Monday, March 27, 2006

Tony Faria; Believe the hype

A perfect 10 for Faria has A-League eyes prying

Six rounds into the NSW premier league season and the only thing likely to get in the way of the Marconi Stallions bolting away with a minor premiership is the likely clamour from A-League clubs for its players, which could yet decimate the team before the finals kick-off in July.

On the evidence of their eye-catching performance against Sydney Olympic at Belmore last night, a 4-1 drubbing, there is little doubt that most of the interested A-League onlookers, which included the likes of the Central Coast Mariners’ manager Lawrie McKinna and NZ Knights brains trust of John Adshead and Eddie Krncevic, would be lining up for a chat with a number of Brian Brown’s men.

The Stallions are a team littered with NSL experience, but one in particular has been attracting all the headlines and is undoubtedly the hottest property in state league football at the moment. Left sided flyer Tony Faria, familiar to some from his days at Northern Spirit, lived up to the recent hype with another outstanding contribution, terrorising Olympic’s right side with his pace and finishing composure, setting up the first goal four minutes in with another of his incisive forays down the left, before bagging a double to take his tally for the season to 10.

So instrumental was Faria that the match was effectively over by the 15th minute mark, Marconi up 2-0 thanks to goals from he and John Buonavoglia. The first came when Faria’s pace took him deep into Olympic’s half, his cross met by impressive striker Bruce D’Jite, who teed it up for Buonavoglia, already well known for his contributions at NSL and A-League level.

Ten minutes later the speedy trio combined again to cause Olympic’s back three all sorts of headaches, Faria combining with D’Jite, a product of the AIS, before a lovely give and go with Buonavoglia inside the Olympic box. After a simple finish, out came the twinkle-toes dance on half-way line that has become his trademark and may yet become a feature of A-League season number two.

In truth, Olympic were playing a suicidal game of three on three at the back, with Damon Collina, Michael Cindric and Kosta Lagoudakis never a chance of keeping tabs with Marconi’s electric front line.

By the time Olympic manager Michael Urukalo reshuffled his pack by introducing right back Dominic Arcella and swapping defender Lagoudakis with midfielder Peter McPherson around at the break, the damage had been done, Faria helping himself to a second just before the break when he was left unmarked on the edge of the box. He turned, sat Olympic’s keeper Cem Akilli on the ground, and finished neatly.

What has been so impressive about Faria this season has not only been his electric pace, but the composure of his finishing. While Olympic’s defending made it look easier than it should have been, Faria’s mobility would create headaches for most A-League defences.

Thin, but tall and athletic, Faria is almost a local version of Thierry Henry in appearance, prancing around the paddock with the same confident swagger as the famous Frenchman. How Faria handles the physical stuff that is sure to come with the increased attention will decide how far he goes in the game.

His best bet is to stick to the things that have got him this far, a combination of pace, good technique and awareness.

While most of his work is on the left, both his goals came from central runs, showing he can pop up in any area and hurt teams. Essentially, he appears to have been given a license to roam by Brown, with Marconi’s formation altering between a 4-3-3 when Faria decides to spring forward and a conventional 4-4-2 when he tucks into the traditional left midfield role.

Faria hasn’t been asked to do too much defending, freeing him to get forward and influence the attack. The screening last night was done by a solid midfield trio of Simon Catanzaro, Vuko Tomasevic and neat youngster Adam D’Apuzzo, who combined to out-power the diminutive likes of Zenon Caravella and Anthony Doumanis in the Olympic midfield.

Catanzaro, a former teammate of Faria at Northern Spirit, has bulked up considerably since his NSL days, giving Marconi a physical presence in midfield.

At the back, Brown has assembled one of the most experienced rearguards around, with former Spirit trio of Matthew Langdon, Luke Casserly and Michael Cunico joined by right back Paul Cotte, with former Sydney United and Parramatta Power custodian Andrew Crews between the sticks.

And then to have the option of bringing on the likes of Naoki Imaya and Dion Valle, both with top flight experience in Australia, it is little wonder the Stallions have a maximum return from their six games.

The on-field tests will no doubt come, with Bankstown City, Sydney United, Blacktown City and Manly United all sure to provide some stern opposition in the coming weeks, but off the field the biggest headache for Brown is how much the watching A-League clubs will cut a swathe through his squad ahead of the finals.

