Tuesday, August 21, 2007

B-League version 3; brimming with excitement and improvement

A comprehensive preview of A-League season 2007/08

EXPECT improvement, and plenty of it. That’s probably the safest thing you can say about the upcoming A-League season, which kicks-off with the Friday night blockbuster between Sydney FC and Central Coast Mariners.

Last season, by my reckoning, there were two teams that played the type of football that “wowed” the audiences; Melbourne and Newcastle.

Adelaide was up and down, while Sydney, in the main, were a mess, yet still managed to make the finals.

What did that say about the league? That the quality was rather thin.

It was the same in the inaugural season, with only two teams lighting it up consistently; the Central Coast Mariners played the most exciting brand, while the minor premiers Adelaide played the most incisive and effective football. While much of Adelaide’s football was tough and rugged, at least it was in-synch. As for the eventual champions Sydney, they sparkled only occasionally but knew how to get the job done whenever the heat was on.

Fast forward to version 3 and, on the basis of the recruitment and pre-season form, it seems that standards will improve right across the board.

Of course much of the focus has been on the influx of the Samba boys, so it might be tempting to start referring to our competition as The B-League, as in The Brazilian-League.

The initiative shown by most of the clubs is to be applauded, but on the basis of last season’s precedent, we shouldn’t expect all 13 to light up the league. Melbourne set the trend last campaign by drafting in the ‘trio from Rio’, but ultimately only had a 33% hit rate.

It wasn’t a bad 33% though, Fred going on to be arguably the most influential player in Melbourne’s championship run. While Ernie Merrick has been at pains to say that Fred wasn’t as effective as everyone has been making out, the truth is that his class was obvious as far back as the first round.

Fred’s success has prompted all and sundry to follow the same path. The problem is that not everyone can be as successful as Melbourne was last season.

On the evidence of Melbourne trio, only four or five of the 13 boys from Brazil can expect to dominate version 3. The hope, from an entertainment angle, is that they all will, but the odds suggest there will be a few disappointed manager come seasons end. The question is, which ones will shine?

If I had to speculate – difficult given the limited footage – and reading between the lines, I would guess that Juninho, Denni, Cassio, Daniel, Felipe, Marchino and Reinaldo would be the most likely to leave a lasting impression.

But even if there are only three or four ‘Freds’ in this season’s lot, the reality is that standards will rise across the board, and that is a good thing in terms of attracting those fans that can’t be easily fooled about the standard of the league.

While there are those newer to the game that have fallen for the A-League hook, line and sinker, the more worldly football follower knows what they are getting and will need to be offered quality to be convinced. Otherwise, they’ll stick to the EPL, Laliga and the European champions league, so readily accessible these days.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Sydney, where there was a big ‘turn-off’ after season one, partly down to the fact Dwight Yorke left early, but largely down to poor management both on and off field; some ad-hoc decisions from the front office and average work from Terry Butcher in the dug-out.

It seems that club across the board are heeding the lessons, and improvement is expected from most.

In New Zealand, the Wellington Phoenix are sure to change a few of the negative perceptions that surrounded the Knights. Manager Ricky Herbert produced some of the best football in the competition in the final third of last season and will be looking to continue the good work with his mixture of returned Kiwis, Brazilians and the odd Aussie surplus to requirements elsewhere.

The likes of Shane Smeltz and Tony Lochhead will add some local steel, while the flair is expected to come from the likes of Felipe and Daniel. The decision to bring in a number of motivated Aussies – released by their former clubs- could prove a masterstroke as there is no doubt that the likes of Michael Ferrante, Vince Lia and Ross Aloisi will be keen to prove a point. Ditto Royce Brownlie and Karl Dodd, members of Queensland Roar’s first season.

The key is how quickly Herbert brings it all together. Certainly, a draw which features four home games is the opening six weeks is appealing, evidence that the FFA are keen for this thing to work.

Up at Queensland Roar, Frank Farina is shaping his assault by building from the back with the addition of a couple of his Socceroo favourites, Craig Moore and Danny Tiatto. If season one was all about Sydney and season two was all about Melbourne, could season three be all about Brisbane? Does the ‘B’ in B-League stand for ‘Brisbane’?

Certainly, if the Roar are winning, the evidence is the crowds will flock. Momentum might follow. If Marchino and Reinaldo are happy and firing, anything is possible. Throw in the ‘Mass and Matt Show’, Massimo Murdocca and Matt McKay, and a couple of promising youngsters in Tahj Minniecon and Mitch Nichols and there is excitement building up north.

Another place where expectations are high is in Gosford where the Central Coast Mariners can expect massive improvement. On the evidence of their pre-season game at Blacktown and their subsequent progress in the pre-season cup, things are looking up after their play last season suffered from a move to more physical approach. Injuries didn’t help, but the style last season was a far cry from the sophisticated approach on v1.

No Brazilians on board at the coast, but the club is on the up and Lawrie McKinna, one of only two managerial survivors from the inaugural season (the other is Merrick), has made some shrewd additions, drafting in goal-scorer Sasho Petrovski, attacking midfielder Greg Owens and left back Dean Heffernan, sure to be an improved footballer after his so-journ to Germany.

