Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A-League team of the week, round 10

CENTRAL Coast defended deep at times, but there was a lot of desperation in their work, so no surprise to find a couple of their backs here. Meanwhile, Melbourne and Newcastle (lets not forget the Roar) were quite obviously the most potent in attack. With neither side really making a great impression in the Sydney-Perth clash, no room for any of those players in this week's 3-5-2;

Danny Vukovic, CCM, keeper; as his captain said in the post matcher presser, might have come off his line for the Reinaldo goal, but was otherwise top-shelf, particularly in making two crucial second half saves as the Roar came flying home. The first was an instinctive block to his right in the 57th minute from a Packer volley, the second a flying tip over the bar off Wedau. Going from strength to strength, if he keeps it up he will soon be putting pressure on Bolton for the mantra of 'number one of the local custodians'.

Wayne O'Sullivan, CCM, right back; playing at right back in the absence of Clark, O'Sullivan had a tough night keeping up with the constant stream of Roar bodies, but showed his fighting characteristics with some excellent covering tackles.

Alex Wilkinson, CCM, central defender; playing in the middle this year, Wilkinson hasn't looked as solid as he did out on the right last season, but in the past few weeks, as the Mariners have improved, he had looked more assured. Was exposed a couple of times, but for the amount of pressure he and O'Grady had to absorb, did well. Was guilty of retreating in the face of the final Roar onslaught, so needs to back himself to defend a little higher.

Andrew Packer, QR, left back; while he started at left back, he did his best work in the second half, at right midfield, but stays on the left in this team due to the good performance from Griffiths the night before. Bleiberg made the switch, perhaps to test the lack of pace of Tomasevic, and had it not been for a sharp reaction from Vukovic, it might have been a masterstroke.

Joel Griffiths, NJ, right midfield; van Dommele will still be having nightmares, particularly after Griffiths toyed with him in the first period. With United pushing high, it left plenty of space for the Griffiths to drive beyond van Dommele, and he used it well, almost pressuring Adelaide's left back into conceeding an own goal.

Fred, MV, attacking central midfield, right; after finishing clinically for the first, he combined with the likes of Brebner, Caceres, Thompson and Allsopp to toy with the Knights in the second half. While he is a true playmaker, he also has the workrate, pressing the Knights as much as any Melbourne player, as evidenced by the second goal. Was involved in everything, enough said.

Grant Brebner, MV, defensive central midfield; while he has been solid, the Scot has mainly been in the shadow of Muscat for most of the year, but with Muscat out, he stood up, creating the first and and playing a delightful hand in Caceres's goal. Just shaded Seo, who got better by the minute on Saturday, for the holding role.

Nick Carle, NJ, attacking central midfield, left; if his winner wasn't enough, his all-round influence on the Newcastle performance was simply brilliant. Screened by two defensive players, he was given a free role and gave Aloisi and Veart a working over. Demonstrating a healthy appetite to track back, he combination play with Rodriguez was too easy on the eye, all flicks and understanding. His ability to keep the ball has been eye-catching in the past few weeks.

Adrian Caceres, MV, left midfield; has been knocking on the door the past few weeks, only to be beaten by some excellent performances from the likes of Spagnuolo and Lazaridis, but there was no stopping him this week, toying with Bazeley, creating on the outside, drifting infield to wreak havoc and even popping up on the end of one of the best team goals yet in the A-League. Proving just how much Steve MacMahon failed to see, or recognise, last season.

Reinaldo, QR, striker; just pips Mori for his all-round involvement (admittedly the service was better from the Roar), he proved a constant headache for O'Grady. Physical and deceptively quick, and combining reasonably well with Zhang, he got his reward for some hard work with a towering equaliser. Has to be in the team of the week solely for his celebration.

Archie Thompson, MV, striker; while the Knights defenders have nightmares about most strikers in the league, probably most of their time is spent cursing this bloke. After destroying them in round three, he was back for more, getting one and creating another and generally highlighting the gulf in class between the sides.

A -League, round 10 round-up

The four games

New Zealand Knights 0 v Melbourne Victory 4; Paul Nevin put out his most attacking formation of the season to date, but little could disguise the clear gulf in class between his side and the competition front runners. Melbourne has turned on a thrilling first half performance in the third round clash between these two sides back in September, but on this night it wasn't till the second half that they turned it on, the front four of Caceres (left), Thompson and Allsopp (up front) and Fred (floating), simply too skilful, classy and mobile for a Knights rearguard that would struggle in most state leagues. Watching Darren Bazeley has been one of the most painful experiences for the past season and a half, yet he somehow manages to captain this unit. Equally as frustrating has been the work of Greg Duruz. Both were terribly sloppy in distribution on this night, particularly as the Victory defended from the front by pressing them high (which resulted in the second goal, expertly taken by Thompson after great work from Fred). With the Knights constantly turning over the ball in their own half, little wonder the Victory were able to pin them back and string the passes. The third goal was particularly pleasing on the eye, eight passes involving the likes of Allsopp, Storey, Fred, Caceres and Brebner, before he played in Caceres and caught the Knights slow and square. While it was against the Knights, it was arguable one of the best team goals scored in the A-League, typifying everything that is nice about the Victory at the moment - unison, movement, passing and ruthlessness. As with the final goal, it also demonstrated everything is is bad about the Knights - hanging off in midfield, not getting close enough to the ball player and allowing players to run off the ball without being picked up (Gemmill was one of the most guilty). Major concerns.

Newcastle Jets 2 v Adelaide United 1; if the above match featured one of the best A-League team goals, than this one featured probably the best individual one yet, Carle's stunning late winner (more on that below in 'goal of the week'). While it came after a controversial late incident at the other end, there is little doubt the Jets deserved their third win on the trot after another dominant performance, as indicated by almost every stat other than the scoreboard. Possession, time in opposition half, shots of goal, corners, you name it, everything was pointing in Newcastle's favour. Playing the same 4-2-1-3 of a week earlier, they absolutely dominated the opening period and deserved much more than parity. Catching the United defence high and square, the Jets were able to create countless 1 v 1 situations, especially through the lightning pace of Griffiths down the right, who gave van Dommele (mysteriously ahead of Goulding) one hell of a working over. It is a mystery why a United defence, which featured two big, fairly slow stoppers (Valkanis and Rees) played so high in the first period, as they were constantly turned around, Coveny finally profiting. Indeed, Adelaide's defence has looked far from rock solid this season (especially when Costanzo has been out), and they have particularly been poor on the road, other than in that impressive trip to Melbourne. Lucky to go into the break square after a moment of madness from the otherwise faultless Okon, United defended deeper in the second half, tightening things up considerably. While Carle and Rodriguez continued to combine beautifully, there seemed no way through, and the curse of the defensive error almost brought the Jets unstuck again. This time it was goalkeeper Kennedy, otherwise excellent, who failed to get to an Aloisi free-kick, forcing North to bail him out and get sent off. For once, luck was on their side, Veart lifting one over the bar in a fashion that would have made the watching Joey Johns proud. Then came Carle's moment of a inspiration, that would have made the other watching celeb, Harry Kewell, even more proud, a goal befitting not only the excellence of the watching duo, but Newcastle's play.

Queensland Roar 1 v Central Coast Mariners 1; if ultimate justice was served by the result at Energy Australia the night before, than the Roar will feel that luck is currently deserting them. After some stuttering stuff of late, this was a mucg better performance from the hosts, ultimately undone by their own poor finishing and some typically brilliant work between the sticks from young Vukovic. Like the Jets, the Roar dominated most of the key stats, but they were unable to grab a late winner despite throwing everything at Vukovic. Twice he made stunning stops, first to deny the excellent Packer (when he was moved to the right flank) sharp to his right, before flying to his top left hand corner to tip-over a Wedau drive. But perhaps the moment that will haunt the Roar the most came a few moments earlier, a remarkable miss from McKay after he was brilliantly played in by Zhang. While Queensland struggled to breach a determined Mariners defence, earlier in the match it was their own defence being pulled apart by the strength of Mori, who got physical with McCloughan and left him for dead. Indeed, Mori troubled the McCloughan/Ognenovski combination more than most have done this season. But the Roar remained patient and fought back, the impressive Reinaldo rewarded with an impressive leap for the equaliser and an even more impressive celebration. If they continuing performing like this, there is hope they will arrest a recent slump.