Monday, March 13, 2006

A-League gongs - Mariners could hijack awards

An unbelievable inaugural A-League season is done and dusted, with a whole host of players and managers making their mark in a season where the national domestic competition finally created a profile for them that previously didn’t exist. Tonight sees the season wind down with an awards night in Sydney, trumpeted as glam affair more in keeping with "MTV than the Brownlow or Dally M", but don't be surprised if the working class Central Coast Mariners feature prominently in the three most coveted categories.

Johnny Warren medal; awarded the A-League's players' player of the regular season, expect players from the minor premiers and grand finalist to feature prominently in the calculations. While straight red cards count out the likes of Steve Corica, Michael Beauchamp and Nick Carle, the voting system - each of the 20 players per squad casting their three, two and one votes at the end of each of the three rounds, weeks seven, 14 and 21 - throws in the potential for a couple of wildcards to emerge from the pack. For example, expect players from Melbourne Victory, particularly Archie Thompson, Richard Kitzbichler and Kevin Muscat, to feature prominently in the first phase of voting, where the Victory were high up the table. In the second phase, which featured an undefeated run of seven games for Newcastle Jets, the likes of Richard Johnston and Nick Carle could grab a few votes, which complicates things as Carle is ineligible by virtue of his straight red in the round six clash against Queensland. In the third phase, the excellent finishes from the likes of the Roar, the Central Coast Mariners and Sydney FC may take some of the votes off the minor premiers, Adelaide United, who dipped in the last three rounds. Expect Alex Brosque to feature strongly in the third phase. The big question is whether these guys, who were spectacular for parts of the season, will take enough votes from the players who performed consistently throughout the season, the likes of Carl Veart, Shengqing Qu, Michael Valkanis, Ross Aloisi and Angelo Costanzo (all Adelaide), Dean Heffernan, Noel Spencer, Stewart Petrie and Andre Gumprecht (all Mariners) and Alvin Ceccoli, David Carney and Clint Bolton (all Sydney FC). Hopefully not, as there's little doubt the Johnny Warren medal should recognise the most consistent player in the competition, in which case, expect Andre Gumprecht to be right in the calculations as he is among the most respected players in the competition.

Rising Star; awarded to the best youth player, 20 years and under, and judged by the three person panel of Ange Postecoglou, Cheryl Salisbury and Hayden Foxe, this should be a race in five between Mariners goalkeeper Danny Vukovic, Melbourne Victory defender Adrian Leijer, Perth Glory attacking midfielder Nick Ward, Sydney FC defender Jacob Timpano and New Zealand Knights attacking midfielder Jeremy Brockie. Another youngster to make an impression was the Roar's Spase Dilevski, but the other five are certainly ahead in the race for the Rising Star. All were relative unknowns at the start of the season, but try and find a football follower now who hasn't heard about their exploits. Ward was unlucky to miss on out Perth Glory's player of the year award, Brockie was hands-down the revelation of a tragic Knights season, Leijer made a spectacular impression as part of a tight Victory defence, as did Timpano for Sydney, while Vukovic was undoubtedly the best emerging goalkeeper in the league, coming in for the injured John Crawley and helping his team through an undefeated run of 12 games, which took the Mariners all the way to the grand final. For this, Danny Vukovic gets the Rising Star gig.

Coach of the year; with votes being cast on a 3-2-1 basis in the week after the grand final, expect the top three managers, Pierre Littbarski, Lawrie McKinna and John Kosmina to dominate the votes. Littbarski had little choice in the selection of his squad but was still able to deal with the pressure and expectation to take his men to the world club championships in Japan, as well as the championship on grand final day, all with the conjecture about whether he'd be re-signed for next season hovering in the background. Kosmina built a largely home-grown squad and romped away with the minor premiership, but possibly counting against him may be the fact he was involved in a number of heated exchanges with other coaches, notably Littbarski and the Roar's Miron Bleiberg. With the coaches voting for each other, this may hand favouritism to Lawrie McKinna. The popular Scot was able to mould together a team with limited resources and instill in them the unity and belief to make all three finals.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Barca stake a balanced claim for ‘big ears’

Champions League round of 16, second leg, Barcelona 1 v Chelsea 1 (3-2 on aggregate)

A fortnight ago we were privileged enough to witness a maestro in the making, but this morning Barcelona proved they not only have the individual brilliance but the tactical smarts to double their return from Europe’s premier club competition.

