbourne were from crosses and set-pieces, perhaps trying to expose Michael Theoklitos’ weakness to the ball coming in from the flanks. Meanwhile, Melbourne looked more incisive in the final third, but failed to find the passing fluency of the past month. After some stern words from Ernie Merrick at the break, the second half was better from Melbourne, getting a greater share of the ball and profiting with a neat Adrian Cacares finish, before picking off the Glory on the counter-attack when Cacares broke up-field and Archie Thompson drew a penalty from Adrian Webster. Once again Melbourne relied on a well-marshaled defence the grab all three points, despite conceding from an injury time corner. Five from five and the Victory are flying, while Perth, after an enterprising opening two games at home, have struggled to create chances from open play the past two weeks.

Some other talking points

A weekend to keep; two outstanding performances between the sticks in round five, with Adelaide’s Robert Bajic impeccable in keeping out the Roar on Friday night, before Danny Vukovic topped that display with a number of brilliant stops to deny Newcastle the following night.

Little wonder the fans stayed away; rarely has there been a worse A-League game that this one dished up by the New Zealand Knights and Sydney FC, surely. Bereft of any invention and passing fluency, it was far from a glowing endorsement to the league and will do little to covert a New Zealand public slow on the uptake. Only 2,700 odd die-hards were there, and after the display from both sides, how many will care to come back? The worry for Sydney is that if they keep producing this type of performance, the fans will also stay away from Aussie Stadium.

Applying the tactical straight-jacket; Ernie Merrick’s decision to replace Brazilian Alessandro midway through the first half ultimately proved a successful one for the Victory, with his replacement Adrian Cacares scoring the first and playing a major hand in the second, but what’s the point of flying Alessandro half-way across the world to apply the tactical straight-jacket and turn him into another player made to merely fit into a system? It didn’t work for Carlos Alberto Pereira at the world cup (his use of Ronaldinho). Surely there is still room on the football field for one free spirit!

Adaptability all the rage; after seeing what Guus Hiddink could achieve with a flexible framework, it appears to be catching on. No doubt guided by the principles of keeping the opposition guessing and adapting to what the opposition is throwing at you, no less than six of the managers tinkered with their formations while all eight altered their starting personnel from last week. Proving that success breads continuity, only the Victory have kept their tinkering to a minimum, bringing in Krisitian Sarkies when Fred was suspended and Steve Pantelidis when Grant Brebner was injured, but after the introduction of Cacares for Alessandro yesterday, it remains to be seen what Merrick does on Sunday, particularly with Fred available.

Red card; not for the first time it goes to Simon Pryzdacz for his decision to award Joel Griffiths a second yellow card for simulation. These decisions are never easy to call, but there appears a reluctance by many of Australia’s top officials to award penalties, particularly so late in games. The reality is that Pryzdacz got this one wrong and has cost Newcastle a valuable three points and forced Griffiths to spend a second week on the sidelines when clearly he should be playing on Friday night.

Goal of the week; there weren’t many this week, only six in total, including two lovely first time left foot strikes from Mark Rudan and Adrian Cacares, but for team-work and finishing, hard to go past Joel Griffiths’ delightful toe-poke to equalise against the Mariners. Played in by another wonderful Milton Rodriguez contribution, Griffiths controlled well and used a futsal style toe-poke, made famous by Romario, to beat Danny Vukovic at the near post. It may have taken a slight deflection, but full credit to Griffiths for having the technique and confidence to use this dying skill.

Save of the week; take your pick from anything Robert Bajic or Danny Vukovic did. Bajic produced a brilliant injury time stop to deny Simon Lynch, sharp down to left, while Vukovic produced two acrobatic efforts to his left in the first half, his air-borne dive to keep out Rodriguez’s left foot volley particularly memorable.

Friday, September 22, 2006

A-League team of the week, round four

MIDWAY through round five, let's take a quick moment to reflect on the stand-out performers of round four, shaping up in an attacking 3-4-1-2 formation;

Michael Theoklitos, MV, keeper; while his work on crosses looks shaky at times, the overall improvement in his game, particularly in coming off his line and acting as a sweeper, continues to impress. Decisive throughout this game, it is easy to see why he is currently ahead of Eugene Galekovic. Made a couple of vital stops, particularly one in the opening half to deny Jamie McMaster when he'd previously had little work to do.

Greg Owens, AU, right back; another impressive performance in an unfamiliar role, combining beautifully with Travis Dodd to dominate Adelaide's right side and pin both David Micevski and David Tarka back. Mobile and excellent on the ball.

Rodrigo Vargas, MV, central defender; take your pick between Vargas, Daniel Piorkowski and Adrian Leijer, all three performed with distinction to help keep another clean sheet, but when the pressure was on in the last 30 minutes, as the Mariners pressed for an equaliser, Vargas was composed and clean. Has added some much needed organisation to the Victory backline.

Aaron Goulding, AU, left back; by far his best A-League perfomance, Goulding combined well with Jason Spagnuolo as United dominated Perth on both flanks. With Perth playing rather narrow, Goulding took the opportunity to continually join the Adelaide midfield and played a decisive role in Dodd's screamer.

Travis Dodd, AU, right midfield; like Goulding and Carl Veart, by far his best A-League perfomance of the season, and his best since the Socceroos v Kuwait in Sydney. A constant menace for Tarka, he was as good cutting in as he was going around, and capped off his night with a great hit.

Carl Veart, AU, central midfield; involved in most of Adelaide's best moments, this was the Veart of last season, controlling the game with his neat and simple distribution. Combining with Ross Aloisi and Fernando Rech, he was too much for Simon Colosimo.

Marcus Wedau, QR, central midfield; on the subject of controlling a game, Wedau demonstrating some of the passing range, both long and short, that has seen him spend time in the Bundesliga. Combined well with Hyuk Su Seo and Matt McKay to dominate Malik Buari, Richard Johnson and Scott Gemmill.

Matt McKay, QR, left midfield; playing in a wider role than we were accustomed to seeing him in last season, McKay offered the left-sided width to stretch the Knights and even managed to cap a good overall game with the first and final goals.

Fernando Rech, AU, attacking midfielder; when Rech plays well, so do Adelaide, so it's not surprising that he was at the heart of much that was good against Perth. Finding space in the hole between Simon Colosimo and Perth's central defenders Ante Kovacevic and Jamie Harnwell, his mobility was too much for the Glory, and he bagged his third in two weeks.