Sydney FC 1 v Perth 1; like the Jets and Roar, the home side dominated this one, at least in terms of possession, if not chances. Pressing Perth high and working extremely hard all over the pitch, Butcher's most attacking formation of the season was able to control the midfield against a Perth that appeared to miss Colosimo. Talay and Brosque combined well in the first half, helped by Middleby and Zadkovich on either flank and the hard work of Petrovski and Zdrilic up front. Not giving Lazaridis or Bertos any space also worked a treat. But while they were winning the ball early, too often Sydney were giving it straight back through their own poor passing, particularly from right and left back. It meant for a fairly sloppy contest, neither side able to string three and four passes together consistently. Perth in particular were struggling to clear their defence, and Sydney should have better capitalised in the first half. While they weren't creating too many chances, the half bites they had were invariably rushed. The second period was much better for the visitors and they should have had a goal early on when the assistant linesman incorrectly flagged that a free-kick had been deflected into Despotovski's path by a Perth teammate (it had come off Rudan). Sydney fans who had felt aggrieved by Corica's disallowed goal in round three had their square-up. Despotovski could only laugh at the decision, but later on he was laughing for a different reason, gliding past three Sydney defenders before playing in Glavas with a delightfuly weighted ball. The player who had shown such poise in the NSW premier league grand final was finally given a decent run (due to an early Young injury) and showed he knows how to find the back of the net with a superbly taken first time finish. Short of alternatives off the bench, Sydney had no answer, and the match finished in a stalemate.

Some other talking points

Crowds fluctuate; if two wins on the trot plus the added feature of Kewell attracted Newcastle's biggest crowd of the season, than Sydney's smallest crowd to date was perhaps an indication of the growing malaise at the way they are playing under Butcher. While the climb in ticket prices after one season doesn't help, a few wins would certainly change that. Elsewhere, the Queensland crowd was down, but that was as much to do with a late change in the fixture (originally scheduled for Hindmarsh).

Knights-mare continues; after a promising finish last week, more was expected this week from New Zealand, but after a reasonable first half, they just crumbled in the second. At least the North Harbour pitch has improved, but that only helped the better passing team on this night.

Victory march on; no Muscat, no worries. In steps Pantelidis to help Brebner, Caceres and Fred dominate the midfield, proving that depth is a feature of this squad. After a stutter two weeks ago, they are back into stride, 11 points clear.

Mid-table congestion; behind Melbourne only five points seperates second from second last. Adelaide will need improve on the road, the Roar need to find the right combination up front while Sydney need to find some combination all round. At the moment, only the Jets are playing anywhere near the standard set by Melbourne, but none of the teams will want to peak too early. Only half-way through the season, Melbourne still have work to do.

Save of the week; despite a late mistake which almost cost three points, Kennedy had his best games to date, making two excellent saves to deny Qu and Valkanis, but Vukovic is hard to top for save of the week. Take you pick from his reflex block to deny Packer or his flying save to keep out Wedau. For me it's the later, simply spectacular.

Goal of the week; again some absolute crackers, including Mori shaking off McCloughan and Caceres's beautiful team goal, as described above, but it will be hard to top Carle's climax at Energy Australia, even for goal of the year. Boxed deep in the corner, Matt Thompson did brilliantly to find some space to clear the ball forward. Coming off Petta's head, it went square into central midfield, where Carle did well to drag Aloisi under the ball. Suddenly Aloisi was on the wrong side and Carle had space to drive, and while Spagnuolo tried to track back, Griffiths did well to provide the sheild, allowing Carle to drive at a retreating United defence. His finish with the outside of the left peg from the edge of the box was top-notch.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A-League team of the week, round nine

THIS week I've decided to do something a little different by including a whole back four in my team of the week. Given that Newcastle was the only team to keep a clean sheet and that each of the back four were excellent, it was hard to leave any one of them out, so this week's team is build around some brilliant Newcastle defence and wonderful Adelaide attack, as described in my round nine wrap. It means that some excellent contributors miss out, the likes of Carle, Pezos, Vargas, Casey, Thompson, Caceres and Kwasnik. Here is it, in 4-4-2;

Michael Theoklitos, MV, keeper; almost had one moment of madness late on when he tried to clear a ball and it went straight to a Sydney player, but overall he had a solid game, particularly in relieving pressure at the end, when Sydney knocked a succession of crosses in. Made one sharp stop early on to keep out a Vargas mis-kick, and could hardly be faulted for Corica's goal given that his defence did little to protect him. Ben Kennedy had his best game to date and pushed him close.

Steve Eagleton, Jade North, Andrew Durante and Matt Thompson, NJ back four; with Okon pulling out injured, it was a re-worked back four, with North slotting into the centre and Thompson dropping back. In truth, it took them some time to settle, and Milicic should have made them pay for being caught square, but when they did settle, they looked organised and solid. Durante, confidence renewed, was the rock, taking on Reinaldo in the physical stakes and invariably coming out on top. The others were just as solid, and in the second half, as Newcastle dominated, North and Thompson joined the odd venture forward. With Okon playing well last week, much better work from what is arguably the smallest defence in the league.

Bobby Petta, AU, right midfield (pictured above, courtesy of www.adelaideunited.com.au); with Dodd on the bench and Spagnuolo on the left, Petta proved he is a class act wherever he plays, orchastrating the United romp in the first half and early in the second. Creating time and space for himself, he makes everything look so effortless, and played a telling hand in two of the goals, setting up Veart's with two nice touches and getting on the end of the third. Wonderful to watch, he is a keep ball merchant of top quality.

Paul Kohler, NJ, defensive central midfield; the adaptable defensive minded player started alongside Musalik as part of a two man screen in front of the back four and behind the front four. After settling into the game, he did some excellent work both with and without the ball, keeping his shape and discipline to help Musalik and Carle get over the likes of McKay, Seo and Dilevski. Paul Pezos, stepping up from the SA state league, also caught the eye.

Simon Colosimo, PG, attacking central midfield; playing in an unfamiliar attacking role, he combined beautifully with Pezos to dominate the likes of Spencer and McMaster. Driving from box to box, he was always there, supporting Despotovski in attack and helping out Kovacevic and Harnwell in defence. Unfortunate to be involved in the Petkovic leg break, Perth fans will be hoping he isn't out for long. Keeps Carle out this week.

Jason Spagnuolo, AU, left midfield; only on for just over an hour, but what a contribution it was, terrorising Beazley most of the night with his pace and good ability on the ball. Also proving to be an excellent crosser, it was his ball's from in behind the defence that set up the first for Burns and the third for Petta. The memory of the injured Lucas Pantelis is a distant one with Spagnuolo doing so well, and gets in this week ahead of the unlucky Caceres.

Tom Pondeljak, CCM, striker; while he played at right midfield on Friday, the presence of Petta in the team and Pondeljak's adaptability gets him up front this week, keeping out the likes of Thompson, Kwasnik and Casey. Two clinical finishes at either end of the game grabbed the headlines, but it was his allround play, giving makeshift fullback Webster a torrid time, that stood out. Such a key to the Mariners doing well.

Nathan Burns, AU, striker; hard to believe this bloke is just 19 given how much maturity and poise he packs into his game. Blessed with blistering pace, excellent dribbling ability, mobility and awareness, he also demonstrated in this game just how much of a football brain he has, playing two crucial balls in the build ups to the final two goals. While his reverse pass to Spagnuolo was a gem to set up Petta, his cross from the left for Dodd's goal was perfectly executed, a parcel delivered with the efficiency and accuracy of a top class player. Has been one of the stories of A-League season two, so much so he will be hard to replace while away on Young Socceroos duty.

A -League, round nine round-up

The four games

Central Coast Mariners 2 v Perth Glory 1; blink and you missed it, such was the start for the hosts, a beautifully taken goal by Pondeljak, set up by some direct work from Kwasnik down the right, who crossed to the near post for Pondeljak to flick past Petkovic at the near post, a Viduka-esque finish if ever there was one. Just as Perth had stung Queensland a week earlier at home, so they'd been stung on the road. After three goals last week, suddenly it seemed the Mariners couldn't stop scoring. With Kwasnik, a late inclusion, having his best game of the season (if not his best ever A-League game), combining well with Pondeljak down the right, Central Coast looked good early on. But Perth eventually settled down and looked particularly good after the break, with Colosimo pulling the strings in a new advanced central midfield role. With Tarka out, Webster was moved to left back, with the replacement Paul Pezos anchoring the midfield. It allowed Colosmio to roam forward and he was excellent, combining with the impressive Pezos to dominate Spencer and McMaster. After equalising when Despotovski followed up an impressive Colosimo hit, Perth looked the likeliest to take all three points. Then came the game's turning point, the sickening leg injury to Petkovic and the replacement of Colosimo, which allowed the Mariners back in, and pushed them above the Glory, within striking distance of the top four. How quickly things turn.

