Sunday, January 21, 2007

A -League, round 21 round-up

The four games

Newcastle Jets 4 v Melbourne Victory 0; a fair bit of it has been covered in this tribute to the work so far of Gary van Egmond. As for Melbourne, they seemed intent, right from the opening whistle, on shaking off their recent lethargy by imposing their fluent build-the-ball-up-through-the-middle passing game that has served them so well so far, but were never really allowed to by a Jets midfield hungry to compete at every pass. The Jets pressed high, numbered up all over the place, never allowing any build up out of the back and ensuring the likes of Muscat and Brebner couldn't get the ball to Fred, Allsopp and Thompson. When the dangerous trio did get the ball, they were never left in one on one situations. A perfect example was when Allsopp went deep into his own half to get a touch. He was pressed by three Jets men towards the sideline and only had one way to go, back to Vargas, who also had Bridge hot on his heels. Slight hesitation from Vargas, a bit of composure from Bridge and it was 1-0. Early in the second half, when an aerial ball was there to be won in midfield, it was Brown, wonderful throughout, who attacked it. Lia, with Bridge lurking, scuffed his clearance and it was 2-0. It got worse for Melbourne, the defence opening right up for Coveny and Griffiths to waltz through the middle. With Okon pulling the strings out of the back and Carle doing likewise in midfield, this was total domination from the hosts, except in their defending at set pieces. Melbourne, suffering it's first loss on the road, have taken their foot off the pedal and will do very well to regain the momentum in the finals. Adelaide failed to do it last season. Melbourne had argued they have learnt from that. To date the evidence suggests they haven't.

Queensland Roar 1 v Sydney FC 1; a cracker. Sydney, so full of big game experience, started brilliantly, stringing the passes around the back and in midfield. The mystery was that the Queensland allowed them to do it, playing keepings off rather than getting in Sydney's face and trying to disrupt their rhythm. Forced into playing a new 3-5-2 thanks the so many absentees, this was the most fleunt and in-synch showing from a Sydney side in a long time. Believe it or not, Sydney's goal resulted from a fluent passing pattern which stretched for 15 passes, the ball moved around the back and in midfield through a series of one and two touch passes before Zdrilic eventually dragged Ognenovski out of the middle, allowing Brosque to take advantage of a Buess slip. The Roar, retreating to such a shoddy penalty area were playing right in Sydney's hands. They really should have been defendig higher, getting right in amongst Butcher's men. Instead, a short time after the goal, they allowed Sydney to string another delightful 15 passes that resulted in Zdrilic shooting wide. Talay and Corica were pulling all the strings, and Zadkovich, despite the odd errant pass infield, was dominant down the right. Queensland, realising Sydney were essentially defending with three men, were content to hit the long ball, trying to expose FC on the counter, and they did exactly that when Reinaldo nodded down for Mori to prod home. Queensland had been outnumbered in midfield in the first half, Seo and Murdocca struggling to keep up with the mobility of Talay, Corica and Carney. But Farina turned things at the break, bringing on Milicic for a tired Murdocca. Suddenly it was the Roar asking the attacking questions and looking the more likely to pinch everything. But when Bolton produced a peach to deny Mori and then Reinaldo missed what looked a sitter, Roar heads dropped. Deep down they sensed their chance had passed. Sydney seemed emboldened by some good fortune and brilliant defensive work and despite the sending off of influential Talay, hung on. With their backs to the wall and despite the loss of three points earlier, Sydney again produced a performance full of spirit and belief, confirming they will be tough to beat in the eliminators.

New Zealand Knights 2 v Perth Glory 0; it had taken 83 matches spanning five months, but finally we had a game where the outcome would have absolutely no bearing on the make-up of the final four. The temptation was not to watch. But the hosts have at least been watchable of late, and the thought of Ricki Herbert summoning them to one last rousing performance in front of their home fans (almost 5,000 were on hand, a stampede by Knights standards) was enough to get me in front of the box. Without Marcina, on international duty, Herbert had a choice to make up front, and he went for Buari, hitherto a midfielder. The sight of Emblen and Buari up front under Paul Nevin would hardly have registered a concern for opposition managers, but here, with the confidence flowing, they were potent, far too strong and mobile for a Glory defence that has struggled. Stretching Perth through the good work of Hickey and Gao on the flanks, this was some performance from Knights, a credit to the continuing good work of Herbert. If there is to be a NZ club, the FFA, Soccer NZ and the ‘new’ owners, or whoever is charged with making these decisions, should make Herbert’s signature a priority and find a way to combine this role with that of managing the national team, if at all possible. Ron Smith, meanwhile, has a fair bit of thinking to do about his squad for next season. Given he inherited this squad, expect changes, and plenty of them.

