Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Asian Champions League preparations; Sydney FC

Some good early signs but plenty of work still to do

OUT at the Gabbie tonight, in preparation for its first foray into the Asian Champions League in a week's time, Sydney FC showed signs that things are steadily on the improve, but that there is still plenty of work to do both before Shanghai and over the next couple of months if they are to progress beyond the six match days.

Shaping up in a 4-2-1-3 formation, Branko Culina's side ostensibly has the same set-up as that of Terry Butcher's, but there were subtle differences all over the park.

The major one is up front. Whereas Butcher deployed his wide men (Carney and Middleby in the main and Brosque earlier in the year) out wide, essentially hugging the chalk, often leaving the sole striker isolated, chasing shadows all over the place, Culina has tucked his 'wide' men in when Sydney go forward.

It is a true front three, aimed at getting Brosque and Carney closer to Zdrilic, working off his tap-downs and inter-changing positions. When Carney goes through the middle, Zdrilic drops off. When Zdrilic peels wide to the left, Brosque drives inside him.

Culina's shape is more in keeping with that of Gary van Egmond at the Jets.

There the conductor is Carle, here it is Corica, playing in front of the two screening midfielders in Spencer and Talay (the Musalik and Kohler/Brown roles). Spencer and Talay, both comfortable on the ball, did a decent job here, keeping the ball moving.

Truth is that Sydney looked decent enough going forward and bagged two goals against the Demons, one at the half-way point of each half.

However, it was their defensive work, especially early on, which will have caused some concern for Culina.

Playing a back four with Middleby on the right, Rudan and Fyfe in the middle and young Nick Tsattalios on the left, the emphasis is cleary on attack, with both fullbacks expected to get forward often, providing the width (especially considering the narrowness up front).

Early on, the Demons were able to exploit Sydney's want to press on, former Sydney and Newcastle striker Tolgay Ozbey often drifting to the left, looking to get in behind Middleby, who was found out positionally, caught between whether to get forward or stay back.

Blacktown's tactics were obvious; isolate Ozbey one on one against the defender recognised as Sydney's weakest and try and get the early diagnol ball in behind. And it was working everywhere but on the scoreboard.

Had it not been for a couple of early Bolton saves, one on one against Ozbey, the Demons might have had the lead. On one memorable run, Ozbey found some space in between Middleby and Rudan, went past the latter, only for Bolton to stay up and block his attempt with the chest.

From a NSW Premier League perspective, watch out any team that defends high against Ozbey.

While Middleby was struggling down one flank, Tsattalios was making some impression down the other. Picking his times to get forward, he did so very neatly, looking comfortable on the ball and delivering some lovely balls into good areas. Defensively, he looked sound, recognising his duties to sit at the back, in touch with Fyfe, whenever Middleby did get forward.

But if the 'New Sydney' under Culina hope to play out consistenly from the back, as is the manager's philosophy, work needs to be done in the central area, where Fyfe was guilty on a couple of occasions of under-hitting his ball out. More ruthless opposition will make him pay.

More ruthless opposition will also take advantage of any chinks at the back.

Given that the opening game is away from home and that Shenhua might target Sydney's inexperienced fullbacks, perhaps the more calculated option might be to move Fyfe to the right and draft Milligan into central defence.

Perhaps the Middleby option is best left for home?

Certainly in the second half, when the Demons changed their entire line-up and went from two to three up front, there appeared less opportunity for the FC fullbacks to venture forward. Rudan and Fyfe certainly appreciated that, looking far more solid in the second period. Admittedly Blacktown's one danger man, Ozbey, was no longer on the pitch.

In any case, with Milligan and Topor-Stanley on Olyroo duty, there are other options for Culina and bit to ponder.

Given that he has been putting the miles into his men's legs, this was a valuable hit-out and should instill some confidence ahead of next Wednesday, especially in the front third. On this evidence, Sydney won't be peaking next week, but perhaps a little later in the comp.

Whatever happens, it should make for compulsive viewing.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Snapshots from England and Spain

Chelsea lift the trophy but Arsene and his boys win the hearts; seeing the teams line-up for this morning’s Carling Cup final, one could not help but be struck by the gulf in experience. The Blues put out a unit featuring no less than Cech, Carvalho, Terry, Bridge, Makelele, Essien, Lampard, Ballack, Shevchenko and Drogba. Only right back Diarra was anything near an ‘unknown’. Contrast this with an Arsenal 4-4-2 which shaped up as such; Almunia; Hoyte, Toure, Senderos, Traore; Walcott, Denilson, Fabregas, Diaby; Baptista, Aliadiere. It featured two 17 year olds (Walcott and Traore) and an engine room of two 19 year olds in Fabregas and Denilson. The only ones closely resembling first team regulars were Toure, Senderos and Fabregas. Surely they’d be on a hiding to nothing in such company, on such an occasion? Instead, it was Arsene’s young guns that lit up the Millennium, getting control early through Fabregas’s wonderful football brain. Despite often being outnumbered in midfield (Chelsea has a narrow formation where they overload central midfield through Makelele, Lampard, Ballack and Essien), Fabregas and Denilson were able to dictate the flow, prompting their wide men Walcott and Diaby and linking well with the front duo of Baptista and Aliadiere. A characteristic of Wenger sides, all 10 outfield players showed remarkable comfort on the ball and an amazing appreciation for what to do with it. The fascination was that this was a final, with the world watching, yet all were performing. Even when Chelsea found a chink in the Arsenal armour (Traore out at left back) Wenger stuck by his man, and he improved. A manager solely focused on results may have hooked him early (or not even started him, but Wenger, ever the developer, played the 17 year old for over an hour. Arsenal had dominated the opening quarter of the game, pinning Chelsea back, rarely allowing them a touch on the ball. Walcott’s goal was exquisite, retrieving a Chelsea clearance and turning in the one motion before playing it into the feet of Diaby, who, Vieraesque, caressed the ball with his first touch and then slid it into Walcott’s path. One touch and bang, shaped around Cech with the air of Thierry Henry. In truth, had it not been for some superb work from Cech and Carvalho, the Gunners could have extended their lead. As it was, Chelsea, with almost their first attack, equalised when Ballack (yes, he did do something!) clipped one in behind Arsenal’s left back for the ever-willing Drogba to pounce. It looked offside. The temptation was to think that Arsenal would crumble, especially with Chelsea targeting the Senderos-Traore side, but they came back, keeping the ball and countering with pace. Walcott in particular was all over Bridge. But Chelsea were at least in a contest, and with Carvalho growing with the game, soon Arsenal’s front two were under control. With Robben introduced at the break for Makelele (Mourinho had to react), suddenly Chelsea had some width in attack. Ultimately it was his cross to Drogba, ruthlessly getting to the ball ahead of Senderos, which decided proceedings. There was time for a bit of headline grabbing handbags, but let it not detract from a classic contest. Arsenal may not have lifted the trophy, but boy (literally) did they win the hearts.