A couple of players returning from injury – Tom Pondlejak and Nik Mrdja – could be crucial to providing more subtlety in the front third, while I’m particularly excited in seeing how young defender Nigel Boogaard develops. He might provide the cover that was lacking in defence last season.

Still in NSW and the Newcastle Jets has been the team most hit by the off-season, with three stars now gone; Nick Carle, Milton Rodriguez and Paul Okon. They are massive holes to fill, but in Gary van Egmond, the Jets proved last season that they have as thoughtful and resourceful a manager as there is. He is the key. Brazilian Denni is said to be the replacement for Carle, but van Egmond can always call on the quality of Mark Bridge ‘in the hole’ if he needs to. On the few occasions Carle was absent last season, Bridge filled the void brilliantly.

Up front Mario Jardel is a risk, but in Scott Tunbridge, Bridge, Joel Griffiths and Jorge Drovandi, there is sufficient potency. If van Egmond is able to keep this unit in the top-four, then the hype about him last season is more than justified.

Out west, Perth Glory have new owners, new expectations and a manager that has at least had the benefit of a full pre-season this time around. The evidence is Ron Smith is doing a good job, Perth making it all the way to the pre-season final.

Seemingly, the money still isn’t there, for Smith’s purchases have been muted. Mate Dragicevic, a player Smith knows well from Malaysia, is expected to shoulder much of the target-man duties of the retired Bobby Despotovski, with local youngster Nikita Rukavytsya impressing in the pre-season. While improvement is expected, a few injuries might test Perth’s depth.

South, there are question marks about whether Melbourne Victory can sustain the excellence of last season. Not only have the others improved, but the Victory need to prove they are over the loss of Fred. What he provided more than anything was drive and penetration out of midfield, and an amazing ability to link with Archie Thompson and Danny Allsopp. On the evidence so far, Carlos Hernandez is a different type of player, preferring to shoot from deep, while Kaz Patafta is a more subtle creator still in development. On the evidence of the pre-season, Melbourne will miss Fred’s thrust.

The one thing the Victory have though is depth, but it will be tough being the marked team this season. And surely they won’t be as lucky with injuries this time around.

Another team that appears to be on the improve is Adelaide United. It’s ironic to say that given they have finished among the top few in the opening two seasons, but John Kosmina’s teams were largely geared towards out-muscling the opposition. Aurelio Vidmar appears to be going for a far more technical approach and has assembled one of the most impressive and mobile midfields in the league.

One area Vidmar is particularly spoilt in is on the flanks where he can choose from Lucas Pantelis, Bobby Petta, Jason Spagnulo, Travis Dodd and Cassio, while the likes of Kristian Sarkies, Nathan Burns and Bruce Djite offer excitement through the middle when they aren’t on Olyroo or national team duty. Expect plenty of pace and width.

The muscle still comes from the likes of Anglo Costanzo, Michael Valkanis, Jonas Salley, Djite and Paul Agostino, providing one of the most balanced squads available.

The untried is the manager, still feeling his way into the job, but the signs at the back-end of the ACL and in the pre-season are good.

Another manager under massive pressure is Sydney FC’s Branko Culina. After an impressive ACL campaign, Culina has shown signs of the frustration that comes with managing the team with the most attention on it. Financial mistakes by an earlier administration have significantly tied his hands in the transfer market, and the whole saga over the marquee player was long-winded.

Finally Sydney have their man, with Juninho impressing in his first hit-out on Friday night. On that evidence, he will create chances, but Sydney’s success or otherwise this season will hinge on finding the finisher to polish off Juninho and Steve Corica’s good work.

David Zdrilic has been given too many opportunities and hasn’t the mobility to do the job, so it’s over to the new signing, Patrick da Silva to see if he can deliver. If not, Alex Brosque and Ben Vidaic will need to make a quantum leap. Sydney also appear to have some issues out on the flanks and the departure of David Carney has left a gapping hole, especially down the left.

At least FC look solid through the middle, with Tony Popovic joining the likes of Mark Rudan, Mark Milligan, Ufuk Talay, Corica and Juninho to create arguably the most experienced spine doing the rounds.

If Culina can deliver on the promised attacking football and keep this team high up the table, then it will be a job well done.

As you can see, this season promises to be the most competitive yet. There are fewer weaknesses and every team has realistic aspirations of making the finals. National team duty – both for the Oyroos and Socceroos – will test depth, while five new managers since the same time last year throws up some interesting tactical observations.

If I had to make a prediction on how the teams will finish, here goes; 1. Adelaide United, 2. Central Coast Mariners, 3. Queensland Roar, 4. Sydney FC, 5. Newcastle Jets, 6. Melbourne Victory, 7. Wellington Pheonix, 8. Perth Glory.


Anonymous Pinuts Pethia said...

Nice summary TT. I like the playing personnel assembled at Brisbane and the Central Coast. Predicting that Melbourne will go from Premiers to finishing 6th is a big call. I don't mind who wins the tilte this year, but it would be nice to spread the success around and have a new champion. Possibly CCM or the Roar.