Archie Thompson, MV, striker; if the evidence was there against the Knights that Thompson was back to his best, than it was confirmed against the Mariners, his trickery, movement, pace and quick feet giving the Mariners defence constant headaches. In truth, he has his partner Danny Allsopp to thank, the two combining beautifully for the second week on the trot.

Milton Rodriguez, NJ, striker; playing more as a left-sided attacker, dropping off the front-line to create and getting forward to finish, the Colombian showed in three-quarters of a game that he has enough class to have an influence on Newcastle's season. His first was simply beautifully, cushioning a solid Nick Carle cross onto his favoured left peg and finishing with aplomb, before catching Clint Boton unawares at the near post for his second. Impressive debut.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A-League, round four round-up

The four games

Queensland Roar 5 v New Zealand Knights 0; after an encouraging pre-season and opening two rounds, it’s almost a case of back to the bad old days for New Zealand after a second hiding on the trot, this time against a slick Queensland outfit that continues to grow in confidence. After copping three at home to the Victory last week, it’s now eight goals conceded in two weeks, with both losses coming in similar circumstances, after going behind to an early goal. This team built by Paul Nevin appears capable of fighting and scrapping, but in the past two games have proved they struggle to come out and play, particularly after they go behind. Against Newcastle and Adelaide they were engaged in slug-fest, but against both Melbourne and Queensland they had to prove they could bounce back from an early goal, and they didn’t have the shape or class to do it. Despite debuting Dani Rodrigues up front, he was far too isolated from his midfield and wide-men, easy work for Sasa Ognenovski and Josh McCloughan. Nevin’s insistence on keeping three men tight in central midfield is fine when the game is on the line, but when you’re chasing a game, it’s important to get support to your front-man, and there was little evidence of that at Suncorp. The Roar, inspired by the good work of Marcus Wedau and Matt McKay in midfield and the sharpness and finishing of Reinaldo, were too strong, and even had time to debut Chinese striker Yuning Zhang, who looked super slick in his 15 or so minutes. The Knights will be hoping they can engage Sydney in an arm-wrestle tonight because the signs aren’t good when they go behind.

Adelaide United 3 v Perth Glory 0; two weeks ago Adelaide were struggling and the Knights were flying. How quickly things turn around. After last week’s five goals against Newcastle, United turned on another brilliant display in swiping aside a Glory team that missed the inspiration of Stan Lazaridis. In truth even he would have been powerless to stop a rampant Adelaide outfit that was again inspired by the brilliance of Fernando Rech and the hard work or Carl Veart behind him. By dropping off the front-man Shengqing Qu and playing in the hole between Simon Colosimo and Perth’s back four, Rech was able to combine with Veart and control the match, spraying balls left and right for Travis Dodd and Jason Spagnuolo respectively. With Greg Owens and Aaron Goulding venturing forward with monotonous regularity, United were able to pin Perth back and pile on the pressure. Indeed, this was clearly the best performance of the season for Veart, Dodd and Goulding, and it was impossible to find a United player who didn’t contribute to a flowing and efficient performance. At times their movement both on an off the ball was a sight to behold, and after two impressive home displays the appetite wets at the prospect of seeing them venture up to Suncorp tomorrow night for what is shaping up as an early-season blockbuster, two teams in hot form, full of attacking thrust.

Sydney FC 2 v Newcastle Jets 2; as far as debut’s go, few have been better in Australia than that made by Colombian Milton Rodriguez on Sunday afternoon. While the score was 0-0 when he replaced an injured Vaughan Coveny midway through the opening half, soon enough his Jets team was down 2-0 after a couple of characteristically sloppy pieces of defending. First Paul Okon rashly clattered into the back of David Zdrilic for a clear penalty expertly converted by Steve Corica, before the returning Paul Kohler failed to clear a straight-forward header, which presented an opportunity for Zdrilic to outmuscle Andrew Durante. Once again Nick Theodorakopoulos’ men had dug their own hole and it appeared unlikely they’d get out of it. But in a flash, just before half-time, Rodriguez took a firm Nick Carle cross with a sublime first touch at the near post and kept his composure to finish. Newcastle had a life-line and, it appeared, a player capable of rescuing the game. Emboldened by the goal, they came out in the second period and pressed up all over the pitch, not allowing Sydney to settle on the ball. It was enough to frustrate the FC midfield and Corica snapped. Sydney, it appeared, was pressing its own self-destruct button, and when Rodriguez fired in a left foot shoot from a quickly taken free-kick, Clint Bolton made his second error in as many weeks, letting one slip by him at the near post. The Jets, with a numerical advantage and the momentum, were buzzing, and unlucky not the grab a late the winner, first Durante firing over, before Matt Thompson somehow hit the woodwork. Newcastle came with a game-plan built around containment and counter-attack, but proved they have the ability to take it to teams. If they can iron out the defensive mistakes that have dogged their opening month, there is light. Sydney, meanwhile, will need to address some attitude and discipline issues if they are to turn around a sloppy start to the season.

Melbourne Victory 1 v Central Coast Mariners 0; what a contrast between these two sides after four games. The Victory now have maximum points and sit atop the league, while the Mariners are bottom, without a goal and with only the point they gained at home last week. Here they sat deep and allowed the Victory to come at them, trying to counter. Not only was it a sign of respect to the Melbourne attack, but perhaps it also indicated a lack of confidence flowing through the team. Last season there is little doubt they would have taken the game to the opposition, despite being on the road. In truth, Lawrie McKinna did try and changes things in the second half, moving to a back three by pushing Vuko Tomasevic into midfield, but all that did was create space on the flanks for the Melbourne front duo of Archie Thompson and Danny Allsopp to exploit. Indeed, the only goal came when the strong Steve Pantelidis found room down the right, Paul O’Grady making a hash of his clearance for Allsopp and Thompson to profit. After hitting form last week, Thompson was enjoying his evening in front of a vibrant and noisy Victory gallery, and once again exposed a lack of pace in the Mariners defence. The visitors did come back well after the goal, but Melbourne proved they have added steel at the back this year, with Michael Theoklitos combining with Rodrigo Vargas, Adrain Leijer and Daniel Piorkowski to keep out the Mariners in a gripping climax.