THE job just about done in London two weeks ago thanks to some brilliance from Argentine wonder-kid Lionel Messi, Barcelona have marched into the quarter finals of the Champions League on the back of an authoritative display against Chelsea over two legs and at last stamped themselves as a legitimate threat for the title currently held by Liverpool FC.

The Catalan giant, who has remarkably only won ‘the trophy with big ears’ once, compared with the nine won by its fiercest rival, Real Madrid, is poised to make it a second if it can replicate the tactical discipline it showed over two legs against Jose Mourinho’s English heavyweights.

While we know all about their attacking prowess, in these two games they showed they have added shrewd defending and tactical awareness to the team that was somewhat meekly bundled out by Chelsea last season and has flattered to decisive over the past few Champions League campaigns.

Twelve months ago they relied exclusively on their ability to out-score the opposition. It didn’t work.

Naively, they defended high up the pitch and got caught by some classic Chelsea counter-attacking, but here they were prepared to defend deeper, rarely allowing Chelsea’s fast-men to get in behind them.

Add to this a rarely seen ability to stifle Chelsea’s midfield, particularly Frank Lampard, and manager Frank Rijkaard may just have a team capable of lifting the trophy in Paris in May.

Personnel and positional changes have played a big part in this turn-around, but most importantly it appears the brains trust at Barca were prepared to take a long hard look at themselves and make the necessary adjustments.

Patently, they realised that the all out attack approach isn’t a formula for success in the Champions League and that a more pragmatic approach, balanced between defence and attack, was required.

Rijkaard’s move of Mexican Rafael Marquez from midfield to his original position in central defence has been the key in Barca’s improved fortunes at the back, providing a strong presence alongside Carles Puyol.

It has allowed Presas Oleguer to move to the right in place of Brazilian Belletti, who exposed Barcelona last year with his constant overlapping, which left holes that Chelsea exploited.

Another pivotal move by Rijkaard has been the conversion of Brazilian Edmilson from an at times carefree central defender to a disciplined holding midfielder. As he did in London, here Edmilson teamed up with Portuguese superstar Deco and Thiago Motta to stifle the creative instincts of Lampard and Claude Makelele.

Neither was allowed any space in midfield, where they are normally the launching pad for Chelsea’s rapid counter-attack. By stopping it at the supply, the likes of Arjen Robben, Damien Duff, Joe Cole and Didier Drogba never got into the game.

Deco in particular is remarkable for his ability to both work back in defence and then inevitable do something with the ball when he wins it. He is the complete midfielder, perhaps more ‘special’ than his compatriot in the opposition dug-out. Here he knocked out his old boss and former Porto teammates Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferrerira.

With the defensive platform a major improvement on past years, no wonder Barca have been able to express themselves so confidently going forward, and while Messi and the great Ronaldinho did it in the first leg, here it was the Brazilian who ran the show after Messi limped off a quarter of the way in.

There is very little you can do about Ronaldinho when he’s in this mood, which is just about every game he plays. Ferreira, with the help of Joe Cole, did a decent job on him early, only for his delightful flicks and back-heels to come into play, eventually creating openings. Later he drifted infield, where he really made the difference, scoring a wonderful individual goal that demonstrated his vision, strength, balance, pace and finishing ability, all in the one run.

On another occasion he clipped a ball through John Terry’s legs so quickly it was as if the England defender had been pick-pocketed.

Envy the regulars at the Nou Camp who get to witness this dissection of defences almost weekly and pity the poor Socceroos who have to find a way to deal with him on June 18.

Yet for all this assuredness and balance against Chelsea, there is one key weakness that Rijkaard will hope doesn’t cost his men in the coming rounds, goalkeeper Victor Valdes. The goal Chelsea scored a fortnight ago was a result of the keeper’s hesitation and lack of authority in dealing with a Lampard free-kick.

In a tighter tie, the Catalans can ill afford such largesse.

Who they draw in the quarter-finals will go a long way to deciding their fate, but after knocking off one of the major contenders and doing it so emphatically, confidence will be high they can conquer whoever is in their path.

