Monday, January 29, 2007

A-League Semi Finals, first leg round-up

Minor semi, Sydney FC 2 v Newcastle Jets 1; it's all here.

Major semi, Adelaide United 0 v Melbourne Victory 0; much of the discourse in the build-up to this one centred on whether the Victory could shake-off their recent lethargy now that the real stuff was back on. On this evidence, Melbourne's confidence has taken a severe battering and if the minor premiers do go on and win hosting rights for the decider on February 18 it will be more through guts and determination than through the flowing football that has characterised their season. All the noise coming out of the Melbourne camp in the build-up was that their win-less month would have little impact on their willingness to attack Adelaide, but the truth of their mental state emerged through the team selection. Ernie Merrick had opted for seven defensive minded players (eight if you include Theoklitos) and just three attackers. Clearly they had come to defend, evidenced by the decision to deploy Byrnes as insurance between the back-four and Muscat and Brebner. A more attacking mind-set may have seen a Caceres or Alessandro stationed on the left side of midfield, but instead Merrick wanted to make his unit difficult to play through, and the latter was left at home. If there has been one disappointment in watching Merrick's work this season it has been his instance on turning the Brazilian left sided trickster into a defender, when he is clearly not. Indeed, his best work came in the first few games when he was used more as a left sided attacker, terrorising the likes of Alagich and Fyfe with his willingness to take players on and create things. These days the Victory are far more narrow and less likely to get around teams. Even Caceres, when he has played of late, has been drifting infield, making the Victory easier to defend. Here they defended deep, very deep, inviting United to take advantage of the flanks, which they did through the pace of Dodd, the subtlety of Petta (before succumbing to a foot complaint) and the overlapping of Alagich. The message was clear; see if you can break us down from the flanks, an invitation Adelaide are always willing to take. On another evening Adelaide might have, Burns heading just wide, Fernando guiding a header onto the crossbar, from chances coming from crosses. Controlling the midfield through Aloisi and Diego and the back through the wonderful work of Costanzo, it was all Adelaide, but for a lack of subtlety around the box. Melbourne appeared content to counter-attack with just the three up front, Allsopp, Thompson and Fred. Earlier in the season it might have been enough, but confidence is an amazing thing, and here the trio appeared to lack it, running into dead ends, tripping over themselves, looking anything but the lethal combination they had been only a month or so ago. If there was another sign of the second-guessing going on among the greys, it was the lack of crispness in their passing. Instead of releasing the ball early, first or second touch, it was being held for three or four touches, and the opportunity to find a teammate was lost. Perhaps Merrick will simply be content to have come away level, but their falure to even threaten an away goal must be alarming. Adelaide, while failing to get past Theoklitos and the re-united Leijer-Vargas combination, will content themsleves in the knowledge that a scoreless home draw sure beats a score draw. How the Victory handle the pressure of the next week - and it will be on - will be telling.

Some of the other talking points

Sydney's missing 9,000 fans; when Sydney played Adelaide in week two of the major semi last season, the crowd was just over 30,000. On Friday night it was just over 21,000. Seven of last season's 11 starters were backing-up here. There has been some conjecture about the possibility of some number tinkering, denied by Matt Carroll in this Mike Cockerill piece. From my vantage point, just above the Cove, it looked at least a couple of thousand short, but the fact the Cove area was basically chopped in half by the continuing ground work might have made the crowd look larger than it was. My guesstimate was 23-24,000. Regardless, the continuing slump in Sydney's crowds is a worrying one and gives all the administrators connected with the club and the FFA plenty to ponder. The reality is that Sydney dished up some its best football of the season in the first period, but perhaps it had come a little too late to entice the crowds this season. The three home Asian Champions League matchdays will be interesting.

Save of the week; for once, can't really remember a top class one, can you? So give it to Ange Costanzo for some top class defending.

Goal of the week; having watched as much football as I have, it takes something particularly special to get TRBA off his seat, but when Milton Rodriguez spun on the edge of the box, touched the ball inside Fyfe and lashed it home with a stroke of his left peg, I momentarily forgot I was in the midst of a sea of sky blue. The lady to my right smiled, the bloke in front of me summoned a death stare. Some strike. By the way, the vision and weight on the Corica cross to Milligan, coupled with his bullet header, also had me on my feet. Both quality strikes.

Best of the week; with TRBA team of the week on hold till the end of the finals, here are the players who stood out for me this weekend: McFlynn, Corica, Brosque, Eagleton, Okon, Musalik, Rodriguez, Alagich, Costanzo, Aloisi, Dodd, Diego, Petta, Leijer and Vargas.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Status quo as Godriguez rescues the Jets

Minor Semi final first leg analysis, Sydney FC 2 v Newcastle Jets 1

A WONDERFUL contest, full of cut and thrust and tactical intrigue was played out at Aussie Stadium last night and at the end of it, much of what happened was what we have come to expect whenever these sides have crossed paths this season.

Indeed, it was a contest largely in keeping with what we have seen from both sides this season.

Sydney, as has been their way in all the crunch contests, started well, very well in fact. At the end though they were hanging on, more through guts and determination than anything convincing.

Newcastle, who have given up so many leads throughout the season, did it again, starting slowly and succumbing to the high-tempo physical pressing of their southern rivals.

After adpoting a 3-5-2 last week in Queensland last week, Sydney reverted back to the 4-5-1 we have seen for much of the season. But there was a little twist in it from Butcher.

Instead of deploying Carney wide, the blond was doing most of his work through the centre of midfield. It did two thing, allowing Zadkovich the freedom to get forward when he chose, but more importantly and decisively, it crowded out the Newcastle midfield trio of Carle, Musalik and Brown.

It was a case of Sydney overloading the midfield (four on three) and Newcastle being overworked.

It was the exact same tactic adpoted so successfully in Sydney's 2-0 win up at Newcastle on New Years day, and it worked a treat for the defending champions on both ocassions.

With McFlynn hot on Carle's case, suddenly Musalik and Brown had to deal not only with Milligan and Corica, but the extra body of Carney.

Corica and Brosque were finding far too much space and Newcatle's backline was pulled hopelessly out of shape trying to number up.

At the other end, Sydney were in total control, three of its four defenders numbering up on the Newcastle front three, allowing one to cover. With Carle bottled up and Musalik and Brown busy deciding who to pick up, Sydney were calling all the shots.

Times likes these call for decisiveness from your goalkeeper, but when Covic hesitated to deal with a Topor-Stanley cross header, the Jets were punished. Newcastle were rocking, furthermore when North was pulled out of the middle by Brosque shortly before the half-hour mark.

Suddenly Corica had the ball at his feet and North was out of position. Corica, ever the craftsmen, saw the space in the middle, saw the run from deep of Milligan and dished up a delightfully weighted cross, between Okon and Eagleton, into the space North was meant to cover.

It was almost an exact replica of the Talay delivery to Zdrilic that had killed Newcastle in the corresponding New Years day clash.

Superb stuff from Sydney.

For once they'd consolidated a 1-0 lead with a second, but could they go on grab a telling third? Sit back now and it would only invite the Jets forward, and a valueable away goal might be the result.

In truth Sydney's hands were somewhat tied by the forced substitution of McFlynn at the break. Sydney had to adjust, and with no noted central midfielder on the bench, Milligan was moved into the holding role, onto Carle, Petrovski brought on up front.

While his hands were tied by a lack of personnel, to some degree Butcher had surrendered his domination of the midfield.

Sydney had a couple of bites early in the second, Corica and Petrovski getting in behind the Newcastle right, wasting chances to almost kill off the tie. Would they be made to pay?

Just short of the hour, van Egmond's wildcard was introduced. 'Milton Godriguez' the banner said, and so it proved. Clearly in the mood and trying to rekindle his love affair with the ground he had made such a brilliant debut at, he was soon combining with Carle, little pass after pass, trying to unlock the defiant Sydney rearguard.

When you have feet this quick, it's inevitable a chance or two will be created. Soon he was firing across Bolton without success.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the Jets had their lifeline. A ball knocked to the edge of a crowded Sydney box by Carle looked like it would be comfortable for Sydney. Surely they had the numbers?

But alas, Godriguez had other ideas, stepping inside Fyfe and flashing and left foot rocket past a bemused Bolton. It was a sublime bit of execution, the work of the sharpest pick-pocket, feet so quick you just about missed the action.

Earlier in the night we had witnessed a jet, part of the Australia Day festivities, roar overhead. Surely it had dropped off Rodriguez, for his shot was just as loud.