Monday, September 11, 2006

A-League team of the week, round three

NO doubt about it, this was a week where the strikers shone. If it were possible, one could almost fill an entire 11 with front men, such was their domination over defenders. Adelaide set the ball rolling with Shengqing Qu and Fernando Rech having their best games of the season, while a day later Scot Simon Lynch did everything but bag a goal as the bag-pipe played in the background at a miserable Bluetongue. Yesterday, the strikers continued to dominate as both Danny Allsopp and Archie Thompson were lethal against New Zealand, while Sydney’s Saso Petrovski had his best game of the season, scoring in Perth. While impossible to fit them all in, there’s no doubt this week’s team is built to attack, in 3-4-3;

Aleks Vrteski, Perth Glory (goalkeeper); it wasn’t a week for flashy stuff between the sticks, but for safe and sound work. Yet the 17 year old made one brilliant reaction save from an Alvin Ceccoli volley in the first half and generally came off his line well. Couldn’t be faulted for Sydney’s goal, he has a calm and composed air for one so young.

Alvin Ceccoli, Sydney FC (left back); while Daniel Piorkowski did a solid job on Jonti Richter, Ceccoli gets the nod for the second week straight after an impressive first half against Perth. Reported to be suffering a virus, you would never have known, Ceccoli spending most of the first period overlapping and getting crosses in. Once again Sydney’s goal was conceded from the right side.

Angelo Costanzo, Adelaide United (central defender); finally back in the side thanks to a Mike Valkanis injury, Costanzo answered his manager with an assured and commanding display at the back. While he probably pushed up too much in the second half, leaving some holes that Newcastle may have better exploited, his performance gives John Kosmina an interesting selection poser when Valkanis comes back. Perhaps Robert Cornthwaite will get squeezed out, or Kosmina might have a re-think of his midfield.

Greg Owens, Adelaide United (right back); only on off the bench midway through the opening period, he made a massive impact for Adelaide, proving he is as adaptable as they come. Everything he did was technically neat and done with pace, and Newcastle struggled to control his forward thrusts.

Tom Pondeljak, Central Coast Mariners (right midfield); while he played centrally on Saturday, Pondeljak gets the gig just right of centre in this team after his first start of the campaign proved he isn’t far from his best. Twice he hit the post, the first a brilliant bit of skill, but it was his great use of the ball in such difficult conditions that marked his class.

Ross Aloisi, Adelaide United (central midfield); like most of the United team, has struggled in the opening two weeks, but given the space against Newcastle he was influential in recycling the ball and getting it to Qu, Rech and Spagnuolo. Also contributed to the second goal with one of his trademark free-kicks that caught Ben Kennedy out.

Jason Spagnuolo, Adelaide United (left midfield); surprisingly back in the starting 11 at the expense of Greg Owens, he was a constant menace to Labinot Haliti, who was back down to earth after an impressive round two. Exposing Haliti’s defensive inexperience, Spagnulo showed good awareness and belief to drive at and beyond him, with and without the ball.

Fernando Rech, Adelaide United (attacking central midfield); Playing closer to Qu, more as a second striker than the withdrawn midfielder we saw last week, it was the Rech (or Fernando as he’s now known) of old, imposing, influencing and getting on the end of things. Scored two and created another as he found space between Newcastle's defence and midfield and made himself difficult to track.

Archie Thompson, Melbourne Victory (right attacker); there’s been a lot of criticism of Thompson lately and in the main it’s been deserved. Since leaving the Victory for PSV last season, he has lost much of his sharpness (most likely down to not playing), but it all came flooding back on this miserable Auckland day. Combining beautifully with his midfield and co-striker Allsopp, he was a constant threat both on an off the ball, pressing the Knights defence all afternoon. Indeed, rarely has Thompson worked so hard on his defensive game, a point appreciated by manager Ernie Merrick afterwards. After setting up one, his goal was an absolute gem.

Danny Allsopp, Melbourne Victory (central striker); despite the boo boys, continues to work hard both on and off the pitch and is now getting his reward. Workrate has always been an Allsopp trait, but after a wasteful season last year, he is now adding the finishing touches to his hard work. Strong and deceptively quick, he combined beautifully with Thompson, and when Claudinho came on he dropped back and helped out into midfield.

Simon Lynch, Queensland Roar (left attacker); while he didn’t get on the score-sheet for the first time this season, was a regular headache for the likes of Alex Wilkinson, Tony Vidmar and Paul O’Grady, playing high up on the last man and getting in behind the Mariners on more than one occasion. While he should have scored at least one, his pace and work with the ball in such trying conditions was eye-catching.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A -League, round three round-up

The four games

Adelaide United 5 v Newcastle Jets 1; after suffering two disappointing losses to start the season, there may have been a temptation for John Kosmina to flog his charges ahead of this crucial game. Instead, reasoning that they were jaded from all the travel of the past few weeks and the exertions of winning the pre-season cup, he gave them a light week. It proved a clever move as United raced to a 3-0 lead within half an hour. Clearly freshened and pumped up, and with a number of key alterations to the formation and line-up, Adelaide was too hot to handle for Jets side that appeared to second-guess itself. Kosmina finally sorted out some issues with Angelo Costanzo, who was outstanding as a replacement for the injured Mike Valkanis, while he went back to the 4-4-1-1 that served him so well last year, getting Shengqing Qu and Fernando Rech closer to each other. Newcastle, meanwhile, shifted Paul Okon from defence to midfield, relegating Stuart Musalik and promoting Steven Old alongside Andrew Durante. Whether this was a response to the skipper’s preference or a reaction to his vital mistakes last week, it proved to be an error. While Stuart Musalik hasn’t the presence yet to control games, his performance against Queensland last week was among his best, and Newcastle should have won but for their defensive errors. There was hardly the need for an overhaul, unless of course it’s what Okon prefers. Judging by his defensive work for the first goal, not tight enough on Rech from a brilliant Jason Spagnuolo delivery, perhaps his comfort levels at the back have waned. Indeed, man marking has never been his greatest asset; he is a creator rather than a negator. Regardless, the change in the Jets central defensive two, coupled with Adelaide’s re-shaped front two, shaped the outcome, Qu’s strength drawing a number of fouls from Old that the host were able to profit from. With Spagnuolo also troubling Labinot Haliti, and the Jets expansive game playing into Adelaide’s hands it appeared a case of by how many. The second half was even more open as both sides created chance after chance. While Newcastle could only convert one, they troubled Adelaide’s back four on occasions, giving Kosmina more to work on. While he’ll be happy with the performances of the front two, he would also have taken heart from some of the touches from substitute Bobby Petta. Nick Theodorakopoulos, meanwhile, has much to work on, particularly in building confidence and organisation at the back and deciding where Okon will play. Errors have blighted the Jets season to date, and it seems to be infectious, Ben Kennedy and Durante joining the fray.