A-League Team of the Finals

Just over a month ago I ran through the A-League team of the regular season, but the finals are an altogether different proposition, with the cream often rising to the top. So just who did shine at the crunch end of the season? Here is the A-League team of the finals, this time in the most popular finals formation, 4-4-1-1;

Goalkeeper; Danny Vukovic
Back-four (right to left); Dean Heffernan, Mark Rudan, Michael Beauchamp, Alvin Ceccoli
Midfield (right to left); Wayne O’Sullivan, Andre Gumprecht, Dwight Yorke, Travis Dodd
Attacking midfield; Steve Corica
Striker; Sasho Petrovski

Goalkeeper, Danny Vukovic (Central Coast Mariners); while he was assured throughout the finals, his standout game was in the preliminary final, where he thwarted Adelaide with a couple of great saves and his ability to sweep behind the back four. Good shot stopper, courageous, not afraid to venture off his line and appears to have the belief that could take him a long way, has become an instant hero of the folks in Gosford.

Right back, Dean Heffernan (Central Coast Mariners); yes he’s left sided, but given the dearth of quality right backs in this year’s competition and finals and the fact he and Ceccoli were neck and neck on the left, ‘The Heff’ gets the gig on the right. As per the regular season, his over-lapping was again a feature of the finals, particularly his heroics against Newcastle in week two of the minor semi. One particular piece of cover defending, when he mowed down Vaughan Coveny with a breathtaking display of pace, will live long in the memory.

Central defender; Mark Rudan (Sydney FC); did an admirable job in keeping Chinese sharp shooter Shengqing Qu quiet in the first leg of the major semi and then came up with the winner in week two that gave Sydney hosting rights for the decider, where he finally captured his first title by helping Sydney keep its first clean sheet in seven games.

Central defender, Michael Beauchamp, (Central Coast Mariners); formed a rock-solid partnership throughout the finals with Andrew Clark, conceding only twice in four games, one of them a rocket from outside the box by Matt Thompson that he could do little about. Didn’t deserve to be a loser of Sunday and, after some doubts towards the end of the season, showed he has the temperament to cope with the bigger games.

Left back, Alvin Ceccoli (Sydney FC); Mr. Consistent, the only permanent fixture of Sydney’s back-four demonstrated again how tough he his to nudge off the ball. Tactically astute and strong, the biggest compliment is how few opposition goals came from his side of the pitch and how few of his opponents got past him.

Right midfield, Wayne O’Sullivan (Central Coast Mariners); one of the Mariners most consistent finals players, O’Sullivan never stopped running in all four games. Not only did he give Mateo Corbo and Adam Van Dommele headaches, but he was the only player to get the better of Ceccoli, which he did in the first period on Sunday.

Central midfield, Andre Gumprecht (Central Coast Mariners); tried as hard as anyone to inspire his team to the title, but ran out of juice in the second period on Sunday. As was the case during the regular season, his all round abilities in attack and defence are difficult to match up on. Played a key role in getting his men to the decider, setting up Tom Pondeljak’s winner in Adelaide.

Central midfield, Dwight Yorke (Sydney FC); the key man in Sydney’s make up, Mr. Marquee enhanced his reputation, lifting his performances when the important finals games came around. After an indifferent mid-section of the season, his value was demonstrated in a couple of key 15 minutes periods, in the 2nd leg of the major semi against Adelaide when he lifted the crowd and his teammates, and then with his blistering and memorable contribution on Sunday. Like all the better players, creates so much time and space for himself, playing the game at his own pace.

Left midfield, Travis Dodd (Adelaide United); scored one of the goals of the finals in the first leg of the major semi against Sydney when he took a long ball on the chest, cut inside Mark Milligan and rounded Clint Bolton, before placing it between two defenders on the line. It was Dodd at his direct best.

Attacking midfield, Steve Corica (Sydney FC); played most of the finals in behind Petrovski, but back on the left for the decider, where he scored what he described as his most memorable moment in football to clinch the title for Sydney. When his manager Pierre Littbarski asked for his senior men to stand up after a poor first half, Corica and Yorke responded. Young Alex Wilkinson was given a lesson by the former Socceroo in the second period.

Striker, Sasho Petrovski (Sydney FC); after a poor finish to the regular season, Petrovski proved he is a big game player, bagging two goals against Adelaide, one away and one at home. It took him to nine for the campaign and the golden boot. Was isolated during the opening half of the grand final, but linked up well with Corica and Yorke in the second period.