Man U demonstrate everything needed to win the title; still in England and watching Man U at Craven Cottage on Saturday night (Sydney time) finally convinced me that Sir Alex’s men appear destined to win the title. Perhaps I’ve gone a little early on that, but there was evidence in this match that Man U have that one ingredient so many championship sides possess – that element of luck. So far this season little of their success has been built around luck, but in this game, there is little doubt they were second best, continually on the back foot against an upbeat Fulham who did everything but kill the game off. Ultimately the hosts were undone by a late late Ronaldo winner, emphasising that old adage that if you don’t take you chances when you are dominating, you get sunk. Nine points ahead, 10 games remaining, and it’s hard to see Man U slip up from here.

Ball to feet Barca; watching Barcelona of late, as I have done a fair bit in both La Liga and the Champs League loss to Liverpool last week, the thing that has stuck me most is how many of the players want the ball to feet and how the team has been crying out for some drive off the ball, from anyone. Since losing Messi and Eto’o, but especially the latter, Barca has looked decidedly one-dimensional. The likes of Ronaldinho, Deco, Xavi, Iniesta, Saviola and Gudjohnsen are all wonderfully gifted footballers, but very similar in that they invariably want the ball before coming up with a play. Eto’o, while brilliant on the ball, is one Barca player always willing to make that driving run off it, dragging a defender with him, opening up space for a team. He is also the one player looking to make the near post run rather than wait for the ball to hit him. The other is Frenchman Giuly, always a willing driver either down the right or through the middle. Which makes Frank Rijkaard’s recent use of Iniesta on the right wing all the more puzzling. As he showed this morning, in Barca’s 3-0 over Athletic Bilbao, Iniesta is far better as one of the two Barca midfield influencers, able to prompt the likes of Eto’o and Giuly from a central position. Problem for Rijkaard is he has three similar players (Deco, Xavi and Iniesta) for two positions, so for a while he tried to solve it by playing all three, with Iniesta on the right wing. While Barca still played some neat stuff, they had little penetration. That is what Eto’o and Giuly offer, as was highlighted by the first goal this morning, where Giuly went around Bilbao, got to the byline and knocked in a ball to the near post. Eto’o's mere presence forced a Bilbao error. Alternatively, you could simply play the ball to Ronaldinho and ask him to strut his stuff. Sublime.

Far from a Real match; still in Spain, yet another insipid display from the Fabio Capello led Real Madrid, this time in the derby against Atletico on Sunday morning our time. In the end they got away with a draw, but what a lucky point it was. Atletico were far the better side, Fernando Torres finally scoring against Real as the likes of Maniche dominated the midfield. But in the end Real new boy Higuain grabbed a point, but it will hardly appease Madrid fans baying for Capello's blood. When he came on board at the start of the season, it appeared the most unlikely match. The fact is Capello's pragmatic style was never likely to go down well at a club with a history for winning pretty.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The B-Team

IF the job of finding a first 12 out of the version 2 regular season was hard enough, then choosing the best of the rest was no simpler task, with the likes of Simon Colosimo, Dario Vidosic, Massimo Murdocca, Stan Lazaridis, Damien Mori, Steve Eagleton, Sasa Ognenovski, Adrian Caceres, Simon Storey, Alen Marcina, Leo Bertos, Bobby Petta, Ufuk Talay, Jamie Harnwell, Stewart Petrie, Jade North, Robbie Middleby, Alvin Ceccoli and Ruben Zadkovich all, in my opinion, unlucky to miss out. Unfortunately the hardest player to leave out of this second 11 was Nathan Burns, who was sparkling before going on international duty, but it is impossible to have everyone in, so here is TRBA Reserve Team of the Year, in an attack-minded 3-4-1-2 (3-5-2) shape;

Danny Vukovic, CCM, keeper; with the speed taken out of Mariners defence by the departures of Michael Beauchamp and Dean Heffernan, Vukovic was far more busy this season than he was last, making the most number of the saves in the competition by a long way (91 to Bajic's 64). Week after week, especially in the earlier part of the season when the pressure was on becuase of an inability to score at the other end, Vukovic kept them in games. The fact the Mariners were still in the hunt with only a couple of weeks to go was as much down to Vukovic as it was Mori.

Mark Rudan, SFC, right stopper; as I touched upon in describing Milligan's season, Sydney's best period came in a nine game undefeated run midway through the campaign when Rudan and Milligan were in tandem. While his distribution often left alot to be desired (indeed, he was often the chief architect of Terry Butcher's direct style), his defensive work was best described as uncompromising, just as his manager would have loved it. Found out in the minor semi when he didn't have the cover of Milligan alongside him, but five clean sheets on the trot gets him in ahead of Ognenovski, who had an excellent start but then lost confidence, and North, who made a decent fist of his move into central defence.

Angelo Costanzo, AU, central defender; the pity for Costanzo is that he often appeared to be at war with John Kosmina, for whenever he did come into the side he looked good, especially at the back. Robert Cornthwaite started the season alongside Valkanis, while Rees had an extended run when Costanzo was in midfield. But Adelaide's season got back on track in the final month of the regular season, when Costanzo was back in unison with Valkanis. His work in the finals was exemplary, but more on that later.

Adrian Leijer, MV, left stopper; like the above two defenders, developing a mean reputation for his physical work and crunching tackles. After an impressive inaugural A-League, where, like Costanzo and Vukovic, he was also in my reserve team of the year, formed a formidable partnership with Storey to his right and Vargas to his left, complementing Vargas's ball-work with a willigness to mark tight. While he played on the right of a two man central defence for the Victory, he is adaptable enough to play on the left of a back three here.

