Monday, November 27, 2006

A-League team of the week, round 14

IT was a week for the home sides to dominate, expect at the Dome where the Jets knocked-off the front runners in one of the most intriguing games of a seasons. Not suprising then to find a number of its chief architects in this week's team, particularly in defence and the engine room. There were also impressive performances from Sydney and Perth, admittedly against weakened opposition, while the Mariners, with Mrdja leading the line for the first time, kicked off of a long home run with a vital win that sends them into the four. Thus, some tough choices in this week's 3-5-2;

Liam Reddy, QR, keeper; arguably the toughest choice of the lot, with the Jets replacement Ivan Necevski pulling off two vital one on one stops, the first to deny Alessandro in first half injury time, the second to keep out Allsopp. In the context of the result, these turned out to be more crucial that Reddy's million or so stops against Sydney, but it is hard to ignore Reddy's heroics, particularly two finger-tip stops in the first half when Queensland were still in it. Almost kept out Corica's bullet header.

Steve Eagleton, NJ, right back; one of many players who has flourished under van Egmond, he is playing with confidence. While is work on the ball often leaves a bit to be desired, he has been trying and do the simple things of late, and doing them reasonably well. Worked from behind Griffiths to help trouble Melbourne's left and kept Alessandro pretty quiet when he came on. Gets in ahead of Jamie Coyne who did plenty of work in the following game.

Jade North, NJ, central defender; while he made one big mistake, letting in Alessandro in first half injury time, this was another impressive performance from North in the centre of Jets defence, good in the air and sharpish on the ground. He had to be to keep up with Thompson, Allsopp and Fred, but did as good a job as anyone, and gets in ahead of the Sydney, Perth a Mariners defenders, who had fairly comfortable games.

Matt Thompson, NJ, left back; after being burnt by Leo Bertos the week before, this was a great comeback from Thompson, once against demonstrating his willingness to drive forward and support the midfield. Continues to impress in a position where he can demonstrate his discipline, awareness and energy.

Robbie Middleby, SFC, right midfield; while Bertos had a second good game on the trot for the Glory, that was against lightweight Greg Duruz. Middleby, although he played on the left, was up against a much better defender in former teammate Andy Packer and got the better of him with some blistering turns of pace, creating two and getting on the scoresheet himself. Amazing what a bit of confidence and faith from the boss can do. Special mention for Dave Carney, who adds so much to Sydney's style.

Stuart Musalik, NJ, defensive central midfield; after a measured start, started to impose himself on the game alongside Paul Kohler, who was equally as good, and they got on top of the likes of Sarkies and Brebner. Musalik, improving by the week as he starts to demand the ball and boss games, is a master of the simple stuff, receive, turn and pass, and his work of late has been eye-catching. Football fans around the country, crying out for some back-up for Vinnie Grella, should hope his development continues. Gets in ahead of Mile Jediank who was good in the second half, but gave the ball away far too often in the first.

Steve Corica, SFC, attacking central midfield, right; gets in ahead of Fred after another top class performance, pulling Dustin Wells and Neil Enblem all over the place. His knack of drifting into the box late, as we saw in the grand final, hasn't diminished, getting on the end of a couple of near misses before finally bulleting a header home.

Nick Carle, NJ, attacking central midfield, left; rarely has Carle been in such brilliant form. Here Merrick showed the utmost respect by suprisingly throwing Steve Pantelidis into a central midfield man-marking role, assigned with the task of following Carle around and limiting his touches and turns. It threw the mind back to Wadey's 1993 job on Maradona. A younger, less mature Carle may have become frustrated by the attention, but not the 2006 version. Here he just kept demanding the ball, held off Pantelidis, and eventually created the opening, patient and thoughtful stuff.

Jason Spagnuolo, AU, left midfield; on a losing side, this bloke did more than most to provide the cutting edge for Adelaide, giving Wayne O'Sullivan a torrid time with his impressive combination of pace and technique. Continues to grow and was unlucky not to be awarded something a fraction before the Mariners opened the scoring. Gets the gig ahead of Stan Lazaridis, who continued his fine season.

Joel Griffiths, NJ, striker; while he played on the right side of Newcastle's 4-2-3-1, gets the role as a striker here after causing the new-look Melbourne defence plenty of headaches, especially left wing-back Adrian Caceres, who was powerless to keep up and was replaced a quarter of the way in. One sublime dink towards the far post had Eugene Galekovic stranded and would have been one of the goals of the season. Indeed, that is all that is missing from Griffiths's game, but if he contiunues to work as hard as he is, surely his luck will change. Gets in ahead Danny Allsopp, who tried hard on a losing side, and Nick Mrdja, who got better as the game went on at Bluetongue.

Jamie Harnwell, PG, striker; remarkable, that's all you can say about this performance. Impossible to imagine him bagging at hat-trick, let alone three with his feet, it probably says as much about the leaky Knights defence as anything else. For a defender, Harnwell has always had a knack of creating chances, usually with his head, so the past fortnight has been bizarre to say the least. Special mention to Canadian striker Alen Marcina, who was lively up front the Knights.

A -League, round 14 round-up

The four games

Sydney 3 v Queensland 0; most of it is here, but beyond that the most newsworthy aspect was that Terry Butcher was able to pick the same starting 11 for the first time this season, and it showed, Sydney producing some in-synch football after Gibson's send off, combining beautifully through the middle and down the flanks, with the attacking trio of Middleby (left), Corica and Carney at the heart of much that was good for them. Only the brilliant shot-stopping of Reddy kept the score respectable as Sydney carved out chance after chance, burning both Packer (right) and Buess (left) down the flanks. No surprise that all three goals came from good action out wide, but Farina some-what played into Sydney' s hands after the send-off by taking off a striker and throwing on Buess, one of the many overseas underacheivers brought into the league. Suddenly Queensland had no attacking outlet as Mori and Milicic were isolated from the rest of the team. Sydney were simply too solid (witness the lack of work for the defence and Bolton) and stretched the Roar by keeping possession and getting it wide. No surprise they found so many gaps.

Central Coast 2 v Adelaide 0; the pre-game discussion was all about a legendary Brazilian striker gunning for his 1000th goal and how John Kosmina would accomodate him in his formation. He ended up sticking with pretty much the same formula of late, deploying Romario through the middle, Rech supporting from behind, with Spagnuolo (left) and Dodd on the flanks. Veart, such an influence up front of late, was pushed into central midfield alongside Aloisi, forcing Costanzo into central defence alongside Rees, meaning Valkanis was strangely playing as a left back. It meant that Burns was the unlucky one to miss an opportunity to start alongside Romario. In truth, United looked decent enough early, and while the tiny front man didn't have too many touches on the ball, everything he did was simply and efficient, only losing one ball in the first period. But the neutral fans had come to see his finishing, and when Dodd turned an Aloisi short free-kick across the goals, it seemed we'd get our treat, but O'Sullivan made a brilliant lunging tackle as Romario reacted slower than in his heyday. It was more of the same early in the second period as the great predator pounced, almost in slow motion, on a mistake by Jedinak and Vidmar, only for Vukovic to stay on his feet. Adelaide had deserved a goal, perhaps moreso after the impressive Spagnuolo had raced beyond O'Sullivan and drawn what looked at least a foul, if not more. It wasn't to be as the Mariners raced down the other end, McMaster finding a flying Aussie predator in Nick Mrdja, starting for the first time in place of the departed Mori, Kwasnik picking up the pieces from a Bajic save. United heads dropped, even moreso a couple of minutes later when the Mariners again found themselves on the right, this time Jedinak sending a deep cross for Petrie to power home. It was game, set and match, the Mariners prepared to sit deep and absorb, Romario and his new mates unable to unlock the defence. It was a valuable home victory, even if it did spoil the samba party to some degree.