Now it was the Jets asking all the questions, and Sydney, as has become their characteristic under Butcher, hanging on for dear life.

Only three shots from the hosts in the second period, all early, summed up the flow of the final half hour.

Rodriguez's goal was one that breathes life back into the reverse tie next Friday. Sydney will feel they have a slight advantage, especially if they can get one early, as has been their way.

It would mean that Newcastle would need to score two simply to take it into extra time, and Sydney would feel confident knowing it hasn't conceeded two goals in its past 13 games, since its October 21 2-1 loss to Melbourne in round nine. A remarkable record, one the manager would be proud of.

The Jets, meanwhile, have kept clean sheets in their past two home games and may need to do it again to carry on. It's all fascinating stuff.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Coming up....

A comprehensive season review of those teams already out of the finals a look at the players that have stood out in season two, as well as those that stand out during the finals....and plenty more Finals Series analysis.....

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A-League team of the week, round 21

THE final round, the final A-League team of the week for season two, this was one of the toughest to choose, with some accomplished performances from Newcastle, Sydney, New Zealand and Adelaide. Naturally, players from those four teams make up the following 4-4-2. In a number of positions there were numerous choices, except in goal where, for once, no keeper really stood out. Here it is;

Clint Bolton, SFC, keeper; of the keepers that kept a clean sheet, Covic looked shaky on crosses and Paston hardly had a touch. Bolton conceeded one, exposed by his backs, and generally looked a little hesitant using his feet, but he did make one crucial stop, from Mori, that gave Sydney it's semi final birth.

Ruben Zadkovich, SFC, right back; Alagich has improved markedly over the past few weeks but Zadkovich again took his opportunity as a fill-in right-sided wing-back, dominating his flank and providing much drive for Sydney, allowing Carney to duck infield and create an extra number in midfield. Errant a couple of times with his distribution, his adaptability (he can readily shift from a conventional right back to a wing-back, and back again) gives Butcher a nice little option on the right.

Iain Fyfe, SFC, central defender; while Costanzo and Valkanis continued their recent strong form on Sunday, Fyfe, shifted to right stopper in a back three, was excellent under fire in the second period. Exposed for the first goal, his fully-stretched effort late in the game to get back and cut out a dangerous cross from the right was top draw. Rudan was also strong alongside him.

Paul Okon, NJ, central defender; back into the starting line-up, probably to protect Durante, Okon was in the unfamiliar left stopper role, between North and Thompson. Defending fairly deep and keeping things well organised, Okon's lack of pace was rarely exposed. Indeed, Okon was able to provide not only organisation in defence, but quality on the ball, responsible for starting much of the Jets good stuff going forward. Combined well with Thompson and linked well with Musalik, Carle and his front men.

Matt Thompson, NJ, left back; The Hyphen, Topor-Stanley, can feel unlucky not to make this one after a solid second half showing, but Thompson's drive was again such a feature of this total Jets performance, involved in the third before playing the final ball for the fourth. Melbourne's right side never had a look in.

Mark Bridge, NJ, right midfield; his teammate, Griffiths, was also immense, but Bridge demonstrated his predatory best, feeding off the mistakes of both Vargas and Lia, part of which where his doing. The Jets like to defend from the front, squeezing teams high, and Bridge is a leading component. Special mention to Hickey, who was excellent on Sunday, terrorising Lee, while Dodd had his best game for some time.

Ufuk Talay, SFC, defensive central midfield; sent off late for a tug on Vidosic, let that not detract from an outstanding performance, controlling the midfield and tempo of the match with neat link up work with his backs, wide men and Corica. Sydney have rarely passed it better, and Talay's contribution was a bit factor. Hard to ignore the performance of Aloisi, one of his best this season, while the two Knights midfielders, Johnson and Salley, were strong.

Tim Brown, NJ, central midfield; hard to leave out his teammate Carle, Sydney's Corica and Adelaide's Diego, all influential playmakers, but Brown's workrate must be rewarded. Surprisingly starting ahead of Kohler, it was a master-stroke by van Egmond, Brown getting right up in Muscat and Brebner's face, never allowing them a second on the ball. Immense stuff.

Bobby Petta, AU, left midfield; in the starting line-up for the second week on the trot, showed his experience with another calm display, giving Porter a thorough working over. Getting to the ball ahead of him on the sideline, he set up the first, before playing the final ball for the third. At his best, before a mid-season injury, he made United play. With Spagnuolo so impressive down the left this season, Kosmina wil have to decide whether he goes for experience or youth, or perhaps shifts one of them to the right at the expense of Dodd. Gao was also brilliant down the left against Coyne and has really impressed in his time at the Knights. On this evidence, worth another crack next season.

Malik Buari, NZK, striker; no Marcina, no worries. In stepped make-shift Buari, running the Glory defence ragged with his workrate and good combination with Emblen, unlucky not to be a part of this team himself. Created the first with a neat shot on the turn before pouncing ahead of Tomich for the second.

Nathan Burns, AU, striker; the contribution of his teammate Djite off the bench shouldn't be underestimated, but Burns takes all the glory in this one, bagging the match-ball with some clinical poaching. Showed awareness to get into the box late for the first and calmness to get his second and third.

That completes TRBA's look at the players that stood out on a week to week basis throughout season two. If you'd like to catch up on any of the teams of the week, they're linked on the right. Stay tuned this week as I take a comprehensive look at the players that have stood out in season two in TRBA team of the season, and there's more, including a team of the finals in four weeks time....

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.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

A Vantastic job

Gary van Egmond; a chronology of a wonderful and thoughtful 14 weeks

NEWCASTLE's amazing 4-0 win last night over the minor premiers was yet another master-class in management from a bloke who's star is on the rise.

While Ernie Merrick will no doubt win the manager of the year award, and rightly so after almost being dumped last season, last night was yet another example of just how vital good management is to success.

In the short space of 14 games, Van the Man has highlighted how thoughtful and convincing a manager he is, pulling so many right moves in a run which has seen his team win eight matches and amass 27 points, more than any other team in that period.

Three weeks ago, after Sydney beat the Jets 2-0 in Newcastle on a terrible New Year's day pitch that didn't suit his team, I felt that Gary van Egmond had a real challenge on his had to rebound from that loss and get his team into the finals, particularly in light of the fact the Jets were back on the same sandy surface against local rivals the Mariners only four days later.

Rebound he did.

Van Egmond didn't make or look for excuses after the Sydney defeat. Instead he set about adapting the way his team plays, transforming them in only a couple of training sessions from a one-dimensional team that played everything through Stuart Musalik and Nick Carle into a multi-faceted unit that could also play the ball forward above the surface, getting players running through the wide channels.

As we now know, his players responded, getting a crucial 1-0 win. Afterwards he emphasised how proud he was that his men could adapt and grind out a result. It was not the Newcastle way, but it was a way to victory, character building stuff.

It demonstrated a manager who could find a quick solution to a pressing issue, think on his feet. Not every manager has reacted so rapidly. As we'd seen only a few weeks earlier, it took John Kosmina four weeks to work out how to best play through Romario.

Indeed, van Egmond's impressive work started as early as his first game in charge, instilling his men with the confidence and patience to keep knocking despite a plethora of missed chances and seven games without a win.

In that game he used a 3-4-3.

The next week, away to the Roar and faced with a backline missing Okon, he altered the formation. Realising that North had done a decent defensive job as a right stopper in a back three, he shifting him into central defence alongside Durante, brought in Eagleton on the right and shifted Thompson from midfield to left back, one of the moves of the season. In the same game he also moved Kohler from defence to central midfield, a position we had grown accustomed to seeing him in in the NSL. Here he formed a formidable partnership with Musalik, one a ball winner, one a ball user.

It allowed Carle to get closer to the front three and the 4-2-3-1 formation we still see today was set.

Suddenly the team had the shape and balance to match their cluey forward play with shrewdness in the back third.

With Musalik and Kohler providing the screen in front of the back four, Durante, Okon, North and Kennedy reducing the mistakes that characterised their early form, and Eagleton and Thompson adding thrust from the back, it allowed Carle and the front three (any mixture of Rodriguez, Bridge, Coveny and Grffiths) to buzz all over the place, get close to each other, get wide and cause all sorts of problems for the opposition.

Earlier in the season, Nick Theodorakopoulos had been guilty of being far too gun-ho and paid the price. Van Egmond, it seemed, was all about balance, such a vital ingredient to success, as we'd seen in last season's champions league.