Manager of the finals, Pierre Littbarski (Sydney FC); little separated Sydney and Central Coast throughout the season and the same could be said about their respective mangers during the finals. While Lawrie McKinna was masterful in winning two away games 1-0 and taking his underdogs to the grand final, Littbarski also had to deal with the pressure and expectation thrust on Sydney. First the pressure of winning the right to host the grand final, particularly in the face of the fierce rivalry which had developed against Adelaide and John Kosmina, then the pressure of being the favourites in the decider. While he knows luck played a role in both the major semi and grand final, his ability to cajole the best out of his men when he needed it most shouldn’t be underestimated.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Grand final analysis; Mariners made to lament many misses

Sydney FC 1 v Central Coast Mariners 0

The first signs were there by the 12th minute, started to filter into the players’ minds by the half hour mark, were no doubt reinforced at the break and sealed with half an hour to go.

Those signs being that this wasn’t to be the fairytale end for the Mariners, rather the finish that so many envisaged at the start of the season, that of the bling - Sydney FC - lifting the thing that mattered most, the A-League trophy.

In football, players and managers know that whenever you are dominating a game, you must capitalise.

So, on 30 minutes, when Mariners striker Stewart Petrie skied a great opportunity over Clint Bolton’s bar, his hands went to his head. Tom Pondeljak, who was nearby, shook his head, almost in resignation and realisation that yet another golden opportunity had been wasted and that it might come back to haunt them at the final whistle.

The fact is that the Mariners should have killed off the game by this stage. They had monstered the hosts all over the pitch, and all that was missing from the fairytale was the sting in the tail.

And they knew it.

Chance after chance had been squandered, Damien Brown having a goal-bound header blocked by Andrew Packer, the magnificent Andre Gumprecht blazing wide from the rebound, Petrie side-footing one wide and one over, Alex Wilkinson having a free header saved by Bolton.

The Mariners, targeting the right side of Sydney’s defence by thrusting Gumprecht, Dean Heffernan, Tom Pondeljak and Damien Brown in that direction at every opportunity, were running the show.

They were clearly working on the vulnerability of Mark Rudan and Packer not having played together too often. All that was missing was the killer blow.

Perhaps it was this day more than any other that they missed the clinical finishing of injured sharp shooter Nick Mrdja, or a player of the ability of Dwight Yorke, who demonstrated the value of a high quality marquee signing with an inspired captain’s knock in the second period, lifting his boys off the canvass and showing his opposition how ruthless you need to be.

Strangely, at the break, it would have been Lawrie McKinna who would have been the more worried of the two managers. His men had huffed and puffed, but hadn’t been able to blow the Sydney house down. In the back of his mind he would have known that Sydney would not play as badly in the second period, and that his men might pay for their wastefulness.

In the other room, Sydney manager Pierre Littbarski may have uttered some harsh words, but he and his men would have known that they’d been dealt a ‘get out of jail’ chance and that their period of control would eventually come. How they capitalised on this period would decide the fate of the premiership.

He’d sprung a surprise at the selection table, erring on the side of caution by including defensive minded Terry McFlynn at the expense of young attacking midfielder Ruben Zadkovich, and by halftime it had clearly not worked.

McFlynn came in to partner Matthew Bingley in the deep central midfield roles, and Sydney were back playing with the narrow midfield that had epitomised its post-Japan period.

Steve Corica appeared to be under instructions to tuck-in, meaning the only width on the left was to be provided by Alvin Ceccoli, but he had his hands full with Wayne O’Sullivan. On the other side, David Carney was struggling to keep up with the overlapping Dean Heffernan, meaning Sydney had no outlets left and right, thus they struggled to maintain any possession as Sasho Petrovski worked alone up front.

It seemed a formation built as much on containment, but Littbarski and his brains trust will know that luck played some part in surviving the Mariners onslaught.

However, his men did scramble well in defence. It was no surprise that his two central defenders Mark Rudan and Jacob Timpano were replaced late in the game, such was the working over they received in the first half.

Littbarski had to address a couple of key areas at the break, getting the ball wide and getting his main men, Yorke, Corica, Carney and Petrovski on the ball. So Corica went wider in the second half, freeing up space for Yorke, which he gratefully used, running a master clinic in toying with an opposition and bringing the likes of Carney and Corica into the game. Carney particularly was able to pin Heffernan back.

Up until then Yorke had looked weary, but also confused about the shape of his team, which was understandable given that he’d been away and hadn’t had much opportunity to work on the new formation.

The mesmerising run that lead to Corica’s winner was a brilliant piece of cunning, daring his markers Andrew Clark and Noel Spencer to dive in if they dared. It was as if he was saying “Dive in and I’ll skin you, creating a shot or winning a penalty, stay on your feet and I’ll shoot or lay it off”.