Melbourne 0 v Newcastle 1; another cracker at the Dome, one of the best games of the season, this was a high quality technical and tactical contest between two in form teams having a real go at each other. Defending deep, there was plenty of room in midfield for both teams, except from Carle, who had Pantelidis as a surprise shadow for the duration of the game. It was a gamble by Ernie Merrick to try and mark the influential playmaker out of the game, and for over 45 minutes it worked, Carle relatively quiet as the Victory carved out a couple of the best openings of the half, denied by replacement keeper Ivan Necevski, quick off his line. While Carle was quiet early on, Griffiths wasn't, producing an audacious chip that almost caught out Galekovic and generally giving the Melbourne left and Merrick much to ponder. It forced a re-shuffle which saw Alessandro introduced for Caceres. How times change. Earlier in the year it was the other way around, Alessandro considered the defensive weakness. This was a brilliant contest, both on the pitch and in the dug-out, two teams with much belief trying to strike a dagger. Melbourne's front three of Fred, Allsopp and Thompson looked likely, but as the match grew, so did the influence of Kohler and Musalik in the middle over Brebner and a disappointing Sarkies. Soon enough Carle was having his usual infleunce, holding off Pantelidis and showing the strength and workrate which have characterised his season to date. Before long he clipped a wonderful ball into the path of Rodriguez, catching out Pantelidis, Leijer, Vargas and Galekovic with one subtle stroke of the left peg. From there it was all the Jets, a wonderful win which shows they have the heart to go with flair. Gary van Egmond has done some wonderful things since taking over, but this was a win which could leave a few mental scars for the competition front-runners and add even further impetus to the Jets season.

Perth 4 v New Zealand 1; after last week's successful experiment involving Harnwell as the focal point of their attack, Ron Smith did it again, trying to take advantage of his aerial ability against a poor Knights defence. But is was the visitors, with Canadian Marcina lively up front, who unlocked the Perth defence first, Hickey drifting infield and holding off Coyne. It was a massive surprise, but soon enough the Knights dug their own hole, conceeding less than 10 minutes later and then having Jonas Salley sent off no sooner than he was he back in the side. Hard enough with even numbers let alone with one less, cue for the Glory to totally dominate, Harnwell grabbing a remarkable hat-trick before Despotovski bagged his share off the bench. Two on the trot since a confidence boosting performance in Melbourne and the Glory are showing they have the spirit to fight all the way.

Some of the other talking points

Crowd watch; a decent turn-up in Gosford for the Romario experiment but still a fair way short of the full house that was hoped for. More disappointing was the night before, where only 12,000 odd where on hand to see Sydney's third consecutive win. While their early season form and the loss of Dwight-all-night may have played some role, no doubt the hike in ticket prices since season one has played a role ($23 for a general admission adult ticket). Throw in the cost of parking (or public transport prices) and the cost of a couple of beers and a bite and it adds up to an expensive night out. My understanding is that a ticket to a Queensland Roar game, in comparison, contains the cost of public transport. Melbourne meanwhile go from strength to strength with another 27,000 plus witnessing another Dome cracker, with a potential A-League record on the cards when Sydney go south in a fortnight.

Save of the week; you could almost fill a catalogue from Liam Reddy alone, such was his performance in the Sydney clash. Ivan Necevski also made two amazing stops on debut, coming sharply off his line to thwart Alessandro and Allsopp, while Mark Paston, back between the sticks, produced an acrobatic save to his right from a Despotovski free-kick. But it's hard to go past Reddy, and I'm giving it to him for his first major save, a brilliant reaction sharp down to his right after a Carney shot had been deflected, seemingly headed for the corner. Even though his air-bourne tip over from a Corica volley a short time later looked more spectacular, the first was pure reaction.

Goal of the week; Sydney scored a cracker on Friday night when Corica attacked a Middleby cross, while Carle's ball into Rodriguez and Hickey's finish were worthy of a mention, but I'm giving goal of the week to the hat-trick hero Harnwell for his first. From a Kovacevic long free kick, Harnwell won the header and directed it towards Young, who chested it down for Lazaridis on the edge of the box. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Harnwell continue his run and found him with a first time square ball into space, which the skipper side-footed past Paston. While it was direct, it was neat inter-play around the box.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Ben's blunder a tough one on the Roar

Round 14 match analysis, Sydney FC 3 v Queensland Roar 0

NOT much was said about it during the commentary of tonight's game on Fox Sports and it remains to be seen how much Frank Farina and his Roar camp will make of it in the post match, but the significance of a decision by referee Ben Williams shortly after 10 minutes shouldn't be underestimated.

When Sydney midfielder Ufuk Talay launched himself recklessly, two-footed, at a loose ball in central midfield, the referee brandished a yellow card. Talay and Sydney were lucky. Spase Dilevski, the Roar player who had shown enough of the ball to entice Talay into the challenge, was also lucky, lucky not to end up in hospital.

It was a sickening challenge, the sort that should be grounds for immediate dismissal. The reaction of the Roar players, particularly skipper Chad Gibson, nearby, told the tale.

Ironic then that it was he, less than 10 minutes later, who was shown a straight red after an over-hit Dilevski ball in the centre of midfield had forced him to lunge, studs showing, into a challenge on Terry McFlynn.

Gibson had used one foot and been shown a straight red (albeit a yellow card would have meant dismissal after he picked one up a minute earlier) while Talay went in two-footed, essentially to protect himself, and stayed on to have a major influence on the game. Figure that.

Much fuss is made about simulation being a blight on the game, and that fuss is fair enough, for it needs to be stamped out, but there few greater sins on the footabll field than the gutless two-footed challenge, and officials should do everything in their power to stamp this out.

Thankfully, we don't see too many in Australia, at least not compared to say the EPL, where the likes of Wayne Rooney often get away with challenges that are 'on the edge' as the referees and commentators turn a blind eye. Lets hope that doesn't become the norm here.

The disappointment for Farina and his team is that the Roar had started this game well, with Gibson influential in the centre of midfield after a lacklustre perfomance there last week when he was rushed into it.

Here Farina shaped up in a 4-3-3, clearly intent on matching Sydney in central midfield (through Dilevski, Gibson and McKay) and keeping their fullbacks busy through Milicic on one side (right) and Reinaldo on the other.

In truth, the Roar should have been rewarded for this positive start with the advantage of an extra man. At the moment though they can't take a trick. Soon enough they were a man and goal down, and it was game over, as if to emphasise that referees do influence outcomes.

Sydney had dodged a bullet, a point appreciated by injured stopper Jacob Timpano at half time, who said his side had had some luck, but they also played some neat stuff afterwards, controlling the ball, moving it around quickly (unlike earlier in the season), getting it out wide and testing Liam Reddy on more than the odd occassion.

Had it not been for a number of world class stops the score could have been anything. Sydney however will argue that the luck that deserted them earlier in the year has finally gone their way, and three wins on the spin, nine goals in the process, puts them in an ominous position.

While Melbourne have bolted and are unlikely to be caught before the finals, they'll be hoping Sydney don't carry this recent momentum into the finals.

The Roar, meanwhile, need to put this one behind them and focus on the positives of their good work in the opening exchanges.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A-League team of the week, round 13

FRANK Farina and his 4-4-2 are back, and to mark it's return, I've decided to go with my own version of a 4-4-2 in this week's team of the week. Sadly, no Roar players could sneak in;

Tommi Tomich, PG, keeper; while he was lucky to survive a first half challenge on Coveny, carried on from his good work in the previous week with a string of excellent stops early and again when the Jets came at them in the second period.

Iian Fyfe, SFC, right back; one of his better games of a disappointing season to date, here he pressed Spagnuolo high, never allowing him to turn, and doubled-up with Carney to dominate the right flank. Farina felt Seo was his best on the night, but much of his distribution was poor.