Joel Griffiths, NJ, right midfield; while he often played on the right side of a 4-2-3-1, his workrate and willingness to track back means he could comfortably fit on the right side of a 3-4-1-2. While he forged a reputation among the referees for his niggle and persistent fouls (topped the fouls conceded and yellow-red card lists), his all-action style also made him among the most fouled players in the league, second only to Bertos. Caused most defenders problems, the only thing missing being consistency in front of goal, but finished the season well in that regard. Vidosic also caught the eye with his early impact and wonderful finish to the season, while Bertos went off the boil after being among the best in the competition in the opening third of the season.

Stuart Musalik, NJ, defensive central midfielder; when I look back to the start of the season and my preview of Newcastle's chances, I remember thinking how much pressure there was on this kid to step up after the off-season departure of one of their best from season one, Richard Johnson. Indeed, I felt Musalik was on a hiding to nothing, given that the season started with no cover in the key holding midfield area. In the pre-season I'd witnessed a tentative display where he appeared almost afraid to demand the ball from Okon, such a key ingredient for any wannabe holder. Indeed, he started the year slowly, even being relegated to the bench in round three as Nick Theodorakopoulos tried to find a solution for his skipper's error-riddled start at the back. Enter Gary van Egmond and things started to turn for Musalik. Given the confidence, he started expressing himself, getting the ball off his defenders, spraying it to Nick Carle, wide to Griffiths, Eagleton, Bridge, Thompson and Rodriguez. A wonderful reader of the game, what speed he might lack he makes up for with a quickness of mind. Sensing the players around him, he turns into space, as natural a footballer as you are likely to find (Vidosic also comes into that equation, just as a young Jason Culina did). At one stage Musalik even made a hat-trick of appearances in TRBA team of the week (rounds 14, 15 and 16). As I noted a few times this season, watching him string a whopping 996 completed passes was one of the joys of season 2, and fans of quality football and our national team will watch his development closely over the next couple of years. Showed plenty of courage to see out the season with a crook shoulder and unlucky not to feature in the top team. A certain Muscat saw to that.

Grant Brebner, MV, central midfield; a pedigree Victory signing, much pressure was on Brebner and Muscat in an area of the park (central midfield) Melbourne has failed in last season. Immediately they formed an in-synch understanding, Muscat's sitting and distribution complementing the box-to-box drive and workrate of Brebner. Effective at tagging, he was also a useful part of Melbourne's attack, popping up for one vital goal against Perth and its hitherto unbeatable keeper Tomich.

Matt McKay, QR, left midfield; while his best work was often in central midfield, his adaptability and left peg pushes him wide here, providing this unit with balance. While he had a little spell in the middle of the season where he appeared to be missing his little mate Murdocca, his start and finish were top-notch, and his buzzability when working in tandem with Murdocca was easy on the eye and hard to contain. If he can add a little more composure and subtely around the 18 yard box, a gift Vidosic has, he will be an even better player.

Steve Corica, SFC, attacking central midfielder; have already discussed his splendid season in my description of Nick Carle, but I just have to put my hand up and admit surprise at the impact he has had since returning from Europe. Often this season he was Sydney's shining light, staying true to his technical strengths while his teammates struggled for confidence on the ball.

Mark Bridge, NJ, striker; shedding eight kilos in the off-season, a good friend of Bridge's hinted that I should keep my eyes out for him during the season. Not rated by Richard Money, he was bit part in season one. But encouraged by Theodorakopoulos, he got himself fit and soon showed his wonderful ability on the ball, driving, dribbling and always looking to link up with the likes of Carle, Griffiths and Rodriguez. If he wasn't scoring (equal third behind Allsopp and Thompson with eight), he was providing (five assists), proving he is close to the complete package up front. Wonderfully adaptable, he looked comfortable in all four forward positions, wide left or right, up top or in behind. Like Musalik and Vukovic, he has already had a feel for being around the Socceroos and won't be at home much longer if he keeps up this form. Sensational.

Milton Rodriguez, NJ, striker; hard to leave Burns out after his wonderful work early in the season, where he was largely responsible for making United play, but Rodriguez was even harder to leave out and gets in for his sharp instincts around the box. Bagging seven, he scored some crucial ones, most memorably on debut, endearing himself to the Newcastle faithful and neutrals alike. Will be a sad day for Newcastle and the A-League if it can't retain a player of this quality.

Gary van Egmond, NJ, manager; it's all here. Beyond that, the thing I was most impressed about was that almost every time van Egmond spoke it was about technical things, like how he would control his opponent, how he would break them down and why he had made a substitution. It was invariably thoughtful and insightful and most times he got it right. Shrewd football brain, there is little he doesn't see.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A-League Grand Final wrap

Melbourne Victory 6 v Adelaide United 0

FITTINGLY, thrillingly and most deservedly, Melbourne Victory are the champions.

Just as season one of the A-League was all about Sydney both on and off the field (Dwight Yorke, Pierre Littbarski, David Carney, the Cove, Bling, Hollywood, a sold out grand final, the hottest ticket in town, and a championship to boot), so season two was all about Melbourne.

Archie Thompson, Kevin Muscat, Fred, Danny Allsopp, Ernie Merrick, Aaron Healey, Gary Cole, Geoff Lord, the Blue and White Brigade, 11,000 odd members, record crowds at the Telstra Dome, regular crowds of over 30,000, incredible colour, a minor premiership wrapped up with five rounds left, an amazing fushion of English and European style support (the creation of an Australian style of support), this season was all about the V for Victory.

While its northern rival started squabbling no less than a few days after their inaugural season win, leading to the most dramatic of seasons, Melbourne got down to work, re-defining Melbourne's sporting landscape. Its 6-0 win tonight was reward for all the hard work, and very well done to everyone involved.

Merrick had taken much heat in the build up to this season and almost as much since clinching the minor premiership around Christmas. Sticking by his theory that the players needed to be freshened up for the finals, here was his vindication.