Clark gambled on the latter, but the best players always have another option, and in this case Yorke had the vision to tee-up an unmarked Corica, who shot splendidly across Danny Vukovic. Clinical.

It was the masters beating the apprentices and immediately you saw eight heads drop in the Mariners box. McKinna admitted afterwards that the goal deflated his men and he was right.

From that moment Sydney looked in total control, and while Pondeljak threatened to chip one over his old teammate Bolton, the Mariners looked like a team that had not only run out of ideas, but out of energy, understandable given how much they’d exerted in the opening exchanges.

Fit they may be, superhuman they aren’t.

So Sydney, as had been the case throughout the season, had looked shaky for large periods, but showed the character to hang in and the class to get the job done when it mattered most.

Clearly the bling has substance. When they decide to switch on, there are few that can live with them, particularly when Yorke had an opportunity to get his foot on the ball.

If this is to be the last we are see of him, as has been muted, we should feel blessed and not forget his classy contributions throughout the campaign, particularly on this wonderful occasion.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Grand Final Tactical Preview, Sydney FC v Central Coast Mariners

While much has been made in the build up to tomorrow’s grand final about fairytales and bling, ultimately we have two accomplished football sides, and how they each handle the pressure of the big occasion and the tactical battle on the bench will go a long way to deciding the outcome.

Whereas Central Coast have had the steady as she goes approach, playing at a consistent level throughout the year despite a number of long term injuries, Sydney have been the enigma, having a couple of down periods, only to turn it on when it has counted most .

Indeed, the coaching duo of Pierre Littbarski and Ian Crook, with pressure mounting after a poor run post-Japan have pulled the right moves at the right time.

Finals football, in any code, is often about building momentum at the right time, and Sydney has done it perfectly. All the talk about whether Littbarski would have his contract renewed has been replaced by speculation about whether he will stay or go elsewhere.

A month is a long time in football and the tables have clearly turned for the German legend. Five weeks ago the knives were out, now they are being sharpened to cut the celebratory premiership cake.

And if Sydney does win, one of the key reasons will be a tactical switch after the round 19 loss away to Queensland. Up until then Sydney had been accused of lacking shape, particularly on the left hand side of midfield, with Steve Corica not providing enough width with his natural inclination to come central.

While David Carney was providing the width and penetration down the right, there was little coming the other side, unless Alvin Ceccoli over-lapped. Indeed, with Dwight Yorke and either Matthew Bingley or Terry McFlynn in midfield, there were not enough midfielders driving to get beyond the strikers and test opposition defences. Only Carney.

The 4-4-2 wasn’t working, and the subsequent shift to a 4-5-1 or 4-4-1-1, whichever you prefer, has been a masterstroke. In came the nimble and skilful kid Ruben Zadkovich on the left, with his step-overs and willingness to drive forward, Corica shifted across in behind sole striker Sasho Petrovski.

The reasoning seemed clear – more width on the left and an extra number driving centrally from midfield – and it instantly created a more cohesive unit, with Petrovski dropping off to bring his midfielders into the game.

With Carney and Zadkovich now wide, this has stretched out opposition defences, also allowing more room for Petrovski, Yorke and Corica to weave their stuff. This could again be crucial tomorrow as the Mariners like to play with a narrow back four, keeping things compact.

Also, with Corica now closer to Yorke in midfield, the attention the Trinadad and Tobago star was receiving in midfield is being shared around, another positive for Sydney. No coincidence that Yorke has been more influential in the past month.

Three wins and a draw later and there is little doubt that this is the formation Sydney will be taking into the decider. Why change a winning formula?

While there has been speculation about Bingley possibly dropping to right fullback for the suspended Mark Milligan, it would be a bigger surprise if Littbarski changed a crucial area of the pitch, central midfield, that has been working well over the past month. As such, expect to see Bingley in the vital holding role, with the experienced Packer in at right back.

This leaves one spot to be sorted in central defence, with Jacob Timpano likely to return after a missing the return Adelaide bout with an injury.

The Mariners have had less headaches to ponder this year in terms of team shape, with Lawrie McKinna and his brains trust of Ian Ferguson and Alex Tobin settling on a 4-4-2 formation early in the season after experimenting with a back three in a couple of pre-season games.

But even in this formation the Mariners often rely on one of their front-men, lately Tommy Pondeljak and Stewart Petrie, to drop off and create and extra number in midfield.

