Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A-League team of the week, round one

AS mentioned in my previous post, the hardest bit about choosing the team of the first round was narrowing the defenders down to three, as well as choosing a right-sided attacker. It wasn’t a round filled with free-flowing football, far from a glowing endorsement for the local game, so there weren’t too many stand-outs. Instead it was a round characterised by competitive and tight, aggressive football, much as we saw throughout the world cup. So here goes the team of the week, in 3-5-2;

Clint Bolton, Sydney FC (keeper); Michael Theoklitos set the pace with a number of good stops against Adelaide and Perth youngster Alex Vrteski did well on debut against Queensland, but Bolton came flying home with another outstanding performance to ensure Sydney won all three points.

Adrian Leijer, Melbourne Victory (defender); did much of the aerial defending on Shengqing Qu, competing physically with the striker who proved such a hand-full last season. Looked solid alongside new central partner Rodrigo Vargas.

Mark Rudan, Sydney FC (defender); in the absence of Jacob Timpano, looks to be forming a formidable physical presence at the heart of Sydney’s defence alongside Nikolai Topor-Stanley. Monstered over the Mariners’ make-shift striker Jamie McMaster for much of the evening, tight and disciplined.

Sasa Ognenovski, Queensland Roar (defender); a new-comer to the A-League but by no means a new-comer to those who have followed the local game for years. The former Melbourne Knights defender was back doing what he does best, dominating his opponent, Stuart Young, with excellent aerial strength. Also showed delightful subtlety on the ball when he clipped a well weighted pass into the chest of Dario Vidosic in the build up to the first goal.

Greg Owens, Adelaide United (right midfield); while he played in the middle on Friday, there is now room for him there, so his adaptability gets him a gig out wide. On a poor night for the visitors, Owens, now a permanent United player, was a regular menace through the middle. Perth’s Leo Bertos was the other right-sided player to shine, but I thought Owens did a little more.

Kevin Muscat, Melbourne Victory (central midfield); question marks about whether he could handle the move into midfield were answered with a fairly solid performance. Together with Grant Brebner and Fred, he got on top of the likes of Ross Aloisi and Carl Veart, keeping his distribution simple most of the time.

Jonas Salley, New Zealand Knights (central midfield); the former South Melbourne player from the Ivory Coast caught the eye with a terrific workrate and willingness to break up Newcastle’s midfield.

Alessandro, Melbourne Victory (left midfield); we only saw 45 minutes, but what we did see was well worth the wait. Within 15 minutes he was teasing and toying with Richie Alagich and skinned him to set up the first goal. It got better. As half-time approached, he produced an outrageous flick over Alagich, the type of move that should be applauded, particularly in a game that is becoming increasingly regimented. Long live the Alessandro’s of this world.

Fred, Melbourne Victory (attacking midfield); playing in front of Muscat and Brebner, Fred was the player of round one, controlling Friday night’s game for almost an hour with good movement and passing, before making way for Claudinho.

Dario Vidosic, Queensland Roar (striker); what an impact. Everything we’d heard about him was about his pace, but in the 20 or so minutes here he demonstrated he is a footballer first and foremost, showing the awareness, vision and feeling required to make it. Miron Bleiberg described him afterwards as a hidden gem. We can only hope the glowing praise doesn’t get to his head.

Joel Griffiths, Newcastle Jets (striker); he didn’t score, but Griffiths proved he will be a handful for most defences in the league, with his movement and pace troubling the likes of Neil Enblem and Che Bunce. Caught off-side on too many occasion, the timing should come with a couple more games.

A-League, round one round-up

The four games

Melbourne Victory 2 beat Adelaide United 0; Ernie Merrick said it at half time and he was right, his team was clearly ‘pumped’ and deserved their win. Almost five months of preparation went into this game from home side, and it showed. On a bumpy pitch they were able to control much of the first half, particularly with their two Brazilians, Fred and Alessandro keen to make an eye-catching first impression, which they did. But it wasn’t just the Brazilians demonstrating control, with Muscat and Brebner doing well and defence looking composed and comfortable. Adelaide made some surprise selections, with Costanzo starting on the bench as the likes of Cornthwaite and Spagnuolo started in a 4-3-3, a move away from the 4-4-1-1 that worked so well last campaign. Qu was isolated as the two flankers, Spagnuolo and Dodd, failed to get close enough. The second half was better for Adelaide as Rech, Costanzo and Burns added some spice, but they were sunk on the counter when Allsopp shook off Costanzo, seemingly with an illegal arm, and had a shot saved by Bajic, which fell to the third Brazilian, Claudinho, to bury. To read more, click here.

