Saturday, October 14, 2006

A-League season two review, a third of the way in

ROUND eight is already underway with last night’s thriller at Bluetongue, more on that and the other games from the weekend early next week, but before that, time to reflect on the opening seven rounds of version 2, the first third of the season. While the overall quality has been a mixed bag, with Melbourne and Queensland lifting their game as others like Sydney, the Mariners and Adelaide stutter, there has been plenty of controversy, the odd thriller, some breathtaking work from a couple of imports, some less impressive work from others, some mighty stuff from a couple of Socceroos greats and, as always, the emergence of a couple of future Socceroos. Here’s a look at how all eight teams are fairing;

Newcastle Jets; more than any other club, the Jets have suffered due to injury, suspension and some poor refereeing, but they have also suffered as a result of their own mistakes, poor defending, a lack of organisation and what appears to be gun-ho front office. While Nick Theodorakopoulos came into the campaign with attacking intentions, there were doubts in the lead up that he had the overall depth and quality, particularly in defence and defensive central midfield, to pose a real title threat. Much of the defensive burden, it seemed, hinged on the likes of Okon, Durante, North and Musalik. With players struggling with injury and suspension, there was little genuine quality in reserve, and either the manager hasn’t done enough to develop the many youngsters on the roster or they simply haven’t done enough when given a chance. While the attack has looked good in patches, too often any good work has been undone by a costly error, and Okon has been more palpable than most, particularly in the crucial round two clash at home to Queensland, where their play deserved more. Not having a recognised goalkeeper hasn’t helped, while the likes of Carle, Coveny and Thompson haven’t consistently delivered in attack. Key signing, the feisty Griffiths, has got himself in more trouble than he deserves, but he would be best served to mask the mouth with tape before entering the field. Heads have dropped, compounding the problems. The high points were undoubtedly the come from behind draw away to Sydney, where Milton Rodriguez announced himself to Australia, and last week’s impressive showing against the Victory, but the sum return from those two games was a single point. If Garry van Egmond, or whoever takes over, can get a couple of decent results, momentum may build as there appears to still be some belief in the squad. While Covic will help, getting this talented bunch of players organised and disciplined is the key, so finding the right manager is crucial. For what it worth, Branko Culina has already worked with a number of these players, and has a proven track record of getting a unit to function, but so did Theodorakopoulos.

New Zealand Knights; they promised improvement and competitiveness, but the reality is that the Knights are as unimpressive this year as they were last, and they continue to struggle. The pre-season showed they would be competitive and hard to beat, but where is the desire to go out and entertain, which should always be a guiding principle for a competition that is still to win over the world . Paul Nevin appears to have a philosophy built around containment and the hope of pinching something at the other end, and has confirmed the pre-season perception that they’d struggle to find the back of the net. Only one goal, albeit a bomb from Buari, proves they are simply not getting enough men forward and don’t have the quality to create chances. Africans Salley and Buari have looked good in patches, and I believe they have missed Salley the past few weeks, but even with him in the side, the team only looked physical, far from classy. Gemmill had his best game last week but has been virtually invisible, while Rodrigues and Richter are often far too isolated. Hard to watch and with all five home games played on bumpy North Harbour Stadium, it is little wonder the crowds have stayed away. The signs have been better the past two weeks, with Nevin at least prepared to play two up front and defend higher, but overall they lack the class to break teams down regularly. Be very surprised if they finish anywhere outside the bottom two.