When they do this, the formation is very similar to Sydney, so there is little separating the two sides in terms of team balance. What will be interesting to see tomorrow is who does the dropping off and who plays right at the top of the formation.

Up until last week it was Petrie providing the physical presence as the last man in attack, with Pondeljak dropping into midfield to pick up the ball, but last week McKinna turned this around, with Pondeljak pushed up so that his extra speed could test the big Adelaide defence. It worked, with his mobility at times pulling the Adelaide defence around.

It will be fascinating to see if McKinna sticks with his formula against the big Sydney defence or if Petrie is restored at the sharp end of the attack. The reason Pondeljak may drop back a touch is about numbers, notably Sydney’s three man central midfield of Bingley, Yorke and Corica.

McKinna will be worried that Noel Spencer and Andre Gumprecht will have too much to deal with, thus instructing Pondeljak to play in a similar role to Corica, driving from deep.

While every part of the pitch is fascinating, the central midfield will be particularly so, and whoever gets control of it will dictate the flow of the match. What will the Mariners do with Corica when he drops back into midfield? Will Noel Spencer pick him up or will he already have his hands full with Yorke?

Will Michael Beauchamp be pulled into midfield by Corica, leaving Andrew Clark on his own to deal with Petrovski, a scenario similar to what unfolded a fortnight ago in Gosford, when Vaughan Coveny was left one on one with Clark a number of times by Ante Milicic dropping off and dragging Beauchamp with him. The Mariners central defensive duo will need to keep their shape better than they did in the first half that night.

Can Pondeljak do the same at the other end, creating a tandem attacking force alongside Gumprecht, trying to find space between Sydney’s defence and midfield, and driving to get beyond the Sydney defenders?

While the Mariners do play the direct counter-attack well, they are also more than capable of building play up with a sustained and technical passing game, as we saw in their build-up that led to Dean Heffernan’s equaliser against Newcastle a fortnight ago. It was a series of over ten passes down their left which created the space for Damien Brown on the right to get his cross in.

McKinna does like to target one side of an opposition’s defence, pulling a number of men across and dragging the opposition with them, hoping they can exploit the space in the middle by having midfielders and Heffernan come from deep when the ball is eventually switched in that direction.

It worked a treat in the minor semi final first leg against Newcastle, with both Allan Picken and Ned Zelic being pulled out of the middle by Petrie, Pondeljak, Gumprecht and O’Sullivan, allowing Spencer and Matt Osman to ghost into the box for the winner.

The Mariners also like to shift around the left and right midfielders, so don’t be surprised to see O’Sullivan on the left at some stage, an area of the park which could well decide the title.

Sydney will be looking for Carney to pin Heffernan back, while the Mariners will be looking to keep Carney busy defensively by targeting traffic his and Packer’s way. Gumprecht is crucial to creating this defensive pressure, often creating the extra number out wide by making one of his famous diagonal runs, both left and right.

Sydney will try and deal with this by having Bingley track Gumprecht, but this may create space in the middle for the likes of Pondeljak.

Whatever transpires, it will be as fascinating a battle in the dugout as it is on the pitch, all aimed at shifting the balance slightly in their teams favour.

Likely line-ups. Sydney FC (4-4-1-1); Clint Bolton; Andrew Packer, Mark Rudan, Jacob Timpano, Alvin Ceccoli; David Carney, Matthew Bingley, Dwight Yorke, Rubne Zadkovich; Steve Corica; Sasho Petrovski.
Central Coast Mariners (4-4-1-1); Danny Vukovic; Alex Wilkinson, Michael Beauchamp, Andrew Clark, Dean Heffernan; Wayne O'Sullivan, Andre Gumprecht, Noel Spencer, Damien Brown; Tom Pondeljak; Stewart Petrie.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Grand final; Defence and crowd crucial

As we look forward to the grand final on Sunday and ponder what may separate Sydney FC and the Central Coast Mariners at the end of 90 or 120 minutes, or perhaps even penalties, the only obvious conclusion is there is very little between them.

While Sydney won the two pre-season clashes, the three regular season games have resulted in a win a piece and a draw in the most recent clash in round 18 at Aussie stadium, when an Iain Fyfe blunder on half-way lead to a wonderful opener from Tom Pondeljak, which was equalised by David Carney.

The Mariners have the edge at Aussie, winning the first clash there in round four 3-2 thanks to a last minute deflected winner from Noel Spencer.