Queensland Roar 3 beat Perth Glory 0; for large parts of the first half and much of the second, the Roar looked to be struggling for cohesion in attack as they played with a new look formation and line-up to last year. Whereas last season they looked for width from the front three (two wide and one central), here they deployed three out and out strikers, with Milicic sitting behind Lynch and Reinaldo in a narrow three-man attack. Behind them where a midfield trio of Seo, Wedau and McKay, with a back four of Packer, Gibson, Ognenovski and McLaren. So the width was supposed to come from Packer on the right and McKay on the left, but the former failed to cross the halfway mark often enough, while the latter went to his natural area, central, too often. It meant Queensland were bereft of width, and, despite dominating the ball, their play broke down far too frequently. The second half was better, as McKay and Packer got wide and forward, stretching a tiring Perth, who struggled in a number of areas and had to rely on some good defending from skipper Harnwell. Their main problems came from an inability to keep the ball long enough, as Ognenovski powered over Young, and Christie struggled to get a grip in midfield. Their only bright spots came on the odd occasions Bertos got on the ball, while periods of the second half were better as Lazaridis and Saric got involved. Overall they had too many players not firing. There has been a major difference in the amount of work done in the pre-season between these sides and it was always likely to be the deciding factor. When Miron Bleiberg introduced young Vidosic in the last 20 or so minutes, it was the pivotal move, as he was involved in creating the first and then creating and finishing the second. With four strikers on as the match ticked to its climax, it was too much for the tiring Glory, with Lynch bagging one then playing a hand in the second, while Milicic created the first and third. Like Melbourne, a deserved and vital win that relieves some pressure off the boss, but like Melbourne, more work is needed.

New Zealand Knights 0 drew with Newcastle Jets 0; on another terribly bumpy pitch, it was always likely to be difficult for both teams to play attractive football, particularly the Jets who like to keep it on the deck. So developed a scrappy yet competitive fixture where a draw was fair. As predicted in the pre-season, the Knights will be much more competitive, especially in central midfield where Salley impressed alongside Johnson and Gemmill. However, the big question in the pre-season was whether they’d have enough potency up front to score some goals, and on this performance, they’ll need Rodrigues fit and firing soon. While they created the odd half-chance, it wasn’t sustained, meaning they’ll need their defence to be rock solid if they want to sneak their fair-share of wins. Here their defence did reasonably well, but were still opened up on the odd occasion by the pace and movement of Griffiths. Newcastle came to New Zealand with an incredibly attacking formation that only featured two recognised defenders, Okon and Durante. With North injured, Thompson started at right back, with Haliti at left back, as well as three strikers, brave work from Nick Theodorakopoulos, particularly on the road. While the intent was there, ultimately they were unable to break down a tight and competitive Knights midfield. Expect the Jets to be better on a better pitch.

Sydney FC 1 beat Central Coast Mariners 0; for once this game failed to live up to the hype. After four crackers last season (a last minute 3-2 win to the Mariners in Sydney, a 5-1 hiding dished out by Sydney in the return, a fascinating 1-1 draw in Sydney later in the year and the 1-0 grand final win to Sydney) perhaps we’ve been a little spoilt, for this game failed to take off. Tight and feisty in midfield and defence, rarely was either side able to sustain possession or dominance for decent periods. Terry Butcher has arrived at Sydney and immediately molded a fierce and competitive central defensive pair, much in his own mould. Rudan and Topor-Stanley were imposing - tight, aggressive and physical - giving Kwasnik and McMaster little room to move. In midfield, the Mariners buzzed around, snapping at the heels of Yorke, Milligan and Corica, cutting the supply to Petrovski, Carney and Brosque. Consequently, the latter two failed to provide the width that was such a feature of Sydney’s championship run, and Sydney’s attack looked the poorer for it. Ultimately it was a game dominated by defenders and the workhorses in midfield, perhaps fitting it was decided by a defender. While Fyfe grabbed the winner after a poor first half, it was his custodian, the brilliant Bolton, who was the hero, making three world class saves to deny Kwasnik first, then McMaster, then Kwasnik again. How Bolton has been left out of the Socceroos first team for so long, let alone the world cup squad, will forever remain a mystery, at least to this correspondent.