Central Coast Mariners 0 v Queensland Roar 0; given the atrocious conditions, with Bluetongue Stadium one giant puddle, this was a decent affair, particularly as the hosts continued trying to play, despite the obvious obstacle. On a pitch so water logged, it is tempting to simply resort to pumping the ball forward and hoping for some scraps around the box. Of the two sides, Queensland were ones resorting to route one, perhaps because they were getting some change out of a Mariners defence that looks more pedestrian than last season. Last year they were fleet of foot particularly with Michael Beauchamp and Andrew Clark central, and Dean Heffernan on the left. But this season, with Clark playing on the right (he was injured for this game) and the central duties shared between Alex Wilkinson, Tony Vidmar and Paul O’Grady, they look a little slower, and were caught out by the shrewd Roar marksmen Simon Lynch on a number of occasions. Had he had his finishing boots on, the Mariners might have paid. While they had problems at the back, the Mariners looked better in midfield, with Andre Gumprecht starting well and Tom Pondeljak getting better as the game went on. Twice he hit the cross-bar in the second period, the first from a sublime dink over Liam Reddy, made more impressive by the fact he was on the run, and in such poor conditions. In the truth the Mariners need the likes of Pondeljak, Gumprecht and John Hutchinson to fire in front of goal, particularly with both Stewart Petrie and Adam Kwasnik struggling to find the net, and Nick Mrdja yet to taste action. Ultimately it would have been harsh on either side to lose this one, but it is a point that suits the Roar more than the hosts.

New Zealand Knights 0 v Melbourne Victory 3; while Melbourne had won both homes games, this first road trip would be a massive test, particularly against a confident and combative Knights outfit, but it was one they passed with distinction, putting behind the dramas over Fred and turning on a superb first half display. Many of the questions before the game were around whether the Victory’s new-look midfield could compete the with the Knights trio of Richard Johnson, Jonas Salley and Scot Gemmill, and Ernie Merrick surprised by bringing Steve Pantelidis in to stiffen the midfield. With Kevin Muscat, Grant Brebner and Pantelidis providing the steel and craft, it allowed the front two of Danny Allsopp and Archie Thompson to run riot, toying with NZ’s back four and taking turns to create and score. First Thompson danced and slid one through to Allsopp, before the league’s leading scorer (yes, you read right) returned the favour. While both were brilliant, Thompson’s return to form was a welcome one for Melbourne, his goal simply superb (read more below), his workrate excellent and his feet so assured in such trying conditions. They were well supported in attack by Kristian Sarkies, given his first run for the injured Alessandro. He played a delightful role in the first before doing what he does best, whipping in a Beckham-esque set-piece that caught Danny Milosevic out for the third. He wasn’t the first and won’t be the last keeper to be caught out by Sarkies’ right foot. What was so impressive about this Victory performance was the link play between defence, midfield and attack, in synch and on song. If it continues, the Knights won’t be the only team on the end of a hiding.

Perth Glory 1 v Sydney FC 1; a classic tale of two halves as the visitors put aside all their off field issues and dominated the opening exchange. Playing the diamond midfield 4-4-2 that Terry Butcher appears to favour for the second week straight, they had Steve Corica at the head of the diamond, in behind Sasho Petrovski and David Zdrilic, pulling all the strings. With Ufuk Talay (left) and Mark Milligan (right) tucked in, it allowed both Iain Fyfe and particularly Alvin Ceccoli to press forward and dominate the flanks. With Perth strangely reverting to a 4-4-2 this week (last weeks they played with width in a 4-3-3), their narrowness played into Sydney’s hands, and Ceccoli in particular was rarely touched. Perth played very deep, which not only allowed Sydney to come on but ensured that there was a massive gap between their own midfield and attacking two of Leo Bertos and Stuart Young, who were isolated for large parts of the first half. Sydney deserved their lead, a delightful weighted Corica cross finding Petrovski, but Ron Smith and David Mitchell reacted well at the break, pushing right-back Jamie Coyne further up the pitch to stop Ceccoli bombing forward. They also pushed Leo Bertos out to the left to stop Fyfe, and defending higher up the pitch. Suddenly Perth were in control, and with Stan Lazaridis resuming his love affair with A-League second halves, it was the hosts asking all the questions. Uncharacteristically, Clint Bolton failed to answer one particular Bertos cross, running into his own defender and allowing Coyne to head into an empty net. Back came Sydney, who had a legitimate Corica goal disallowed for off-side, somewhat summing up a wretched week.

Some other talking points

Any thoughts of a Coastponement? While all four games were affected by the inclement conditions, the worst ground of the lot was Bluetongue Stadium in Gosford on Saturday night. Often players would try and find a team-mate only metres away, only for the ball the stop dead in a puddle on its way there. It’s a credit to both sides that they played on, and played reasonably well and cleanly, but the FFA did neither of them any favours by allowing the match to go ahead. As was the case in the Adelaide vs New Zealand round six match at North Harbour last season, the match became a lottery, the only positive being that it ended in a stalemate and there was no repeat of the farcical Shengqing Qu goal that decided the abovementioned United-Knights clash. Perhaps there is a scope to postpone matches as often happens in European leagues, giving teams a fair and reasonable opportunity to achieve a result.

Crowds duck for cover; given the rain, no surprise to find all four matches attract under 10,000. All four clubs would have been banking on bigger than normal gates, particularly given that both Perth and New Zealand were looking to build on the momentum of last week’s wins, while Adelaide and the Mariners were at home for the first time this campaign. The Mariners especially had terrible luck with the rain last season and will be hoping the sun shines on their remaining home fixtures.