Round 11 away to Sydney was also instructive. Battered early by a physical and successful Sydney approach, the Jets stuck to their convictions, knocking the ball around, trying to play. As the hosts struggled to relieve pressure by failing to string passes, the Jets equalised.

Not content with a four game undeafeated run and recognising that Rodriguez had struggled to make an impact the previous few weeks and was in need of a rest or some firing up, he brought Bridge into the starting line-up (for the first time under his management) in round 12. Talk about the midas touch. Bridge scored one and was very influential while Rodriguez came off the bench and scored.

Later, backing up from a tough road trip to New Zealand where they dropped two points and with another trip to Queensland only four days later, he rested his two elder statesmen, Coveny and Okon, freshing up the team with the addition of Bridge and Durante. It worked a treat, Bridge massive.

Even in round 17, when he had prophetically suggested Adelaide were due a win, he again pulled the right moves in a classic contest, starting Bridge into the Carle role and then shifting him out wide when Griffiths was injured. While the Jets lost, they'd won more admirers.

And again last night, more wonderful work from van Egmond. Recognising that some of fluency has gone out of his team's passing game the past few weeks and that Durante was a card away from a two-game suspension, he drafting Okon back into the starting 11. Two birds with the one stone.

Suddenly Newcastle's passing out of the back was back to the mid-season standards, when Okon's delivery, both short and long, was such a delight.

But it wasn't just the Jets' work on the ball that was so impressive. With the hard-working Tim Brown rewarded for a decent showing last week against Perth by being preferred to Kohler, the Jets had a game-plan to get deny space everywhere and Brown was crucial to it.

They suffocated Melbourne, never allowing them to build any momentum through the middle. When he came on board, van Egmond spoke of defending from the front, and here was perfect evidence, the Jets pressing Melbourne high, never allowing Vargas to build any passing momentum through Muscat and Brebner.

The lack of time on the ball forced a couple of defensive errors, one by Vargas, one by Lia. 2-0, Bridge so clinical and calm.

When Melbourne did get the ball forward, the space between the Jets defence and midfield was minimal and any time Allsopp, Archie or Fred got anywhere near the ball they were double or triple teamed, never allowed to turn and face goal.

Thompson's one chance came through a defensive slip-up, but otherwise Melbourne's best chances were at the set piece, the next thing for van Egmond to work on.

After planting a doubt in Melbourne's head seven rounds earlier, this was another crushing psychological blow. The Victory won't look forward to any finals meeting with the Jets with any great relish, and the work of the manager on the opposition bench will have had much to do with that fragile state.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A-League team of the week, round 20

THE penultimate round promised much and delivered plenty, all four games offering intrigue right till the death, the Mariners feeling they had a late winner, the Roar and Adelaide getting theirs, while the Jets rescued a game that looked gone. It was the final game for last season's John Warren, Bobby Despotovski, but unfortunately his 49 minutes wasn't enough to sneak him into the team of the week. While the finish was thrilling in Perth, the heat took a bit out of the spectacle. Queensland's performance in Melbourne was arguably the best of the lot and they are rewarded with a strong contingent this week. Tando Velpahi continued the amazing run of debut performances from keepers in version 2 of the A-League which dates all the way back to Aleks Vrteski's effort in round one and was followed by Mark Paston (rd 11), Tommi Tomich (12) and Ivan Necevski (14). Little wonder then he was the first player picked in this week's 3-5-2;

Tando Velaphi, QR, keeper; like Necevski and Tomich before him, was clearly fired up making his debut in front of a massive Telstra Dome crowd. Right from the off he made two spectacular flying stops to deny Caceres, one to his left, one to his right. The other thing that impressed was his willingness to bark instructions at players he's barely spent five minutes with, so important in such a noisy atmosphere. The work of Daniel Beltrame in one on one situations since coming in for Bajic should also be commended, while Paston did well against the Mariners despite Kwasnik's best efforts not to make him work.

Ben Griffin, QR, right sided defender; after what for me has been a disappointing season, Richie Alagich had a decent defensive game, but Griffin was a constant threat for the Roar, getting forward in support of Vidosic and utilising the space left by Caceres' want to drift infield. Provided the telling cross which might just sneak the Roar into the four.

Sasa Ognenovski, QR, central defender; this was the Roar's best defensive display in a very long time and it's no coincidence the big Melburnian was back, ensuring the back four remained compact. Keeping Allsopp out of the action, his efforts cast the mind back to round 7 and Miron Beliberg's perculiar decison to play him in central midfield.

Michael Valkanis, AU, left sided defender; while he played central alongside Costanzo, gets the birth on the left side of a back three. After his outstanding inaugural A-League season, version 2 hasn't been so kind, but here he was solid, scrambling ever so well against a Sydney attack that asked the odd question.

Dario Vidosic, QR, right midfield; right from kick-off this kid was taking the ball with his neat first touch, driving forward and asking questions of the Victory left side. But as he has done so well in the past couple of months, when he drifts infield and gets on the ball he creates things, and even pops up in the box for the odd goal. Massive future, fingers crossed.

Hyuk-Su Seo, QR, defensive central midfield; providing the screen, he rarely allowed the likes of Sarkies and Fred any room to create in midfield. Excellent workrate and good use of the body in a couple physical battles for the ball with Muscat. Certainly frustrated the Victory skipper.

Richard Johnson, NZK, defensive central midfield; while Mile Jedinak was doing his best to head the Mariners into the semis, Johnson, a Novacastrian, was doing his best to deny them. After an injury-interupted season, he is clearly relishing his time under Herbert and worked himself silly, eventually getting on top of Gumprecht. Involved in the decisive moment, never giving up on what looked a certain goal.

Simon Colosimo, PG, central midfield; after a good start by Tim Brown and Nick Carle, Colosimo got on top in the second half of the first half, picking up his team and driving them forward. After taking a ball beautifully onto his left foot and hitting it just wide, he took the responsibilty at the penalty, gesturing it was in honour of the man on the bench, the Glory number 10.

Matt McKay, QR, left midfield; while he played centrally, versatility gets him out wide here. Freshly signed for a further few years, he was a constant menace for Muscat, driving forward with the regularity of the McKay of the earlier part of the year. Relentless. Petta also had a decent return to the starting 11 for Adelaide and should have done enough to stay in ahead of a mis-firing Travis Dodd.

Joel Griffiths, NJ, striker; when the heat was on and the Jets needed someone, anyone, to step up and poach a couple, Griffiths was the man with the energy to get into the box. It was just reward for a tireless season full of frustration. Asking questions of so many opposition defences, Griffiths has rarely been rewarded, but always kept his head up and come back for more.

Jamie Harnwell, PG, striker; back up front the past couple of weeks, the Glory skipper was a monster in the this game, proving a physical nuisance to the Jets rearguard once again. The fact the Jets defended so deep played into Harnwell's hands, giving him an opportunity to provide a target on the edge of the box.

A -League, round 20 round-up

The four games

Central Coast Mariners 0 v New Zealand Knights 0; so much to play for, a win vital to keep its semi-final hopes alive, this performance somewhat summed up the Mariners season - far from convincing. Starting well, the tempo of the passing and movement high, they were clearly up for it, but as they fluffed chance after chance, Adam Kwasnik the most guilt, heads droped, frustration grew, patience ran out and so in the end did time. The lack of composure in front of goal from Kwasnik was in keeping with his two seasons to date; much endeavour but not enough calm, 'blinkered' head-over-the-ball work when a simple foot on the ball and head up would do the trick. When Stewart Petrie latched onto a right foot half-volley deep into the second half, mighty Mark Paston looked as if he hadn't got enough on it to halt its momentum towards the line, but Knights midfielder Richard Johnson had other ideas, sprinting back to meet the ball as it reached the white powder. Did it cross the line? The debate raged, millions of replays convincing some, not others. For what it's worth and given that almost everyone else has had a say, for me it didn't. After a couple of eye-catching displays on the trot, this was far less impressive from the Knights, which made the panic and rush from the Mariners even more mysterious. By the end of the night, Central Coast were relying on Adelaide and Newcastle to slip up and the 10,000 odd fans who had turned up on a Thursday night went home with the 'if-only's' flowing.

Melbourne Victory 1 v Queensland Roar 2; a far better game than the night before, especially from the visitors, who did a rare thing - control the Melbourne midfield for large parts. Farina's shape was good, the performance from his four-man midfield and stand-in keeper even better. Here's the review of a thrilling win that sets up a cracker at home to Sydney on Saturday.