Some other talking points

A weekend to defend; five teams kept clean sheets and most of the best players of the round played at the back. In picking a team of the round (next article), the hardest bit was deciding who were the stand-outs at the back. Such was the evenness across the board, the likes of Vargas, Harnwell, Vidmar, Wilkinson, Durante and Topor-Stanley were unlucky to miss out.

Home is where the heart is; after the upside down season we had last year, where the away side dominated, it was almost a throw-back to see three home sides come up with the points. Will be interesting to see if it continues.

Yellow-card; to referee Simon Przydacz who officiated the Knights-Jets clash in New Zealand, for allowing play to go on for over a minute as Wheelhouse waited for treatment after suffering a serious injury in a challenge with Malik Buari in the second half. The players are under instruction to play on until the referee intervenes, so their hands were somewhat tied, but Wheelhouse was in obvious agony and needed treatment straight away.

Red-cards; to the two groundsmen at Olympic Park and North Harbour Stadium respectively and the club and FFA people responsible for ensuring grounds are in pristine condition. While the surfaces at Suncorp and Aussie, both also used for League, were carpet-like, sadly the other two venues were bumpy, detracting from the spectacle. For a league that is by no means home and hosed, and is looking to entertain, ensuring the surface is up to scratch should be the minimum expectation.

Save of the round; Robert Cornthwaite’s goal-line clearance when it appeared Archie Thompson would walk it in ran a close second, but for sheer athleticism, reflex and anticipation, Bolton’s left-handed save from a Kwasnik header in the first half that appeared destined to give the Mariners to lead will live long in the memory. While Kwasnik was wasteful, Bolton never gave it up.

Goal of the round; not a week of breathtaking strikes, but Queensland Roar did score three, the pick of them the first, scored by Lynch, not so much for the finish, which was clinical, but the build up. When Ognenovski flicked a delightful ball into the area, Vidosic had the vision to see Milicic and chest it towards him, and while Milicic had to win a challenge against Simpson to get it to Lynch, it was nice work all round.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

A merry start for Merrick and his new men

A-League opener, Melbourne Victory 2 vs Adelaide United 0

EARLY days, but with the pressure on the manager to produce results, encouraging signs the Melbourne Victory in their A-League opener against Adelaide United last night, with all six newcomers, Fred, Alessandro, Claudinho, Grant Brebner, Rodrigo Vargas and Adrian Caceres making a great first impression.

Despite a terribly bumpy pitch (more on that later), Ernie Merrick’s men were able to produce some eye-catching football, with the three Brazilians, particularly Fred, at the heart of much that was good for Melbourne.

Much has been written and said about Melbourne’s samba imports, but here they proved they have plenty to offer Merrick, Melbourne and the A-League.

While the defending minor premiers started well, it wasn’t long before the Victory midfield got on top, with Fred (pictured above, courtesy of www.melbournevictory.com.au) the chief conductor, playing behind Archie Thompson and Danny Allsopp and in front of Kevin Muscat and Grant Brebner.

Merrick appears to be building his team around the central midfield trio of Muscat, Brebner and Fred, a neat combination of toughness, drive and subtlety. They weren’t always on the same wavelength early on, with a couple of stray passes and a comical moment when Fred and Brebner ran into each other, but put this down to the language barrier and the need to foster a greater understanding, which time will bring.

But it was a positive start as they got right on top of the Adelaide central duo of Carl Veart and Ross Aloisi. John Kosmina surprised many by starting Angelo Costanzo on the bench, and in hindsight it appears to have been an error, Adelaide lacking a deep presence to shield their defence.

Fred was allowed to roam wherever he wanted, combining wonderful technique, ability with both feet and good fitness. His link up play was excellent, bringing his compatriot Alessandro into the game whenever he could.

Alessandro produced some eye-catching footwork within the first 15 minutes, terrorising Richie Alagich on a couple of occasion before skinning him with a sublime drag-back and nutmeg near the left byline.

With Robert Cornthwaite, another surprise selection in central defence for Adelaide, slow to react and provide the cover, Alagich decided to lunge from behind, a fatal error.

It was no less than Melbourne deserved, particularly for having the courage to play on such a disappointing pitch. When the A-League was launched 12 months ago, the hope was that the old problems of sub-standard arenas would be a thing of the past.

In the main, season one had excellent surfaces, so let’s hope the standards don’t slip in season two. Make no mistake, for a league that needs to consolidate on the good work of last year, anything less than carpet-like surfaces is an undersell.