Flag-happy assistants; round two saw a remarkable number of off-sides given when they should have been ignored, but none were as crucial to the outcome of the match as today’s howler at Members Equity, when Steve Corica was denied a clear goal at the back post after Aleks Vrteski had saved Mark Milligan’s initial shot. After feeling aggrieved last week, Terry Butcher had a clear reason to by fuming after this one.

Goal of the week; it was a week of great goals. Adelaide scored a couple of beauties, Mark Bridge’s was nice, Melbourne’s first to Danny Allsopp was beautifully constructed, and Sydney’s goal was nicely worked, but for sheer composure and pin-point accuracy, hard to go past Archie Thompson’s finish. When the ball was played forward from midfield, Allsopp cushioned a first time ball into the run of Thompson. It drew Danny Milosevic off his line, but Thompson’s sharpness beat him to it and took him to the byline. Surely there was no room to sneak it in! Try telling Thompson, who finally kicked off his campaign with one to remember.

Save of the week; not for the first time Scot Simon Lynch was in behind the Mariners defence and looking likely to steal all three points for the Roar, but his 85th minute effort was well kept out by Danny Vukovic, perhaps a vital stop in the context of the Mariners season.

Move of the week; John Kosmina reportedly missed a connecting flight to Kuwait, but it allowed him to stay behind and prepare for Friday’s nights crucial clash with the Jets. He pulled all the right moves, giving the team a light preparation, pushing Rech closer to Qu and bringing Angelo Costanzo in from the start. Even Jason Spagnuolo starting ahead of Greg Owens worked a treat.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Lessons all round as the heat rises in Asia

Asia Cup qualifier, Kuwait 2 v Socceroos 0

WHILE it wasn’t exactly a disaster in terms of its effect on Australia’s qualification for next year’s Asia Cup in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, yesterday’s 2-0 loss in the oppressive heat of Kuwait City is a timely reminder of the challenges that confront Australia on its journey through Asia.

It’s what was promised in the FFA’s selling of the move into Asia - tough, competitive, meaningful games, more often – but after a couple of fairly comfortable wins in Manama and Sydney to kick off the exercise, the feeling seemingly spread that the Socceroos merely had to turn up to win.

The reality is there are few such luxuries in world football, particularly against a team like Kuwait that is fighting for its Asia Cup qualification life. While the Socceroos were already through to their first finals next July, regardless of the result on this night and their final game on October 11, Kuwait had much more to play for, and it showed.

A nation that is essentially an ever-present in the finals (it has been to five of the past six) is locked in a tussle with Bahrain for the second qualification spot, and in favourable conditions and with a lengthy preparation, this was likely to be a sterner test than the one in Sydney, even with a European based squad.

When Graham Arnold took over on a caretaker basis post the world cup, he was asked by a number of media outlets what the main thing he learnt from Guus Hiddink was? His answer? The importance of preparation.

The reality is the preparation for this match wasn’t up to the standard we’ve seen over the past 12 months. While there was only one pull out (Jason Culina), more concerning was the noise coming out of Kuwait about the heat and how it would disrupt training. We learnt from afar that the Socceroos would only be together for two sessions, and they would be abbreviated ones.

They were negatives vibes, so perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise the Roos played below their recent high standards. Indeed, they weren’t given the best opportunity to play well, both by their own poor preparation and a committed home nation that started well and were more incisive in front of goal.

Once again, as was the case in Sydney, it was the tricky, quick and technically adept striker Bader Al Mutwa who was causing most of the Socceroos early headaches, but this time he had an accomplice, the mobile number 10 Khalef Al Mutairi, playing in behind the two strikers.

Within 10 minutes they’d carved out what looked a legitimate penalty appeal, Al Mutwa playing in Al Mutairi with a delightfully weighted ball that drew Mark Schwarzer of his line and led to some contact.

Al Mutwa was showing off his full repertoire – vision, movement and above all else, awareness. While in Sydney he picked out Mike Valkanis and terrorised him by putting the ball on the ground, here he quickly worked out his best change would come down Australia’s right, going at and troubling both Michael Beauchamp and Lubjo Milicevic. He stayed fairly clear of the more mobile Scott Chipperfield, clever stuff.

With Jon McKain also struggling to deal with Al Mutairi, suddenly the Socceroos looked tall and static, as apposed to the nimble and mobile Hiddink unit in Germany.

It took Arnold’s men almost 20 minutes to settle down, and by then their shirts were dripping with perspiration. It was tough work, and the Socceroos were struggling to get numbers forward in support of John Aloisi, despite the efforts of Brett Holman to try and link up the midfield and attack.

Indeed it wasn’t till Ahmed Elrich limped off and the hitherto unsighted Mile Sterjovski moved to his world cup position on the right, and Ryan Griffiths made his debut on the left, that the Socceroos appeared to function.

Soon enough Josip Skoko, a peripheral figure in a crowded midfield, played a sumptuously weighted ball that managed to split the deep Kuwait backline, getting Sterjovski in behind, his cross somehow smashed against the crossbar by Griffiths with the goal empty. Impossible.

Australia finished the half on top, pinning Kuwait deep and looking controlled in midfield and defence. But the second period started slow for both sides, and didn’t spring to life till 10 minutes in.

When Luke Wilkshire was challenged deep in the left back area, his clearance only found Jarah Al Ataiqi, who clipped a delighted left footed ball into the run of Al Mutairi. So well weighted was the cross it committed Schwarzer off his line and left him stranded. In truth he’d been exposed by some poor organisation at the back, the trio of central defenders caught too far to the left, leaving space for the number 10 to run into, untracked.

A few minutes later it was some excellent work from Al Mutwa that doubled the lead. Picking up the ball on the left and faced by Sterjovski, he played a simple one-two with impressive replacement striker Faraq Saeed, driving home from an acute angle, with the outside of the right foot, as Milicevic reacted slowly in covering some lax defending from Sterjovski and Beauchamp.

The second half was a difficult one for Sterjovski, asked to do too much defending by the impressive substitute left wingback, on for the injured Fahad Shaheen and pressing forward at every opportunity.

While half an hour remained after Kuwait’s second, there appeared little hope, incentive or energy left in the Socceroos, particularly with the Kuwaiti defence and midfield retreating deeper and deeper, superbly marshaled by skipper and sweeper Al Shamari.