Sydney FC 1 v Melbourne Victory 2; like Friday night, this was a game decided in the main by a couple of key injuries to the team that was on top at the time. This time it was the hosts, Sydney, who dominated the first half, playing their best football since round six in Adelaide and thier best football at home for the season. Pressing Melbourne high up the pitch and squeezing the Melbourne midfield trio of Muscat, Brebner and Fred through their own central trio of Milligan, McFlynn and Corica, Sydney were able to boss the first period. With Brosque (left) and Zadkovich (right) helping Petrovski press, Sydney were able to put more pressure on the Melbourne defence than they have had to deal with all season, and they only just managed to cope. Vargas was having an off night, failing to step out of the line to deny Corica room for the opener, but he wasn't the only one. Melbourne were failing to clear their defensive line and turning over the ball. Perhaps Sydney had seen something in how Newcastle had played the Victory a couple of weeks earlier, but they will have also seen in that game than Melbourne have resolve and belief. So when Corica and Milligan, both instrumental in FC's domination, limped off in a ten minute period before the break, the competition leaders had a sniff. With Brockie and Talay on and Butcher forced to rejig his unit (Brockie went to the right and Zadkovich moved infield, behind Petrovski and ahead of McFlynn and Talay), suddenly Sydney looked less potent. Merrick had also switched Caceres from left to right shortly before the break in order to thwart Ceccoli from getting forward. Now it was Melbourne holding the aces, and with Fred freed to roam down the left and combine with Thompson, suddenly Sydney's defence looked leaky, as it had been for much of the season. Just as they'd done against Newcastle, Melbourne had been able to absorb and hit on the counter, proving they pack the punch up front to trouble most teams. While Sydney came back strongly, they couldn't get in behind, Vargas as brilliant in the second period as he was poor in the first. In driving rain, the visiting supporters were buzzing, and keen to rub it in to the Sydney faithful.

Queensland Roar 0 v Newcastle Jets 1; two from two and counting, what a turnaround from two weeks ago when they were bottom, winless and the coach had just been sacked. Without Okon, van Egmond shifted things around, tightening things up at the back by moving North infield to partner Durante, Thompson to left back and Steve Eagleton into right back. Kohler was moved into defensive central midfield, forming a screening presence alongside Musalik, allowing Carle to play furthjer up thje pitch, closer to the front trio of Griffiths, Coveny and Rodriguez, a formidable attack for sure. While it was the Roar who dominated the first half as Newcastle got their bearings at the back, finally the Jets had a bit of the luck that had deserted them for most of the season, surviving two good chances to Milicic and Reinaldo, before hitting the Roar with one of their first attacks, Rodriguez sending two defenders the wrong way and feeding Coveny, who sat Ognenovksi on the ground and blasted past Willis at the near post. Great front play, but poor goalkeeping to be beaten at the near post, further evidence why Bleiberg's rotation of the goalkeepers hasn't worked. The second half was completely different, the Jets playing their best football of the season, strong at the back (led by Durante) and effective going forward with Carle, Kohler and Rodriguez pulling the strings. Great early signs under van Egmond, now only three points outside the four, but as captain Carle said afterward, it will mean little if they can't back this performance up.

Adelaide United 4 v New Zealand Knights 2; no surprise to see Nevin shake the team up, giving Adam Casey (who looked good as a second half substitute last week) a run up front alongside Victorian state league short term signing Fernando Morales. But Kosmina, banished from the sidelines, had also pulled a couple of surprises, leaving Qu out all together and starting Dodd on the bench as he kept faith with impressive youngsters Burns and Spagnuolo. And once again it was these youngsters, combining beautifully with veterans like Veart and Petta, who provided the spark for a dominant first half display. Some of the football had to be seen to be believed, Adelaide stringing pass after pass as the likes of Owens, Burns and Petta controlled the tempo of the game and moved the Knights around. With Spagnuolo giving Beazley a torrid time and Veart and Burns combining beautifully, Petta was able to roam around as he pleased and run amock. Spagnuolo provided a lovely cross for the first, before Petta played in Veart with a perfectly timed ball for the second as the Knights were exposed for a lack of pace. They didn't let up after the break, Burns turning one in behind Beazley for Spagnuolo to find Petta. 3-0 and cruising, it looked a matter of by how many, but then New Zealand clicked, Adelaide dropped a gear, and the likes of Casey and Buari started troubling United with their direct approach. Two quick goals involving substitute Hickey and suddenly the hosts were rocking, cue for a brilliant constructed winner involving an Aloisi ball to the left for Burns to place delightfully onto the head of substitute Dodd. Adelaide had made harder work of the win than necessary to go second, but played some delightful football on the way. As for the Knights, they were shot by their own poor defending in the first half, but at least they had a go.

Some of the other talking points

Travelling the extra mile; good on every one of those 500 or so Melbourne Victory fans for making the trip up north, despite bringing the weather with you. Passionate and loud, it created some excellent atmosphere and colour at Aussie stadium and added to the occassion. Nothing like some travelling fans to flame the passions, as we saw at the Telstra Dome and Gosford in round eight.

Hamstrung; as if to prove that things happen in three's, Colosimo's hammy was followed by two more on Saturday night, Corica and Milligan joining him on the sidelines for at least a little while. The pity is that all three were playing really well at the time.

Good pragmatic stuff; hindsight is a wonderful thing, but van Egmond's more balanced formation in the absence of Okon played a huge hand in the win. Rarely have the Jets played with two sitting central midfielders this season, but combined with the back four, there were inevitably six bodies behind the ball, making it difficult for the Roar to break them down. Collectively it was a brilliant in-synch performance, very organised. Not bad for two week's work.

What to do with Chad? it appears to be a question dominating Bleiberg's thoughts. With Seo back in the middle due to the absence of Murdocca, why not give Gibson an opportunity at right back. It would mean shifting Packer to the left and dropping Buess, hardly a big loss given he continues to disappoint. After struggling last season, he had a rare opportunity to impress on Sunday, but failed to deliver.

Tommy P for perfect; not surprisingly, the Mariners have a much more potent look abut them with Pondeljak starting and scoring. The unluckiest player not to play more games for the Socceroos, he does look to be struggling a bit with injury, so imagine what he can do if McKinna can get him fully fit.

Goal of the week; while there were some gems from Corica, Coveny, Petta and Dodd, hard to go past the first of the week from the abovementioned Pondeljak, a clever little back heel at the near post from a Kwasnik cross. He showed great improvisation and brilliant technique.

Save of the week; when Melbourne were under the pump early on, Theoklitos had to produce one sharp piece of work at the near post to keep out a Vargas attempted clearance that looked like being and own goal.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Spoilt for choice - A weekend of Super Classico's

AFTER Thursday morning's great game at Stamford Bridge in the champs league, the weekend sees a return to the domestic stuff, and there are three games that will certainly have me and many other Australian football die-hards captivated.

Locally, it's our own version of the Super Classico, as Fox commentator Simon Hill has dubbed it, tonight at Aussie Stadium, where the troubled hosts, Sydney FC, take on the rampant leaders, the Melbourne Victory, in what has become a grudge match perhaps only rivalled by Melbourne's rivalry with Adelaide. While Sydney are struggling, they have a knack of lifting for this encounter, and certainly their 2-1 win over Melbourne just before they departed for the club world championship last season was arguably their best performance of the season at home. It certainly provided the springboard for a decent perfomance in Japan, which they carried on when they got back, all the way to the title.

Under fire and under pressure coach Terry Butcher will certainly be hoping it provides a spark and springboard this season, but the news filtering through that Sydney look like playing a 4-2-3-1 is probably their best bet of an upset. With Carbone gone and the players available, it is a natural fit, with Brosque and Zadkovich providing the width and Corica playing off Petrovski or Zdrilic, screened by Milligan and McFlynn, who will need to compete with Muscat and Brebner and ensure that Topor-Stanley and Rudan aren't exposed by Fred, Allsopp and Archie.

For me, that will be the key, how the Sydney defence deal with the potency and speed of Melbourne's front three. This has been among Sydney's biggest issues this year, and they have only twice kept clean sheets, both against the Knights. At times the defence has looked slow and static, but Sydney haven't been beaten at home for over 12 months, so pride is at stake.

Melbourne, after spending so much physical and mental energy in last week's classic with Adelaide, will need to be refreshed for another exhausting affair. If last week's loss has taken a slight edge off them, Sydney might just be able to capitalise.

Fast forward to Sunday night our time, Man U v Liverpool, England's version of the Super Classico, that will have the eyes of the world fixed. Man U have started very impressively, with Ronaldo and Saha on fire, making up for the lack of fire from Rooney, while Liverpool, suppossedly Chelsea's biggest title threat, have been anything but, making errors defensively and struggling to find the control in midfield that their play exuded last season, Up front, Kuit has looked good in patches, but someone needs to start finding the net regularly. If they are to have any hope this season, Sunday night is a must win.

Then it's on to Monday morning, 5am Sydney time, for the real Super Classico, Barca v Real Madrid, and the eyes of the world will be watching to see if it signifies a changing of the guard. Certainly, Barca, after dominating the past few seasons, appear to be struggling without Eto'o, while Real, with Cappello at the helm, looked good in the champions league midweek. With Helguerra going reasonably well at the heart of the defence alongside Cannavaro, and Sergio Ramos looking better on the right than he did in the middle, maybe, just maybe, the famed Italian manager can finally get this unit to defend properly.

