A-League Semi Finals, first leg round-up
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.