Mark Rudan, SFC, central defence; after a bit of poor reaction for the first goal, Rudan was excellent, dominating Veart and combining well with Milligan to produce Sydney's most convincing defensive display in a long time, possibly all season. Drove forward on a couple of occasions, popped up with the winner and generally imposed himself on the game.

Rodrigo Vargas, MV, central defender; back from supsension, he was straight into the groove, organising and reading the game to perfection. Makes it all look so easy.

Mark Milligan, SFC, left back; while he played centrally, he did play on the left side of Rudan and scores a role on the left here due to his versatility. Looked a natural compliment in between Rudan and Ceccoli, covering the space whenever either of them ventured forward, except once, for the goal, when both he and Rudan were drawn to the man on the ball.

Leo Bertos, PG, right midfield; after a quiet month or so, was back to his form from the first third of the season, setting up both goals and generally giving Matt Thompson his biggest headache yet as a left back. Forced van Egmond to try Steve Eagleton in the second period, which stopped Bertos for a while, but he popped up to create the winner.

Grant Brebner, MV, defensive central midfield; the toughest choice this week was in the holding role as there wasn't much seperating the likes of Colosimo, McFlynn and Brebner. The Scot gets it for helping keep the likes of McKay reasonably quiet.

Fred, MV, attacking central midfield; he was only on for 45 minutes, before succumbing to injury, but what a half it was, shaking off numerous meaty challenges to still have an influence on the game, threading the ball for the opener and causing Andy Packer and Dario Vidosic their fair share of problems down the Roar left.

Stan Lazaridis, PG, left midfield; back from injury, showed what a excellent addition he has been to this Glory team, driving at Jade North from the start and helping the Glory pin back the Jets and supply Young and Harnwell. A number of his crosses were simply smashing.

Jamie Harnwell, PG, striker; against a Jets back three (Kennedy, Okon and Durante) that struggles in the air, this was always a calculated gamble from Ron Smith, but it paid off, with Harnwell bagging the opener, one on one with Okon, and generally causing a nuisance of himself in and around the 18 yard box. While he almost collapsed from chasing the defenders around whenever Perth didn't have the ball, it was a whole-hearted display, not the prettiest, but on this day the most effective.

Stuart Young, PG, striker; Harnwell's partner in crime, just gets in ahead of Archie Thompson for a good all-round display of target play. In a week where the strikers didn't really shine, special mention to Nick Mrdja who looked lively in his 20 minute cameo.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

A-League, round 13 round-up

The four games

Queensland 0 v Melbourne 2; the most interesting aspect of this game would be to see how the new man in charge at the Roar, Frank Farina, would shape his team up and how the players would react to having a new boss. Not surprisingly, Farina opted for the 4-4-2 that he used for most of his Socceroos reign (towards the end of his time in charge he tinkered with various adaptations of the 4-5-1) and again started with a central defender (Gibson) in the holding role central midfield, another hallmark of his work with the Roos. Here he relegated McLaren to the bench and restored Gibson to the team for the first time in what seems an eternity (he failed to grasp his chance in what was probably a role he wasn't quite ready for), pushing Seo out to right back and using two wide men in Vidosic (left) and Dilevski (right) to try and stretch the Victory and supply Reinaldo and Milicic. All it did was create a mountain of space in central midfield for McKay and Gibson to try and cope with Muscat, Brebner and Fred. The Roar were outnumbered, and with Thompson and Allsopp pushing Ognenvoski and McCloughan further back with their pace, Gibson and McKay were on a hiding to nothing. As hard as they tried, and they showed plenty of committment, the Victory were able to control the game, all over the pitch. At the back they were too solid, in midfield they linked up well and up front they always looked likely. Both goals came from defensive blunders, a fair sign that Farina's work should be centred on organisation. While the Roar huffed and puffed, they rarely used their heads. This is Farina's biggest challenge, to get the Roar functioning as a spirited unit, and his focus needs to be on lifting the confidence and morale. Too often heads dropped on Friday. It's no disgrace to lose to a Melbourne side that has now won six away on the trot, but it won't get any easier against a Sydney side that is finally coming good.

Perth 2 v Newcastle 1; speaking of spirited, this was another performance befitting the description from the hosts. After last week's amazing defensive effort in Melbourne, spirits must have been high mid-week. Yes, they'd lost, but a perfomance like that, without big names like Lazaridis, Colosimo, Petkovic and Despotovski tends to lift teams. So it proved on Saturday where the Glory started brilliantly. Ron Smith had snuck a major suprise in his line up by starting Harnwell up front alongside Young. The message was clear - Perth were going to test the Jets with a direct approach to try and expose a physical weakness in central defence (and in goal) where Okon and Durante (and Kennedy) aren't always comfortable in dealing with the high ball. With Colosimo and Lazaridis back, Perth went about getting the ball wide, both to Bertos and Lazaridis, and their mission was to find the front two. Not surprisingly, it worked a treat, and the Glory were able to pick up numerous second balls off the back of hitting Young and Harnwell early. But for some good scrabbling, a couple of good saves, and plenty of luck, the Glory would have had their opener long before Harnwell out-jumped Okon from a Bertos cross. Perth should have killed the game off then and there, but proceeded to miss numerous chances, letting the lethargic Jets back into it. When Carle started getting his foot on the ball and Rodriguez came off the bench, suddenly the Glory looked likely to pay for their wastefulness. While Griffiths' fall looked theatrical, it made up for an incorrect call in the first half, when Angelo Nardi should have awarded Coveny a penalty for a late Tomich challenge (instead he got a yellow card for diving). Perth seemed to be affected by the penalty decision and started to look nervy, but up popped Glavas, this most natural born of finishers, with the winner with the last kick of the game, impressively taken. It was no less than the hosts deserved, and keeps them right in the mix.

New Zealand 0 v Central Coast 2; new manager, new ideas and new attitude, at least for the first 45. That was the story for the Knights, who competed well early on, even creating the two or three best efforts of the half, including one from new striker Alen Marcina, who looked lively alongside White. They weren't the only changes, Turnbull getting in ahead of Paston between the sticks and Emblen starting in central midfield, where he played his best football last year before getting injured midway through the season. While they competed in the first half and early in the second, soon enough the Mariners took control, especially after the Knights got caught high and square, allowing Mori acres for the go-ahead. With the Knights dropping their heads, it was an opportunity for McKinna to give Mrdja a 20 minute hit-out, which he used to great effect, bagging his first A-League goal and creating himself a couple of other chances.

Sydney 2 v Adelaide 1; make no mistake, these two teams aren't best of friends. This was another Sydney/Adelaide clash full of talking points and fiesty moments, but not for the first hour, where the football won out. With all hands back on deck, the most fascinating aspect in the build-up was who Terry Butcher would leave out. He made some interesting choices, relegating Zadkovich altogether, pushing Petrovski and Brosque to the bench and bringing in four guys who haven't seen much action of late, Carney, Corica, McFlynn and Milligan, the latter in central defence, the position he looked most comfortable in last year. While they conceded one early to a sloppy Talay mistake, soon enough the likes of Rudan, Corica and Carney were running the show, getting on top of Veart, Aloisi, Costanzo and Goulding. Cleverly, as is becoming the Sydney way, they pressed Adelaide high, never allowing them to find Spagnuolo and Dodd out wide, such a vital avenue for Adelaide. When Adelaide play well, it is invariably when they control the flanks. But Sydney never allowed this to happen, Fyfe and Ceccoli pressing on Spagnuolo and Dodd, while Carney and Middleby kept Goulding and Alagich busy. It meant that Rech and Veart were starved of the ball, making Kosmina's decision not to start with Owens (even at right back) all the more puzzling. Sydney's two goals, despite the first one looking dicey, were reward for their control, before the match lost all its rythmn in the second period, ensuring Adelaide had little chance of sneaking back into it.