Adelaide United 1 v Sydney FC 0; for a game with so much interest and a great deal riding on the outcome, the quality of football dished up, especially in the final third, was disappointing. Both teams, fearful of the opposition getting in behind, defended very deep, far too deep, but defended well, Sydney looking reasonably slick on the counter-attack but not doing enough on the final delivery, while Adelaide were also breaking down close to the Sydney 18 yard box. With both defensive lines back, there was plenty of space in midfield, so the transition play was decent, but regular chances weren't being created. Both teams were content not to over-commit, seemingly prepared to defend first and scrap themselves to a chance, which eventually fell to Adelaide after a foul on the edge of the box by Mark Milligan on substitute Travis Dodd. With Bobby Petta providing a bit of quality over the dead ball, new boy Diego Walsh nodded back from the far post, compatriot Fernando bundling it over the line. It was more than the hosts deserved but, remarkably for a team that has struggled of late (two wins from their past eight), it took them to second. Sydney have their own headaches to sort out. A team that was rampant in November has only scored three goals in its past six and as hard as Alex Brosque is trying, he does appear to need some support. Terry Butcher has been reluctant to release the shackles and it might just be his undoing.

Perth Glory 3 v Newcastle Jets 3; if the Hindmarsh game just finished was the late show, than this game was the late, late show, two injury time strikes from Joel Griffiths rescuing a crucial point for a Jets side that has struggled more than most with the trip across the country. Not helping them on this occasion were the sweltering conditions and a party mood in honour of an Australian great, the Perth number 10 Bobby Desptovski, succumbing to a back injury. While the latter didn't start, the former (the heat) most certinaly did, and before you knew it, Milton Rodriguez was almost out on his feet, breathless and goalless. The Jets had bagged the first, Nick Carle reacting to a Tommi Tomich spill, but should have had another when Rodriguez shot wide with the goal gapping. While the heat was already having an impact, a drinks break midway throughout the half further blunted the Jets momentum, Perth marching back into the game thanks mainly to the thrust of Simon Colosimo and the presence and personality of Jamie Harnwell. A penalty before the break was followed by Despotovski's introduction at the break. Newcastle were wilting, defending deep, reacting slowly. It seemed only a matter of time, the unfortunate Steve Eagleton's knee injury precipitating a collapse, literally. Steven Old, on at right back, slipped up, the ball whipped in to substitute Josip Magdic to volley against the cross-bar, Harnwell reacting quickest. Perth were soon at it again, attacking Old's side, Magdic sharp to react to another cross, 3-1. Newcastle's wonderful work since October appeared to be coming apart, but, with four minutes of stoppage time due to Eagleton's injury, and Perth retreating, trying to hang on to Bobby's victory, the Jets pressed on, Tomich again spilling. Griffiths reacted quickest, and was on hand a couple of minutes later when Jade North overlapped on the left and whipped a bullet across the goal. Bundled in, it provided a bundle of relief for Newcastle. They must now do what no other team has done this season and grab three points on their own turf against Melbourne. A point and they would need Sydney to knock off the Roar.

Some of the other talking points

Save of the week; despite Tando Velaphi's flying circus, there can only be one, Richard Johnson. Quick to react, it summed up the Knights' new-found spirit. Long may that continue.

Goal of the week; Queensland did some nice things down the right all night against Melbourne, and their winner was a nice build-up involving Reinaldo, Massimo Murdocca and Ben Griffin. While Ante Milicic got lucky in the middle, Dario Vidosic, so impressive this past month, read it best, flicking past Michael Theoklitos.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Roaring right back into the race

Round 20 match review, Melbourne Victory 1 v Queensland Roar 2

JUST remarkable. A team that was on its knees only a fortnight ago, the autopsy under way, has Roared back to life, a patchy and gutsy win over Adelaide followed by a spirited and wonderful win last night over the Victory. Suddenly there is life up north.

Remarkably, the team now sits third, behind Sydney only on goal difference. Anything is still possible; second and a crack at a home grand final or missing out altogether.

Of course, much will depend on a pivotal night of action in the penultimate round tomorrow, where three of the teams in and around Queensland play; Sydney away to Adelaide and Newcastle away to a Bobby Despotovski inspired Glory.

The one things that is certain is that Melbourne will be playing at home in the second week of the finals. Where they will play in a fortnight remains a mystery.

The other thing that is likely is that the Mariners will miss out, but even they have a hope, if Newcastle lose their last two, Sydney knock off United tomorrow and Lawrie McKinna's men get over Adelaide next Sunday. In this amazing run in, who knows?

Last night the Roar were excellent, kept in the game by some wonderful work from their stand-in keeper Tando Velaphi and inspired by a wonderful contribution from their midfield quartet; Hyuk-Su Seo as the anchor, Matty McKay driving from central midfield and the wonderful feet of their two wide men, Dario Vidosic on the right and Spase Dilevski on the left.

Indeed, there wasn't a bad contributor for the Roar, Sasa Ognenovski back in the fold and back in his home city, looking solid alongside Josh McCloughan after their problems mid-term, while the two fullbacks, Ben Griffin on the right and Andy Packer on the left kept their shape defensively and ventured forward at opportune moments. Griffin was particularly thoughtful, waiting for Vidosic to drift infield, as is his want, and utilising the space left wide.

Indeed, this was the most organised the Roar defence has looked in some time, defending deep on their 18 yard box, rarely allowing the likes of Allsopp, Archie, Fred and Caceres in behind, restricting the Victory to the odd pot-shot from outside, which the young gloveman had covered, in spectacualr style.

Helping the Roar stay compact was the fact the Victory were playing rather narrow, thanks largely to a new-look 3-5-2 formation in which Vince Lia on the right and Adrian Caceres on the left failed to provide the width expected of them. With both Caceres and Lia ducking inside far too often, it allowed Queensland to exploit the space out wide and they were able to consistently stretch the Victory defence and create space in the middle for those ghosting in from midfield, especially McKay and Vidosic.

The tempo from Queensland was fantastic, right from the start, and its midfield was able to get on top early. While the opening goal was somewhat fortunate, Mori appearing to be offside when Vidosic played him in, the build-up was easy on the eye, Dilevski threading a delightfully weighted ball to Vidosic throw two Melbourne midfielders.

In any case, Queensland and its supporters will feel some luck was overdue after a number of decisions went against them earlier in the year.

It stung Melbourne into life, the tempo lifting as Sarkies and Muscat became more involved and Thompson and Fred went in search of some combination play to unlock a retreating defence.

Dragging themselves back into it through the lightning quick feet of Thompson, it appeared a draw would be just about all the Roar could hope for, but Frank Farina had other ideas.

Realising that you get nothing if you don't take the odd gamble and that he was already without some key personnel the following week, he begged his men to press on, and with Massimo Murdocca providing a spark off the bench, the Roar created a remarkbale injury time winner.

Once again they'd pulled the Melbourne defence out wide, and profitted in the middle, Reinaldo, Murdocca and Griffin combining out on the right for Milicic to deflect, luckily, into the path of an aware Vidosic. The game-plan had worked.

As for Ernie Merrick, he'd gambled on a new formation and lost, and now he and the vast Melbourne support base will be hoping it doesn't disrupt their momentum, much as the minor premiership did to Adelaide last season.

As for the Roar, 14 rounds after arriving at this same ground as a genuine title contender and being on the recieving end of a 4-1 thumping, they were back. Talk about exorcising the demons.

Farina is right to emphasise that nothing has yet been achieved, particularly in light of the fact he will be without a key players McKay and McCloughan next week, while young guns like Vidosic and Dilevski will be on Olyroo duty in the build up to Saturday's game.

Regardless, it's all intriguing.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A-League team of the week, round 19

WITH the pressure on ahead of the semis and much riding on the result of almost every game, it's always fascinating to see who steps up and takes their opportunities and who goes the other way, into their shell. Overall, while it was intriguing and important, the quality of football wasn't of the highest level in round 19, especially with Newcastle reverting to a more direct style and Melbourne resting/voluntarily suspending all its guns. With Sydney on a bit of a downer, and the Mariners and Adelaide unable to turn their domination into goals, it was a strange weekend, with few players really standing out. Most of the great stuff came from the keepers, but I could only choose one in this week's 3-4-3;

Ante Covic, NJ, keeper; after a couple of average games to kick off his A-League career, there may have been a few doubts creeping in about whether he or the Jets had made the right call. Here he turned on the old class, pulling off four outstanding saves, including a particularly memorable gem to deny Jedinak an equaliser. In this form he could really make a difference to the Jets in the crunch games (right now).