Central Coast Mariners; perennial grand finalists and underdogs, it has been a disastrous start to the campaign, only one win, a far from glorious victory away to the Knights. Perhaps jaded from their exertions in the pre-season and the expectation (they have never had to deal with), too many of the players that had career seasons last year – the likes of Petrie, Brown, Clark, Hutchinson, Spencer, O’Sullivan, Gumprecht, Osman and Wilkinson – have either been out of form or out injured. They have also missed their two superstar defenders, Beauchamp and Heffernan. The newcomers to the team, the likes of O’Grady and Kwasnik (both spent large parts of last season injured and didn’t feature in the first team), McMaster (signed late last year but wasn’t a big part of the season), Vidmar and Tomasevic have taken time settling in and, in the case of Tomasevic and Kwasnik, are struggling to make an impression. Lawrie McKinna, undoubtedly manager of last year, has been scratching his head try to come up with a solution, and while much has been made of their inability to find the net (first goal wasn’t till round five), a lot of their problems have stemmed from an inability to find the right combination at the back. Wilkinson, a right back last year, has been shifted centrally to partner O’Grady, with Clark, who partnered Beuchamp in the middle, moving to the right. Vidmar had a couple of games in the middle, but with Tomasevic struggling on the left, Vidmar has looked better there. The defence has been dropping too deep, meaning the likes of Spencer and Gumprecht have had far too much to do to supply and support the likes of Petrie and Kwasnik. With Pondeljak either struggling with injury or form, or both, Gumprecht now on the sideline and O’Sullivan spending plenty of time out, the Mariners have lost their famed drive. Everything that looked compact and in-synch last season has looked stretched and isolated, not helped by having five games on the road. But with so many home games to come, players trickling back from injury and McKinna proving last season he is knows enough detail to get the best out of his squad, perhaps they might still peak at the right time. With Mrdja still unsighted, keeping Mori would help.

Perth Glory; with Ron Smith only jumping on board a few weeks out from the season, it has been a decent enough opening seven rounds for the Glory, three wins, three losses and draw, sitting behind Adelaide only on goal-difference. A squad not blessed with an abundance of depth has welcomed the return of Lazaridis back home and built a team to play around him and veterans like Colosimo, Harnwell and Young. Throw in Despotovski and Petkovic, who spent the first month or so on the sidelines, and there is a strong spine to work around, which Smith has done by injecting a classy addition in Kiwi Leo Bertos, one of the stand-outs performers to date with his good technique, skill and pace down the right. While they were behind everyone in fitness in August, evidenced by conceding three late goals at Queensland in round one, the signs the past two weeks have been excellent. With Despotovski and Colosimo pulling the strings, Young scoring, and Tarka getting back to some solid form in the centre of defence, the signs are good. The next month will test them, with a number of away games on the trot, but Smith has a history of getting the best out of players, and if he continues to work with the likes of Webster (impressive the past fortnight), Coyne, Glavas, Saric and Micevski, then hopefully the crowds will return. If they do, they’ll witness some decent football.

Adelaide United; an up and down sort of season for last year’s minor premiers and this year’s pre-season champs. A team described by many as physical and ugly last year has deliberately tried to re-mould itself as an entertaining and open team and the evidence is they are gradually succeeding. While the results may have taken a battering, at least for now, the United of this season is looking to add a lot more creativity around the box and has welcomed additions like Owens, Spagnuolo, Petta and Burns, who have all sparkled and dazzled at times. Truth is, they have had to, with Qu and Rech spending large parts of the season either injured or suspended. With so much depth at his disposal, John Kosmina has struggled to find the right combination and keep everyone happy, but the return of Costanzo in defence and the outstanding improvement of Bajic in goals has corresponded with some improved results. While they have yet to win a game on the road (indeed they are yet to score away), their form at home has been much better, three in four, the only blemish being the touch up from Carbone. Certainly Adelaide have been good to watch, and offered genuine excitement through the likes of Owens, Spagnuolo and Burns, while Rech and Qu have looked good in tandem in the couple of games they’ve been together. Once they’re back for good, and with Petta continuing to improve and Romario on the way for a guest stint, exciting times may be ahead. If they can get things a bit tighter at the back and sneak to odd win on the road, then they should have enough experience to stay in the four.