Central Coast Mariners 1 v Adelaide United 3; if ever Adelaide needed a rousing performance to build confidence ahead of the finals, now was the time. A win would also cement the double chance, an opportunity to host the big one and, as John Kosmina had pointed out in the Adelaide press earlier in the week, ensure they finished four points above Sydney, making redundant any arguments about Sydney missing out on the top two due to their loss of three points. While a 1-0 win over Sydney last week gave them some confidence, performances of late haven’t been the greatest from Adelaide, certainly not up with the high standards they set between rounds seven and 12, when they won five from six. At the start of that run Petta and Burns were in the team and doing well, but then Petta got injured and Burns went overseas with the Young Socceroos. Back together for the second week running, they were on song, Petta giving two youngsters (Porter and Trott) a lesson on his way to setting up Burns for the opener, before teeing up a lovely final ball for Burns’s hat-trick. In between there was some impressive work from the Brazilian attacking midfielder Diego, stationed forward of a hard-working Aloisi, as well as some neat target-man play from Djite. The Mariners, in truth, weren’t at the races, leaving far too much space in and around the box for Adelaide’s attackers. ‘Aussie Lawrie’ was right to be mystified. For Adelaide, the performances of Diego, Djite and Petta should place pressure on the likes of Veart and Dodd for starting births, while Owens and Kosmina will be kicking themselves after the potent attacker’s late yellow.

Some other talking points

Surfarce; I, for one, have been harping on this for some time now. About 20 years to be precise. Forever it seems round ball fans in Australia have had to put up with inferior surfaces at all the multi-sport stadiums. However, when I attended my first pre-season game at the start of season one, in Gosford, I was heartened by the sight of a groundsmen walking around the field at the break, picking up loose turf, patting down other areas, ensuring a smooth playing surface. A new age, a new attitude, I thought. All in all, surfaces have been far better in the A-League than at most non-football-specific NSL grounds, but there is still plenty of work to be done. At the start of the season, North Harbour was a joke. In the past few months, we have been dished up a number of surfaces which just haven’t been up to scratch. In Sydney it was Robbie Williams and some ground renovations. In Newcastle it was a re-laid pitch after some drainage repairs, unashamedly done in time for the rugby league season to look after the chief tenants, never mind the current ones. At Suncorp it was Robbie again. Now comes a crucial semi-final at Aussie Stadium, to be preceded by a rugby trial match, only 24 hours earlier. If the chopping up of the surface isn’t the only problem, the markings left behind are another. Telstra Dome has been good lately, but cast your mind forward to the beginning of season three, when the AFL season is approaching finals time. Beyond that, think about Melbourne’s participation in Asian Champions League in 08, by which time the AFL will again be in full swing. A bit of work for Ben Buckley and the clubs.

Crowded house; while some of the surfaces haven’t exactly been flash of late, the crowds continue to go from strength to strength. Another 20 thousand in Newcastle, 32,000 at Brisbane, just brilliant. If Sydney-siders get on board on Friday, we’re in for some more bumper finals figures.

Save of the week; probably not the greatest of his career, but as important as any, Clint Bolton’s flying save to his left to keep out a Mori volley on the hour. The Roar were bombing forward after the break and when Vidosic clipped a delightful cross from the right, Mori met it spectacularly, but Bolton had other ideas.

Goal of the week; there were some excellent goals this week. Pondeljak caught Beltrame out with some sharp awareness while Burns, for his third, was on the end of a wonderful exchange of passes involving Dodd, Burns, Djite and Petta. Newcastle also scored a couple of gems, their third and fourth, involving build-ups down the left and some lovely final balls through the middle. But Sydney gets the goal of the week this week for a beautifully constructed 15 pass move that started at the back and built-up through the middle, until it reached Zdrilic up front. He drew Ognenovski out of the middle, swiveled on to his left foot and crossed for Brosque, who took advantage of a Buess slip. Any team that can patiently knock it around for 15 passes deserves the gong. Well done Sydney. Earlier in the season I commented on Melbourne stringing eight passes to score against New Zealand, but in the context of the opposition and what was at stake, this one was even better.


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