The four games
New Zealand Knights 0 v Sydney FC 1; both sides came into this game with a re-jigged formation. The hosts, recognising they had to get more support for Dani Rodriguez, went from a 4-5-1 to a 3-5-2, with Noah Hickey pushed up front, fullbacks Gregory Duruz and Darren Bazeley pushed into the midfield to provide the width and Sime Kovacevic joining Che Bunce and Neil Emblen at the back. In truth though it was more like a 5-3-2, with Bazeley and Duruz offering very little in attack. Sydney meanwhile went away from the diamond midfield to a flat four, with Mark Milligan joining Terry McFlynn in the middle, Ruben Zadkovich brought in on the right and Jeremy Brockie partnering David Zdrilic up font. The absence of Sasho Petrovski was puzzling. At the back Matthew Bingley came in in the middle, pushing Nikolai Topor-Stanley to the left. Whether the formation changes played a role or not, both sides struggled to get the ball on the ground and play football. Instead we saw fullbacks from both sides playing long-balls either straight or diagonal, and a sloppy contest, hard on the eye, ensued. Sydney, it appeared, was trying to get Topor-Stanley in down the left, but too often balls were over-hit and Bazeley had his measure. At the break Sydney assistant manager Ian Crook looked a perplexed and disappointed man. His message was that Sydney had the get ball on the deck (as bumpy as it was) and try and play through the likes of Mark Milligan, Alex Brosque and Terry McFlynn. It was a mixed message to what we’d seen in the first half. In any case, Sydney eventually settled down a bit post Mark Rudan’s great strike, Brockie shifting to the left, Milligan pushing to the right, and Brosque and Zadkovich more central, playing off Zdrilic. Finally, at least Sydney were attempting to string some passes, keep the ball alive, but they still had to survive one late moment when Malik Buari skied a Scott Gemmill knock-down. Terry Butcher arrived promising to grind out results and get the job done and after only two points in the past three weeks, the three points on this far-from-memorable evening will be welcome relief for him and the club, but do little to silence the detractors.
Queensland Roar 0 v Adelaide United 0; a battle of two in-form heavyweights, this match, while not quite living up to expectation in terms of the final score, provided everything the Knights-Sydney match didn’t – good passing, fluency and plenty of goal-scoring opportunities, particularly from the hosts, who did everything but provide the knock-out punch. This was largely down to the brilliant work between the sticks from the much improved Robert Bajic who time and again kept the Roar scoreless. Miron Bleiberg pulled all the punches from the dug-out, outsmarting his great nemesis John Kosmina. Recognising that Adelaide have won their past two matches by dominating the flanks, Bleiberg re-jigged his unit, starting with a back three, shifting Harold Seo to the right and Andy Packer to the left. It did two things, controlling both Jason Spagnuolo and Travis Dodd, as well as pinning Greg Owens back. Also recognising that Adelaide are as ruthless on the counter-attack as any team, he deviated, for the first time this season, from the three-man forward line, relegating Ante Milicic to the bench and partnering Simon Lynch with Reinaldo. It allowed him to play a three man central midfield of Marcus Wedau flanked by Massimo Murdocca and Matt McKay, who outnumbered and dominated both Carl Veart and Ross Aloisi. With Seo and particularly Packer stretching Adelaide and the likes of Sasa Ognenovksi, Chad Gibson and Josh McCloughan in control of Shengqing Qu and Fernando Rech, the Roar were dominant all over the pitch. Pressing Adelaide high, the likes of Murdocca and McKay were able the control the game, and when Qu was sent off for a silly moment of retaliation, Adelaide could do little but hang on. In truth, Kosmina had made a good adjustment at the break, pushing Angelo Costanzo into midfield to even up the numbers. Rech was sacrificed as Mike Valkanis came into the backline. It was a move built around containment, and even before Qu’s send off, Adelaide looked happy to come away from Suncorp with a point. The appetite already wets at the prospect of a return bout in Adelaide later in the season.
Central Coast Mariners 1 v Newcastle Jets 1; there is something about this derby that sets the pulse racing. Rarely does it disappoint, and again on this night, with much to play for, there were many talking points, including an outstanding performance in goal from Danny Vukovic, another error in judgment from Paul Okon, the Mariners’ first goal of the season and an indifferent performance from referee Simon Pryzdacz. Trying to find the elusive goal and winning formula, Lawrie McKinna made some interesting adjustments to his team, relegating the out-of-form Vuko Tomasevic and Adam Kwasnik to the bench, shifting Tony Vidmar to left back, starting Stewart Petrie in the unfamiliar left midfield role and partnering John Hutchinson up front with Tom Pondeljak. Early on it appeared to be working, Petrie providing the cross that ultimately fell to Hutchinson for the Mariners’ opener, of the season. Newcastle had also made some interesting changes to their defence, starting with a back three for the first time, Paul Kohler partnering Andrew Durante as twin stoppers, covered by Okon. With Jade North pushing into midfield, the Mariners were able to exploit the space on the right and dominate most of the first half, but for a couple of brilliant Vukovic stops to deny Milton Rodriguez and Matt Thompson. The second stanza was different. Desperate to protect their lead, the Mariners dropped deeper and deeper, inviting the equally desperate Newcastle on. Let the Jets play and they have the players to conjure up chances and the character, as they proved last week, to keep coming. So it proved when Rodriguez turned a delightful flick inside for Joel Griffiths, who toe-poked past Vukovic. Newcastle, despite Okon’s red-card, had the momentum and continued to press forward, unlucky not to grab all three points after Pryzdacz erred on the side of caution when Alex Wilkinson appeared to clatter Griffiths inside.