Barca will certainly be looking for a reaction after their loss to Chelsea, any it's been a while now since we've seen Ronaldinho's famous smile.

Fans across the world and at home will certainly be smiling at the prospect of such a feast. Bring it on.

The Mass and Matt show over, for now

WHILE injuries are an inevitable part of any sport, as we saw last night at Bluetongue, it's always sad to learn that a player has been brought down to earth in his prime. Certainly, the news that Massimo Murdocca is out for the season, or at least till the finals, is a tough one to take for he, his team, Miron Bleiberg and fans of the Roar and A-League in general, who have warmed to the brilliant buzzability provided by both he and Matt McKay in the 18 months of the league's existence. The 'Mass and Matt' show is over for now at least, but hopefully it won't be over for good.

Demonstrating a maturity that was lacking last season, both have been outstanding this season, and Murdocca was certainly the stand-out in one of the best team performances of the campaign, the Roar's 0-0 draw at home to Adelaide in round five. Strangely left out the following week in Melbourne, he showed against Sydney how vital he is at helping the Roar tick, with his neat distribution, ability to win the ball and drive and workrate too much for Topor-Stanley and McFlynn on that afternoon.

Certainly Bleiberg has a big headache in trying to find the like-for like player, as few exist, and with Marcus Wedau yet to have the impact expected, perhaps Bleiberg will have to re-jig things a bit. Technically, Spase Dilevski has the ability, but he appears more comfortable out wide, while Harold Seo is a different player altogether, more a sitter than a driver. With Mass and Matt dictating the tempo, Queensland have been able to press teams high up the pitch, so watching them without Murdocca and seeing how Bleiberg adjusts will make fascinating viewing.

Stay tuned.

Praise to Petka and his fellow custodians

A QUICK word of best wishes to Jason Petkovic after last night's sickening leg-break at Bluetongue. As a former custodian, it's always sad to see one of the brave men at the back go down to a long term injury like this, particularly when it's involving a 50-50 challenge with one of his best mates and godfather of his kids, Frogger Mori. In truth, it looked like the break actually came from the impact of Simon Colosimo's challenge, and Perth and many fans of the A-League will be hoping the central midfielder isn't also out for a long period after an excellent start to the season two. In a new role, Colosimo was very infleuntial last night (more on that in my regular round-up feature), and it was a sad way to end his involvement in the match. After last week's incidents involving Petr Cech and Carlo Cudiccini, Petkovic's shin break was a reminder of the bravery (or madness) required to be a good keeper.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Early points to Mourinho and his blue brick wall

Tactical review, champions league match-day three, Chelsea 1 v Barcelona 0

CHELSEA v Barcelona in the champions league has become one of the most enthralling tactical contests over the past couple of seasons, and while Barca and Rijkaard had the better moments last season, this morning's clash at Stamford Bridge was all about Mourinho and his master tactics.

There is no doubt that this season is all about Europe for Mourinho and his galaxy of highly paid individuals. While they have run away with the EPL the past couple of seasons, it was clear from the moment they signed Shevchenko, Ballack and Cole that this season is all about going after their holy grail, 'the trophy with big ears'.

Yes, they want to make it a hat-trick of EPL titles, but you sense Mourinho and his men would happily trade a third title for success in the ultimate club comp, despite what they might say, and after being ripped about by the likes of Messi, Eto'o and Ronaldinho last season, this return bout would be an early test of their legitimacy for the title.

Pass they did, and with flying colours. While the first half was probably shaded by the visitors, with Messi giving Cole the odd headache, soon enough Chelsea took control, grabbing the first through a classic turn and finish from the edge of the box from the hot-to-trot Drogba, who took Cole's ball and mesmerised Puyol, sending him the wrong way. Breathtaking work.

Chelsea had clearly come out in the second half in up-tempo mode, and the goal allowed them to defend deep and press Barca into submission. For a while they threatened to run wild, but some wastefulness from Shevchenko and Essien kept Barca alive.

Mourinho's work at shutting down the flanks was masterful stuff. Pushing Dutch right back Bouhlarouz high up on Ronaldino and Cole high up on Messi, it shut down the Barca flanks, where they get most of their penetration. Clearly he'd seen enough at the world cup to learn that if you deny Ronnie time to turn and face, force him back, you go a fair way to shutting him and his team down.

Last season they were guilty of allowing him and Messi too much space, and it is hard to shake off the memory of Messi toying with three fullbacks in the first leg at Stamford Bridge, destroying first Del Horno, then Ferreira, then Geremi. None featured on this night, proving the champs league often sorts out the men from the boys.

Now, with Bouhlarouz and Cole pressing high and wide, Essien (right) and Lampard (left) tucked in alongside Makelele, denying Ronnie, Messi, Deco and Xavi any opportunity to hit Gudjohnsen and roll off him.

With Ballack and Drogba also dropping back to help, the blue brick wall was up, and the third choice keeper had a comfortable debut.

Essien and Bouhlarouz (such a hack against Portugal at the Cup) were simply brilliant on the right, doubling up on Ronaldinho. It was a mystery why Rijkaard allowed the Brazilian to stay left, particularly after being so successful at moving his front-line around last season.

No doubt he was missing the power, adaptability and ability to create something from nothing of Eto'o. His central defence, such a high-point last season, also looked shaky, but this was as much about numbers as anything else.

Last season Chelsea essentially only had Drogba or Crespo up top, with support from the flanks in Cole and Robben or Duff, making it easier for Puyol and Marquez. This year their were two strikers to deal with, and with Ballack lurking from midfield, often there were three up front, forcing Edmilson to drop deep.

Indeed, when Cole's ball came in for the goal, it was three v three at the back for Barca, danger in anyone's language.

Playing the formation he does suits every single player on the field for Chelsea, with Lampard and Essien able to drive in support of the front threeand then drop in and help Makelele. It is narrow, but powerful.

Clearly Chelsea have worked on things, and while this competition never promises anything, it seems they are in a better position than ever to mount a threat. They won't have it all their own way, with Barca sure to bounce back, Lyon continuing to build, Roma and Valencia looking sharp and Man U seemingly cruising.

In any case, we are only in October, with the real action taking place after the group stage, but round one in the psychological stakes to Mourinho and his blue brick wall.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A-League team of the week, round eight

WITH Newcastle finally registering it's first win, a couple of their experienced players feature in this week's team, while Adelaide's part in a pulsating match of the season gets them three players. Ditto the Mariners who had three expereinced men in attack to thank for their impressive win over Sydney. Throw in Lazaridis and it's an experienced 3-4-3 for round eight;

Robert Bajic, AU, keeper; none of the custodians really dominated their match round eight. Kennedy had his best game of the season and first clean sheet since the corresponding Knights game in round one, but it was Bajic who helped keep Adelaide alive at Dome, particularly with one outstanding save to deny Muscat from the free-kick when the score was still 0-0. Soon enough he was releasing Burns with an early through which led to the goal. His distribution has been very good.

Kristian Rees, AU, right stopper; outstanding performance, especially in the second half when Melbourne looked very threatening on the counter-attack, as the would open up the United defence any minute. Some of his work in shutting down Allsopp, both on the ground and in the air was excellent, and he made a couple of great blocks. One of the players of the round.

Paul Okon, NJ, sweeper; great to see Okon back to some of his better work, comfortable bringing the ball out of defence and covering the defence better than he has for much of the season. The couple of times the Knights did look like getting in behind, Okon was close enough to deal with the situation.

Daniel Piorkowski, MV, left stopper (pictured above, courtesy of www.melbournevictory.com.au); while his fellow defenders Vargas and Leijer have grabbed most of the attention so far, Piorkowski has been as solid as anyone, and his work on Veart was exemplary, clinical and strong. While his work on the ball could be better, he is a simple player, winning the ball and releasing. After impressing in his debut NSL season a few years back for the Melbourne Knights, it’s not surprising to seem him doing well here.

Tom Pondeljak, CCM, right midfield; while he felt his way into the first quarter of the game, his work after that was instrumental in helping the Mariners pin back Sydney, particularly their best defender Ceccoli.

Angelo Costanzo, AU, defensive central midfield; shifted into the middle for the frist time this season to give Adelaide a physical edge, Costanzo lived up to his recent good from with a powerful display, putting a couple of hits on Fred and throwing his weight around against the likes of Muscat and Brebner. His aggressive work gave his teammates the lift and confidence to compete.

Nick Carle, NJ, attacking central midfield; with Musailk and Thompson nearby, and Coveny, Griffiths and Rodriguez in front, Carle was as influential at providing some ammunition as he has been all season. Playing as high as possible, his re-cycling of the ball was excellent, and seemed more prepared to shoot than he has been. His influence in guiding the Jets to their first win gets him in ahead of the Roars consistent McKay. Better signs.