Jade North, NJ, right sided defender; playing on the right of a two man central defence, this was always going to be a tough game for the Jets defence on a bumpy surface and against a strong Mariners. How would they rebound after Sydney touched them up last week? Well, they reacted well, with discipline and a willingness to get stuck in. While it was solid display as a unit, North looked up for it.

Paul O'Grady, CCM, central defence; at the other end and back it the fold for the first time in a while, O'Grady started a little hesitant, caught out by a couple of of early long balls, including the counter-attack which resulted in the only goal. Otherwise he was very strong and kept both Griffiths and Coveny quiet.

Mark Lee, PG, left sided defender; with no Fred to worry about darting in from the right and Vince Lia not really seizing his opportunity, Lee was allowed to get forward at will, provided the crosses for both goals with his neat left peg. Later, when he drifted into the box to try and get on the end of a cross from the right, he proved the left peg is all he has, trying to open himself up and meet it on the left foot when the ball was begging to be volleyed with his right. Not a pretty moment, but an otherwise decent job.

Dario Vidosic, QR, right midfield; continued his excellent finish to the season with another impressive showing whenever on the ball. Stepping in from the right, this neat technician is prepared to try things, demonstrated early when he danced around a defender on the edge of the 18 yard box, played it in to Reinaldo and went from the return ball, only denied by a sharp Beltrame. Later, showing awareness, he held the ball up, waited for the run of Mori, and reversed it into his path with his under-sole, taking out a defender in the process. Love seeing a talented kid try things, long may that be encouraged.

Paul Kohler, NJ, central midfield; I thought both Spencer and Jedinak had decent games for the opposition, while Webster was good for the Glory, but Kohler was an absolute dynamite in game that was made for him, more about spoiling and competing than playing. With Carle and Musalik not suited in the going, Kohler quietly went about his work, but was crucial to the win.

Leigh Broxham, MV, central midfield; not content with polishing his teammates boots, or whatever it is apprentices do these days, in 30 odd minutes, on debut, he set about cleaning up the Glory midfield, combining well with Brebner and looking neat and tidy on the ball. With his head up, he played some intelligent balls, quick and aware, and helped Melbourne control parts of the finish, despite being a man down.

Jason Spagnuolo, AU, left midfield; another impressive display from a kid finding the consistency required at this higher level. This time it was Ben Griffin's turn to deal with his mobility and pace, and in the main he struggled. Gets in ahead of Leilei Gao, impressing again.

Neil Emblen, NZK, behind the front two; playing in the hole in front of central midfielders Johnson and Salley and behind Marcina, Emblen caused Sydney no end of trouble, always presenting as an outlet, holding it up, bringing his midfielders into the game, turning and prompting Marcina. Most managers would reverse the roles, playing the bigger man up front, but Emblen was able to relieve the pressure, showing quick feet, even nut-megging a couple of unsuspecting Sydney players. Good to see him finding some of the form that had him playing well in the middle part of last season, when he was ostensibly a central midfielder.

Reinaldo, QR, striker; back in the first 11 for the first time since being sacrificed in round 14 following the Gibson dismissal against Sydney, he seemed keen to make up for lost time, giving the likes of Valkanis and Costanzo constant headaches with his strength, workrate and good touch. Combined better with Mori than Lynch had been and was too strong for Alagich in reacting to Mori's shot.

Alen Marcina, NZK, striker; quick, mobile and with a keen positional sense, Marcina appears suited to a game built around the counter-attack, and stretched the Sydney rear-guard whenever the ball made its way forward. Indeed, it was his selfless running that won the corner that lead to the only goal, and he might have had himself a second in as many weeks had Bolton not been alert in the second half.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A-League, round 19 round-up

The four games

Adelaide United 0 v Queensland Roar 1; after last week's insipid display in Auckland and a month of win-loss-win-loss action, which Queensland would turn up at Hindmarsh? On a scorcher of a night, played in front a healthy 10,000 odd fans, it was the winning Roar, although it truth they had to rely on some more wastefulness in front of goal from the home team, particularly from young gun Burns. While his build up play caught the eye, twice going past Buess as though he wasn't around, his finishing needs a little work, and that will come with maturity. His wasn't the only young gun shining, Vidosic and Spagnuolo doing their emerging reputations no harm with accomplished displays over the ball. Vidosic was hard at work early, dancing on the edge of the box, exchanging a give-and-go with restored striker Reinaldo, only to be denied by Beltrame, quick off his line. Back came Spagnuolo and Burns, teasing and running at a deep defensive line that appeared to have some communication problems between Buess and McCloughan. But when you don't take your chances, you know what happens at the other end. Eventually Queensland counter-attacked, Mori playing the ball square from the right for Vidosic, who held it up, waited for Mori to wrap around him and played a delightful futsal-style back heel (with the studs) into his path. Mori needs no invitation, especially at Hindmarsh, and thundered a left foot strike which rebounded off the crossbar. Reinaldo, a handfull throughout, still had a bit of work to do, shaking off Alagich and finishing with the aplomb he had shown earlier in the campaign. No doubt a few weeks on the sidelines had re-charged the desire. The Roar were content to defend (which they did well for the last 30 minutes) and counter, Mori so nearly doubling the lead. Remarkably, a team that has struggled since its round 7 visit to Melbourne was in the top four at the end of the night. Just amazing.

Newcastle Jets 1 v Central Coast Mariners 0; both teams coming off consecutive defeats and the Roar having gone ahead of them a night earlier, much was riding on the outcome of this game, and it showed in the early exchanges, a semi final type tempo evident as both teams got stuck in. There was also much talk in the build up about how both sides would deal with the under-prepared Energy Australia surface. The Jets had been hopelessly exposed a week earlier by a physical Sydney side that disrupted it's passing game, so would they stick to the pass and move style that had pushed them to the brink of a finals spot or would they go a little more direct, playing to the conditions? The impressive Gary van Egmond answered that question in the pre-game build-up, saying his side would mix it up, playing it into the channels when necessary. Adaptability, at least in theory. But they delivered in practice, forgoing their usual motto of playing everything through Musalik and Carle. While it caught the Mariners out early via a couple of balls over the top, eventually the visitors settled into the game, the defensive midfield duo of Spencer and Jedinak getting on top, and bringing wide men Petrie (left) and Osman (right) into the game. With Brown joining in from left back, the Mariners were dishing up some decent stuff, the Jets having to rely on Covic to make two brilliant stops, the first to his left from Brown, the second to his right from a Jedinak header. In between the saves, the Jets counter-attacked from a Spencer error, Carle moving the ball through midfield onto Bridge, who found Rodriguez. Thrilling stuff. Knowing much hinged on this game, the Mariners upped the ante in the second half, just as they had a week earlier, but again Covic came up trumps, saving well from a Spencer blast and then from a beautifully executed Osman volley. It was all hands on deck for Newcastle, and Kohler was particularly busy. While it wasn't the flowing Jets we've growing accustomed to seeing, in the conditions and given the circumstances, it could well be their most character building win, and the keeper's perfomance will give them hope they can re-produce it in a crunch game down the track. Certainly by the time Melbourne arrive in a fortnight, the pitch should be back to it's early season best.

Sydney FC 0 v New Zealand Knights 1; another newly laid pitch (what is it with this obsession of running repairs during the football season?), but this one didn't really detract from the spectacle. With Middleby out, Sydney re-shaped things from last week, moving Zadkovich from right back to left midfield and Ffye from central defence to the right, with Jacob Timpano coming in for the first time this season. In truth he was caught cold at an early set piece, Bunce reacting quickest to a Gao corner, volleying past Bolton at an unguarded near post. It was Sydney's first goal conceded in over 500 minutes, a record to be proud of. Also a matter of taking pride in is the Knights new-found emphasis on keeping the ball. Shortly after the goal they strung eight passes to shift the ball to the far left corner, where Gordon gave it up. Just before the break, under pressure on the edge of their box, they strung 11 passes to build the ball up down the right and through the middle, winning a free-kick. Rarely before had we seen that many successful passes in a game, let alone one move. It is the type of work that relieves pressure, a credit to Ricki Herbert. Here he had Emblen playing between the midfield and Marcina, somewhat of a centre half forward (to borrow terminology from another code), taking the inital out-ball and bringing his midfielders and Marcina into the game. The latter was causing FC's defence a few headaches, but it was mainly the hosts asking the questions. With NZ defending on their 18 yard box, Sydney were invited forward, the urgency picking up after the break. With Carney, Corica and Brosque keen to get on the ball, it appeared only a matter of time before the equaliser, but if it wasn't keeper Paston producing save after save, it was the post which consigned Sydney to it's first defeat since round nine at home to Melbourne. As Terry Butcher noted afterward, 'it was one of those days'. While it shouldn't dent their confidence ahead of the finals, it gives them a bit of work to do to get into the play-off to decide who hosts the big one. As for NZ, very well done.