Wed Aug 22, 10:00:00 am AEST  
Blogger The Round Ball Analyst said...

thanks pinuts,

I know it's a big call, but I really reckon this season is gonna be very tight...there weren't be much between the teams and everyone will be taking points off everyone...

So I reckon Melbourne will be the hunted this season and teams will be looking to devise tactics to stifle their front third, much as man utd are discovering at the moment...I dont think teams will be naive enough to play high against Melbourne...the big question then will be whether MV have the creativity to break teams down??

as i've said, there weren't be much between all the teams, but 4 of them have to miss out.

Wed Aug 22, 10:36:00 am AEST  
Anonymous sir alex said...

Victory to double up this year!
6th?? i'm sorry but you've got to be joking. perth, wellington, newcastle and adelaide/qld to miss out on finals football this year.

prediction of the year:
craig moore to miss most of season with injury

Wed Aug 22, 11:44:00 am AEST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tony, your comments are spot on regarding the A-League. Other than the over aged "marquee player" the other players are the same old same old, just moving from one team to another.


Wed Aug 22, 12:50:00 pm AEST  
Blogger The Round Ball Analyst said...

Macka, appreciate your comments buddy, but stay with it, the standards will continue to improve...

I know there is no chance of a trained eye like yours being fooled, but the big picture is that the league is only in it's 3rd season and the salary cap does restrict spending, so standards will gradually improve.

I think this year will be better than last and hopefully with some African and Asian additions in the years to come, it will continue to grow.

I quite like this whole gradual improvement thing because we want this thing to be sustainable in 10/15 years time.

Wed Aug 22, 01:20:00 pm AEST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally agree with your predictions but I think you should swap Central Coast and Melbourne around. Don’t look too much into pre-season and as for Hernandez he might not be right at the moment but when he gets going he will score a lot more than Fred I feel. Good Luck to any keeper when Hernandez gets a free kick…. Other things going for them is that Thompson is in superb form, Patafta will probably emerge as a great player and Milicevic might just be the best defender in the league! And to think Brebner, Allsopp, Muscat, Vargas, Caceres are still going strong, I am sure you have underestimated them mate.

Having said all that though I think they will probably draw at Wellington, tough away trip. But watch them blitz Perth at Telstra Dome the following week in front of 40,000 ….. J

I do agree Adelaide are favourites, can’t wait to see Burns and Sarkies combining with Djite/Agostino.

P.S. I think Drovandi might turn out to be a gun, if you are good enough for Argentina 1st Division…..

Wed Aug 22, 01:35:00 pm AEST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The other problem with the A-League is the number of teams or lack of. With only 8 teams as was seen last year, a team could be last and then string together 2 or 3 wins and you are in the top 4.

What is wrong with a second team in sports mad Melbourne.

I live in Sydney and went to watch CCM, and it took only just over 30 mins to get there and there was quiet a large crowd for that semi. I am sure Vic can accomodate another one or two teams and make it a 10 team comp without the A-League suffering.

Wed Aug 22, 07:15:00 pm AEST  
Anonymous Pinuts Pethia said...

Having covered the foreign invasion of players, I'd like to get your thoughts on some of the local talent and the possible impact/importance that they might have this year.

Thu Aug 23, 10:51:00 am AEST  
Blogger Mike Salter said...

Your views seem pretty similar to mine, Tony. I think Melbourne will probably make the finals again, though, they have enough depth to cope with injuries and/or loss of form IMO.

Thu Aug 23, 11:21:00 am AEST  
Blogger The Round Ball Analyst said...

mike, pinuts, thanks again for the comments...

mike, having read and listened to a bit of everyone's previews, it seems to be the prevailing belief that it will be a close season.

indeed, i reckon it will be so close i'm not even remotely confident about my predictions...Adelaide could finish top of the lot or finish outside the 4....after all, aurelio is new to this whole caper of managing a team through a season, so he's untested...wouldnt surprise me if they missed out...ditto melbourne who certainly have the players but have to still prove they can click...

pinuts, here are some local players to watch;

mariners - boogaard, jedinak, simon, owens
newcastle - tunbridge, musalik, hearfield
roar - minnicoen, nichols, zullo, griffin
sydney - biddle, vidaic,
wellington - lochhead, smeltz,
melbourne - patafta, piorkowski, berger
adelaide - sarkies, burns, djite, pantelis,erdogan,
perth - rukavytsya, micevski,danze, djulbic,

Thu Aug 23, 09:21:00 pm AEST  
Anonymous watt said...

While there are those newer to the game that have fallen for the A-League hook, line and sinker, the more worldly football follower knows what they are getting and will need to be offered quality to be convinced. Otherwise, they’ll stick to the EPL, Laliga and the European champions league, so readily accessible these days.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Sydney, where there was a big ‘turn-off’ after season one, partly down to the fact Dwight Yorke left early, but largely down to poor management both on and off field; some ad-hoc decisions from the front office and average work from Terry Butcher in the dug-out.

Thu Aug 23, 10:01:00 pm AEST  

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