With the surface not up to scratch, it wasn’t surprising to finds both teams at times using the long ball, and Melbourne did well to mix their football, at times looking long to Allsopp, but most often looking for the feet of Muscat, Brebner and Fred.

With Melbourne dominant in the first half, but for the odd thrust forward from Greg Owens, it was a surprise to find Alessandro replaced at the break, perhaps a result of the injury he suffered to Alagich’s reckless tackle.

The visitors were much better in the second period, but Melbourne appeared content to sit back and absorb, relying on a well-marshaled rearguard and a couple of fine Michael Theoklitos saves. Last man Vargas picked up where he left off in the NSL, composed and simple, only exposed on one occasion late on when the nippy substitute Nathan Burns burnt him for pace.

Brebner also did well in seeing out the game, while Caceres looked dangerous on the left in the second half, giving Alagich and Cornthwaite a working over. Claudinho, replacing Fred in 59th minutes, was all left foot and flowing locks, but he popped up to finish the game off with his right foot, a neat finish.

Overall, it’s a positive start for Melbourne, but they mustn’t get carried away with it, particularly with the visit of Sydney set to be a blockbuster at the Telstra Dome next week.

Adelaide, meanwhile, looked weary in the first half, perhaps down to the trips to Wollongong and Gosford in the past two weeks, but there was encouragement offered by the driving performance of Owens. But by switching to a 4-3-3, with Jason Spagnuolo and Travis Dodd playing either side of Shengqing Qu, the Chinese striker appeared isolated, comfortably dealt with by Vargas, Adrain Leijer and Daniel Piorkowski, as well organised as any Victory defensive unit has looked.

The sooner Fernando Rech is back starting alongside Qu, the brighter Adelaide will be.

Watch the match? So what were your thoughts? Post a comment.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

2006/07 A-League Season Preview

Every team under the microscope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Join TRBA A-League fantasy league

THE start of the second A-League season is only three days away, and if, like me, you can't wait for the action to kick-off on Friday night, why not pass the hours by creating your own Fantasy A-League Team, a nice little addition by Fox Sports to the A-League scene for season 02.

What's more, why not enter it into the league I've created, called 'TRBA Fantasy A-Lg'. The League code is 5041-891. I'll even try and come up with a prize before the season is out for the manager that tops this private league, so get selecting, stay in touch and enjoy the season.

Encouraging signs from the home-based Roos

While there’s already been much dissection of the Socceroos 2-0 victory over Kuwait last week, here are a few more tactical and technical observations to mull over.

Patience is a virtue; it was a great to see a home-based Socceroos unit using the smarts to get a job done. Too often in the past local based units have huffed and puffed, not been able to blow the house down, and inevitably been reduced to tears by a lack of concentration or sloppy mistake at the back. Not this time. While it wasn’t always the most polished performance, the Socceroos demonstrated they are thinking on an off the field, being patient and getting the job done. Clearly the Hiddink legacy is alive and well in Australian football. With 15 minutes left the Socceroos kept pressing forward patiently, kept their discipline and eventually cracked the stubborn Kuwaiti unit. Good signs that our home-based Socceroos didn’t panic, both on an off the field.

The pivotal move; the Socceroos shaped up at kick-off in a 3-4-3 formation, with Clint Bolton screened by a three man defence of Jade North at right stopper, Mike Valkanis at left stopper and Kevin Muscat central. The four man midfield comprised Travis Dodd on the right, Mark Milligan anchoring, Steve Corica nearby and Alvin Ceccoli on the left. The front trio saw Joel Griffiths through the middle with Dave Carney to his right and Archie Thompson to his left. Kuwait meanwhile played with a 3-5-2, with the three central midfielders Jarah Al Ataiqi (number 18), Abdul Rahman Al Dawood (number 8) and Khalaf Al Mutairi (number 10) outnumbering Milligan and Corica in the centre. It was little wonder Kuwait controlled much of the first 20 minutes. Everything they did came through the deep central midfielder, no. 18 Al Ataiqi, who was feeding the tricky front man Bader Al Mutwa, the Kuwaiti number 17, who was dropping off the front line to create an extra number in midfield and plenty of headaches for Graham Arnold. The Socceroos were struggling. Midway through the first half came the pivotal move of the game, when Carney dropped off the front line into central midfield, ahead of Corica and Milligan and behind Griffiths and Thompson. He had essentially moved onto the 18. It did a few things – evened the numbers in midfield, stopped Kuwait playing through Al Ataiqi, created some space for Dodd to roam forward down the right (and test the stamina of their left-wingback Fahad Shaheen, the number 30) and lessened the burden on Corica to do all the creating. Basically, Carney had a free role and it was no surprise that Australia’s fortunes improved once he moved central. Suddenly Dodd was springing forward and Carney was feeding him at will. Largely ignored in the post match analysis was that fact it was Carney ‘s no-look ball into space that set Dodd free for the Socceroos second, a sublime pass demonstrating vision, feeling and weight. While much was made in the build up about the understanding of the Sydney eight, everything good Australia did essentially came from an almost telepathic understanding between Carney and Dodd.