Perth Glory 2 v Melbourne Victory 2; no Allsopp, Thompson, Muscat, Fred, Leijer, Theoklitos, Storey or Piorkowski, just how would this second string Victory unit fair? It provided an opportunity for the likes of Lia, Robinson, Ferrante, Alessandro, Caceres, Byrnes, Galekovic and Sarkies, and early on they looked to be struggling for cohesion. Understandable really. Perth boss Ron Smith had also done some tinkering of his own, giving opportunities to the likes of Saric and young Ukraine striker Nikita Rukavytsya, a product of the AIS. The latter was partnered alongside skipper Harnwell, back up front and grabbing an opener from what looked a foul on Byrnes. The Melbourne defender's evening was about to get worse, an own goal followed by two second half yellows. But Perth, despite youngster Magdic doing well as a half time replacement for Saric, were unable to capitalise, Melbourne getting into the game thanks to their spirit and the work of young substitute central midfielder Leigh Broxham, neat and tidy on the ball. Profiting from some good work from skipper Brebner, Sarkies had a gift first, before finally fulfilling his potential over the dead ball. A perfect away record may have been lost, but given the line-up and the loss of a man, plenty of positives for Ernie Merrick.

Some of the other talking points

A race with plenty of appeal; as pointed out by Hamish over at Football Down Under and Beyond, it really is an engrossing race for spots two to four, so much more than we might have expected. In truth it has been tight even as far back as October, where there was only five points seperatng second from second last at the end of round 10. While alot of it has been down to teams slipping up rather than seizing their opportunities, at least it provides some edge of the seat appeal, such a feature of season one.

The surface at Energy Australia and beyond; while there are questions about why football remains the poor cousin of Australia sport, always the one to have work done throughout it's season, the Newcastle surface was better on Friday, thanks to some extensive watering before the game and at half-time. With work also going on at Aussie Stadium, at least the new surface looked better than Sydney's last fixture against Perth. It was a fair cry from the carpet-like conditions at both stadiums earlier in the year. When will people in this part of the world realise that the surface is among the most vital part of getting a decent product out there? The likes of Terry Butcher, Robert Baan and Milton Rodriguez, recent arrivals from football cultures which demand pristine conditions, must be scratching their heads. It mightn't matter so much in other codes, so do the work during their seasons. Lets hope the carpet it rolled out for the finals.

Save of the week; again, there was some brilliant work from the custodians this week, especially from Paston and Covic. Paston produced one point blank effort to keep out a Milligan header from only a few metres out, but Covic was sublime, rekindling memories of his wonderful work for Marconi at least five years ago. His flying effort, full stretch to his right, as high as he could get, to keep out a bullet Jedinak header that seemed sure to equalise, was my pick.

Goal of the week; only seven to choose from and there were a couple of good ones, including Newcastle exposing the Mariners on the counter, but given how long we've waited for a Kristian Sarkies set piece, it is hard to go past it. While there might have been question marks over Tomich's wall and positioning, good to see Sarkies nail one.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The EPL; a glance midway through

A race in two, with the wrong Reds involved + EPL team of the season

JUST past midway through an intoxicating English premiership season and with the third round of the FA Cup on the agenda this weekend, it's time to cast an eye over the players that have caught the imagination so far this season.

But before we delve into that, a quick moment to reflect on the personal disappointment that has been Liverpool's season to date. While they sit in third place after 22 rounds and are likely to be in the Champions League mix (top four) come May, I have to admit that this season was all about challenging for the long-awaited title (16 years).

After an aggressive off-season in the transfer market that yielded the likes of Bellamy, Pennant, Kuijt, Agger, Aurelio and Gonzalez, all the talk in the build up to the season was how Liverpool was the team most likely to challenge Chelsea.

Manchester United had grabbed Carrick from Tottenham, but the doubts persisted about whether he would be the answer to the question that has lingered at Old Trafford for the past two seasons; how to replace Roy Keane? And in any case, the departure of van Nistelrooy had left a gaping hole, so who would grab their goals? Not to mention that Ronaldo and Rooney were likely to kill each other at the first training session after the goings-on in Germany.

As for the Gunners, they'd recruited Czech wizard Rosicky and Chelsea's unsettled gun defender Gallas, but still appeared a couple of players short of challenging a Chelsea side that had added no less than Ballack and Shevchenko to their already formidable squad.

So it was all about Liverpool. Yet, for me, the key would be how well they started and how quickly Rafa Benetiz was able to mould his new signings into the 11. Unfortunately, the reality of the premiership is that it gives you little time and the key to success over the past five to 10 seasons has been to get off to the quick start, and maintain it. Rarely does it allow you a down period, perhaps two or three games at best.

As we now know, the Reds failed to win an away game until December (a 4-0 win at Wigan), meaning that they'd lost at such places as Everton, Stamford Bridge, Reebok, Old Trafford, Emirates, and drawn to both Sheffield United and Middlesbrough. A mere two points from a possible 21.

It was a tough start, no doubt, but any team with premiership ambitions needs to be splitting points with the likes of Chelsea, Man U and Arsenal, and taking maximum points from the likes of Everton, Bolton, Sheffield United and Middlesbrough.

It allowed the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea to skip away, and while Benetiz's men have recovered very well of late (8 wins, 1 draw and 1 loss in their past 10 games with 18 goals for, 1 goal against and 9 clean sheets in that period), the horse, in all likelihood, has bolted.

With Man U 14 points clear and Chelsea eight away, it would take a run similar to the one above, including maximum points at home to Everton, Chelsea, Man U and Arsenal between now and the end of March (not to mention they have two not so small games with European champions Barcelona in between) for Liverpool to be back in the race come April, when they have a reasonably comfortable run in.

While there has been personal disappointment in Liverpool's run (not for the first time), at the top it's been great to see Chelsea being issued a challenge, even if it's been from Man United. I remember thinking at the start of last season that if Rooney, Ronaldo and van Nistelrooy got it together, they might just be able to challenge, but it never eventuated, Chelsea getting off to a great start and maintaining it through the excellence of Lampard, Terry, Makelele and Cole.

A year later, Van Nistelrooy gone, Carlos Queiroz back in the fold, and Man United are flying, with Saha stepping in up front and doing a great job early, while the likes of Scholes, Giggs and Solksjaer are born again. While Rooney has yet to find full throttle, Ronaldo has been untouchable, simply sublime, while there have been unsung heroes, the likes of Vidic, Evra and Carrick. Man United's play and interchange, particularly in the final third, has been top shelf.

Chelsea, meanwhile, have stuttered of late. Early on, with Drogba and Essien flying, and Terry a rock, they looked on course for a hat-trick, but with Terry injured, Shevchenko, Lampard and Ballack struggling a bit, they are picking up draws where they would otherwise win.

Seeing how Mourinho and his men respond and whether the likes of Scholes and Giggs can maintain their form for a season will be fascinating. The addition of Larsson offers intrigue. At the very least, the title run maintains interest in a league that had, for a couple of seasons, been threatening to become a monopoly.

Meanwhile, in the background, Arsene Wenger and his sublime bunch of gifted technicians have been catching the eye, but stuttering away to some of the lesser lights, where a physical approach is often required. Long may they stick to their brand.

With all that in mind, here's a look at the players that have caught the imagination to date, set out in the premiership's preferred formation, 4-4-2;

Jussi Jaaskelainen, Bolton, keeper; a name that rolls off the tongue has been poetry in motion for the past few seasons, consistently pulling off spectacular save after save. This year, with Bolton again mixing it with the best, he has caught the eye. Just shades van der Sar, while former England number one James has been doing some great stuff at his latest club, Portsmouth.

Emmanuel Eboue, Arsenal, right back; after bursting onto the scene as a replacement for the injured Lauren last season and conquering all on his way to the Champions League final, has backed it up with an outstanding start to this campaign. Getting forward so easily, he just shades Glen Johnson, on loan at Pompey from Chelsea. Others worthy of note include Man City's Micah Richard, who has looked strong in the Man City games I have seen, and Gary Neville, who has rebounded well from conceding that horrible back-pass goal in Croatia.