Stan Lazaridis, PG, left midfield; while much wasn’t going right for the Glory on it’s 10 anniversary, Stan the Man continued his good start to the season but giving Stuart McLaren more than the odd headache, so much so that Harold Seo was moved onto him at the start of the second period.

Reinaldo, QR, right attacker; while he essentially plays through the middle, the Brazilian’s mobility and ability to get wide has been a feature of the Roar season. While his overall play was busy, troubling the big Perth central duo Harwell and Kovacevic, he also opulled across to the flanks to trouble Tarka and Coyne, and set up the winner by going past Tarka down the right and crossing to the near post, a move he has used a couple of times already this season. Continues his excellent form.

Damien Mori, CCM, central striker; what more can you say about the Frog man? Always on hand, always the predator, he sniffs around for the slightest opening and pounces. His finishes for both goals were simply too clinical, a class act.

Stewart Petrie, CCM, left attacker; playing as a left midfielder in his first game back from a quick trip to Scotland, he set up both of Mori’s goals. Pouncing on a mistake from Rudan and Fyfe and playing the ball past a static Bingley for the first, before crossing between the static Bingley and Ceccoli for the second . Overall workrate was excellent and has combined well with Vidmar in the two games he’s played in front of him.

A -League, round eight round-up

The four games

Central Coast Mariners 3 v Sydney FC 1; not sure what it is about this fixture, perhaps it's the geographical proximity or the bling v working-class thing that had such an airing in the build up to last year's grand-final, but it inevitably turns on some excellent football and a great atmosphere, and once again it didn't disappoint at Bluetongue. Played in front of an excellent 11,000 odd crowd made up of a significant travelling contingent, it was a vital clash for both sides; the Mariners desperate for its first home win, Sydney under pressure to produce a performance. This time it was the hosts who delivered, but only after Carbone had provided another gem from the set piece that Vukovic may have done better with. Soon enough the Mariners were into stride, defending higher up the pitch than they have been, squeezing Sydney deep in their own half. It allowed the Mariners to gain an ascendancy on the flanks, with Pondeljak and Petrie enjoying more room than they have for some time. Indeed, as the first half wore on, Pondeljak was giving Ceccoli a harder time than he has had since facing up to Butcher a few weeks back. When Pondeljak plays well, so do the Mariners, and with Mori and Hutchinson looking lively up front, it was no suprise when they grabbed an equaliser. The second period was dominant from the Mariners, full of desire, but they had to survive one nervy moment when Brosque looked to be brought down by Clark. With Carbone hobbling off, Sydney were struggling, slipping up to present Mori his chances. As he's proved time after time, he rarely needs a second invitation, and with great delivery from Petrie, Sydney were floored.

Newcastle Jets 3 v New Zealand Knights 0; our first chance to have a look at Garry van Egmond, who set out his stall in 3-4-3, with Griffiths and Coveny back to support Rodriguez up front. In truth, this three man forward line was too muchy for the Knights, who started with three at the back and were being torn apart out wide. Only poor finishing kept them in the game, but then Paul Nevin made a decent tactical adjustment, taking off a central defender (Kovacevic) and going to back four by dropping Beazley and Hickey into fullback roles. It did contain the Jets for a while, but with new man Campbell Banks unable to hold the ball up up front, that's all they were doing - biding time. When the energetic White and Casey came on early in the second half, it provided the Knights with more impetus up front, and the Jets had to rely on some good work from Okon and Kennedy to keep them level. The Jets appeared weighed down by their own wastefulness, particularly from Rodriguez, but they showed good patience and temperament to keep knocking. With Musalik, Thompson and Carle in control of the middle, eventually the door opened, North grabbing their first 'first goal' of the season, allowing them to relax and play some less 'stressed' stuff. Soon enough they were being rewarded for their fluency, Musalik grabbing a peach before Rodriguez finally grabbed his piece. The Knights go from bad to worse, the Jets finally rewarded for some decent play.

Melbourne Victory 0 v Adelaide United 1; a thriller at the Dome, played in front of 32,000 captivated fans and countless more on Fox. Undoubtedly one of the games of the season, it will be remembered for the late sideline scuffle between two of the firebrands of Oz football, but instead could well be a prelude to some more serious stuff later in the season. Right from the outset it was clear these two sides have a healthy appetite for each other, with the contest exploding after only a few minutes. It seemed Adelaide were up for it, clearly intent on not being pushed around by a Melbourne midfield that has had its way through the first phase of games. As much could be told by the make-up of Kosmina's team, Costanzo moved into central midfield for the first time this season, a master-stroke seemingly designed to give United a physical edge to compete with Muscat and Brebner. Soon enough Costanzo and Aloisi were biting in, particuarly at Fred, obviously identified as Melbourne's biggest threat. Playing on the edge, Adelaide were taking it to the comp front runners and a physcial yet highly technical contest ensued. Melbourne hit back, Muscat rallying his men and showing they aren't easily initimated. It was two heavyweights going for it, just brilliant entertainment. Soon enough the hosts got on top, and with their defence in control, always looked the likeliest to score, exposing Adelaide's defence the more the game went on. But United dug in, particularly thanks to some brilliant defending from Rees and a couple of great Bajic saves, eventually picking off the Victory on the counter thanks to a great early release from Bajic, a brilliant carry from Burns, nice movement off the ball from Qu and a sublime run and finish from Owens, who gallopped some 80 metres to burn the Victory. The scuffle that ensued was simply a case of two teams with a serious desire to succeed, and if they continue producing football of this order, they just might.

Perth Glory 1 v Queensland Roar 2; celebrating 10 years, the Glory got off to a flying start, Willis entering the festive mood with an early gift to Young. But the Roar took over from there, Milicic levelling things with a neat cut-back and shape around Petkovic. With Vidosic buzzing around and Reinaldo offering the target, Queensland had the better moments, but Perth always looked a threat whenever they shifted it left to Lazaridis, who was giving McLaren a working over with his drive and pace. Miron Bleiberg adjusted things at the break, swapping McLaren with Seo, and sure enough the Korean was able to control the Socceroos great. Suddenly Queensland's back-four looked more solid, and when Reinaldo got past Tarka and delivered a ball into the near post, Vidosic was too sharp for the big Perth central defence. Confident its two monsters in central defence, Ognenovski and McCloughan, could defend the lead, the Roar sat back, and as much as Perth tried, there was no result to celebrate their anniversary.

Some other talking points

Great crowds and atmosphere; from the freindly banter between the Marinators and Cove on Friday night in Gosford to the intense feeling on Sunday afternoon at the Dome to the party mood in Perth to celebrate the Glory's 10 years of existence, it was a beautiful week for most fans in the A-League. Even the poor Jets faithful finally had something to dance about.

More than they bargained for; when they were ordered in for a shower post their 3-1 loss on Friday night, Sydney players wouldn't have known they'd be in for a spray from the boss, but Terry Butcher is reported to have let them have it. If it doesn't draw a reaction for this Saturday night's Melbourne blockbuster, than nothing will.

Milton misfire; if at first you don't succeed, try and try again. Jets Colombian Rodriguez certainly lived up the mantra, being denied time and time again, only to finally get himself on the scoresheet in stoppages. At the very least it was good to see he didn't go hiding.

Save of the week; speaking of Rodriguez, he was involved in what at one stage looked like the save of the week. Midway through the first half he had what looked the easiest of tap-ins, only from Darren Beazley to through himself at the ball and deny him. Looked like a clear winner until Rob Bajic produced yet anither fine save, sharp down to his left to deny a Muscat free-kicj that he saw late and looked headed for the corner. In the context of the game and their season, one of the gems.

Goal of the week; speaking of gems, there were plenty of them this week, including Carbone's lovely placed free-kick, a rarity in the A-League, Milicic's precision turn and finish and Musalik's long-range bomb against the Knights, but I'm giving it to Greg Owens for the ruthlessness of Adelaide's counter-attack, never easy against such a disciplined and organised Melbourne defence. Catching a free-kick, Bajic released it early into central midfield for Burns to shake off one challenge on the halfway line before carrying the ball 40 metres through the middle, waiting for Qu to create the space for Owens, who sumptuously clipped it over Theoklitos, just beautiful. Quick and efficient, it was in keeping with the quality of the match. Oh, and it keeps the competition alive, good news for most.