Milligan’s mental mettle makes a mark; there has been much post match speculation about who where the Socceroos best players on the night. Personally, I thought the performances of Carney and Dodd were the stand-outs, mainly because they were involved in the most crucial moments in the match. When the game was on the line, there to be won or lost, it was these two who influenced the play most, responsible for both goals. After a sloppy opening 20-odd minutes, their general play wasn’t bad either – Carney did a lot of good stuff on the ball in the middle, whether it was driving forward and shooting or getting on the ball and slipping it into Dodd’s path, while the Adelaide flanker was equally as impressive defending as he was going forward. Clearly both are as confident as they’ve ever been. Another player who is on top of the world at the moment is Milligan, who was deployed in the crucial holding role in midfield, a position normally given to an experienced player. With no Vince Grella or Josip Skoko available and the likes of locals Noel Spencer and Angelo Costanzo not considered, it was time for one of the younger brigade to step up, either Milligan or Stuart Musalik. Emboldened by his experiences in Germany, it was Milligan who grabbed his chance and had an encouraging debut in the role. Not everything he did was efficient, a few times he gave the ball away either through mistimed short balls or over-hit long balls, but overall he turned well and feed his teammates on most occasions. The one thing that stands out about Milligan is his willingness to demand the ball, not an easy thing for someone so young, but crucial to playing this role. A few days earlier I saw Musalik playing for Newcastle in the pre-season cup, where he was treading his way though the game rather than seizing his opportunity to demand the ball. Milligan has shown he has the appetite to become a regular Roo.

Not everyone grabbed their chance; defensively he was as rock-solid as ever, but going forward and particularly with his distribution, Ceccoli was sloppy. Too often he over-hit the ball in search of Thompson and when he did eventually find the mark in the build up to the opener, it was with his wrong foot. Thompson and Griffiths also failed to make their mark up front, while Valkanis was shaky when faced with a tricky striker running at him, as I’m about to explain.

Al Mutwa the marvel; while much of the focus was on the Socceroos, Kuwait was reasonable without being brilliant. Ultimately they didn’t have the stamina to see out the match, but they were good on the ball, kept it on the ground, tried to play it out of the back, kept their discipline and shape and counter-attacked swiftly. He didn’t get on the score-sheet, but their front-man, the tricky number 17 Bader Al Mutwa (pictured above playing for Kuwaiti outfit Al Qadisiya in the AFC Champions League, courtesy of www.afcchampionsleague.com) showed he is a class act, proving a constant menace on the ball, particularly when driving at Valkanis. Seemingly, Kuwait were quick to identify Valkanis’ weakness on the ground and often the Adelaide defender was found retreating as Al Mutwa jinked and danced one way and the other. Highly rated, he is reported to have been the top scorer in the Kuwaiti league the past couple of seasons and it was easy to see why. If the A-League is looking to spread its wings and attract talent from all over the world, than this is the type of quality we need. I, for one, could watch Al Mutwa any day.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Opportunity to make a telling impression

Asia Cup qualifier preview, Socceroos vs Kuwait

JUST over seven weeks since our national football team bowed out of the World Cup in now legendary circumstances to the eventual winners, the eyes of nation of newly coverted football tragics turns to Aussie Stadium and a date with a Kuwait team on Wednesday night.

When tickets went on sale last month, this correspondent was among the many long time Socceroos fans simply blow away by the level of interest. People who have never been near an A-League game, barely knew the NSL existed or never came close to kicking or catching a ball where ringing and texting to let me know they had their tickets.

In the kitchen, over the boiling kettle, people wanted to discuss the world cup, wanted to know more about their new found heroes, wanted to learn about the history of the game, wanted to know more about its future.

Suddenly, finally, the Socceroos and the game are hot property, and while there has since been some disappointment that the first 11 won't be on show, there is also some hope that many of the new converts will be seeing a new generation of national team regulars, players they can follow for the next 10 or so years.