Three weeks ago, away to Adelaide in the first leg of the major semi, the Victory looked there for the taking. Perhaps a more positive team than Adelaide may have taken the grand final hosting rights.

But after their late heroics a fortnight ago and looking fresh and primed after a week off, this Melbourne mob appeared likely to finish the season as they had been throughout - strong when it mattered most.

It might have been a little different had Theoklitos not produced an early block to keep out Burns, at the second attempt. But even then Melbourne were looking brisk and lively up front, Thompson peeling wide, Allsopp dropping off the frontline, Fred getting high in support.

Adelaide, who had some structural issues at the back to solve after the unlucky suspension of Kemp, were being moved around at will. John Kosmina had taken the bold move of starting Owens as a straight swap on the left.

While I'd pre-empted to option of Owens starting earlier in the week, I just felt that shifting Alagich to the left and starting Owens on the right might be the better option. Not only had Owens looked comfortable on the right earlier in the season, but I felt his want to get forward might test Caceres's ability to get back, detracting from his attack.

As it was, Caceres was very prominent on the ball early on, often doubling up with Thompson to give Alagich a headache. With Owens often being dragged forward on the other side, Valkanis was caught out a couple of times trying to cover the left, Fred getting goal-side of him from a Brebner long ball, taking it down with a delightful first touch and sliding it into the path of Thompson, who finally had a goal against Adelaide.

Surely the newly crowned Fox Sports player of the year couldn't have dreamt of how much more productive his night was about to become. But first Dodd wasted a precious opportunity in behind down the right. Adelaide, it seemed, weren't at the races, and their skipper reacted to some baiting from his opposite, earning himself a yellow for a late lunge on Fred.

The Brazilian picked himself up and played a pivotal role in a beautifully constructed second. Taking a ball on the half-way line with his back to goal, he flicked it forward to Allsopp and then spun, sprinting to get forward down the right. Once again Owens had been caught out and Fred was in behind, squaring up for Thompson.

Aloisi, outnumbered, frustrated by a lack of support in front of the back four and keen to get a foot on the ball, was soon in late on Brebner. Red.

Muscat had won the battle. Soon the skipper was having even more of an impact. Having what seemed an eternity on the ball, he again caught Valkanis trying to cover Owens, Thompson taking his pass in space, ducking onto his left peg and firing home. For a week Thompson had spoken about scoring a hat-trick. Not in his wildest dreams could he have imagined it coming within 40 minutes.

Game over, the only interest was whether Adelaide could contain them in the second period. Goulding was on to try and stem the flow, an admission by Kosmina that he had got it horribly wrong. But soon United were losing the ball in attack and Melbourne countered with four on three, Fred driving on the ball with options left, right and central. He chose the latter, Thompson fortunate the flag stayed down, rounding off Beltrame for his fourth, three teed-up by Fred.

Adelaide's central defenders Costanzo and Valkanis felt insensed, adding to United's perception that the authorities had conspired against them. It was a good thing Kosmina was no-where near the technical area or we might have a had a few more headlines.

Instead, it was Thompson writing the headlines, soon getting on the end of some more incisive lead-up work from Fred. This time he burst past Alagich, getting to the byline and cutting it back. It was behind Allsopp but straight into the path of who-else?

Thompson and the Victory had their fifth, and last week's hero Beltrame had barely touched the ball.

Adelaide had brought on Spagnuolo and shifted Burns infield, close to substitute Djite. Not for the first time this season, the two combined reasonably well, perhaps a pointer to Adelaide's future.

But United were completely shot, Sarkies coming on for Thompson and placing one beautifully into the far corner, before placing an even more lethal finish on the forehead of the PM on the Victory dias.

Afterwards there were some sour grapes from Alosisi, the work of a guttered man, but nothing could dampen the mood in Melbourne, not even the rain. The only pity is that a team playing with this much momentum, style and flow won't immediately be able to represent Australia on the Asian stage.

Regardless, with the likes of Tommy Smyth here for ESPN, the PM finally jumping on the bandwagon (although some would argue he was responsible for launching it), the match relayed around the globe and thousands of AFL fans no-doubt sneaking a peak on the box to see what all the fuss was about, this was a smashing advertisement for the game. Bravo Melbourne.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


A-League version 2

JUST over of a year ago I posted my first article on The Round Ball Analyst, the A-League team of season for version one, as well as a reserve team of the season just to acknowledge the contributions of those players who had handy seasons but couldn't quite crack it into the first team. Enjoyed the adventure so much I thought I'd have another crack at trying to fit all the quality we've seen throughout the regular season of version 2 into two 11s. The reserve team of the regular season as well as the A-League team of the finals will follow soon, but for now here's the 2006/07 TRBA Team of the Season, set out in 4-4-2, with the added touch of a manager;

Michael Theoklitos, MV, keeper; thought long and hard about this one and whether to promote Danny Vukovic from last season's reserve team, but in the end I went for the Victory custodian after a remarkable improvement in his game from last season. Back then, splitting duties with Eugene Galekovic, he looked hesitant, particularly in coming out for the cross or long ball. Indeed, like so many keepers that struggle develop from a shot-stopper to a box commander, he was often seen rooted to his spot. This season he has been commanding his area, relieving pressure whenever his defensive unit has been under the pump. Vukovic made many more saves (91 to 52), but Theoklitos's improvement was a vital cog in the Melbourne minor premiership march. Special note to Tommi Tomich and Mark Paston, both outstanding after coming into their respective teams midway through, while Robert Bajic, like Theoklitos, showed marked improvement on last season, before a silly send off at the Dome in round 15. His replacement, Daniel Beltrame, never gave him a look in after that.

Greg Owens, AU, right back; last season I also picked a make-shift right back, Hyuk-Su Seo, which I guess sums up the lack of quality coming through in that area. Owens only played a couple of games in that role earlier in the season, when Richie Alagich was out, but what an almighty job he did. Indeed, I felt Adelaide lost some of its mid-season momentum when Alagich came back in. While he mightn't have been the greatest defensively, what Owens provided going forward more than made up for it. Indeed, his driving work throughout the season, whether at the back or in midfield, was eye-catching, and he scored some wonderful and vital goals to boot, like the one at Telstra Dome in round 8 and the one against Newcastle in round 17. Blessed with wonderful ability on the ball and pace, his adaptability should attract Graham Arnold's attention some time soon. Simon Storey was less flashy for Melbourne, but showed a keen positional sense, Steve Eagleton made a marked improvement under Gary van Egmond, while Ben Griffin showed a bit of promise under Frank Farina.