While the result opened up the possibility that Kuwait could still top the group (they would need Bahrain to win in Sydney and then beat Bahrain in Manama four days later), beyond that it proved that preparation is the key and that nothing about this sojourn into Asia should be taken for granted. Some key lessons all round.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A-League team of the week, round two

WHILE the first week was dominated by the defenders, this week the pendulum swung back in favour of the attackers, particularly with five goals at both Newcastle and Melbourne, and Perth playing so impressively on Sunday. Not surprisingly, Melbourne and Perth dominate the team, with three and four players respectively, while New Zealand were unlucky not to have Richard Johnson and Gregory Duruz join Danny Milosevic and Malik Buari (pictured challenging with Travis Dodd, courtesy of www.knightsfc.com) in the team. With a number of wide men doing so well on the weekend, this week’s team of the round shapes up in a 3-4-3 formation.

Danny Milosevic, New Zealand Knights (keeper); not over-worked due to some good screening from Darren Beazley, Che Bunce, Neil Emblen and Gregory Duruz, but when he was called on, particularly late in the first half, he keep the Knights in the game, racing off his line to thwart Carl Veart. For a player that was said to be on the way out only a month or so ago, it has been a major turn-around, keeping Michael Turnbull on the bench. Two cleans sheets is testament to Paul Nevin’s faith.

Labinot Haliti, Newcastle Jets (right back); one of the features of Friday night’s clash was the constant overlapping of Haliti from an unfamiliar right back starting point. While his defending was found wanting on one occasion when Ante Milicic beat him to some scraps and volleyed against the crossbar, as an attacking force he was very impressive, helping the Jets pin back Queensland with his not-stop forward forays. And what’s more, he did it all with good feeling for the ball.

Ante Kovacevic, Perth Glory (central defender); along with Jamie Harnwell, did an excellent job of protecting Alex Vrteski and never allowed Adam Kwasnik or Stewart Petrie any real sniff at goal. Kovacevic was commanding and clean, coming out of the backline when the strikers dropped deep and winning everything.

Alvin Ceccoli, Sydney FC (left back); Swiss New Zealand Knights left back Gregory Duruz also did well, but Ceccoli continues to prove he is one of the best defenders in the country, at least from a defensive point of view. While his distribution is often lax, he remains one of the toughest players to get past or around, and again on Saturday night Melbourne had no change when they went down the right.

Malik Buari, New Zealand Knights (right midfield); while he plays down the left, Buari gets the gig on the right due to an over-supply of left sided players in this week’s team, not to mention the fact he’s ostensibly right-footed, as witnessed by his thunderbolt in the 88th minute. It wasn’t just the goal that gets him in the team. In two weeks the Ghanaian has proved he’ll be an asset to New Zealand, his ferocious appetite complementing left back Duruz. Here they doubled up and dominated Travis Dodd and Richie Alagich.

Kevin Muscat, Melbourne Victory (central midfield); another solid display from the Victory skipper gets him into the team of weeks for the second week running. His shielding work in front of the defence provided hope he can be a permanent solution to Melbourne’s central midfield problems of last season. Took his penalty well for the second week in a row, dominated Steve Corica in midfield and played a sublime ball to Danny Allsopp for the third.

Simon Colosimo, Perth Glory (central midfield); it was the Colosimo of old at Members Equity on Sunday, the Socceroo controlling the game with his simple link up play between defence and attack. On song, there are few better in Australia at this role, but too often last season he was bypassed as Steve McMahon looked to play through a target man, so Colosimo essentially became an expensive ball-winner, and an unhappy one at that. Ron Smith is said to want to play through Colosimo, and that is a good sign for Perth.

Stan Lazaridis, Perth Glory (left midfield); like Colosimo, it was Stan the Man back to his trademark marauding best, not just down the left, but through the middle. Responsible for setting up the controversial first goal, he got better and better, giving the Mariners constant headaches. If this is a sign of things to come, it is great news for both Perth and the A-League.

Leo Bertos, Perth Glory (right sided attacker); backed up an impressive debut last week with an even better display here, terrorising any Mariners defender that tried to keep tabs with him with a neat combination of quick feet, speed of mind and pace. Created Perth’s second with a blistering show of pace and perfect delivery to Stuart Young, definitely one to keep an eye on throughout the season.

Danny Allsopp, Melbourne Victory (central striker); much maligned in his time at Melbourne, coach Ernie Merrick continues to stick by him, claiming he is as much a creator as he is a finisher. On Saturday he repaid some of the faith with a strong showing against Sydney, winning the corner that lead to his opener, before rounding out Melbourne’s scoring with a well-weighted lob over Clint Bolton. With Archie Thompson struggling to regain his pre-PSV move form, Victory fans will be hoping Allsopp can keep delivering.

Alessandro, Melbourne Victory (left sided attacker); like Muscat, in the team of the week for the second consecutive week. Great to see Ernie Merrick giving him license to roam forward and protect him with a defender in Daniel Piorkowski. Toyed with Iain Fyfe in the opening half hour and was involved in most of Melbourne’s pivotal moments. Somewhat theatrical in his reponse to challenges from Clint Bolton and Mark Rudan, but for now it’s great to see a player of his ability on our shores.

Monday, September 04, 2006

A-League, round two round-up

The four games

Newcastle Jets 2 v Queensland Roar 3; once known as Marathon, Newcastle’s home ground became Mistakeathon on Friday night as every one of the five goals was a result of sloppy defending. The game promised attacking football and for the first 45 minutes it delivered, with both sides playing an expansive game with room to move, turn and create things. It was a welcome relief from the dour and pragmatic football that pervades the world, two managers prepared to have a real go at each other, long may it continue. The Jets in particular were bombing forward at every opportunity, leaving themselves exposed at the back. When the mistakes eventually came, the defenders couldn’t recover. The first goal was a classic example, Shane Webb and Vaughan Coveny getting in each others’ way near the half-way line, coughing up possession and leaving Paul Okon and Andrew Durante exposed to a quick Roar counter, with Ante Milicic setting Reinaldo free. Even the second came via a quick counter, with Liam Reddy setting Andrew Packer free, who played Reinaldo in with an early ball in behind Shane Webb, his cross causing Okon major embarrassment. Even the Roar made a couple of howlers, Chad Gibson and Reddy getting their wires crossed from a long Durante ball, before Massimo Murdocca and Sasa Ognenovski went to sleep from a Matt Thompson throw, allowing Mark Bridge to equalise. Not surprisingly, the second half was much tighter, with both sides resorting to some orderly shape in midfield. While Newcastle deserved at least a point, possibly all three, they were ultimately undone by a second Okon error, allowing the hitherto quiet Simon Lynch to poach the winner. A hard one for the Jets to swallow, but they have themselves to blame.