So, for the 18-man squad selected yesterday by Graham Arnold, there is a new pressure to deliver on the expectations. Suddenly there will be less tolerance of mediocrity, performances will be analysed from top to toe. Players and managers will have to step out of comfort zones, seize their opportunities.

When the Socceroos played their first game in Asia in February, a come from behind 3-1 victory over Bahrain in Manama, it barely made an impression back home. That was pre-Germany.

Now comes the first foray post world cup, an opportunity for so many to make a telling mark: Arnold and John Kosmina have the chance to make a point for the local coaches; Alex Brosque, David Carney, Travis Dodd and Joel Griffiths get a chance to showcase their pace in the front half; Mark Milligan, whether at the back or in midfield, can show what he learnt under Hiddink; Stuart Musalik, Kristian Sarkies and Matt McKay will hope for some minutes in midfield; Kevin Muscat and Steve Corica have been dealt the opportunity they thought would never come again; Alvin Ceccoli, Jade North, Sash Petrovski and Clint Bolton get another opportunity to impress at this level.

Clearly, opportunity abounds. In the past, there was always a despondent feeling whenever a home-based national team was selected, almost an inevitability that they'd struggle to make the grade, and too often it filtered through to the players.

But these are different times, the A-League providing a level of professionalism, in training and application, that was missing in the NSL. These players are faced with pressure and attention on a weekly basis and they are mentally tough as a result.

Those that can't cut it won't be in the A-League, let alone the national team.

So the home based Socceroos shouldn't have anything to fear, particularly against a home-based Kuwait side that leaked 12 goals in two lead up games. But Arnold and his troops will do well not to underestimate a nation that has historically had the edge over Australia, and still managed to draw with Bahrain, the team Australia struggled against for 45 mins.

Watching Kuwait train, the thing that stood out was a lack of size. Tall and thin is probably the best description, so the Socceroos will look to impose a physicality over the game, not a dirty physicality, but a strong running game that might over-power the visitors, particularly with the home crowd adding volume.

If Arnold learnt anything from Hiddink, it will have been about preperation, never underestimating any opposition, and the Socceroos boss will do well to ensure his players are mentally focussed and physically up for the game. After all, Kuwait come here with a manager under fire. Indeed, the training camp last week was an opportunity to ram home the strategy, and Arnold is reported to have been pleased with the uptake.

Looking at the squad, the one area of conjecture is clearly in central midfield and who will screen the the backline, the crucial role played so splendidly by Vince Grella in Germany. Musalik is the only natural holding player in the squad but failed to crasp the pre-season cup semi final on Saturday night and indeed looked to be carrying a slight niggle when replaced midway through the second half.

The smart money appears on Milligan, who played in midfield for Sutherland in the NSW premier league pre world cup and in a couple of games for Sydney FC since, being given the responsibilty, although Muscat (currently playing there for Melbourne) remains an alternative.

Another option, less likely, is the use of Queensland's Matt McKay, but he is more the box-to-box driving type, rather than a player who will sit and distribute.

Up front and out wide there are also some nice little posers for Arnold, with numerous players in form and begging for a start. Dodd looked impressive against Sydney on Friday night, scoring one and creating a good opening for Greg Owens with a subtle run and pass that was lacking in his formative football years, while Carney and Brosque have been enjoying themselves in the pre-season, creating and scoring. As vice captain, Archie Thompson appears a certainty, while Petrovski and Griffiths also have claims. No room for all six. At best, four will start.

Whatever the make up of the 11, all will be looking to make sure they don't let the chance to wear the green and gold slip.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Pre-season pleasantries? It's more than that

Pre-season cup semi final wrap, Central Coast Mariners vs Newcastle Jets

THIS was supposed to be about trialing formations, building fitness levels and giving new players an opportunity to blend into the team. But try telling that to the players, particularly the Newcastle Jets squad, who slumped to the Bluetongue turf after 120 odd minutes of thrilling and feisty football.

It was as if they’d just bowed out of the semi finals proper. Such was the effort Nick Theodorakopoulos’ men had given, almost 75 minutes of it with a man down, it was impossible not to feel sorry for them.

Seemingly, they are a team on the way up, and had it not been for the 48th minute dismissal of Shane Webb, less than three minutes into his Newcastle debut, this might have been a different result.

Certainly, the first seven minutes of the second half had everything – two penalties and the red card - and shifted the momentum of the match.