Mark Milligan, SFC, central defender; after bolting into the world cup squad at the end of last season, started this one as the gap filler, playing almost everywhere but striker and keeper. On a couple of occasions he even popped up on the right side of midfield. While he was generally strong as a defensive central midfielder (his and Steve Corica's injuries just before half time turned the crucial round 9 clash against Melbourne in the visitors favour), his best work eventually came when he slotted into central defence alongside Mark Rudan in the round 13 home win against Adelaide. Between then and the finals, FC didn't concede any more than one goal a game and even had a record run of five clean sheets, despite all their off field dramas. As Milligan proved when he played centrally in a few games last season, this appears his best position, and his work at covering the backline, whether from behind or in front, is his greatest strength. It was no more evident than at Newcastle a fortnight ago, when Sydney, defending high, missing his covering pace and were exposed on more than the odd occasion. Still has much to learn, but an excellent second season.

Rodrigo Vargas, MV, central defender; the former NSL defender was one of Ernie Merrick's key off season signings, stepping in alongside Adrian Leijer and Daniel Piorkowski, his former Melbourne Knights teammates, and immediately controlling the defence. A great reader of the game, Vargas often stepped out of defence, intercepted an opposition pass, got the ball on the deck, and started Melbourne's potent transition game. Last season Melbourne lacked any real ability to withstand constant pressure, but Vargas, ever the organiser, provided guidance and calm in abundance, while his potent passing game allowed the Victory to build momentum from the back. The only other stopper consistent enough to even be considered for the first 11 this season was his teammate Adrian Leijer.

Matt Thompson, AU, left back; Nick Theodorakopoulos started the season with one major problem area, left back. He didn't know what to do, trying the likes of Shane Webb, Adam D'Apuzzo and Labinot Haliti. Nothing was working. It wasn't till van Egmond took over and shifted Thompson, hitherto a midfielder, into the role that the Jets defence finally looked to have some balance. Always a willing worker, here Thompson was able to utilise his strengths - sound technique, wonderful fitness and good ability to read the game - and become a pivotal part of the Jets jigsaw, offering drive out of the back and sound judgment when he reached the final third. Scored a cracker in Adelaide in round 17 and contributed to many other wonderful Newcastle goals. Mr. Consistent, I can only really remember him having one below-average game in the run-in to the finals, and that was in the extreme heat at Perth. It's a good thing for the Jets they've been able to re-sign him. While he didn't bag as man goals as Dean Heffernan, seven assists from left back is not a bad effort at all. Wonderful season.

Fred, MV, right midfield; spotted by Merrick's Brazilian liaison Steve Panapoulos, he become one of the Victory's 'trio from Rio', set to turn Melbourne into a samba machine. While the other two, Alessandro and Claudinho, struggled to fit in, Fred was quickly into the swing of things, catching the eye in his first game. While a defensive elbow threatened to derail him the following week, Fred was soon back in the groove, forming a wonderful attacking partnership with Danny Allsopp and Archie Thompson which plundered chance after chance, goal after the goal. Blessed with wonderful feet and awareness in an around the box, it was his willingness to track back in defence which endeared him to not only the Victory masses, but neutrals around the country. While he generally started on the right, he drifted all over the place, making him almost impossible to track and complementing the defensive work of Kevin Muscat and Grant Brebner. Went off the boil after the premiership was won, and Melbourne's play has suffered as a result. Loved the work of Leo Bertos early in the season and Joel Griffiths throughout, while rookie Dario Vidosic started and finished the season in spectacular style, clearly one for the future.

Kevin Muscat, MV, defensive central midfield; recognising that his young midfield was often over-run last season and that Muscat's experience was wasted out at right back, Merrick made the call of shifting his 'boss' into the key role in the centre of the park. Suddenly, the man know as much for his rugged and combative tackling had been transformed into the most cultured of footballers, dictating Melbourne's control with his strong personality, neat use of the ball and wise football brain. For Merrick and Melbourne, it was like having a manager on the field. Indeed, Muscat could often be seen barking instructions at his teammates, even in the dressing room, clearly the work of man with aspirations to be a manager. While he was involved in his fair share of border-line incidents, most notably with John Kosmina and Jamie McMaster, Musact's value to the team was crucial. He gave Melbourne belief, and his A-League record from the spot is impeccable. And what's even more amazing? Muscat topped the effective tackles list for the season, some transformation. The work of Stuart Musalik shouldn't go unnoticed (coming up in the reserve team of the season), Sydney's Ufuk Talay produced patches of his former best, Simon Colosimo showed signs he was again enjoying his football while Muscat's Melbourne teammate Grant Brebner was consistently good.

Nick Carle, NJ, attacking central midfield; the toughest decision of the lot, the choice between Carle and Sydney's influential number 10 Steve Corica. Both playmakers were exceptional and vital cogs in their team's progress to the finals. In the end I went for Carle mainly because he was on the ball a fair bit more than 'Bimby'. That was essentially down to the styles of the two teams. Corica saw less of it but was excellent when he had it, involved in most of Sydney's best moments through his drive, positional sense and ability to find space. With David Carney having such an ineffective season, no doubt Sydney looked at its best whenever Corica had the ball. Carle, meanwhile, was always on the ball, always Newcastle's go-to man, even when he was man-marked for much of the back-half of the season. Even then you could count on him to keep the ball, jink away from his man, and find a telling pass to one of his front trio with his wonderful left peg. Second on the list for assists (eight compared to Leo Bertos's nine) and completed passes (880 to Musalik's 996), he also topped the list for shots on target, was third in shots off target and third in fouls won. Accused in the past of being lazy, he dispelled that myth with a massive workrate every week, even ending up second on the list of most fouls conceded and fourth for the number of cards, stats you'd expect from a Muscat, not a Carle. There was nothing he didn't do, expect score the goals his play deserved. Even then he got the best one of the season, against Adelaide in round 10. Finally finding the consistency he lacked in his youth, this keep-ball merchant might still have his best days ahead of him.