New Zealand Knights 1 v Adelaide United 0; if Friday night was an open and flowing contest, played on a lush surface, than this Saturday lunchtime fair dished up the opposite, tight and physical, played on another bumpy North Harbour pitch, just the right formula for an upset. And so it was, the Knights turning on another committed and organised display, not pretty, but effective. What was pretty was the late winner, a sublime strike by the tireless left sided Ghanaian Malik Buari, who cut inside Richie Alagich and shaped a bullet across Robert Bajic into the top corner. John Kosmina surprised yet again by leaving Angelo Costanzo on the bench and starting with the same 4-3-3 shape from last week, the only difference being Fernando Rech starting as the attacking central midfielder, with Greg Owens shifted to the left in place of Jason Spagnuolo. Once again there appeared little fluency in the Adelaide game, and when they did get their odd chances, they were uncharacteristically wasteful. In truth though this was down to the Knights’ ability to match them physically, particularly the central trio of Richard Johnson, Jonas Salley and Scot Gemmill, who never allowed Rech, Ross Aloisi and Carl Veart to get the upper hand in the physical stakes, a characteristic of Adelaide last season. While their style mightn’t do a great deal to attract neutrals, this was a great result for Nevin and his men and will send a huge injection of confidence through the squad. Buari, Johnson, Salley and Gemmill have been prominent in both games and will allow few teams any breathing space.

Melbourne Victory 3 v Sydney FC 2; forced by the unavailability of Olympic Park to take a quantum leap to Telstra Dome, this was a huge win for the Victory, both on an off the pitch, with 40,000 fans investing their faith in the future of the game. On the pitch it was a controversial encounter but one that Melbourne deserved to win. The hosts appeared up for it from the moment Danny Allsopp shook off a couple of lazy Sydney defenders around the 18 yard box and honed in on Clint Bolton. A few moments later he had his reward with a tap-in from a controversial rehearsed corner move, with Adrian Leijer illegally blocking off Robbie Middleby, freeing up space for Kevin Muscat, then Daniel Piorkowski to find the much maligned striker. Soon after the silky-smooth Alessandro was released down the left, Iain Fyfe powerless the keep up, forcing Bolton off his line. The hero from last week, Bolton’s contact was minimal, but Muscat’s finish was clinical. Sydney were slow out of the gates, perhaps evidence the Dwight Yorke saga had taken a toll. Seemingly, Yorke’s departure has at least forced a major re-think from the coaching staff, starting the game with a 4-4-2 when much the pre-season had seen them adopt a 4-2-3-1. Clearly frustrated by the deficit and Alessandro’s toying with Fyfe, Rudan soon snapped, lashing out at the Brazilian when calm was needed from the captain. Sydney refused to surrender and made a game of it, but when Melbourne eventually figured out that you move the ten men around by remaining patient and keeping the ball, they looked comfortable enough. There was time for a late goal a piece and one regrettable moment that will hog much of the headlines in the next day or so. When Steve Corica played a ball back to Bolton on the hour, Fred made a sprint to shut the keeper down, only for Mark Milligan to make a move seemingly aimed at blocking off the run. It was unnecessary stuff from the Socceroo, but even less necessary was the elbow that followed, connecting in a nasty area. True enough, there is no room for elbows in the game, and Fred will have to do his time, but in any incident it takes two to tango, and Milligan wasn’t entirely innocent.

Perth Glory 2 v Central Coast Mariners 0; the performance of the round, this was the Glory as they once were, untouchable on home soil. While the first goal was tainted in controversy, referee Craig Zetter allowing Simon Colosimo to take a free kick before the Mariners wall was set, it was no less than Perth deserved. All over the park they were too slick and committed for a Mariners unit that appeared jaded. After struggling to see out last week’s away trip to Queensland, Perth powered home in this one, coach Ron Smith showing he is learning quick, recognising the need to play through the talented Colosimo. Foxsports commentator Simon Hill touched on a conversation with Smith during the week where the Perth boss is reported to have recognising the need to utilise Colosimo’s constructive ability. It is a significant move away from last season when Colosimo and his fellow midfielders were often bypassed as the defenders looked long. Suddenly Perth were passing and moving with purpose and pace, Leo Bertos and Stan Lazaridis terrorising the Mariners defence and midfield with their speed and dribbling ability. Rarely have the Gosford outfit looked so out of sorts.

Some other talking points

Upside down table; so much for the status quo of last season, a look at the table proves the other four teams are catching up quick. Indeed, but for Sydney’s better goal difference over Perth (one goal), the bottom four from last year would be occupying the top four spots. It’s early days, but it confirms that the hard work is paying off and the top four from last season and this pre-season will have to pull the finger out quick smart.

Goal of the week; there could only be one, Malik Buari’s 88th minute screamer which illuminated a game that had appeared destined to be remembered as a scrappy 0-0. Receiving the ball near the left sideline, he skipped inside Richie Alagich, created some room with another touch and fired a rocket across Robert Bajic, giving him no hope. It brought back memories of Noel Spencer’s strike against Perth Glory early last season.

Save of the week; while he couldn’t touch Buari’s strike, earlier in the half Robert Bajic pulled off a superb save at his near post to deny Sean Devine, getting down quickly to his left and getting enough glove to divert it for a corner, sharp work.

The return the Stan the Man; last week he got better as the game went on and ditto yesterday, Lazaridis proving he has much to offer the league if he can replicate this form. Known for his driving down the left, here he showed he has an added dimension to his game, driving through the centre of midfield on more than one occasion. Indeed, it was his slalom run straight through the heart of the Mariners midfield created the opener, and he didn’t stop there, getting a couple of strikes on goal.

