Saturday, April 28, 2007

It's been some time and the lessons have been valueable

I KNOW, it's been a while, so to those of you who've expressed some disappointment about a lack of regular TRBA posts via txt and email, my apologies and thanks for your ongoing interest.

After a relentless effort throughout version 2 of the A-League, I guess there had to be some let-down, but the truth of the halt in posts is that the day job has just been so busy that by the time I get home I've been too exhausted to write, and whatever time I've had has been spent catching up the the wife and kids and watching endless hours of our beautiful game, all of it, from the high quality of the European Champions League to the learning adventure that has been our inaugural Asian sojourn. Add the much improved Uefa Cup, the mystifying title that nobody wants to win in Spain and the intriguing two-horse race in England, and barely a day goes by without something to mull-over.

Throw in the odd Socceroos game - the disappointment of Denmark made good by a brilliant first half performance in Shanghai - and the tough Olyroos qualification campaign at Hindmarsh and beyond, not the mention the Matildas goal-grabbing adventures, and it seems the round ball, these days, in this country, never ends.

Even the German Cup semi finals the other week, live on ESPN, offered a compelling local angle, with Michael Beauchamp and the much discussed Matthew Spiranovic on display for the Nuremberg CeskyRoos (a squad which features Czechs Galasek and Polak and Slovak's Mintal and Gresko to go with Aussies Beauchamp, Spiranovic, Heffernan and Kennedy - and Vidosic joins next season) in their 4-0 drubbing of Eintracht Frankfurt. For all the Czechs, Slovaks and Aussies on display, it was a Russian that most caught the eye, striker Ivan Saenko a handful for Eintracht and proving how many enlightening experiences the game offers for those willing to spread the wings.

Football is everywhere, for everyone, and Australia is now truly engaged.

At times taxing to keep up, it's all good, and a far cry from a couple of years ago when fans of the game down-under were crying out for a local game, of any description.

The most recent time I touched base, I'd just been witness to Sydney FC's final hit-out before the Asian Champions League kicked-off, and I signed off by writing it should make for compulsive viewing.

While it hasn't always caught the imagination (say like the A-League finals) of a mainstream media busy following the likes of golden girl Lenton, pampered AFL 'star' Ben Cousins and retiring league legend Joey Johns, it has no doubt made an impression on football followers around the country, at least this one.

While crowds have been poor in most parts and there is still plenty of logistical work to do, as we saw from the scenes out of Solo City on matchday 3, the football has been decent, at times brilliant, essentially more easy on the eye than the A-League.

Here, in Asia, the emphasis has been on sound technique and organisation ahead of the physical, which is a big part of the A-League's make-up. To draw a comparison with Europe, it has almost been like stepping out of the EPL, where the game is often like a sprint, into the ECL, where players get time to put their foot on the ball, take a breath or two, and then pass it.

We saw this very early on, way back on matchday 1, where the China Super League champions Shandong Luneng came to Adelaide with it's mixture of Chinese discipline and structure (and a surprising amount of flair) and Eastern European nous and technique.

Wonderfully organised in 4-4-2 formation, they played the Reds off the park, depsite Aurelio Vidmar's interpretation afterwards that his men had been unlucky to not to grab a share of the points. Fanatsy stuff. Shandong controlled the game from the outset, Nikola Malbassa (the Serbian no. 15) solid at the back, right back Jiao Zhe (no. 25) pushing forward with real culture and drive, Serbian Zivkovic (no. 8) and Wang Yongbo (no. 13), he of the coloured boots, controlling the midfield and livewire striker Li Jinyu (no. 29) at times toying with Adelaide's back four.

1-0 flattered Adelaide, and it has been no surprise to see Luneng go on and maintain a perfect record.

The Reds have looked a few players, the odd tactical move and technically short of being a threat in the group. Bruce Djite has foraged tirelessly up front, but he is still in development mode, far from the finished product. The same can be said of Nathan Burns, yet he has still looked Adelaide's most likely and lively, driving in from the left, both on the ball and off it.

There has been much said since that much talked about grand final about the need to re-invigorate the team. That process appears to have started in attack and midfield, where the likes of Aloisi and Veart are no longer mainstays, but nowhere is the need to freshen-up more evident than at the back, and the impending depature of Kristian Rees should be just the start.

Richie Alagich has been an Adelaide football great and had a decent end to the domestic season, but his work in the first half of version 2 of the A-League and in the ACL to date has been average. While he has never been the greatest going forward or on the ball, it has been his defensive work, once his strength, that has let him and his team down, getting caught out of position time and time again.

He hasn't been the only one. Adelaide's ageing defence are slow, reactionary and average on the ball and in need of urgent resuscitation.

Not surprisingly they have been handed a couple of valueable lessons in the past two matchdays by impressive K-League champions Seongnam Ilhwa, and especially it's livewire wide man Choi Sung-kuk. Whether he has popped up on the right (generally his starting position) or the left (where he did his damage on Wednesday night, making a fool of Alagich and Rees), 'the little Maradona' has been one of the revelations of this Champions League, quick, mobile, comfortable cutting infield, edept at going around and always a wonderful tamer of the ball.