Jason Spagnuolo, AU, left midfield; drafted into the Adelaide squad on the eve of the semi finals last season, he arrived from local club Metro Stars with huge wraps from John Kosmina, but we only saw a brief 12 or so minutes off the bench in the prelim final loss to the Mariners. With Lucas Pantelis out for the season, Spagnuolo was back and soon showing plenty of promise both with the ball at his feet and his willingness to work up and down the left flank. Indeed, with Travis Dodd struggling on the other flank and Bobby Petta taking time to get fit, Spagnuolo was often the most potent wide threat for United, such a vital part of their game-plan. Seven assists, the highest return for Adelaide, showed how vital a contributor he was. As for the other lefties in the comp, Adrian Caceres invariably looked good on the ball but showed deficiencies going the other way, Stan Lazaridis was excellent when he wasn't injured, Petta looked like he had forever on the ball despite an injury-interrupted campaign, Middleby at least got some game time, Stewart Petrie was one of the Mariners's better players while Leilei Gao impressed in the final rounds.

Archie Thompson, MV, striker; back on board both physically and mentally after the small distraction of a European contract at PSV and a spot in the world cup squad, it wasn't long before Thompson was reminding everyone just how brilliant he had been at the start of A-League version one. Forging a telepathic understanding with Fred and Danny Allsopp, he was soon doing what he does best - getting the ball on the floor and running at defenders, jinking, tricking and pick-pocketing his way past them on his way to 10 goals and five assists. The most slippery striker going around, the number of times he dropped the shoulder, dinked the ball past a defender with his deft touch and created a shot, opening or penalty, one lost count. One of the most remarkable aspects of Melbourne's form this season was the way the front two worked back. The sight of Thompson working as hard as anyone summed up Melbourne's campaign.

Danny Allsopp, MV, striker; if Thompson's workrate was a surprise, Allsopp's wasn't. Always known for his self-less play, many thought Allsopp was lucky to see a second season after his first was littered with missed chances. Shown faith by Ernie Merrick and working incredibly hard in the off-season, it all came together early, six goals in the opening seven games silencing last season's 'boo-boys'. Showing electric pace, wonderful strength and immense workrate, he was proving a hand-full for every A-League defender. Those that liked it physical were burnt for pace. Those quick on the ground were being easily shrugged off. Like Carle he was high up in all the attacking stats (assists, shots on and off target and fouls won) but topped the one that mattered most, with 11 regular season goals. What more could you want? Others to impress up front included the evergreen Damien Mori, Newcastle young gun Mark Bridge and his Colombian teammate Milton Rodriguez and United's star in the making Nathan Burns.

Ernie Merrick, MV, manager; like Allsopp, considered by many lucky to survive season one. Back then he had his excuses, building his squad later than all but the Knights. It left him with no choice but to go with youth, and after an enthusiastic start, the season fell away once Thompson left. So the pressure was on and Merrick got straight to work, programming the longest pre-season of any of the teams (over 200 sessions) and meticulously rebuilding his squad through some key positional signings (Vargas, Caceres, Brebner) and adjustments (Muscat to central midfield) and the daring scoop of three Brazilians, one of whom, Fred, became a star of the league. Yes he's had his fair share of luck with injuries but Melbourne have played an enterprising brand of attacking football, mixing an ability to absorb pressure lethal intent going forward. Little wonder the crowds have flocked. For his work in the off-season and throughout the regular campaign, he gets the gig ahead of van Egmond, so brilliant since taking the helm in round 8, as detailed here. Special mention to Ricki Herbert who was only around for the last month or so but made the Knights play.

So there you have it, the players and manager that stood out in my mind throughout the regular season. Do let me know your thoughts, who you felt may have been unlucky to miss, via a comment. And do visit again soon for the reserve team of the year, team of the finals and plenty more analysis of the finals and A-League season 2.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A-League Preliminary Final round-up

Adelaide United 1 v Newcastle Jets 1 after et (AU 4-3 on penalties)

GOING into this game, one of the most pertinent questions was whether Adelaide had shaken off the disappointment of the late late major semi loss, particularly in light of their poor finals record. John Kosmina had been on the record as saying that Robinson's late winner would only fuel the desire for his men, so the early signs would be telling.

As for the visiting Jets, who arrived with momentum, the question was whether they might be able to take advantage of any United vulnerability. One sensed an upbeat start from the visitors might be the best way of testing Adelaide's mental state.

But after a 10 minute period of shadow-punching, where Newcastle dominated possession but created little, it was the hosts who started asking the questions.

Instead of applying the heat from the beginning, the Jets arrived seemingly content to contain. As much could be told in the formation, with Bridge withdrawn to an attacking role from central midfield, behind the front two of Rodriguez and Griffiths.

Perhaps Gary van Egmond's logic was that his team's superior fitness (he had been on the record claiming it and the evidence this season certainly backed him up) would get his team home. Contain early and finish strongly seemed to be the plan.

Whether it was the Jets conservative start or the Adelaide's desire to make up for last week, United soon wrestled the initiative by pressing the Jets high, never allowing Okon to build any passing momentum from the back. The Jets appeared content to defend around their 18 yard box and had plenty of luck in surviving the first period unscathed.

The game's most surprising starter was referee Matthew Breeze, but after last Friday's shocker in the minor semi, here he got his first major call right, ruling Fernando had been upended outside the box by Thompson. What came later wasn't so good from Breeze, Adelaide feeling they had a penalty for a push on Diego while Kemp was later rubbed out of the grand final despite what appeared a clean tackle.

With Fernando and Veart providing a physical threat through the middle, Burns ducking in form the left and Dodd doing some neat work on Thompson, it was the hosts calling the shots, moving the Jets back four around and creating some decent openings.

Newcastle's most productive outlet looked down the right, where Griffiths, despite picking up another silly yellow (this one ruling him out of a potential grand final) was getting some change out of Kemp. But overall the Jets were struggling to impose their fluent passing game.

The start of the second period was a complete contrast. Almost as if they had flicked on the switch at the break, Newcastle upped the tempo, Bridge taking two pot-shots within minutes. Van Egmond, already known to have adopted his 'leadership group' idea from the Paul Roos school of coaching, was seemingly using another Roos concept; tempo football. All up it spelt danger signs for Adelaide.