Perth Glory 1 v Melbourne Victory 2; in hot conditions, it was hardly surprising that this game was far from a classic. Both sides appeared to feel the pinch and after an incisive first few minutes from the visitors, the first half settled into a stalemate, Perth dominating possession but failing to find a cutting edge in the final third. The times they did trouble Melbourne were from crosses and set-pieces, perhaps trying to expose Michael Theoklitos’ weakness to the ball coming in from the flanks. Meanwhile, Melbourne looked more incisive in the final third, but failed to find the passing fluency of the past month. After some stern words from Ernie Merrick at the break, the second half was better from Melbourne, getting a greater share of the ball and profiting with a neat Adrian Cacares finish, before picking off the Glory on the counter-attack when Cacares broke up-field and Archie Thompson drew a penalty from Adrian Webster. Once again Melbourne relied on a well-marshaled defence the grab all three points, despite conceding from an injury time corner. Five from five and the Victory are flying, while Perth, after an enterprising opening two games at home, have struggled to create chances from open play the past two weeks.
Some other talking points
A weekend to keep; two outstanding performances between the sticks in round five, with Adelaide’s Robert Bajic impeccable in keeping out the Roar on Friday night, before Danny Vukovic topped that display with a number of brilliant stops to deny Newcastle the following night.
Little wonder the fans stayed away; rarely has there been a worse A-League game that this one dished up by the New Zealand Knights and Sydney FC, surely. Bereft of any invention and passing fluency, it was far from a glowing endorsement to the league and will do little to covert a New Zealand public slow on the uptake. Only 2,700 odd die-hards were there, and after the display from both sides, how many will care to come back? The worry for Sydney is that if they keep producing this type of performance, the fans will also stay away from Aussie Stadium.
Applying the tactical straight-jacket; Ernie Merrick’s decision to replace Brazilian Alessandro midway through the first half ultimately proved a successful one for the Victory, with his replacement Adrian Cacares scoring the first and playing a major hand in the second, but what’s the point of flying Alessandro half-way across the world to apply the tactical straight-jacket and turn him into another player made to merely fit into a system? It didn’t work for Carlos Alberto Pereira at the world cup (his use of Ronaldinho). Surely there is still room on the football field for one free spirit!
Adaptability all the rage; after seeing what Guus Hiddink could achieve with a flexible framework, it appears to be catching on. No doubt guided by the principles of keeping the opposition guessing and adapting to what the opposition is throwing at you, no less than six of the managers tinkered with their formations while all eight altered their starting personnel from last week. Proving that success breads continuity, only the Victory have kept their tinkering to a minimum, bringing in Krisitian Sarkies when Fred was suspended and Steve Pantelidis when Grant Brebner was injured, but after the introduction of Cacares for Alessandro yesterday, it remains to be seen what Merrick does on Sunday, particularly with Fred available.
Red card; not for the first time it goes to Simon Pryzdacz for his decision to award Joel Griffiths a second yellow card for simulation. These decisions are never easy to call, but there appears a reluctance by many of Australia’s top officials to award penalties, particularly so late in games. The reality is that Pryzdacz got this one wrong and has cost Newcastle a valuable three points and forced Griffiths to spend a second week on the sidelines when clearly he should be playing on Friday night.
Goal of the week; there weren’t many this week, only six in total, including two lovely first time left foot strikes from Mark Rudan and Adrian Cacares, but for team-work and finishing, hard to go past Joel Griffiths’ delightful toe-poke to equalise against the Mariners. Played in by another wonderful Milton Rodriguez contribution, Griffiths controlled well and used a futsal style toe-poke, made famous by Romario, to beat Danny Vukovic at the near post. It may have taken a slight deflection, but full credit to Griffiths for having the technique and confidence to use this dying skill.
Save of the week; take your pick from anything Robert Bajic or Danny Vukovic did. Bajic produced a brilliant injury time stop to deny Simon Lynch, sharp down to left, while Vukovic produced two acrobatic efforts to his left in the first half, his air-borne dive to keep out Rodriguez’s left foot volley particularly memorable.