Some other moments

Goal of the week; for once, there weren't too many breathtaking ones, but for sheer importance, hard to go past Luka Glavas's 94 th minute gem against the Jets. After some wonderful dribbling from Bertos across the field, Glavas had time and space at the top of the Jets box, but did he have the composure? Did he what, side-footing past Kennedy with the same left peg he scored with against Sydney a few weeks back. It was the finish of an efficient striker, more good work from the man who bagged four in the NSW premier league grand final.

Save of the week; same match, but much earlier. The Glory were on fire in the first half, peppering the Jets goal. One effort looked destined for the back post, only for defender Andrew Durante to miraculously clear it from under his post with the back of his head. It wasn't a keeper, but it was a save, an amazing one at that.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Australia touched by the loss of Puskas

THE news of the passing of football legend Ferenc Puskas will make headlines around the world, particularly in Hungary and Spain, where he had his most productive playing days, but it will also sadden many local fans of the game who became familiar with him during the late 80s - early 90s when he coached South Melbourne to an NSL title. While most of us weren't fortunate enough to see him play in his prime, those that have speak glowingly about his wonderful left peg, knack for finding the back of the net and his incredible contribution to what is regarded by many as the greatest club game of all time, Real's 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European final when he bagged four to go with Di Stefano's three. Certainly, whenever SBS do show highlights of the game, it is must viewing, an incredible eye-opener. His stats certainly don't lie, a goal a game at both national and club level, remarkable stuff in a playing career that spanned over 20 years. Four times he won the pichichi, Spain's top scorer, and was a vital cog in what is still today regarded as the greatest club side ever, the Madrid side of the 60s. His achievments are mind-blowing and the tributes will no doubt flow. His compatriot Les Murray will no doubt write and feature some footage in the coming days, all of which will be compelling stuff for those wanting to learn more about one of the greats.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

12 months on from Uruguay and the Socceroos have fine-tuned the art of control

Friendly match analysis, Socceroos 1 v Ghana 1

BUT for a late moment of hesitation at the back, in all likelihood born from a lack of familiarity between Schwarzer and Kisnorbo, yesterday morning’s performance by Arnold’s Socceroos against an in-form Ghana was both exciting and re-assuring.

Exciting because of the fluency on display and re-assuring because it proved that this team, despite a limited preparation and some big name absentees could still demonstrate control over most facets of the match.

The Socceroos looked a team, full of fluid play, understanding and tactical acumen. Here they pressed the Black Stars high up the pitch, rarely allowing them to play out, crowding out the likes of Essien, Appiah and Muntari, at least until the latter found a bit of room during the second half.

When the green and gold had the ball, Emerton and Chipperfield would flood forward, creating the extra numbers in midfield and out wide, stretching a narrow Ghana and offering the drive that was sorely lacking against the Italians in Kaiserslautern.

All the time they were fed by the wonderful central midfield pairing of Grella and Culina, two men clearly relishing the responsibility of running the show.

Nearby was Wilkshire, once an unlikely member of the team, now growing in his comfort levels by the game. Like Culina and Grella, his beauty is also in his simplicity, such a modern day trait.

When you add the three of them up, throw in the overlapping fliers in Emerton and Chipperfield and the retreating Bresciano, who appears under instructions to drop infield from the left (thus meaning he gets closer to Aloisi and open up some space for Chipperfield to attack down the left), you have a midfield the envy of many, both in numbers and quality.

As I touched on in my preview, the seamless nature of their transition was a sight to behold, well drilled and in touch.

While the Ghanaians were missing their first-choice central defenders, particularly Mensah, (Dickoh, responsible for the penalty, looked shaky as a fill in), and strangely started with Gyan on the bench, Arnold’s men still had to deal with a formidable midfield.

While Ghana had their periods when Grella went off after the break, Muntari at the heart of most of the good things, for most of it the Socceroos looked in control. Had it not been for the outrageous efforts of Kingston, both as a shot stopper and sweeper, it would have been at least a one goal margin.

To a large degree the performance reminded me of some of the Czech Republic performances over the past decade of so – a ‘Team’, familiar with each other, on the same page. Anyone who steps in understands their role.

When he burst onto our shores over 12 months ago, Hiddink spoke openly about getting a bunch of players he admired to ‘think more about their football and understand their roles’. While he appreciated the players’ physical capabilities and the Australian mentality, he reminded everyone that the game is played in the head and quickly set about imposing his finer ‘detail’.

Everyone spoke glowingly about how much they learnt, none more so than Arnold. Now he is adding his own little touches and this was the Socceroos finest display to date under him.

While he craves to be his own man, Arnold isn’t moving too far away from Hiddink’s template, clever work from a man learning and adapting from the best.

His use of so many players since the World Cup is a case in point, a reminder to them that complacency and mediocrity won’t be tolerated. Witness his use of Beauchamp, McKain and Milicevic, all given their chances of late.

This time Arnold played Kisnorbo in central defence, and despite the odd moment of hesitation, he grabbed his opportunity, demonstrating the same poise he showed as a teenage debutant for South Melbourne. Particularly impressive was his strength in the air, but he also made a couple of good covering challenges.

A natural born leader, he also appeared to assume responsibility when Moore was replaced at the break by Thwaites, just the thing a manager would look for.

Also relishing his minutes, not for the first time, was Holman, as productive driving forward in this game as he was against Bahrain in February.

Much has been made about who might emerge as a back-up for Grella in the crucial holding role. While Wehrman isn’t young, he deserves another crack at some stage, but the work of Stuart Musalik at Newcastle over the past month suggests he might be there or thereabouts in a few years. At the very least, he has already shown signs of development since being given a taste in August.

Elsewhere, it would also be nice to see Stefanutto get a run.

One area that continues to cause concern is the Socceroos lack of productivity from set pieces. It was a major sticking point in Germany, with the delivery from Bresciano and Chipperfield, both from free-kicks and corners, often not up to scratch.

If the team aspires to take the next step, and clearly it does, this is an area that will need hours of work. Here Bresciano’s delivery produced one brilliant Kingston save from a Moore header, but countless others were wasted.

At least Aloisi, both yesterday and 12 months ago to today, isn’t missing penalties. Long may that continue.

ASIA CUP FOOTNOTE: Disappointed to learn today that we won't be seeing two guys who have certainly been among my highlights of 2006, Kuwaiti's exciting prospects Bader Al Mutwa and Khalef Al Mutairi, at next year's Asia cup after they were beaten 2-1 in Manama overnight. The result and subsquent qualification for the finals certainly justifies the Bahrain Federation's decision to throw all their eggs in the one basket and send their under 23s here last month. Not only did it provide vital prepartion on the road to Beijing, but it allowed them to rest four first team players on yellow cards and prepare them for this morning's do or die clash.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A-League team of the week, round 12

NOT a weekend where the wide men shone, this was a round for the central men, yet while this team might look narrow in appearance, I've spread them out in 3-4-1-2;

Tommi Tomich, PG, keeper; excellent debut, particularly his work in dealing with crosses. Unsighted for the late goal, he kept Perth in it for long periods.

Steve Pantelidis, MV, right defender; gets into this team on the right despite playing in the unfamiliar role as a left back, where he provided some great thrust with his constant forward forays. Pinning back Bertos, he also got as far as Coyne on numerous occassions, drawing the odd foul in the process. As described earlier, has added some impressive drive to his game this year.

Michael Valkanis, AU, central defender; the rock at the heart of solid defensive display from United. Truth is both he and Rees have looked shaky of late, particularly when defending high, but here Valkanis was comfortable defending deep, while the screening work of Costanzo nearby helped.