But the hosts survived and reacted well, Veart getting on the end of a nice build-up involving Alagich, Burns and Fernando, finding a couple of metres on marker Kohler and placing it into the corner.

Surely United wouldn't make the same mistake of last week of trying to sit on their lead, surely not against this mob? They did, and sure enough they were punished, Carle doing the business on Alagich down one flank before Coveny found Valkanis and Kemp day-dreaming in the middle.
Still 15 minutes left and with the Jets flooding home and Adelaide seemingly tiring, there appeared only one winner. Van Egmond, it seemed, had got it right again. But Beltrame had other ideas. The keeper, who came into the side only because of the stupidity of Bajic in round 15, has excelled in the past couple of months, especially in racing off his line to narrow the angle in a one on one situations. It was evidenced by his work in denying Carle late on.

Later, in extra time, he raced off his line again to block Bridge after the twinkle-toed Jets striker was played in behind by a sumptuous Carle reverse flick. If it wasn't Beltrame, it was the wonderful defensive work of Costanzo providing United with a life-line, which substitute Djite tried to take advantage of. At times foraging alone up front, he was proving a menace and might have won it before it went into extra time had Covic not thrust out a right foot.

At the change of ends in extra time, Adelaide, with Kemp, Diego and Dodd seemingly struggling, looked gone. But Dodd and Costanzo were proving inspirational, the former switched to the left and applying plenty of pressure on Durante, the latter in supreme form at the back. Adelaide had done enough to survive and take it to penalties, and might even had snatched the win after Dodd went on a mazy run late on.

This was a wonderful contest, a thriller, and while Newcastle probably shaded it on chances created, Adelaide were mighty and resilient. Spurred on by the home Gate, and with Beltrame in the zone, it was United's turn.

Now they go to Melbourne having shaken off the monkey. While Kosmina's didn't admit it before the game, his and his team's reaction after Muslaik's spot-kick was saved told as much of relief as anything else. Such a pity he spoiled an otherwise wonderful evening by giving Breeze a spray.

Some of the other talking points

Disappointing turn-up; perhaps it was the hike in ticket prices or the disppointment of not having won at home in a finals match for some time, but the crowd of under 14,000 was low. Those that decided against going missed out on a cracker.

Kemp misses; there always seems to be one hard-luck story come grand final day. This time the unlucky man is Matthew Kemp. His tackle was clean so there is plenty of sympathy. It now causes a bit of a headache for Kosmina who has to decide whether to go with Goulding or Van Dommele, or possibly Owens, in which case he could switch Alagich to the left and play Owens on the right. Another option, less likely after it back-fired at Gosford in round 14, is the use of Valkanis on the left and Rees in the middle.

Save of the week; anything produced by Beltrame, whether it was the two one on one stops to deny Carle and Bridge in general play or the two saves to left during the shoot-out. Either way, his work over the past two months has been outstanding.

Goal of the week; while it involved an air-swing from Fernando in the build up, Adelaide's goal was neat. Alagich drove infield from the right, squared it up to Fernando, who tried to flick it forward. He missed and it rolled out to the left for Burns to flick it forward into the path of Fernando who had continued his run. Beating Okon to the aerial ball, he played a first time header across the 18 yard box, from right to left, where Veart had found some space on Kohler. It was awkward, but the veteran fashioned a shot, keeping it low.

Best of the week; Beltrame, Costanzo, Valkanis, Aloisi, Dodd, Veart, Djite, Carle, Musalik, Brown and Griffiths.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A-League Semi Finals, second leg round-up (cont.)

Minor semi, Newcastle Jets 2 v Sydney FC 0 (NJ win 3-2 on aggregate)

Major semi, Melbourne Victory 2 v Adelaide United 1 (MV win 2-1 on aggregate)

RECOGNISING the ills of the way they played last week and the way they have stuttered through the past month, where they have been dwelling on the ball (taking too many touches, not moving it around quickly enough and looking to go one-out rather than share the ball around), Melbourne seemed intent on playing an up-tempo game here.

After conceded an early goal due to an inability to shut-down the man on the ball (Diego) and some lax marking at the back post, the Victory were quickly into their 2006 groove; quick movement of the ball and equally decisive movement off it. With Caceres back in the starting line-up on the left and Fred, Thompson and Allsopp taking turns in providing some width down the right, the Victory looked mobile and capable of getting in behind early on. And they did, Caceres wasting a good chance.

Adelaide, content to sit deep after their early smash-and-grab were being over-run in midfield, Diego looking sharp on the ball but struggling to assist Aloisi going the other way. Fortunately for United Costanzo was in supreme form once again, reading everything Melbourne dished up.

After looking great for the first half of the first half, Melbourne slipped back into the recent/frustrating habit of becoming too narrow, and United's defence started to take control.

Just like 48 hours earlier, half time would prove pivotal. Would Ernie Merrick panic, frustrated by his team's inability to break United down in the final 25 minutes? No, his words as the teams came out were positive, re-inforcing that he was happy with the performance and that his men needed to remain patient. If there was any despondency he wasn't showing it.

His mood was upbeat and it was mirrored by his players. They started the second period on fire and Allsopp soon had a wonderful equaliser, driving like the Allsopp of old. Valkanis, never the most comfortable with a striker taking it too him on the floor (as exposed by Kuwaiti livewire Bader Al Mutwa in August), retreated and was punished, Allsopp shifting it to his left and shaping it into the top corner before Costanzo could intervene. Thrilling strike. It was an otherwise immaculate performance from Valkanis but this moment of hesitation proved fatal.

While Melbourne buzzed around at the start of the second half, they were unable to find a go-ahead and the pattern soon became familiar. With Costanzo seeing everything, his defensive colleagues following suit and Beltrame lending a hand, more and more it was looking like the Victory were out of ideas and would miss out on hosting the big one. They had huffed and puffed but hadn't been able to blow the Adelaide resistance over.