Of the two, the Mariners have been the more consistent team throughout the season, particularly in the second half of the season. In their 24 games to date, they have lost only once on the road, and go into the decider not having conceded a goal away from Gosford in the finals.

Indeed, their 1-0 wins at Newcastle and Adelaide gives them confidence that they can go away and defend, knowing that at the other end they have scored in all but one game this season, believe it or not against the wooden spooners New Zealand Knights six months ago.

There is a theory in football, as in most sports, that defences generally win the big games, and the Mariners, while they’ve ridden their luck at times, have scrambled wonderfully in defence, particularly in the finals.

For this, they have the blistering pace and courage of Andrew Clark, Michael Beauchamp and Dean Heffernan to thank, as well as the midfielders’ willingness to get back and create an extra barrier in front of the back four.

Importantly, they have been able to keep the same back four of Alex Wilkinson, Beauchamp, Clark and Heffernan throughout the finals. While there was a degree of chopping and changing early in the year as Lawrie McKinna searched for the right formula, there is no doubt the undefeated streak has coincided with a settled line-up.

Sydney meanwhile have had to chop and change at the back due mainly to the injury sustained by Jacob Timpano in the first leg against Adelaide, and now the suspension of right back Mark Milligan for the big one. It has been the story of its season, with the only constant being left back Alvin Ceccoli.

Interestingly, Sydney has failed to keep a clean sheet in its past six games,
conceding three in the finals to the Mariners’ one.

Perhaps of more concern is that the likely back four of Andrew Packer, Mark Rudan, Jacob Timpano and Alvin Ceccoli has yet to start a game together this season. When Rudan was out of the side, Fyfe was partnering Timpano, while Packer’s run in the side was when Rudan was bidding his time on the bench.

But Sydney, like the Mariners last week, will take heart from their ability to weather the storm Adelaide threw at them in the second half a fortnight ago. While the post came to their rescue a couple of times, there’s little doubt they are defending better now than they were a couple of months ago.

Sydney has had an up and down season, but when it has really mattered, like just before they went to Japan and just before the finals, they have lifted considerably. Clearly they are a big occasion team and have now built some nice momentum into the grand final on the back of four undefeated games.

While there are still signs of frailty at the back, at the other end the outlook is more positive. Since Pierre Littbarski and Ian Crook changed the system from a 4-4-2 to a 4-4-1-1 following the round 19 loss to Queensland, Sydney have looked a more cohesive unit in attack.

That night the midfield was ripped open by the Roar’s marauding young midfield, with Robbie Middleby failing to take his opportunity on Sydney’s left. So, the following week away to Perth, Ruben Zadkovich was deployed there, Steve Corica was brought in to play in the hole between midfield and attack, with David Zdrilic making way up front. He hasn’t been sighted since.

Sydney have since looked a more dynamic and mobile attacking force, scoring two goals in each of its past four games, compared with the Mariners, who have only been able to muster one in each of its three finals.

Indeed, some of the ruthlessness in front of goal that typified Central Coast’s form a month or so back has been missing lately. In analysing last week’s win over Adelaide, McKinna made a point about his team’s final ball options. While some of their counter-attacking was shift and incisive, the lack of quality on the final delivery was at times concerning. No doubt it has given McKinna something to focus on this week.

If the Mariners can get this delivery right, there is no doubt they will create chances against Sydney, particularly with a midfield and left back keen to get into the opposition’s box.

Sydney, for its part, played a controlled tempo game against Adelaide, meaning they mainly played within themselves and only attacked sporadically, when they felt they needed to. This was usually on the back of some intense prompting from the crowd, particularly a burst of 15 minutes in the second period when Rudan scored, Packer had another disallowed for off-side and Sasho Petrovski shot just wide.

There’s no doubt the crowd, prompted by the team’s thank you message before the game, made a major difference in the semi final, and could again play a significant role.

How the Mariners handle this intense support, especially from the Cove, will be crucial, particularly since they have had relatively small away crowds to deal with in their two finals to date.

While they have been exemplary to date, the back five feature a number of inexperienced guys in Wilkinson, Heffernan and goallkeeper Danny Vukovic. How they handle the occassion will be pivotal.

So will it be the Mariners solid defending or the improved attacking potency of Sydney FC that comes out on top on Sunday? Perhaps the crowd may make that little difference in Sydney’s favour, but if the Mariners can score first and defuse the crowd, the pressure will shift to the home side.

For a complete tactical preview, be sure to visit later in the week.