Watching him drag Seongnam back into the matchday 3 clash at Hindmarsh was a joy for any football follower, except those that support the Reds. He is a complete footballer, a model of what we should be aspiring to produce, and it is no surprise to learn he is part of the Korean national team set-up. Certainly will be interesting seeing him in July.

Adelaide are clearly in re-building phase and might need to go through some short term pain. What they do with the manager situation will be instructive, but it is fair to say that Vidmar hasn't yet grasped his chance like say Gary van Egmond.

If they are to stick with the former Socceroo, management will need to give him time, perhaps a couple of seasons. The question is; do they have the patience to re-build?

Amd what of Australia's other representative, inaugural champs Sydney?

Like Adelaide, they are also going through somewhat of a rebuilding phase, and new manager Branko Culina has done well to have them where they are, a point behind the group giant Urawa.

On matchday 1 they stormed out of the gates, taking advantage of a disjointed Shanghai Shenhua. Culina had promised an up-tempo start in the building up to the match and his team delivered, two delightfully taken goals catching the hosts cold. It was clever work from the toughtful manager, recognising that his best bet was to catch the hosts napping when the natural inclination for a team in its first ACL campaign might have been to sit back and have a look.

The second half was less convincing as Shenhua awoke, and Sydney appeared lucky to survive what looked like a bit of shirt tugging in the box late on.

Learning from the value of a good start against opposition that might not expect it, Sydney again came out flying in the Urawa blockbuster at Aussie on matchday 2, played in front of amazing travelling contigent of Urawa Red Diamonds fans, the pleasure of being able to sit nearby one of this correspondent's most enjoyable football experiences.

Off the pitch it was compelling, on the pitch even moreso. This was the most fascinating of tactical battles, something we have rarely seen in two years of the A-League, two managers manipulating the players on the pitch as if it were a game of high level chess. Loved it.

Culina had the upper hand early, Urawa's 3-5-2 (the favoured Japanese formation) struggling to the deal with the width of Sydney's game, as Carney (on the right) pulled Brazilian left stopper Flavio (no. 5) out of the middle.

Urawa's problems were down the left. With star midfielder Shinji Ono starting in the left wing-back role, Sydney were sending Middleby and Talay forward at every opportunity, stacking the right, forcing Ono outside his comfort zone, into defensive areas. With Flavio being pulled wide, Urawa were all over the place, Sydney controlling the game through Milligan and deserving their two goal lead as defenders Tanaka and Tsuboi were stretched every which way.

With Ono unable to get into the game down the left, Urawa started to direct traffic and the ball to the other side, hoping to isolate Sydney's left back Topor-Stanley. Clearly they'd noticed his weakness on the ball and perhaps some hesitation when a player runs at him.

Soon the Urawa skipper Yamada, right wing-back, ventured forward, isolating Topor-Stanley, a run off the ball by $3 million dollar man Yuki Abe creating the space for Robson Ponte on the edge of the box.

At 1-2, Urawa were back in the contest, but it wasn't enough for their German manager Holger Osiek. He want to control the game. Off went Flavio, replaced by attacking midfielder Makoto Hasebe. Abe went from central midfield, where he had been peripheral, to left back, Ono from the left into central midfield and the hitherto unsighted striker Nagai out to the left.

Osiek had moved to a back four to counter Sydney's width, and suddenly, with Nagai wide, getting on the ball and Ono central, pulling the strings alongside Ponte, Hasebe and Suzuki, it was Urawa controlling the midfield and the flow of the game.

An injury to Middleby before the break forced Zadkovich on. Culina obviously felt Nagai might prosper down the left so he countered by moving the better defender, Milligan, to right back after the break. Nagai equalised, from a Bolton howler, and Urawa bossed most of the second half, but for the last 20 or so minutes it was a stalemate, both managers seemingly content with the punches they'd landed. The message from both? We'll sort this out in Saitama on matchday 6.

From my position, I felt Sydney were there for the taking and that Urawa might have hesitated a touch.

The problems in Solo City have been well documented, but there is little doubt that the quality of Persik took Sydney by surprise. While Culina's men looked dangerous and should have put the game away early, the hosts gradually got themselves into it and the likes of Erol Iba, Ronald Fagundes, Danilo Fernando and substitute Budi Sudarsono caught the eye with accomplished technical displays.

Certainly Keidiri's ability to build out of the back, willingness to keep the ball on the deck and pace across the pitch are technical lessons for all Australian sides. Sydney were certainly found out in the pace stakes in both legs.

The Indonesians were supposedly the whipping boys of the group, and Sydney finally got on top of them in the second period on Wednesday when they upped the tempo and kept the ball, but they have made a valueable impression and still might have some say in the way the group finishes.

Sydney still have realistic ambitions of topping the group, and if they do it in the buzzing atmosphere on matchday 6, it will be an almighty achievement by all involved. If they don't, it shouldn't be looked on as a failure.

This is a tough competition, providing valueable lessons, highlighting that the A-League, it's clubs, it's players, it's administrators and supporters, still have plenty of work to do.