Matt Thompson, NJ, left defender; has relished his new role as a left back, doing his defensive work very soundly and then springing forward with regularity to trouble the opposition right. Here he gave O'Sullivan and Wilkinson a constant working over, setting up the first with a beautiful run and cross.

Ruben Zadkovich, SFC, right midfield; in a team that was struggling to tick in the first 30 minutes, Zadkovich stood out, prepared to try things from a deep central role alongside Talay with neat step-overs and quick movement of the ball. Was less effective in the second, but gets the birth on the right here because of his adaptability.

Ufuk Talay, SFC, central midfield; gets in ahead of Musalik and Kohler after an oustanding second half when he played a massive hand in two of the three goals with some wonderful range of passing. After being on the outer last year, is benefitting from some regular action under Butcher and you can see the confidence is coming back.

Adrian Webster, PG, central midfield; gets in ahead of Brebner after an outstanding display of work ethic and simplicity on the ball. Was everywhere and didn't deserve to be a loser. Has impressed since becoming a regular fixture in the midfield a couple of months ago and has gone past compatriot Christie in the process.

Nick Carle, NJ, left midfield; while he continues to do very well roaming in front of Kohler and Musalik, picking up the ball and combining with his front three, for the sake of balance let's throw him out on the left this week, although he could easily interchange with left-footed Webster. In the past few week he's showed wonderful combination with Rodriguez and Griffiths. This week it was his turn to double-up with Bridge.

Sasho Petrovski, SFC, in behind the strikers; playing off Zdrilic for the second week on the trot, Petrovski rediscovered his scoring touch from last season, bagging one with either foot, in either half, his second especially impressive. Dropping off the front-line and engaging either Wells or Gemmill or forcing a central defender out of the line, he caused all sorts of confusion.

Mark Bridge, NJ, striker; back into the first 11 for the first time in some time, he was clearly intent on making a lasting impression, thundering a volley home for the Jets opener before using the same outside of the right foot to cushion a return ball into Carle for the second. Overall workrate was top notch, helping the Jets defend from the front.

Carl Veart, AU, striker; gave McLaren a tough night, using his strength and workrate to test the Roar veteran and eventually create the winner for Dodd. After a slow start to the season, has been in excellent form the past four or five weeks, particularly when playing up front. It creates a headache for Kosmina when the likes of Qu, Burns and Romario are available. On this form, Veart must remain up front, at this stage at the expense of Qu.

A-League, round 12 round-up

ALREADY covered a fair bit of the action over the weekend, but here's a bit more;

Melbourne 1 v Perth 0; in the absence of centre back Vargas, it an interesting choice by Ernie Merrick to push Piorkowski infield and play Pantelidis at left back. While he is nominally a centre back, Piorkowski has occupied the left all season, while Pantelidis, mainly off the bench, has played either in central midfield or centre back. So it was a surprise choice, but the reasons became evident soon enough, with Pantelidis pushing forward regularly down the flank, keeping Bertos busy and adding to the numbers in midfield. While Perth made no real effort to come at Melbourne, thus inviting Pantelidis forward, he showed he has added some drive to the holding game he was renowned for last season. As for Perth, there was some interesting work from Ron Smith, giving Micevski a crack at central midfield ahead of Christie, while it was a first up appearance this season for Ryan Townsend, Josip Magdic and the excellent Tommi Tomich. Perth were spirited, well organised and worked their socks off, but missed the quality provided by veterans Lazaridis, Despotovski and Colosimo.

Sydney 4 v New Zealand 0; for all Sydney's early domination in possession, they were really struggling to find a cutting edge around the box. Too often the passing was slow, with the midfielders and wide men taking one or two touches on the ball too many, allowing the Kiwis to re-adjust in defence. It wasn't slick and incisive enough, only Zadkovich providing anything near the tempo required. The second half was much better, with quicker movement of the ball catching out the outclassed visitors. All three second half goals were gems involving quickness of thought and finishing. Petrovski's was first, a lovely ball drilled from central midfield by Talay to Zdrilic on the left, who found Brosque with an early square ball, who teed it up early for Petrovski to blast. Then cam Zdrilic's mazy run past Kovacevic and Bunce, this time from a quick Ceccoli throw-in, before Talay played a superb ball to tee up Carney, who showed wonderful balance and composure, great play all round. The less said about NZ the better.

Queensland 0 v Adelaide 1; like last week, this was a performance bereft of real belief from the Roar, perhaps a sign of the problems Bleiberg had been having over the past month or so. A team that has lost belief in it's manager, as appeared to be the case judging by some of these comments, was going nowhere. The Queensland we saw in the opening five rounds played some scintillating one and two touch football, where everything appeared in-synch and in control, but the team we've seen over the past six or so rounds has looked less convincing, perhaps still suffering from the mental battering at the hands of Melbourne in round six. Certainly the news of Bleiberg's resignation was a suprise, but he must have know he'd lost the dressing room, never a good sign. For Adelaide, this was very much a smash and grab raid, with Valkanis putting up the brick wall and Veart proving evergreen at the other end.

Newcastle 3 v Central Coast 1; after the fall-out from their 'grandad play' against Melbourne a week before, McKinna made some serious changes in crucial areas, bringing Vidmar into central defence alongside O'Grady, shifting Wilkinson to the right and bringing Mile Jedinak in for skipper Spencer. In truth they had little effect, as the Jets main change (Bridge for Rodriguez) had a more telling impact. The Mariners continued to defend poorly, first exposed by some strong Thompson running and a great Bridge volley before Carle and Bridge unlocked them down the guts with a lovely give and go. After Mori showed his lethal finishing, the introduction of a fired up Spencer for the injured O'Grady made an impression, but in truth the Jets looked in total control at the back and through the continued great work of Musalik and Kohler in midfield.

Goal of the week; Brebner's was a beaut finish, as was Bridge's volley, while the give and go between Carle and Bridge was top notch, but seeing two of the three second half goals for Sydney from my vantage point behind Talay provided a real appreciation of his range of passing. While the second was a killer ball into the diagnol run of Carney, goal of the week goes to his earlier contribution, a lovely long ball out to the left for Zdrilic to chase. Turning inside, he squared it to Brosque on the edge of the 18 yard box, who kept it going to Petrovski to hit first time with the outside of the foot. Thrilling technique all round, quick and incisive teamwork.

Big challenge in the battle of the feelgoods

Socceroos v Ghana friendly, preview

A LONDON battle between two of the real feelgood stories of the world cup promises much, a real test of Australia's recently acquired ability to control football games in midfield and at the back.

The Socceroos of recent months have shown a wonderful tactical appreciation for the game, learning the fine art of controlling games through a domination of possession, creating an over-lap of numbers in midfield and at the back and seamless transition of the ball and players between the three sectors - back, middle and front.

Kuwait City aside, where everything was amiss, it's generally only been in the front third where the Socceroos have struggled to find the regular potency.

But against a hot-to-trot Ghana, one of the most dynamic and powerful teams in world football at the moment, a real eye-catcher at the world cup, and minus a number of regulars (Neill, Viduka, Kewell and Cahill among them), this promises to be Arnold's biggest test to date, particularly when you factor in a limited preparation (only one training session) and what appears likely to be an experimental backline.

The old adage that you build from the back has been thrown out the door, and with Moore added to the list of 'outs', Arnold appears likely to give chances to Kisnorbo and possibly Thwaites, both in from the cold.

It will be a massive chance to make an impression, particularly as the likes of Beauchamp, Milicevic, Valkanis and McKain have failed to grasp theirs over the past few months.

With so many players being given chances of late, it's all about being as high up the pecking order as possible come the Asia cup next July.

While the Roos look light on for experience in the centre of defence, it's the opposite out wide, where Emerton and Chipperfield are in the midst of their most productive Socceroos days.