A-League team of the season, up till round 7

James Brown, on Confessions of an A-League Junkie, came up with an excellent team of the year to mark the end of the first phase of games. As I commented on his blog, mine is almost identical, with just a couple of personnel and formation changes. In truth, Greg Owens could easily slot in at right back, a job he's being doing so admirably, making it a 4-4-2, but I've decided to go for the slighty more adventurous 3-5-2, which I've adapted to reward some of the stand-out players from Melbourne and Queensland;

Michael Theoklitos, MV, keeper; while he hasn't had as many saves to make as some of the other keepers, along with Bajic he has been the most improved keeper of the lot. Last season he was choppped and changed with Galekovic, but this year his work as a sweeper, behind a solid back four, has been excellent. While he still looks shaky on crosses at times, four clean sheets in seven gets him in ahead of Bajic, Vukovic and Reddy at this stage. Vrteski caught the eye in the opening month and is one to keep an eye out for.

Sasa Ognenovski, QR, right stopper; like Owens, a former NSL and state league player stepping up and grabbing his opportunity with some typically fiesty perfomances at the heart of the Roar defence. Sticking to the strikers like glue, strong in the air, deceptively quick on the ground and decent on the ball, he is one of the most intimidating stoppers going around.

Rodrigo Vargas, MV, central defender/sweeper; like Owens and Ognenovski, also stepping up after being allowed by Ernie Merrick to get over a major injury last season. Along with his twin markers, Leijer and Piorkowski, has done a brilliant job in absorbing opposition attacks, providing the platform for the attackers to flourish. As comfortable on the ball as any defender going around, his experience makes him cool in a crisis.

Josh McCloughan, QR, left stopper; while he's been shifted into the centre of defence the past couple of games, for the most part he has played on the left. Not far behind Ognenovski, he has carried on from some impressive work last year with some more consistent matter-of-fact work. Clean in the challenge, has replaced Gibson as Bleiberg's skipper, and gets in ahead of Ceccoli for his better discipline.

Leo Bertos, PG, right midfield; another master-stroke signing, the Kiwi has caught the eye with his silky smooth combation of pace and quick feet, and while he is yet to get on the score-sheet, has racked up an impressive set of assists. Helping out as a striker while Despotovski was recovering from injury, has proved he is adaptable, also playing on the left when needed. So dangerous has he been that managers, after only a month, were already talking openly about the need to shut him down to shut Perth down.

Greg Owens, AU, right central midfield; after coming on board late last season, has really stepped up to become one of the most adaptable players going around. While he started the season in midfield, soon enough an injury to Alagich saw him moved to right back, and what a revelation he has been. Driving forward with his great combination of pace and ability on the ball, Owens has been as eye-catching as any player. If he keeps it up, a Socceroos call-up beckons.

Kevin Musact, MV, defensive central midfield; has answered all the doubts about his move to central midfield with some totally dominant perfomances alongside Brebner and in front of Vargas-Leijer-Piorkowski. Cajouling and demanding total focus from his teammates, has been like having a manager out on the pitch, and his calm and restraint has been a revelation, not to mention his spot-taking.

Matt McKay, QR, left central midfield; while he's played wide left on a couple of ocassions, he showed in a third of a season just has much he continues to mature. Already a Socceroo, he combines a brilliant workrate with incredible mobility and quick movement of the ball. This year he has added an impressive knack of drifting into the box and getting on the end of things, such a key ingredient for any complete midfielder. Gets in ahead of Fred and Rech, who haven't had enough games.

Stan Lazaridis, PG, left midfield; like Muscat, there were doubts he mightn't be able to reproduce some of his best stuff, but Stan the Man has shown he still packs an attacking threat down the left, having at least three decent perfomances in the opening part of the season. Behind on fitness at the start of the season, he has got better by the game, and Perth certainly have looked more complete with him in the side.

Danny Allsopp, MV, striker; much ridiculed last year, he has put his head down and worked hard, and has been reaping the rewards, five goals in the first seven rounds almost doubling his return from season one. Demonstrating an incredible workrate, strength and deceptive pace, he has caused most defenders in the league problems. Those that can compete physically, he burns on the ground, those with pace, he out-muscles.

Archie Thompson, MV, striker; while he started off reasonably slow as Allsopp took all the glory, Thompson has been the most electric player going around for the past month or so. While we've always known about Thompson's quick feet and willingness to take on players, his hunger has been incredible, helping Allsopp defend from the front. One memorable run off the ball against Queensland, dragging defenders and creating space for Fred, was a perfect example. Gets in ahead of the likes of Lynch and Reinaldo.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 13, 2006

TRBA fantasy A-League update

YOU'RE an informed mob, those of you who signed up to TRBA A-League fantasy league at the start of the season . There were over 20 of you in total, and a third of the way into the season it's time to take a quick look at who's setting the pace. Peter Rompies, a Sydney FC fan, with his team, 'Colo Trifti', remains in front, as he has been for the past few rounds, on 325 points, placing him 87 overall, 44 points behind the overall fantasy leader Kev Milne in the chance for the Fox prizemoney. In second spot is the second half of the Rompies connection, Anastasia, with her team 'The Rogers', on 303 points, followed by yours truly some nine points behind with my tribute to June 12, '8madminsinfritzwalta'. There's still plenty of time to catch Peter and Ana, 14 rounds in fact, so get cracking, stay in tune and enjoy the rest of the season.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A-League team of the week, round seven

AN interesting round that saw most of the teams turn it on for only 45 minutes, meaning not many players shone for the full 90. Adelaide had an excellent second half, Perth were good in the first period and ordinary in the second, Queensland were rocking as they attacked The Cove but shut up shop after the break, and Melbourne, with their confidence high, finished better than they started. So here are the best of the week, in an attacking 3-2-3-2 (3-5-2);

Danny Vukovic, CCM, keeper; seems strange to be including a bloke who conceded three goals in the team of the week, but had it not been for Vukovic it might have been a few more. Made a number of top-notch saves in the second half as Adelaide totally dominated, denying Owens with one memorable out-stretched save to his right and tipping a couple over the bar thanks to good positioning. Might have done better for Rees’s goal.

Sasa Ognenovski, QR, right stopper; although Sydney only shaped up with one up front in Zdrilic, soon enough Carbone was joining the front line, but every time he did, Ognenovksi was close by, tracking his runs and pushing into the midfield to deny him space to turn. After the failed experiment of using him in midfield in round six to try and nullify Fred, he showed he is more comfortable at the back and continued his great form.

Rodrigo Vargas, MV, central defender; continued his marvelous run with an all-conquering display at the back, helping Melbourne keep another clean sheet. Springing forward to launch a number of counter-attacks, his killer ball with the outside of the right foot that set up Allsopp’s second was a gem.

Andrew Durante, NJ, left stopper (pictured above challenging Danny Allsopp, who is also in the team of the week, courtesy of www.newcastlejets.com.au); another ball playing defender in the Vargas mold, this was his best game since coming back from a second leg-break. Demonstrating that the confidence and strength is returning, he tackled hard and, characteristically, brought the ball out of defence well. Despite being on yet another losing Jets side, it’s good to see a player once earmarked as a future Socceroo rediscovering some confidence.

Simon Colosimo, PG, central midfield; particularly when Perth were on top in the first half, Colosimo was everywhere, breaking up the Knights and prompting the likes of Despotovski forward. Should have sealed the game when he raced through in the second half, but fired too close to Turnbull.

Mass Murdocca, QR, central midfield; back in the starting 11 after being left on the bench in Melbourne, Murdocca picked up where he left off two week earlier, buzzing around the midfield, biting at his Sydney counterparts, rarely giving them an inch to breathe. Combining well with McKay and Dilevski, they had too much mobility for the likes of Topor-Stanley and McFlynn.

Bobby Petta, AU, right midfield; only his second start since arriving, this was the Petta we had been waiting for, full of good technique and the ability to go past players, particularly Tomasevic down the Mariners’ left. One move, when he won the ball deep in his own half, carried it over half-way, and played a nice give-and-go with Veart and then tried to lob Vukovic, would have been among the goals of the season. Delivery for Rees’s goal was a peach.

Steve Corica, SFC, attacking central midfield; not much in it between he and Matt McKay for the third central midfield role, Corica gets it for helping provide Sydney a life-line. After a couple of weeks paying for his sins against Newcastle, he was back pulling the strings and while Carbone was well looked after, Corica provided a couple of delightful crosses, one with the outside of the right foot that was almost headed in by Zdrilic, while he provided the free-kick that led Ceccoli’s bomb.

Nathan Burns, AU, left midfield; while he played left of Veart in a three man forward line, gets in as left midfielder. After a decent starting debut last week against Sydney, sealed by a wonder first goal, he produced an even better all-round display against the Mariners, giving their retreating defence all sorts of headaches with his pace, drive and dribbling ability. After a couple of near misses, showed wonderful composure to round out the scoring when he sat Vukovic on his backside and found the corner. Two goals in two starts, some beginning to his A-League career.

Reinaldo, QR, striker; retuning to the starting 11 after being left out of last weeks trip to Melbourne, he caused Sydney FC’s central defensive duo of Bingley and Rudan, along with anchor midfielder McFlynn all sorts of problems in the first half, dropping into the midfield, shielding the ball, winning the aerial duels, turning and facing the goal and dribbling at players. Responsible for winning the free kick that gave the Roar the lead, he gets a target-man role ahead of Veart, who was excellent in scoring one and setting up another on Friday.