Newcastle had shaded the opening period and deserved their lead which came thanks to a delightfully flicked through ball by the effervescent Mark Bridge, which caught the Mariners central defensive duo of Alex Wilkinson and Paul O’Grady square, allowing veteran Kiwi Vaughan Coveny to race through and blast past Danny Vukovic.

The match had started off in a strange way, both managers tinkering from what we’ve seen from them in the past. Indeed, Lawrie McKinna was nowhere to be seen, but a hint as to his whereabouts was provided by his assistant Ian Ferguson, who reverted to his walkie-talkie more and more as the game crept to its cessation.

McKinna mightn’t have been on the sideline, but the team tinkering that was a feature of his work last season was there to see. Andrew Clark, an ever-present in the centre of defence alongside Michael Beauchamp last season, was playing on the right side of the back four. Wilkinson, used mainly on the right last campaign, was in the middle with O’Grady, with new recruit Vuko Tomasevic on the left.

In midfield, Wayne O’Sullivan, back from injury, started in the middle alongside Noel Spencer, with Andre Gumprecht on the right.

The surprises weren’t exclusive to the home side. Theodorakopoulos, noted for his 3-5-2’s in the NSL, instead deployed a 4-4-2, with new recruit Adam D’Apuzzo, stepping up from the NSW premier league, deployed as a left back after featuring as a midfielder for Marconi.

Whether these changes are an indication of what we can expect throughout the campaign proper remains to be seen. For McKinna it could well have been a case of giving O’Grady and Wilkinson an opportunity to build an understanding, crucial in this central defensive area. Or it might be that he is looking to inject some pace in the fullback areas, especially given Dean Heffernan’s departure over the off-season. Clark can certainly scamper, although we didn’t see too much of it on this night.

If the old adage is that you build from the back, than the Jets defensive structure was also intriguing and provided an insight into the way Theodorakopoulos likes to play.

All four, (from right to left) Jade North, Paul Okon, Andrew Durante and D’Apuzzo, are comfortable ball players, a move away from the rugged style of Allan Picken and Mateo Corbo of last season.

Clearly, there was an emphasis on playing the ball from the back, and D’Apuzzo looked comfortable and composed in his role, which might be makeshift given the signing of Kiwi Steven Old.

Whether it was an injury or the manager’s desire to give Webb a hit-out that brought about his half-time replacement of D’Apuzzo, it had an effect. When Adam Kwasnik was played through between Durante and Webb a couple of minutes in, the latter was caught cold, reacting solely and bringing him down.

Kwasnik’s spot kick was well saved by Ben Kennedy. A couple of minutes later the Mariners exposed Newcastle’s left back area again, Kwasnik going down in heavy traffic from a right-sided cross. This time Stewart Petrie stepped up, Kennedy going to his right again and getting a palm to it, but the scores were level.

Shortly after that there was more interesting work from Theodorakopoulos, Labinot Haliti, hitherto an attacking midfielder, coming on for Okon and going to left back, striker Joel Griffiths coming on for holding midfielder Stuart Musalik, forcing Nick Carle into the deep central midfield role, which he played with aplomb. Bridge and Coveny dropped into deeper roles, it was all hands on deck.

While it was a very attacking team, it was essentially set out in 4-4-1, with Griffiths and Coveny taking turns as the lone striker, Newcastle sitting back and trying to catch the Mariners out with early long balls.

What stood out for the remainder of the game was how fit the Newcastle squad is. Central Coast we know are fit, but Newcastle’s resolve was evident. Clearly they have worked hard in the pre-season, none more so it seems than Bridge, who looks a different player to the one we saw this time last year.

Even as the match ticked towards the 120 minute mark and the Jets tried to chase the game after O’Grady’s near post flick header from a Tomasevic free-kick in the first extra time period had given the Mariners the lead, everyone was springing forward, defenders Durante, North and Haliti included.

Carle, intent to prove he is more than just a creator, was up and down, pulling the strings and even providing one late long range bullet which smashed against Vukovic’s crossbar.

Little wonder the Jets slumped to the ground afterwards. Yet to taste victory in the pre-season cup, on this evidence one isn’t far away.

The Mariners meanwhile have continued their magnificent record of contesting every A-League final (next week’s date with Adelaide will be their fourth) and even had the luxury of introducing two debutants at the opposite ends of their careers. Tony Vidmar we know all about, but the reception he received was matched by that given to local kid Matt Simon, who didn’t look out of place in the 20 or so minutes he received.