There's little doubt the quick, powerful front-man Asamoah Gyan will cause the odd headache, and much will depend on how the midfield duo of Grella and Culina (make it a trio if Wilkshire gets a start) cope with one of the most dynamic midfields in the world game.

In Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and Stephen Appiah, the Black Stars have a powerful, technical and mobile midfield the envy of most nations. Watching them tear strips off the Czechs and US at the world cup (not to mention they had Italy and Brazil on the rack for periods of their other two games) was one of the true delights of a cup dogged by negative tactics.

Essien, in such brilliant form for Chelsea, is the key, and was missed against Brazil where Ghana committed too many men forward and were exposed on the counter.

Had they had some more experience and composure in the front third, and a little more experience at the back, who knows, they might just have gone on a bit further. As it was, to get out of such a tough group was right up there with the Socceroos feats.

Grella, these days the key man for the Socceroos (not just because he's been handed the armband), will have his work cut out dealing with the pace and drive of Appiah and Muntari, but if he and Culina can get their fair share of the ball to the likes of Bresciano, Sterjovski and Aloisi, there might just be some change out of the Ghana defence.

Having said that, I was both surprised and impressed with how organised they were against the Czechs and USA. The key might be to bag one early and make them come out a bit, but recent results (wins over fellow world cup finalists Togo, Japan and South Korea, the latter two away last month) highlight that this mob are now more switched on than ever.

It promises to be a beauty, and one of the most fascinating aspects will be to see how Kasey Wehrman has developed since his days as a Brisbane Striker. Now 29, he promised so much as a kid, but even as a late bloomer has a few good years in him if he can grab his chance.

Arnold is on the record as saying he will use all six available subs, which will probably disrupt the continuity of the game but at least give him, and us, a chance to see the likes of Stefanutto, Holman and Griffiths.

It won't be easy against quality opposition, but this is another step on the road to learning more about ourselves.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Some interesting headaches for Melbourne and Miron

SOME early thoughts on round 12 as I wait for some EPL action (must check out the form of this 18 year old right back Richards selected by Steve McLaren for the England friendly v Poland);

Template for victory; Perth Glory came with a plan on Thursday night, to sit back on their 18 yard box with two lines of four and nine men behind the ball most of the time. It was all built around containment, nulifying the Victory, trying to pinch a point, and it almost worked a treat. But a confident Melbourne showed enough patience, the key word in a situation like this, to get the job done. They kept coming and coming, kept their heads up, and in the end did enough. There might be some criticism of Perth's tactics, but you can hardly blame a team that had just played four days earlier and was missing the likes of the Despotovski, Colosimo, Lazaridis, Harnwell and Petkovic for adopting such a defensive mind-set. It was highly organised work from the Glory, full of purpose and shape, and almost worked. Last week we'd seen a completely different approach from Lawrie McKinna's Mariners who took the game to Melbourne, yet, even with a two man advantage, they were lucky to grab a share of the points. Managers around the league would have seen both examples of how to play the Victory, so it'll be interesting to see which approach they adopt. SEN and Foxsports pundit Paul Trimboli hit the nail right on the head when he noted that teams will have drawn a template from the way Perth approached this, similar to the smash-and-grab raid by Adelaide a few weeks back. If that's the way teams do play, it will be incumbent on Melbourne to break them down, and that will be a test.

Suddenly some calm decends on Sydney; If Terry Butcher was going to go, it would have happened after the 1-1 draw with Perth a fortnight ago, but since backing him till the end of the season, almost an admission the club simply can't afford to sack him, things have settled significantly at the club. While their play in the first half was fairly average, lacking any real thrust or creativity around the 18 yard box, Petrovski's opener appeared to calm the nerves. Grabbing a second, which has proved so elusive all season, would be the key, and against an outclassed Knights, it came with one of Sydney's best moves of the season. The pressure was off, and Sydney, driven on by a wonderfully supportive Cove, let its hair done, even the returning Carney helping himself to one, as if to remind everyone that the worst may be behind them. Leaving the ground, the mood was certainly very upbeat, perhaps too upbeat given the lack of quality from NZ, but certainly Sydney's legion had every reason to celebrate a win, their first in six matches and first at home in 75 days.

Miron, Miron, Miron, what are you doing? As I have commented previously and most recently on Confessions, Miron Bleiberg is once again responsible for some over-coaching, tinkering far too much with his unit. His blind faith in Stuart McLaren ahead of Chad Gibson continues to astound. Even since the trip to Melbourne, where McLaren came into a defence that had been ticking beautifully, things have looked less in control. Indeed, lately, Bleiberg has struck as some-one who doesn't quite have any method behind the madness. While his problems aren't exclusive to the defence (the loss of Murdocca has altered the balance in midfield, something Bleiberg admitted might happen, Wedau has been a abject failure to date, his strikers have gone off the boil and Zhang might need more time), his continued use of McLaren, as well as the couple of chances he's given to Buess, have indicated a man not quite sure of the answers. Indeed, his stubborn refusal to give Gibson another chance is mind boggling. After the way McLaren was shaken off by Veart for tonight's only goal, surly the club captain will get his chance.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A-League team of the week, round 11

IN terms of quality and edge of the seat appeal, one of the better rounds of season 2, kicking off with Friday night's thriller at the Dome, in which the Melbourne front three again showed how classy and dangerous they are. As for the rest of the round, Saturday night dished up a competitive NSW derby before the Knights surprised everyone of Sunday with some accomplished displays at the back and in the middle. Straight after that, Adelaide had the better of the first half against the Glory and had their flankers to thank for that. With 14 goals in the round (a healthy 3.66 average), here is an attack-minded 3-4-3;

Mark Paston, NZK, keeper; into the side for the first time, this was by far the most accomplished display between the sticks by the Knights this season. Already they have used both Turnbull and Milosevic, and both, it has to be said, have looked shaky. But Paston, fresh off a Vietnam tour with NZ 'A', looked confident and communicative, and made some vital stops, including one thrilling save to his right in the second period to keep out McCloughan. Bajic and Bolton also did well.

Sime Kovacevic, NZK, stopper; playing alongside Bunce in the absence of Emblen, this was Kovacevic's best display yet at this level, combining with the veteran Kiwi to shut out the likes of Zhang, Reinaldo and Lynch. In truth, it could have been Bunce in this team, but the young Aussie caught the eye.

Paul Okon, NJ, central defender; back after a week's suspension, this was a master-class in distribution from the back. If you're a kid learning the art of building up from the back, do yourself a favour and get a hold of Okon's second half, simply magnificent. His ball to play in Brown for the equaliser couldn't have been more perfectly weighted. It left Zadkovich and Sydney's cover defence for dead.

Steve Pantelidis, MV, stopper; gets in ahead of Bingley after an excellent 60 odd minutes as a replacement for the red-carded Vargas. Working closely with Leijer, he was a monster in repelling the Mariners, always getting a foot in and winning the aerial battles. Has provided excellent depth off the bench so far this season, and his adaptability has been a key ingredient for Merrick. Bingley can feel unlucky after an excellent performance only tarnished by his red card.
Jonti Richter, NZK, right sided attacker; his best game for his new club, not surprisingly against his old club. Said to have had the odd run-in with Bleiberg, he was clearly up to proving a point and helped the Knights grab their goal by holding up the ball and waiting for Wells to overlap. Instrumental in having Buess replaced, he was less effective against Packer, but at least stopped him from getting forward. Appeared to have an exchange with Bleiberg after the final whistle, interesting stuff.

Dustin Wells, NZK, defensive central midfield; in on a short-term for Johnson from the NSW premier league side Wollongong, Wells took his opportunity with relish, biting in with Gemmill and Buari to help the Knights do what they haven't done for most of the season, dominate a midfield. Physical and mobile, he was driving forward, overlapping and working back to make tackles in his own box. Worked so hard he had to be replaced at the end simply out of exhaustion.