Sydney FC; if any team is fortunate to be where it is a third of the way in, it’s the defending premiers. While they’ve only lost once in a fierce and feisty round two battle at the Telstra Dome, in truth it’s been more by good fortune than design that they remain in third position, rescued by Bolton in round one, saved by the post at home to Newcastle and doing only marginally better than the Knights in one of the most atrocious local games on record. Terry Butcher arrived promising to grind out results if he had to and he has certainly delivered on that, but the quality of football that Sydney dished up in the month or so that took them to the title has certainly been sacrificed. Only in round five, in Adelaide, did Sydney produce anywhere near the flowing and fluid football it is capable of, and Butcher has been at pains to tell everyone the reasons. While he has had his fair share, including the departure of Yorke after one game, players away on international duty, some injuries to key personnel and all the off field maneuvering in the board and front-office, suspensions to the likes of Rudan, Corica and Ceccoli highlight some ill-discipline that has crept into to the squad. Not everything appears rosy and Butcher, who admits to liking a confrontation, has certainly had his fair share, and appears under pressure. Indeed, some of his formations and personnel choices have been puzzling, and while a lack of continuity hasn’t helped, some of it has been of his own doing. The one positive is Sydney’s league position, third (at least until tomorrow) and with plenty of room for improvement, perhaps their best days are still ahead. Last season they showed terrific character when under pressure and not playing well mid-season and they will need to find the same resolve this season.

Queensland Roar; while they dazzled for much of last season, the one thing missing was goals, at least until Reinaldo joined them in the final third of the season and it freed up Brosque, but by then it was too late. Surviving the chop, Miron Bleiberg set about rectifying his final third problems by adding experience and depth. Suddenly the Roar are flowing with potential goal-scorers, and while the goals have dried up in the past few games, it has been a decent start to the campaign, particularly from the likes of Simon Lynch and Reinaldo, who have combined well. Milicic has been a little up and down, in and out of the team, while Yuning Zhang dazzled on debut before returning to get married. His best may still be ahead of him, while Vidosic also caught the eye on debut. Supporting this cast of five has been some excellent midfield play from the likes of Murdocca and McKay, Mass and Matt, two pocket rockets who have added patience and craft to the incredible buzzability (if such a word exists) of last season. German signing Marcus Wedau, said to be the glue that binds the midfield, is taking time to settle, while local signs like Ognenovski and Packer are doing far better at the back, creating a few headaches for Bleiberg around skipper Gibson. Jets signing Reddy was doing well in goals until the manager, as he does, decided to tinker with line-up for the round six trip to Melbourne by throwing Willis in goals, strange stuff indeed. Bleiberg puts plenty of thought into his football, sometimes too much, as we saw in Melbourne, and again in Sydney. Last week he got most things right, but you sensed a lack of belief when the game appeared there for the taking. If this is a mental hurdle, then Bleiberg and his Roar will have to get over it to become a title threat.

Melbourne Victory; seven from seven and counting. Under fire manager Ernie Merrick took what many thought was a major gamble by shifting Muscat into central midfield at the start of the season, but so far it has proved a major success, the once regular Socceroos hard-man a revelation as a controlled and thoughtful footballer at the heart of well-balanced Victory unit. Solid in defence thanks to the addition of the classy Vargas and his understanding with Piorkowski and Leijer from their Melbourne Knights days, the Victory have looked far more capable of absorbing teams when they aren’t flowing. The improvement in Theoklitos has helped keep things tight, only four goals conceded. But it is when they are flowing that Melbourne are at the best. At the start of the season it was left wingback Alessandro who provided the cutting edge, but he has fallen out of favour of late due to a lack of willingness to track back. Taking over at the sharp end has been dynamic front duo of Archie and Allsopp, Thompson’s guile and quick feet complementing the power and workrate of Allsopp, who has added a lethal touch in front of goal. Both have been in outstanding form, Allsopp rewarding his manager’s faith while Thompson has been buzzing for the past month, complemented by the wonderful skills of Brazilian live-wire Fred from behind. While Merrick has had some good fortunate, with limited disruption to his first 11, particularly his back four, he has been rewarded for a thorough preparation and some sound recruitment. The secret now is to maintain the momentum and ensure the Victory haven’t peaked at the wrong end of the season. At the very least they appear headed for the finals, possibly as minor premiers, but what shape will they be in once there?


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