Nemanja Vidic, Man United, central defender; ridiculed by many after a poor start to his Old Trafford career last season, he has been an absolute rock this season, strong in the tackle, powerful in the air and quick over the ground.

Sol Campbell, Portsmouth, central defender; hard to leave out Kolo Toure, who continues to excel as a quick central defender, comfortable at bringing the ball forward, but I'm giving the second central defensive spot to his old Arsenal mate, Sol Campbell, these days the foundation of the Pompey back four. No surprise their fortunes at the back have improved since his arrival, and he has brought Linvoy Primus along for the ride. Have also enjoyed the work of another Ivory Coast defender, Bolton's Abdoulaye Meite.

Gareth Barry, Aston Villa, left back; Wigan's Leighton Baines looks good and has produced a couple of wonder goals, while Reading's Nicky Shorey has provided some telling service to Kevin Doyle and Leroy Lita, but Aston Villa's captain is as consistent as anyone, always producing the goods, especially from the penalty spot. Surprisingly, for a bloke that has been around for what seems an eternity, he's on 25. Another Man U boy written off last season, Patrice Evra, who impressed for Monaco in the Champions League a few years ago, has bounced back, while Gael Clichy continues to improve under Wenger.

Michael Essien, Chelsea, right midfield; incredible energy, this bloke is a powerhouse down the right flank. Not the type to get out wide, he rips through sides, straight down the guts, but trying to keep up with him, for 90 minutes, is almost impossible. Machine.

Gilberto Silva, Arsenal, defensive central midfield; emboldened with the captains armband since the injury to Thierry Henry, and developing a mean-streak of late as a goal-getting midfielder, Gilberto is finally overshadowing some of his Arsenal teammates. Have also been impressed with the simple but efficient work of Michael Carrick at Man U and the drive and thunder from Scott Parker at Newcastle. After his brilliance last season, Xabi Alonso had a terrible start to this campaign, but things are improving.

Paul Scholes, Man United, attacking central midfield; in the form he was in before his knee injury, driving from deep and banging in the goals, Tim Cahill would have been a shoe-in for this spot. But since his injury, the one player that has produced it week in week out is the evergreen Scholes, producing some of the most spectacular strikes you'll see, and assisting in countless others. Just when you think he's past his best, he's so far eclipsed the likes of Lampard and Gerrard. Cesc Febregas is always great to watch, while the work of Mikel Arteta for Everton, both at the set piece and general play, has been eye-catching.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Man United, left midfield; after the dramas in Germany, where he was involved in some less than memorable incidents and enhanced a reputation for going down softly, there was a temptation to start thinking this kid might waste his sublime footballing gifts. No so, and thank goodness for that. Quick, mesmerising on the ball, strong, two-footed, powerful in the air, there is little this bloke can't do, from either flank or through the middle. The other left sided flyer going well at Man U is the evergreen Ryan Giggs, while Matt Taylor does some good things under Harry Redknapp. Sadly, neither of Liverpool's let sided signings, Aurelio or Gonzalez, are yet to fire.

Didier Drogba, Chelsea, striker; much as the his partner is struggling to adapt to English football this season, so Drogba struggled last season. Perhaps not as badly as Shevchenko, but there where times last season when judges were questioning his value and whether he would survive the cut-throat world that is Chelsea FC. Some of those same judges are now referring to him as the best striker in the world. Sometimes, in football, there is no in between. Truth is that Drogba has been a demon in front of goal this campaign, particularly when his back is to goal, turning and producing some outrageous half-volleys, with both feet. Powerful and predatory, he has 20 goals from 32 appearances.

Nwankwo Kanu, Portsmouth, striker; of the newcomers, Aston Villa's speedy Gabriel Agbonlahor caught the eye early, while Reading's Kevin Doyle has been consistently good, but, in a year for the reborn, Kanu's reincarnation has been been among the most remarkable. These days he is even scoring the odd goal with the head. Others to have impressed include former Inter Milan man Obafemi Martins, Arsenal pair Robin van Persie and Emmanuel Adebayor, Blackurn's Benni McCarthy and Liverpool new boy Dirk Kuijt.

Any thoughts on who has stood out for you? or perhaps who hasn't? and am I right to think Liverpool are shot for another season? Leave a comment.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A-League team of the week, round 18

AS NOTED by Mariners man Wayne over at The Fisherman's Friend, it really was a weekend where much happened but little changed, with Sydney still second, Adelaide third and the Mariners and Newcastle both battling for fourth. Perth managed to hang on for a point thanks mainly to some wastefulness from Adelaide and the continuing good form of their own custodian Tommi Tomich, who gets into the team of the week yet again. The biggest loser of the round was the Roar, spanked by the Ricki Herbert inspired Knights, who are rewarded for an impressive passing display with representation here. The most imposing display though was from Sydney FC, building up their confidence by the week. No surprise than to find so many of it's players in this week's 4-2-3-1;

Tommi Tomich, PG, keeper; with Adelaide bombarding him early, Tomich stood up, made himself big (which he is) and produced at least three quality saves to keep his first A-League clean sheet, which he was rightfully delighted about afterwards. His imposing presence no doubt played a role in United shooting wide on a couple of other occasions. Can't be doing his chances of landing a permanent contract, even as a back-up, any harm.

Ruben Zadkovich, SFC, right back; unfamiliar territory but marked his intentions early with a crunching challenge on Mark Bridge, which silenced the in-form striker. From there Zadkovich was on top, never giving Bridge or Griffiths any room to breath. Gets in ahead of Darren Beazley, who had his best game (as far as I can remember) for the Knights.

Angelo Costanzo, AU, central defender; back in the starting line-up for Kristian Rees, he was solid and committed, getting tight on makeshift striker Leo Bertos and forcing him to be shifted back into midfield soon enough. Ron Smith thought he might expose Adelaide's lack of pace at the back by starting Bertos up top, but Costanzo was having none of that.

John Tambouras, NZK, central defender; after disappointing last season, must be wrapped to have another opportunity. After grabbing the early goal by attacking a free-kick, kept up the good work in the air by winning everything at the back and shutting out Mori, never the easiest of tasks. Combined well between Bunce and Gordon.

Mark Milligan, SFC, left back; now one of the first names on the team-sheet for Terry Butcher (alongside Corica, Bolton and Carney), this was another dominant display, this time alongside new central partner Ian Fyfe. Whenever Sydney do look like getting caught out, Milligan identifies the danger and scampers across in cover. No coincidence the five clean sheets have come since his arrival in central defence, but his versatility gets him a spot on the left here. Gordon was strong against a listless Roar, while Mark Lee was did a decent enough job on Travis Dodd.

Terry McFlynn, SFC, defensive central midfield; his best game of the season, McFlynn was tight and physical on Nick Carle from the start, tracking him everywhere, frustrating him throughout. Once he won the ball, combined well with Talay to help prompt Sydney.

Richard Johnson, NZK, defensive central midfield; along with Jonas Salley, dominated the midfield against the likes of Seo and McKay, getting close to his wide men in Hickey and Gao and supporting Emblen and Marcina in attack. Seemed Herbert wanted to use him more as a creator, not just a ball winner as his previous bosses had.

David Carney, SFC, right sided attacker; it wasn't a 90 minute performance from Carney, but whenever he did get involved, Sydney looked a threat. When the game was in the balance at half-time, he drifted into the middle, creating an extra number for Sydney in central midfield, forcing Durante to step out of defence and pulling Newcastle out of position. Jinking one way and then back onto his left peg, he looks to be rediscovering the sharpness of last season. Not many players mastered the bumpy pitch at Energy Australia, but Carney did.

Steve Corica, SFC, attacking central midfield; whenever Sydney do go forward and string passes around the opposition box, it is almost inevitable that Corica is there or thereabouts, jinking, turning, holding up the ball, driving into the box, getting an effort on target or teeing up a teammate. As fit as he's ever been, his workrate has been phenomenal. Given too much space by a Jets defence that backed off, but once again teed up the decisive goal, as he had a round earlier.

Leilei Gao, NZK, left sided attacker; while Stewart Petrie had a busy game against the Victory, this guy was a livewire running at the Roar rearguard, giving Ben Griffin a torrid time. Prepared the try things, looks like he wants to entertain.

Archie Thompson, MV, striker; lethal, setting up the first and destroying young Brad Porter for the second. A sign of his confidence is his willingness to take on his man in one v one situations, even if he's deep in his own half. A little dink, as quick as the blink of an eye, and he's away, just marvelous. An entertainer, one of the real poster boys of the league. Special mention to Neil Emblen and Alex Brosque, instrumental in their team's successes.