Fred, MV, attacking central midfield; is there anything this guys can't do? This was another all-round display of wonderful work on the ball and incredible workrate off it - vision, skill, pace and will to win. When Muscat was sent off, Fred simply rolled up his sleeves and took control of the team. His two slalom runs in the second half, ghosting past defenders, sending them to the turf, then one way, then the other, will live in the memory.

Travis Dodd, AU, left midfield; while he played on the right, gets the gig on the left after an eye-catching first half in which he destroyed Tarka after Sekulovski had limped off. No surprise then that Adelaide's second came from some great work down the right. Spagnuolo also did well down the left, but only lasted his usual half and a bit.

Joel Griffths, NJ, right sided attacker; while he was relatively quiet in the first period, became more and more influential as the Jets took control, giving Ceccoli a heap of problems. Unlucky to hit the post in the second half, he combined beautifully with Carle and was loving the service from the abovementioned Okon.

Danny Allsopp, MV, central striker; eight goals and flying, his form was summed up with a stunningly taken later equaliser, gambling with a run at the back post and finishing with aplomb, but his most eye-catching moment came in the first half, when he put the ball on the floor and burst beyond the entire CCM defence. While he was denied by a good O'Grady recover, it was an electric show of pace and typified the confidence flowing through his game.

Archie Thompson, MV, left sided attacker; hard to leave the hard-working Zdrilic out, but for sheer quality, again it is impossible to go past Thompson, who played as a striker on Friday but pulls out on the left in this side to provide balance. Like Allsopp and Fred, the confidence gives him the drive to keep trying things, not be afraid, and for Victory fans and neutrals alike it is a sight to behold. The speed and composure he showed in taking his goal was top-class.

A -League, round 11 round-up

The four games

Melbourne Victory 3 v Central Coast Mariners 3; It's all here.

Newcastle Jets 1 v Sydney FC 1; once again it was a case of the two faces of Sydney FC, good in the first half, defending for their lives in the second. Not for the first time they took the lead, only to finally surrender to the excellent movement of the Jets, who deserved their late equaliser. Sydney were clearly up for this match, adopting a tough, in-your-face style, from the outset. Given the dearth of numbers, there was no suprise about Terry Butcher's line-up, only the formation, with Petrovski in the withdrawn role in behind Zdrilic, alongside Brosque and in front of Talay, with Middleby left and Zadkovich right. Sydney were pressing the Jets high, working incredibly hard, never allowing them time to settle on the ball at the back, in the middle and up front, and they were able to effectively disrupt the Jets passing game. Topor-Stanley and Bingley in central defence were physical but fair, and the Jets front three took over half an hour to settle. But before that Talay played a delightful ball which caught out Okon and Eagleton and gave Zdrilic plenty of space to control and finish. It was no less than the hosts and Zdrilic deserved, but when the Jets started to get Carle on the ball towards the end of the half, the signs were there they could claw their way back in. The second period was one way traffic, a gallant FC defending for the lives, trying to hang onto the points. Ultimately they were undone by their own inability to relieve pressure by stringing passes, such a critical requirement for effective football. As Okon took control in the final half an hour or so, stringing inch perfect passes, Tim Brown provided the fresh legs, something Sydney lacked, driving beyond an exhausted Zadkovich, honours shared.

New Zealand Knights 1 v Queensland Roar 0; given their positions on the ladder, the upset of the season, but the signs have been there for the Roar since the round seven trip to Melbourne, enigmatic to say the least. Paul Nevin has made a numbers of changes to his line-up over the weeks to try and find a winning formula, but his moves this week were the best, drafting in two players yet to taste A-League action, both highly influential. Wollongong Wolves central midfielder Dustin Wells was sensational by Knights standards, breaking up, driving forward, linking up play. He seemed like he'd been a part of this unit forever, teeing up the only goal, an early og by Ognenovski, with a wonderful overlap and cross down the right. Wells combined well with Gemmill to compete against the likes of Wedau, Seo and McKay in midfield. The other influential injection was that of goalkeeper Mark Paston, who looked assured and confident between the sticks, unlike the tentative Milosevic we have seen of late. On the other-side, Miron Bleiberg appears to be second-guessing himself, and there's little doubt after only a few weeks that he's struggling to replace Murdocca. Here he teamed up Seo and Wedau, with McKay on the left. But after being smashed in the middle for the opening quarter of the game, he made a tactical adjustment, taking off left back Buess, shifting Packer from right to left, pushing McKay infield and bringing Lynch on to make it a front three. But with Richter doing well on the right for NZ, Packer was pushed back, and the move made little impression. Certainly, McKay has looked less effective without Murdocca nearby. The other notable factor in this match was the Knights back four, with much improved performances all round. Certainly, the combination of Kovacevic/Bunce centrally looked much more organised than the Bunce/Emblen combo of late. Well done NZ, their most in-synch perfomance in a long time.

Adelaide United 3 v Perth Glory 2; like the Friday night fair in Melbourne, a wonderfully open spectacle early on, with the visitors profiting from an early give-away in midfield, Glavas playing in Saric for a neat finish across Bajic. It didn't last long however, a silly penalty conceded by Coyne for Veart to tuck-away. It was almost an invitation for Adelaide to start dominating, pushing back the Glory on both flanks through Spagnuolo and Dodd and creating space for the likes of Owens to drive forward. Soon he had United ahead and should have had another as Dodd became more involved. But the Glory hung on and soon had some luck at the other end, Glavas adjudged to have been pushed in the box by Alagich, Despotovski tucking away the final touch of the half and his final touch of the game, replaced due to an ankle injury. While Perth were light-on up front, they still threatened at step pieces, Bajic forced into a spectacular save from a Harnwell header, before they were punished at the other end for failing to clear things when substitute Kemp swopped and got lucky. While Perth applied the pressure, it was probably a fair result for Adelaide's domination of the first half.

Some other talking points

Muscat walks the line; lucky to escape further punishment for the Kosmina incident, not to mention a few others, there was no getting away with it this time for Muscat. With the Mariners standing up to his antics, it was a fascinating side-show to the end-to-end theatre going on.

Travelling contingent; more great work from the Sydney FC fans who braved the wet and cold and made the trip up to Newcastle to add real atmosphere and noise. A crowd of 15,000 had been hoped for, but the weather kept the numbers down, but those Sydney fans made some great noise in the first half. Not suprisingly, they were a little quieter in the second period as they willed their team to keep a clean sheet.

Failing to Roar; Bleiberg appears to have some real problems at Queensland and they need addressing quick-fast. Twice recently they have dominated at home, only to draw to both the Adelaide and the Mariners, while their work on the road has been hot and cold. Against the Knights they were cold early and paid the ultimately price, giving the Knights a rare lead which they defended with their lives.

Save of the week; at one stage it was going to Mark Paston for a terrific diving lunge to his right to tip away a bottom corner bound McCloughan header, but then Bajic produced a wonerful reflex stop early in the second half to keep out a Harnwell header, flinging himself airborne to his left. It was world-class work from the United custodian, one of the saves of the season.

Goal of the week; while it involved the use of a foul-throw, Allsopp's late equaliser gets it this week for some brilliant lead up play from man of the match Fred. After missing an open goal a little earlier on, he didn't go hiding, instead taking it upon himself to drive into the middle, cut back onto his right, leave Petrie for dead, and pick out a ball that few others would have seen, let alone executed. The finish from Allsopp was a gem, that of a man on top of the world.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Bummer, Young Socceroos bow out....