Danny Allsopp, MV, striker; no Archie, no problems. Enter Allsopp, who shouldered the scoring burden with another two to keep the pressure on the unlikely Muscat in the golden boot race. While he didn’t see as much of the ball as he has been due to some excellent high up pressing from Newcastle, when the game was on the line, he produced. His second finish, shadowing Vargas’ through ball, waiting for Kennedy to commit and dinking it over him was the work of a man on top of the world.

Monday, October 09, 2006

A-League, round seven round-up

The four games

Adelaide United 3 v Central Coast Mariners 1; a crucial fixture for two teams lingering mid-table, it featured the return home of Mori and the promise of another Hindmarsh goal or two from Frogger after his hat-trick there for Perth last season. Once again he delivered with a clinical equaliser, but it wasn’t enough for the Mariners, their away form going from bad to worse (four losses in five trips) as they were out-lasted by a freshened up Adelaide. Only four days after their public holiday Monday loss to Sydney, Kosmina drafted in a few players yet to see any action this season, Kristian Rees, Matthew Kemp and Adam van Dommele, with Aaron Goulding rested, Dodd on international duty and Qu and Rech still missing. Kosmina accommodated Rees by shifting to a back three for the first time this season, with Costanzo split by Valkanis and Rees. In midfield he partnered Aloisi with Owens, flanked by Kemp on the right and Spagnuolo on the left. Up front he started Veart as the target man, flanked by Petta and Burns either side. In the first half the changes failed to make much impact as the visitors tried to exploit the space left in the right and left back positions. While the Mariners started well, McKinna had strangely left Pondeljak on the bench for the second week straight, and with Hutchinson also warming the bench, they suffered from a lack of creativity around the box, particularly with Kwasnik struggling to get his A-League career going. If Pondeljak is struggling with injury, a possibility given he spent a chunk of the pre-season on the sidelines, it would seem strange to include him in the squad. Given he is in the squad and the Mariners are struggling, it seems strange he isn’t starting. Soon enough the hosts were on top, with Kemp and Petta doubling-up on the right to give the struggling left side of Tomasevic and Brown a torrid time. With Veart, Burns and Owens also becoming more influential after the break, Central Coast were exposed time and again, particularly down the left, only the excellent glove-work of Vukovic keeping them alive. The Mariners continue to look frustratingly slow in defence, and lacking combination all over the pitch. The fluid and dynamic team of last season now looks ragged and aging, no chance of keeping up with the sprightly Burns and Owens towards the end.

Perth Glory 1 v New Zealand Knights 0; a classic case of two halves, it was Perth who dominated the first, only for the Knights to play their most enterprising football of the season in the second, which ultimately wasn’t enough to earn them a share of the points their play probably deserved. Perth, with Despotovski and Young combining well, looked dangerous in the first half, Lazaridis’ replacement Mimi Saric looking lively down the left as Bertos dazzled down the right. While Despotovski was lucky not to be called back for a foul on Frank Van Eijs in the build to the only goal, his work to set up Young’s header was typical Despotovski, deceptive and measured. After being correctly ruled offside just before the break (read more below), the Perth veteran beat the trap after the break, only to be chopped down by Sime Kovacevic, referee Craig Zetter ignoring what looked a legitimate penalty. The close shave prompted the Knights to life, and for the first time in a long time, they pressed out of defence, narrowing the space between their defensive line and their attackers. Playing more compact, they suddenly looked more structured and their interplay improved, managing to pin Perth back and create the odd opening. Only a brilliant Petkovic save denied Johnson from a free-kick, before Gemmill got on the end of a couple of flick-ons, only to volley straight at Petkovic. Hardly the greatest game of the season, it was good to at least see the Knights having a real go, on a decent pitch.

Sydney FC 1 v Queensland Roar 1; a week, as they say, is a long time in football. Last week, away to Melbourne, Bleiberg got it all wrong, leaving Reinaldo at home, shifting Ognenovski into midfield and relegating Mass Murdocca to the bench. Against Adelaide, Butcher got it all right, playing with width in a 4-2-3-1 formation that stretched Adelaide through Zadkovich and Brosque and reminded us of the quality that Sydney produced through their finals runs last season. This week both made changes, Bleiberg getting it right, playing his buzzers in midfield and instructing ‘Mass and Matt’ to shut the supply to Carbone and his defenders to not allow Carbone any room to turn. He also re-introduced Reinaldo up front, and the big Brazilian was such an instrumental figure in the first half that Bingley, in particular, and Rudan were struggling to cope. Indeed, it was Reinaldo who draw a foul out of McFlynn, allowing Dilevski to sneak a free-kick between Bingley’s legs and past Bolton’s near post. Sydney was struggling not only with the fluky conditions, but with their own narrowness. Missing Milligan and Brosque to the Socceroos, Butcher tinkered with his formation, sending Sydney back to the narrow template that dogged their play between rounds two to five. Pushing Topor-Stanley into a tight left midfield role and Zadkovich infield on the right, Sydney were suddenly bereft of the width that made them look so impressive last week. The thought lingered; why change a winning formula? Was it simply to accommodate Topor-Stanley and Ceccoli in the same 11? One solution may have seen Butcher stick with last week’s system by interchanging Corica and Carbone in Brosque’s left-sided role and starting Talay alongside McFlynn as a direct replacement for Milligan. Instead Sydney looked all over the place and didn’t get into the game till after 30 minutes, when Corica started to find a bit of room as Queensland focused on Carbone. In injury time, Ceccoli restored parity with a bullet and Sydney could breathe. The second half was better for the hosts as Butcher re-worked his unit, tightening up on the likes of Reinaldo, Murdocca and Dilevski, and in the end only Sydney looked like it wanted to win. While understandable given they were away from home and battling to retain their second spot, Bleiberg’s attitude was a touch disappointing, as Sydney appeared there for the taking if the Roar had the gumption to go for it. While it was a point on the road, their domination of the first period perhaps warranted more, but Sydney at least did well to fight back.

Newcastle Jets 0 v Melbourne Victory 2; the word filtering from Newcastle is that the Jets were really up for this match, keen to take the first points off Melbourne, and the truth is their play demonstrated this desire. Pity for them is that the result didn’t, sunk by two late Allsopp goals on the counter as they became more and more frustrated by their inability to find the back of the net. There is something about this Melbourne team that continues to impress, as resolute when they aren’t playing well as they are radiant when things are flowing. Last week we saw the radiant Melbourne, this week the resolute version, digging in at the back, superbly marshaled by Vargas, with able support from Storey, Leijer and Piorkowski. It is quite remarkable that for the opening third of the season they have remained unchanged at the back, but this will change next week as Leijer serves a suspension for his fourth yellow. Newcastle, with Carle buzzing around, Durante getting some confidence back, Thompson flowing as a right-wingback and newcomer Tim Brown looking a handy addition in midfield, played some wonderfully committed football, but couldn’t blow the Victory house down. Inevitably the mistake came, Brown punished for giving the ball away to Caceres, who found Allsopp via Eagleton. Still Newcastle came, fluffing a couple of decent chances through either wasteful finishing or good closing down from Melbourne, which is how the Victory launched their brilliant sealer (described below as the goal of the week). It was cruel on the hosts who just can’t take a trick and the word is the manager’s role under scrutiny. At the other end of the table, confidence is flowing, seven from seven and counting.

Some other talking points

Alert assistant; not sure which of the two it was, but the assistant who correctly flagged Despotovski offside late in the first half when there was only one defender between he and the goal, take a bow. It’s not everyday we rush to pat an official on the back, but the offside rule is clear in that there needs to be two players between the player attempting to score and the goal for it to stand. With Knights keeper Turnbull attempting to shut down Sekulovski’s shot, it was a quick and correct call. Pity for Perth the referee Craig Zetter wasn’t as alert as his official a minute into the second period when Despotovski was brought down from behind by Sime Kovacevic, a strong penalty claim turned down.

Don’t pull the carpet out from under Newcastle; while not much is going right for the Jets, with a terrible crowd yesterday, at least they’re responsible for arguable the best domestic pitch in Australian football history. Full credit to the ground staff at Energy Australia for the carpet-like pitch, which looks a treat and at least gives the likes of Carle and Rodriguez the opportunity to play the football they enjoy. One particular piece of Carle trickery, when the Jets were searching for an equaliser, was one of the moves of the season. When Carle teased both Vargas and Piorkowski inside the box, he played a delightful back-heel that nutmeged Piorkowski and allowed Matt Thompson to clip a ball to the back post for Bridge, who cushioned a header towards the unmarked Rodriguez. The Victory defence swooped to deny him what would have been one of the goals of the season.