Pre-season efforts take a toll? Both pre-season finalists, Adelaide and the Mariners, sit bottom of the table without a point, no goals scored and three conceded. How quickly things change. While others were able to freshen up in the week or two before the season proper, these two clubs were at full tilt, and may be paying the price. No doubt both will be looking forward to being back at home this weekend. Perhaps it’s little coincidence John Kosmina isn’t off to Kuwait.

Crowd pleasers; while 40 odd thousand fans made the Telstra Dome sojourn a smashing success, there would be more concern at the other three venues, with Newcastle and Perth attracting just over 7,000 and the Knights just over 4,000. Certainly if Perth and Newcastle keep playing the attractive football they dished up on the weekend, and the results follow, there is hope they can nudge towards the 10,000 mark consistently, while the Knights continue to gain credibility and can test the impact of their first home win immediately this weekend.

Friday, September 01, 2006

A-League, round two preview

Back to matters on the field

A-LEAGUE version 2 is only into its second week and what a turbulent one it’s been with the news on John O’Neill, the reported tiff between Kevin Muscat and Alessandro, Sydney FC receiving a fine and suspended points deduction for a back-office breach and now that news that Dwight Yorke has played his last game in the league. Almost forgetten is the fact there are four games on this weekend, so here’s a reminder.

Newcastle Jets v Queensland Roar; if the Newcastle Jets are to make an impact this season, their home record will be the key. Last season their form at Energy Australia was poor, losing seven of their 12 home games in front of some disappointing crowds. The opening game of the A-League, a loss to Adelaide, set the tone. Tonight they must get a better start at home, but it won’t be easy breaking down one of the most miserly defences going around. The Roar rearguard appears to have been boosted by the addition of Liam Reddy, Sasa Ognenovski and Andrew Packer, and last week there was little work for the keeper, who is back to face his old club and former coach. Joining him is Ante Milicic, who was part of an adventurous three man front line in a must win game against Perth, and while the Roar attack didn’t always flow, in the end it was too dynamic for Perth, particularly when Dario Vidosic came on. It will be interesting to see if Miron Bleiberg adopts the same attacking shape tomorrow, or goes against his philosophy and opts for a more conservative approach on the road, where a point would be a great way to consolidate last week’s three. With German Marcus Wedau injured, it is likely that Massimo Murdocca might start in central midfield or Matt McKay might be moved infield from the left. There is little doubt that Newcastle’s Nick Theodorakopoulos will attack. Last week, on the road to New Zealand, he started with three up front and only two recognised defenders, but his best plans were affected by an aggressive Knights midfield and an atrocious pitch. He will be hoping his home surface is better, but that would suit both teams, proponents of the passing game. In the couple of games I’ve seen of Newcastle this season, Nick Carle has played fairly deep, close to Stuart Musalik, more as an instigator of attacks. He has been good without being great, and getting him closer to goal could be the key to unlocking the striking talents of Vaughan Coveny, Joel Griffiths and Mark Bridge. Both teams are fit, so don’t be surprised to see this one excite all the way to the end. Prediction, 1-1.

New Zealand Knights v Adelaide United; the hosts proved what many expected last week, that they’ll be much more competitive under Paul Nevin. But they also showed they lack the genuine playmaker around the box to cause teams consistent problems. Dani Rodrigues is said to be that man, but is still sidelined, so the Knights appear to be relying more on the competitive central midfield trio of Richard Johnson, Jonas Salley and Scot Gemmill to keep them in games and create the odd half-chance that may be converted. Their best bet might be to try and expose Adelaide’s fullbacks, and if Jonti Richter can trouble Aaron Goulding, they might find an avenue to goal. Adelaide will be stung by last week’s performance and result and one doubts John Kosmina will keep Angelo Costanzo and Fernanado Rech on the bench this time. The increased depth in his squad gives Kosmina a few more selection headaches this year, and there appears little doubt there will be changes, both in shape and personnel. The poor North Harbour surface won’t hurt Adelaide too much as they also like it physical, but they will need to improve their defensive work. The back four was exposed all over the place last week, and Costanzo, positioned in front of them, could help solve that. With Rech and Shengqing Qu back in partnership, and Dodd keen to make up for a poor game against Melbourne, expect Adelaide to create more chances than the hosts. Prediction, 1-2.

Melbourne Victory v Sydney FC; the blockbuster, but will the notoriously poor Telstra Dome surface allow the players to perform at their best? If not, it would be a let down and a major opportunity lost. Both teams have been rocked by off field drama this week, Sydney fined for a back-office breach, followed by the loss of marquee man ‘All-night Dwight’, while Melbourne had their own issues to sort after an over-reaction from their skipper which convinced Ernie Merrick to replace Brazilian wing-back Alessandro at the break. It proves there are still doubts about the Victory boss and somewhat undermines his grip on the team. A player of Alessandro’s ability should be encouraged to attack and reek havoc, with others doing the dirty work behind him, not forced to conform to a more disciplined defensive role. The Melbourne starting 11 last week already featured six defensive minded players, so what was the point of another one? Indeed, the Victory, with Alessandro pinning Alagich back, controlled the first period, while they were largely on their heels in the second as Alagich started to venture forward. If Merrick sees the value in giving Alessandro license to roam forward, using Daniel Piorkowski to cover the space behind, then Melbourne has hope. If not, they are doomed. Merrick needs to pull the right moves against a Sydney side that will be without two of its dynamic front five, Yorke and Alex Brosque. So it will be interesting to see what Terry Butcher does to the starting 11, with Terry McFlynn or Ufuk Talay likely to replace Yorke, and Robbie Middleby or Jeremy Brockie likely to come in for Brosque. Expect Mark Milligan to be placed on Fred, which will place more pressure on Muscat and Grant Brebner to create something. On a slippery surface, it mightn’t always be pretty, but there is enough class in both sides to create some chances. Prediction, 1-1.

Perth Glory v Central Coast Mariners; after a short pre-season, Perth ran out of legs away to Queensland and will do well to keep up with the physical and powerful Mariners, who looked sharp last week without ever really playing the flowing football of last season. The Glory will improve as the season goes on but in the meantime will miss the likes of Bobby Despotovski and Jason Petkovic, despite the encouraging Alex Vrteski performance. Central Coast, particularly Adam Kwasnik, was wasteful against Sydney, and with both teams yet to pick up a point, the pressure is on to produce a result. Even without Andre Gumprecht, the visitors should have just enough class to get through this one. Prediction, 0-1.