SUCH a pity this 'best generation of players since 1991', as they have losely been described by no less than the national coach, won't be getting a chance to showcase there stuff on the world stage, out in the quarter finals of the world youth cup qualifiers to South Korea, who march on a semi-final and a spot in the world cup.

Given the lack of TV (SBS has packaged some highlights on Toyota World Sports and The World Game) and mainstream press coverage, it is terribly hard to dissect the tournament, but thanks to those like James Brown watching through their broadband connections, we have had the odd independent report.

Otherwise, we have had to rely on the official comments filtering through from Ange Postecoglou, and even he has admitted the play has been poor in the main.

Even out of this quarter final, the early reports suggest the team were totally outplayed by a more efficient (there's a Melbourne Cup tip) and incisive South Korea.

Indeed, even the two wins, against Thailand and the United Arab Emirates, are said to have been far from impressive.

Which is a real concern given the team contains the likes of Kaz Patafta, Nathan Burns, Dario Vidosic, David Williams, Shaun Ontong and Matthew Spiranovic, all highly rated kids, a highly thought of generation. Burns has certainly been a revelation at A-League level and must have been missed tonight, but he learnt a harsh lesson in succumbing to the temptation of kicking the ball into the back of an empty net after the whistle had been blown. Silly silly boy.

But ultimately, this team was undone by a first up loss to China, confirming that he who underestimates the depth in Asia will get stung. Already we have lost to Laos at youth level, been taken apart in Kuwait City at senior level and now this.

Perhaps we were kidding ourselves for thinking that we could waltz through Asia as we have strolled through Oceania, simply turn up and win? Especially with a bunch of kids given little or, in many instances, no regular action.

Once again the kids have been under-sold, and, while it's fair to say there have been other priorities, this latest result confirms urgency of the governing body's moves to address the development/youth issue.

Earlier tonight I had the good-fortune of catching up with Anthony Crea, the current strength and conditioning coach at Sydney FC and man reponsible for flogging the Socceroos before and during the world cup.

We spoke of the meticulous preparation and planning that went into the success, of how Hiddink spent weeks sitting down with him, mapping out a fitness regime, doting the i's and crossing the t's. The players weren't always happy, but it worked.

It re-inforced that success can only be achieved through thorough planning, so it's time the youth teams were given similar attention, for the good of the future of the game.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The thriller at the Dome

Match analysis, round 11, Melbourne Victory 3 v Central Coast Mariners 3

DOES it get any better than this?

An absolute thriller tonight at the Telstra Dome, one of the best A-League games yet, proved, as if there was any doubt, that the Melbourne Victory are the real deal. Yet, they are by no means a sure thing of winning the title. The minor premiership? Yes. The title? well, we'll have to wait and see.

One thing's for sure. If they can keep their front three of Thompson, Allsopp and Fred injury free and in form, there are few defenses going around that can keep up with them, let alone keep them out.

Down to nine men for all the second half after the sending off of Vargas and Muscat in an amazing first period that yielded five goals, the Victory demonstrated they have the requisite desire to go with the quality.

While the Mariners had the odd half bite, the reality is that only one team looked likely to score in the second period, and eventually the Victory got their reward after some brilliant tee-up work from the Brazilian magician Fred.

Earlier in the day I'd woken up to the usual misinformed banter from the hosts of Sydney's Big Sports Breakfast, pleading with Andy Paschalidis for the 'real' Fred, he of Lyon and the goal in Munich, essentially trying to put down the A-League as second rate.

While it's not the Champions League, there was nothing second rate about this game, and nothing second rate about the masterful performance from Fred and his fellow front-men. While there was plenty of naivety about the Mariners defending at times, there was method behind the madness. More on that later, but back to Fred for now.

Within a few minutes he was weaving his flair, teeing up Simon Storey with neat flick, the shot not living up to the lay-off. Picking out Tomasevic, Fred soon had him for skill and pace, drifting in a delightful ball for Allsopp to monster home. It looked like Melbourne were on their merry way.

But the Mariners were here to play, and compete. Lawrie McKinna, speaking to Fox Sports before kick off, had clearly spelt out the game plan - defend high, push up on the Victory down the flanks through Petrie and Pondeljak (to pin back Melbourne), compete physically in midfield and have a go at them.

Defending deep, as the Mariners had done for much of the year, he reasoned, would invite the Victory on, and give their front trio space in front of the Mariners back four, which might spell disaster.

It was a gamble, for defending high against the Victory is also fraught with danger because they have speed to kill up front.

But the idea was to take the game to Melbourne, and some gaps at the back would be the sacrifice. It seemed to work. Soon enough the Mariners had an equaliser, when Mori found space in behind Piorkowski, drew Vargas and planted a first time cross onto the head of McMaster.

Back came the Victory, burning the Mariners on the counter, Allsopp feeding Thompson, who gallopped clear and clipped it over Vukovic for a sublime finish. The Mariners stuck to the game plan, pushed on and had a second equaliser when Pondeljak clipped a ball in behind Vargas, McMaster and Mori combining to tee-up Petrie for a neatly placed finish. Mori the finisher had turned provider.

Four goals in 11 minutes. Breathtaking stuff.

Back came the Victory, seemingly busting the Mariners rearguard at will. But it was the visitors who grabbed the go-ahead, Kwasnik profiting from some sloppy defending at a set piece to head towards goal, where Vargas handled on the line.

Red card, penalty, and Kwasnik was fortunate to get away with one that Theoklitos reached but couldn't keep out. 2-3, all within the first quarter of the game. Surely it would settle down?

Not if Muscat had his way. Already he'd picked a couple of arguments with Mori and Kwasnik. Now it was McMaster's turn, the Mariners seemingly intent on matching him in the intimidation stakes. It worked, Muscat snapping after one off the ball incident too many.

Down two men, Ernie Merrick reshaped by withdrawing Allsopp into midfield (Caceres had earlier been sacrificed for defender Pantelidis when Vargas was sent off), leaving Thompson up front and asking Allsopp and Fred to spring forward and support. The Mariners allowed it to happen, and Vukovic had a react sharply to keep out the Brazilian's sharp volley.

What would McKinna do in the second half? Surely he held all the aces? Not so, Melbourne driving forward on the counter, working incredibly hard all over the pitch and asking questions of a Mariners defence that has looked slow and square all season.

Twice they should have grabbed an equaliser, first Thompson denied by Vukovic's right foot after he'd burnt Wilkinson, before Fred went one way and then the other, danced past a few defenders, rounded the keeper, only the turn it wide. The mind flicked back a day or so to the Cesc Fabregas miss against CSKA.

A lesser team may have given up, a lesser player may have dropped his head. Not this bloke, not this team. From a throw-in that might have been pulled-up if the strict 'foul-throw' interpretation applied, he received a back-heel from Sarkies, danced inside Petrie and, out of the corner of his eye, saw an Allsopp run in behind O'Sullivan.

The vision was supreme, the weight on the ball even better, Allsopp volleying past Vukovic with the instep, sound technique from a bloke finally fulfilling the potential he showed as a teenager at South Melbourne in the NSL.

Another brilliant crowd of 28,000 plus went potty. It was a point, Melbourne's first draw of the season, but it was much more. Melbourne Victory? Try Moral Victory.

The visitors looked guttered, but they needn't have been. Few teams have the guts to come to Melbourne and play so expansively, and the Mariners proved damage can be done if you have a go at them.

Two points in two weeks, both on the road, to the competition's top two, Queensland and Melbourne. Hardly a disaster.

This was just about as good as it gets, a brilliant advertisement for a league that has rarely been this good. Well may it continue.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

New man at the helm for Under 20s

AFTER seven years in charge, there have been calls for Ange Postecoglou’s head following the first up loss to China in the under 20s world cup qualifiers, but no-one expected him to disappear as quickly as he did, replaced by Angelos Postekos, who got off to the perfect start last night.