Monday, January 01, 2007

A-League, round 18 round-up

The four games

Perth Glory 0 v Adelaide United 0; on a family holiday in Huskinsson, south of Sydney, but thanks to the local watering hole, The Husky Pub, was still able to get my much-missed (it had been 11 days since the Victory had wrapped up the minor premiership at home to the Knights) dose of A-League action. In truth it wasn't the classiest affair, at least not until after the final whistle, Adelaide doing everything they could to butcher two points, squandering a couple (Rech and Burns) of easy chances in the first half, before being denied by the continuing great form of Tommi Tomich. After the disappointment of their round 17 effort a fortnight early, Ron Smith rung the changes, giving the likes of Saric, Micevski and the hitherto unsighted Mark Robertson a chance, starting Bertos up front and relegating Young to the bench. Accepting that the chances of a semi final spot were shot, Smith made his intentions clear. With at least ten spots on next season's roster up for grabs, this was all about opportunity. It provided a perfect opportunity for Adelaide. After the impressive performance in their last start against Newcastle, John Kosmina had a few issues of his own to sort, like what to do now that Romario had gone. He went for two up front, Veart supported by Rech from behind, with Burns playing deeper, in the driving central midfield role that Owens has performed so admirably when given played there. Here Owens was unavailable, and sorely missed. Perth did a good job of stopping Adelaide wide, Coyne on Spagnuolo and Lee on Dodd. In a game where both sides were let down by their work in the final third (poor final delivery the usual problem), only Rech found space regularly, but for once he was wasteful. Perth struggled to create too many openings at the other end and it is no coincidence that they haven't scored since last season's players player Bobby Despotovski limped off in round 15. No goals in four weeks, only two wins in their past 11 starts and their season well and truely shot - little wonder frustrations boiled over after the whistle.

New Zealand Knights 3 v Queensland Roar 1; still at The Husky Pub, the few of us watching the game were all looking at each other, shaking our heads in astonishment when Marcina made it 3-0. What a hiding for the Roar, what a turn-around for the Knights. In truth, it could have been a few more as the Knights were playing Queensland off the pitch thanks to a new brand of pass and move football initiated by manager Ricki Herbert. No, it wasn't FC Barcelona or the Arsenal, but it was far more cohesive and in-touch than we've seen from the Knights in their past 38 games. After only having one training session to put out a makeshift team last time around, this time Herbert had his main troops back and the benefit of a 12 day preparation. It showed, the Knights prepared to keep the ball on the deck, get close to each other and look to do something with the ball. It was no surprise to those who have watched the NZ national team, the All Whites, do reasonably well under Herbert. He appears to have a good philosophy and encourages his men to play, and all the best to him for that. Here he deployed Emblen up top, and the big Brit gave Buess, McCloughan, McLaren a rough time in the first period, drawing the free-kick from Buess that led to Tambouras’s opener and combining well with the Chinese livewire Gao, Canadian Marcina and Aussie Johnson. Talk about a United Nations. Emblen even got himself on the end of a Bazeley cross for the second, the identity of the supplier telling much about the Knights performance. It also told much about the Roar performance, flat and slow to react, just as they had been at home two rounds earlier, strange for a team with so much to play for. The only semblance of life was when Milicic and Reinaldo arrived late, the former bringing a ball down nicely and shaping it past Paston. But the damage had been done, and Farina will be wondering what on earth he has to do to get some consistency out of a unit that has won one week and lost the next for the past month. Fortunately, other results went the Roar’s way and, remarkably for a team that has lost four of Farina’s six games in charge, they are only a point outside the four. While the return of Ognenovski should help against Adelaide, on this evidence the Roar are shot.

Central Coast Mariners 1 v Melbourne Victory 2; new year’s eve on the Central Coast produced another beauty with a bumper crowd of 15,000 plus getting an opportunity to marvel at the trickery and quick feet of Thompson. Not that that’s what the majority were there to see, but the Victory striker again highlighted how lethal he can be, combining with his partner in crime Allsopp to tee up the opener for Fred, before catching out make-shift stopper Brad Porter with his quickness of feet and thought for the second, sharp stuff. The two goals encapsulated everything that is so captivating about this Melbourne outfit, slick and clinical. Admittedly though it was against a new look central defensive pair, who equipped themselves well after the early jitters. In truth, the 2-0 half time scoreline was less than the Mariners deserved after competing well with the minor premiers but failing to convert their chances. Most of the Mariners chances were being created down the left, with Petrie involved in a fascinating duel with Storey. First Petrie would get beyond him and provide a telling ball into the middle. Back came Storey, providing the ball that lead to Melbourne’s second. It was end to end stuff, and the action got even better after the break as the Mariners came out firing, pressing Melbourne high. Soon enough they halved the deficit when Brebner mis-judged a header from a Petrie corner, Kwasnik pouncing quickest. On the Mariners pressed, leaving space for the Victory to counter-attack. It was thrilling stuff, almost a reminder of their wonderful 3-3 seven rounds earlier, but in the end the hosts missed a few good chances and the game was lost. Other results keep them in the top four for now, but two losses on the spin will worry Lawrie McKinna. Here they clearly missed a focal point in attack. How McKinna finds a solution to Mrdja's ongoing absence could be critical to their chances of progress.

Newcastle Jets 0 v Sydney FC 2; in front of a bumper new year's day record crowd of 20,000 plus, many travelling up from Sydney, and with the spectre of a three-point deduction hanging over the visitors, this game promised plenty. But the sight of a sand-logged pitch, heavy under-foot, somewhat ruined the spectacle, playing into the hands of a more physical Sydney FC. Newcastle are a team that like carpet, allowing them to string around their one and two touch passess, uninhibted by any bumps in the surface. Sydney aren't short on passing ability either, but their game, under Terry Butcher this season, is characterised more by their ability to impose their physical will over a game, pressing teams high, giving them little time on the ball, distrupting any rythmn the opposition try to build up and working hard all over the pitch. To impose their style of game, the Jets need a slick surface, which they've had at Energy Australia all season, as I alluded to in an earlier piece. So the sight of a re-laid turf yet to settle would, privately at least, have made Butcher a very happy man before the game. So it was little suprise his unit got right on top of this game, giving Carle and Bridge in particular no space, and pressing high on Musalik and Kohler to stop the Jets supply at the source. Even the normally confident Durante looked shaky distributing out of the back as Sydney's all-tempo game dominated, particularly in the opening exchanges of the second period, where they appeared to up the tempo, with Corica and Carney at the fore. Once FC got in front, Carney, Corica and Brosque given way too much room to score, there appeared no way back for the Jets. A team that looked short of a gallop earlier in the year now looks primed and ready for a tilt at defending their championship, and much of that is down to the impact of late-arriving fitness coordinator Anthony Crea. While it mightn't always be pretty, nine undefeated games and five consecutive clean sheets has instilled a massive dose of confidence in a squad that has already proved it rises for the big games. The team looks far more solid defensively since Milligan has been shifted to the back and in Corica and Carney they have two gems that can unlock any defence. Here the two drifted all over the place, Carney dropping infield to create an extra number in midfield. Suddenly Musalik and Kohler couldn't number up, and Durante and North were under pressure consistently. With Zadkovich doing a job on Bridge and and McFlynn, Fyfe and Talay never allowing Carle out of sight, Sydney had winners all over the park. It was a poor day for the Jets, and there will be concerns that Friday night's crucial clash is against another side who like it physical and may be better suited to the pitch, the Mariners. After a fairly cushy run so far, this is Gary van Egmond's first major test as a manager.

Some of the other talking points

Save of the week; Tomich had another brilliant night, Vukovic did his usual good work and Galekovic made a couple of vital stops, but I'm giving it to Newcastle defender Steve Eagleton for a miracle clearance off the line. With the scores still locked at 0-0 in the first half, Corica had chipped Covic and the ball looked headed for the back post. Middleby, running in late, looked certain to score, only for Eagleton to get himself between Middleby and the goal, lunge full-stretch and clear the ball away. Wonderful effort.

Goal of the week; I liked Milicic's finish in an otherwise poor Roar showing, so clinical, while both Sydney goals were special, the first for the work of Corica, the second for the surprise element, power and placement in Petrovski's volley, but I'm giving it to Archie Thompson for the way he superbly ghosted from behind Porter, took a touch, drew the keeper and clinically slotted it across Vukovic into the far corner, all with a minimum of fuss. While it is a goal you will see almost every week in most European or South American leagues, few strikers in the A-League are as clinical as Archie, just delightful.