Latino fair; speaking of Carle and Rodriguez, they were just one of a seven players of South American extraction on show at Energy Australia yesterday. Joining them were the traveling Brazilian trio of Fred, Claudinho and Alessandro, as well as the Victory’s local South American’s, Chilean Vargas and Argentine Caceres. While the blustery and overcast conditions were hardly akin to what the Brazilians might expect back home, there were some nice touches, including the abovementioned Carle piece of magic and Vargas’ sublime release with the outside of the right foot for the sealer.

Goal of the week; nine goals in total and some really good ones including Burns’s sealer on Friday night when he kept his composure after being released by Veart, Dilevski’s free-kick that snuck under Bingley and past Bolton and Ceccoli’s left peg thunderbolt that rescued the game for Sydney, but Allsopp’s gets it for his second thanks to a delightful release from Vargas, who picked up a second ball on the edge of his box and launched it with the outside of his right foot in the direction of Allsopp. Shadowing the ball as it rolled towards the Jets keeper, he waited for Kennedy to commit before dinking it over him with his first touch.

Save of the week; again, there were plenty of good ones this weekend, with Petkovic fully flung to his left to keep out a Richard Johnson free-kick and Vukovic making a number of good stops, his best to keep out a Greg Owens grass-burner, but for the save of the week we go back to the first stop, Robert Bajic diving to his left to keep out an early O’Grady volley that looked headed for the bottom corner. Surely he couldn’t have been expecting a volley, from a defender, from that far out, sharp work.

One round down, two to go. Stay tuned, later in the week I’ll bring you a comprehensive report card on the first third of the season.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Not quite the perfect send-off for these stellar Socceroo servicemen

Socceroos 1 v Paraguay 1

AS if to reinforce that football and fairytale finishes rarely go hand in hand, the four retiring legends of Australian football were last night robbed of a dream winning end by an injury time own goal from poor Michael Beauchamp.

The equaliser was an unfortunate way to finish for Tony Vidmar, Stan Lazaridis, Tony Popovic and Zeljko Kalac, but will take little away from their marvelous green and gold careers. Winners they mightn’t have been on the night, but winners they have been for over a decade, invariably making themselves available for the Socceroos and always playing with totally commitment, best summed up by a Lazaridis kiss of the crest as he left the pitch.

There’s little doubt they leave the Socceroos in much better shape than when they started. When they came onto the scene in the early to mid-90s, the Socceroos were a once-every-four-years phenomenon, rousing the nation at crunch world cup qualifier time, but largely in the background in between.

Today the national football team is mainstream, names and faces instantly recognised not only around the nation, but around the world. Even the odd late night drink and sleep-in is big news nowadays.

It is a legacy all four of these guys, and the 500 or so other Socceroo pioneers, should be proud of.

This was a night for nostalgia. Certainly the mind skipped back to my first ever world cup qualifier, in 1993, the Socceroos v Canada at the then Sydney Football Stadium, Tony Vidmar helping the Eddie Thompson led team to a pulsating penalty shoot-out win that gave us one of our most memorable Socceroo occasions, a date with the Diego Maradona led Argentina a few months later, where Vidmar laid on the only Socceroos goal for his brother Aurelio in front of what is today known at the Cove.

Across town, in the National Soccer League, a young kid of Croatian heritage was becoming one of the youngest ever skippers in NSL history, captaining his beloved Sydney Croatia/United and playing some marvelous football as an attacking fullback.

It wasn’t long before Tony Popovic became one of my favourite NSL players, and he was soon joined by the charismatic Kalac at the back of potent Edensor Park outfit. Soon enough their feats at club level were recognised by call-ups to the national team, much as the likes of Beauchamp, Mark Milligan and David Carney have been recognised for their A-League performances.

Fast forward to 1997 and the sight of a marauding left-winger tearing strips off Iran, delivering ball and ball as he burnt defender after defender. The performance of Lazaridis against Iran at the MCG was one of the best I have been privileged to see live, instantly making him a Socceroos great, and while no Socceroo player deserved to be on the end of that results on that night, Lazaridis did more than most to all but send the Socceroos to France. Vidmar was also there, off the bench shortly after Azizi had miraculously restored parity and with little time to make a difference.

Kalac, invariably, was in the background, offering wonderful back-up, great banter, plenty of antics and always placing pressure on whoever was number one at the time. Every time he was called up he would show, even though most times he knew he wouldn't get a game.

A few weeks short of nine years later, it is great to see these four legends bow-out at the same time, honoured fittingly by a brilliant Suncorp atmosphere, in a city that holds fond memories for Popovic as it was the place he made his Roos debut. Once known as Lang Park, the ground is less memorable for Kalac, the place his Sydney United lost the 1996/97 NSL grand final to the Brisbane Strikers.

On this night though it was kind to both of them, at least for the 92 minutes they were on the pitch. Shortly after Popovic had given Australia the lead in the 88th minute with a delightful near-post header from a Marco Bresciano free-kick, both were replaced, only to see Paraguay send off their own retiring great, Carlos Gamarra, with a 93rd minute equaliser.

In truth, no-one deserves to end such stellar service to their nation a loser, and after giving 110 exemplary performances to the red, white and blue, Gamarra can at least be happy he isn’t one of those who bowed out with a loss. His performances in helping Paraguay to the second rounds at both France and Korea/Japan will certainly live in the memory, clean and classy.

But for Australia, this was a night about honouring our own greats, and while the play in the front third broke down at times, the control in midfield and at the back was excellent, in the main.

After seeing the second-and-third-stringers cautiously tread their way through the past couple of games, it was great to see the likes of Vince Grella, Brett Emerton and Lucas Neill, three players who will form the backbone of the next Socceroos generation, having such assured nights.

While the play often broke down at the final delivery, their distribution and reading of the game was, at times, a reminder of the gulf in class between the top European-based players and the second tier Europeans and top A-Leaguers. These days, there is a certain beauty about watching Grella go about his work, and this was another accomplished display in the holding role, mature and in control.

Despite Neill being given the captains armband, there's little doubt who sets the on-field tempo. Grella is boss.

While the Socceroos only had, according to Graham Arnold, one and a half sessions to prepare, it was clear that this set of players were essentially on the same wavelength, linking up well and understanding their roles, the clear advantage of continuity.

Grella, Neill and Emerton weren’t the only ones on song, Popovic and Vidmar doing their bit, while, early on, Lazaridis gave us a couple of reminders of his ability to run at players, teasing right back Carlos Bonet.

While the Socceroos dominated possession in the first period, they lacked a spark and composure in and around the box, biting too quickly at a couple of half chances and failing to provide enough service and support to lone front-man John Aloisi.

While it wasn’t Alosi’s greatest night, he certainly could have done with more help from the likes of Bresciano, Tim Cahill and Josip Skoko, particularly as Paraguay seemed content to defend deep and in numbers, as is their way.

As was the case in Germany, where I was fortunate enough to see them play live against Trinidad and Tobago, they are extremely well organised, with two four-man lines essentially sitting behind the ball. Gamarra and his central defensive partner Julio Manzur, screened by the defensive minded Roberto Acuna and Cristian Riveros, offered little change to Aloisi, while Paraguay rarely pushed forward in the wide areas, Edgar Barreto (right midfield) and Jose Salcedo (left midfield) spending more time in their own half than Australia’s.

It was left to tricky livewire Nelson Cuevas, such an eye-catcher in the abovementioned match at the Fritz-Walter, to provide the spark from in behind striker Oscar Cardozo, and he did give the Socceroos a few headaches with his neat dribbling ability, forcing a number of not-so-clean challenges to stop him.

Cardozo was unlucky not to be given the benefit of the doubt after twice appearing to beat the Socceroos offside trap. Indeed, the standard of the officiating was a concern the whole night. While the Socceroos felt they may have had an early penalty, Paraguay will be wondering how the Socceroos were allowed to get away with a couple of rash challenges, as Japanese referee Joji Kashihara appeared to enter into the festive mood.

All it did was allow the game to become spiteful as players started to push the limits.

The Socceroos certainly didn’t settle into the second half until Archie Thompson came on for Lazaridis and Jason Culina replaced Skoko. With Culina suddenly pulling the strings and Thompson’s confidence flowing from his recent great A-league form, the Socceroos were able to pin back Paraguay and apply the pressure. Eventually they caved, Thompson forcing a late challenge from substitutes Paulo Da Silva and Diego Gavilan near the edge of the box.

Cue for Popovic to provide his feel-good moment and send Suncorp, the Socceroos bench and the nation delirious. Surely it would to be the winner? Alas, as was the case late on against Italy, this great game proved it is full of ups and downs, and, a fraction after all four retirees had played their final hand, there was one last twist.

Good-bye and thank you Mister’s Vidmar, Popovic, Lazaridis and Kalac.