A couple of months ago he was playing in front of a couple of hundred fans for the Central Coast Lightning in the NSW winter super league, but here he was in front of over 7,500 locals, including a significant personal supporters club in the eastern stand.

If this was a teaser of what we can expect when the season proper kicks off in a fortnight, we can hardly wait.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Arnold's catch 22

SO the 22 man locally based train on squad has been named ahead of the upcoming Asian cup qualifier with Kuwait, Graham Arnold blending youth with experience in his first independent selection as Socceroos boss. It will be trimmed down to 18 after a training camp in Melbourne next week.

His hands tied by the fact the match doesn’t fall on an international date, Arnold was unable to draw on any European based players, choosing only three players from the 23-man world cup squad (Archie Thompson, Mark Milligan and Stan Lazaridis), meaning that unless he can convince a couple of his European stars between now and the official squad announcement, the team that takes the field on August 16 will essentially be a third string Socceroos outfit, at best.

Whether a locally-based team is strong enough to do the job against Kuwait will be fascinating to observe, but Arnold has given himself what he believes is the best hope, drafting in three experienced internationals – Kevin Muscat, Lazaridis and Steve Corica - to compliment some of the form players from last season’s inaugural A-League.

Whether they are the form players at the moment, only time will tell, but an intense familiarisation camp from Monday to Thursday will give Arnold an opportunity to assess the form. For many of the younger names, it is an opportunity to impress and build a national career towards 2010.

If they don’t take their chance, Arnold may have to beg and plead a couple of the established names. By not committing to naming his final squad, he might just have a last minute opportunity to convince an overseas based player or two.

Interestingly, the official FFA release notes that the 22 man train on squad is “expected to form the nucleus of the squad that will take on Kuwait”. Clearly there is scope to move.

In the meantime, Arnold has stuck with some familiar faces, drafting in the local-based players that not only went to Germany but those who were a part of the last Asian adventure in Bahrain (the likes of Alvin Ceccoli, Mike Valkanis, Jade North, Spase Dilevski and David Carney), part of some recent Socceroo camps under Guus Hiddink (Sasho Petrovski, Kristian Sarkies, Adrian Leijer, Stuart Musialik and Danny Vukovic), members of past Socceroo teams (Muscat, Corica, Alex Brosque, Joel Griffiths and Clint Bolton) and some A-Leaguers who did well in the inaugural season and in this pre-season (Travis Dodd, Matt McKay, Iain Fyfe and the bolter Mark Bridge).

Certainly there has been a degree of convincing behind the selections, particularly towards Muscat and Lazaridis, thought to have played their last games in green and gold. Both needed reassurance, but in a squad lacking know-how at this level, they have a vital role to play.

If, as Arnold noted earlier this week, his squad would be filled more with experience than youth, it is surprising not to find three Adelaide players among the list – Angelo Costanzo, Ross Aloisi and Carl Veart. Ditto last season’s player’s player Bobby Despotovski. If you take what was seemingly one of the criteria’s for selection – last season’s form – all four have a strong case.

Certainly Costanzo or Aloisi could fill the holding role in midfield, a position that appears light-on in this squad. Although Muscat is currently playing their, only Musialik is a natural in that area, meaning their might be room for Arnold to draft in an experienced player like Vince Grella, particularly now that the start of the Serie A has been shifted back a fortnight.

The likes of Brosque, McKay, Dodd, Griffiths, Milligan, Corica, North, Carney, Thompson and Sarkies certainly fit the Hiddink template – nimble, mobile and adaptable, but there are other players whose form last season warrants consideration, including the Central Coast’s Alex Wilkinson and Noel Spencer.

If timing is everything, then injury has certainly denied the likes of Tom Pondeljak, Ante Milicic, Simon Colosimo, John Hutchinson, Richard Johnson, Lucas Pantelis, Nick Mrdja and Andrew Durante time to impress. None of these names should be forgotten.

Little doubt it has been a difficult unit for Arnold to assemble, but for so many it is an opportunity they shouldn’t let slip. Whether they’re up to the standard we’ll soon find out.

Discounting for now the potential that others may be drafted into the final 18, here’s an 11 from the 22, in 3-4-3; Bolton; Muscat, Milligan, Ceccoli; Dilevski, Musialik, Corica, Lazaridis; Thompson, Petrovski, Brosque. Reserves; Vukovic, North, Valkanis, McKay, Dodd, Carney, Griffiths.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Good signs for another close A-League campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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