Seemingly out on their feet, it was time for re-inforcements. On came Alessandro, Sarkies and Robinson, the latter for Fred. And what an impact they made, combinig for a sensational winner. When Alessandro took on two players down the flank and won a free-kick it was time for dead-ball man Sarkies. Two minutes into stoppages he flighted one into the traffic. Adelaide could only clear it to the edge of the six yard box, where Robinson guided it back across Beltrame. It dropped in. Cue for mayhem as 47,000 odd Vics went mad.

If there was a bit of fortune in the finish, Melbourne deserved it. Magnificent tonight, magnificent for most of the season, Melbourne (both the team and the fans) deserve their grand final, but will need to be more ruthless if they wish to win it.

Adelaide had come hoping to 'kick a Vic' but were left kicking themselves.

Ccontent to park themselves on the edge of the box, rarely looking to counter, they'd been made to pay. Cruel indeed. Even then they showed some character to create a heart-stopping moment, but, while most in navy blue were still celebrating Robinson's goal, Theoklitos was alert, denying Dodd. Now United must do it the hard way, knowing they are yet to win a regular season final in five attempts and facing a team full of attacking thrust.

Some of the other talking points

Save of the week; The work of all four keepers was excellent this week. Bolton made a number of brave stops while Covic was solid coming off his line and dealing with the aerial ball. Ditto Beltrame. But Theoklitos's 94th minute effort to rush off his line, narrow the angle and space for Dodd was the pick of the work. Wonderful concentration.

Goal of the week; all five this weeked were decent. Newcastle's second involved some excellent work from Thompson, while Robinson's late late effort will live long in the memory, more for its significance than its beauty. For beauty it has to go to Allsopp, a positive and direct run followed by a pin-point blast. His first in over a month.

Monday, February 05, 2007

A-League Semi Finals, second leg round-up

Minor semi, Newcastle Jets 2 v Sydney FC 0 (NJ win 3-2 on aggregate)

UP until now, whenever they have needed a result, Sydney FC have invariably produced it. Cast your mind back to some crunch games in the lead up to last season's finals (like Adelaide at home in round 21) and the finals that followed and Sydney turned up the intensity when the pressure was on. Even this season they have produced enough when it has mattered most, like when Terry Butcher was facing the chop ahead of the round 10 home clash with Perth (1-1 draw), and again when they ventured north in round 21 knowing they needed a draw to win a finals spot (1-1 was enough).

This time a draw would also have done the trick and you sensed the big game experience of the likes of Corica, Rudan, Talay and Bolton would be enough to get them through. But this time they didn't do enough, self-destructing under the pressure (both physical and footballing) applied by the Jets.

The home side, keen not to make the same mistake of last week by giving Sydney a head-start, set the tempo early, a couple of crunching tackles indicating they weren't about to let Sydney dominate the physical stakes. Competing at every pass, the likes of Thompson and Okon set the scene with a couple of early rattlers on Carney and Brosque.

While there had been little surprise in the starting line-ups (Durante and Rodriguez had been tipped in the press to come in for Eagleton and Coveny, while Talay, returning from suspension, was the obvious replacement for McFlynn), there was an early surprise in the way the Jets shaped up. Realising that Carle had been bottled up in the middle of late, Gary van Egmond started him on the left, with Bridge and Rodriguez playing through the middle. It was more clever work from the Newcastle manager, taking some early pressure off Carle. It also allowed the Jets to break quickly through the middle, Rodriquez, Bridge and Griffiths taking advantage of a Sydney back four that was often caught high up the pitch.

Sydney have looked best in defence whenever Milligan has been patrolling things at the back. Here, with him in midfield, Sydney's back four almost looked as slow and square as it had been earlier in the season, and Talay was often found sprinting back to help out. Musalik in control in the midfield, Okon stepping in to lend a hand and the front four looking lively, Sydney were hanging on. Spurred on by a bumper and boisterous Newcastle crowd, incensed by a couple of penalty decisions that were waved away by Matthew Breeze, Newcastle kept it tight and physical.

With Corica squeezed wide and Carney and Middleby well looked after by Thompson and Durante, Brosque was isolated and became frustrated. He snapped. What followed was suitably described by van Egmond as 'handbags at 10 yards', but on the evidence of replays it is was not surprising to see North called up by FFA. There may have been little contact and Fyfe admittedly made a meal of whatever contact there was, but a gesture is a gesture and, on the precedents we've seen from the FFA disciplinary committee, North will be very lucky if he gets a trip to Adelaide this week. Petrovski's involvement as the players departed did neither him nor his club any favours, merely heightening the focus on Butcher and his players.

Still 0-0 and despite the numerical disadvantage, Sydney, you sensed, were very much in it. Surely this latest dose of adversity would only steel them further? Could the Jets handle the expectation in the second half? The words of van Egmond at the break, so measured and insightful, offered hope. Move the ball quickly, don't dwell on it at the back and stretch Sydney, that was the plan. It sounded simple, but how often have we seen teams fail to take advantage of a numerical superiority?

But Newcastle followed the plan perfectly, Okon bringing the ball forward, Musalik, Carle, Bridge and Griffiths stroking it around quickly, one and two touch football. Sydney, with no recognised striker on the pitch and unable to build anything out of the back, were forever on the back foot, stretched from right to left. Little wonder gaps opened up in the middle.

When the ball was on the Newcastle right, Zadkovich looked lost, unsure whether to hang out on the right or drift into the central space. Soon he was caught in no-mans land, Bridge taking advantage and finding Griffiths unmarked in Zadkovich's space. Measured, composed and confident, he shaped it into the top corner. Madness around Energy Australia.

The Jets were ahead on away goals but they weren't content to defend it. Again they attacked and should have had a penalty when Fyfe clattered Carle from behind. But they kept coming. When a cross from the right appeared to be over-hit, there was Thompson, pressing forward, keeping it alive. Zadkovich, over-reading the situation again, showed him the line, Thompson took him on and substitute Coveny pounced. The place went off and the Jets it seemed were off to the prelim.

But a Sydney goal would have taken it to extra time. Not surprisingly their best hope looked to be at the set piece, but Covic, again reserving his best work for home, was in confident catching mood, racing off his line to relieve pressure.

Further signs of discord when Butcher replaced his captain, Rudan wishing to march straight to the shower. Sydney had started the two-legs well, but, over-run by a united force, could no longer bottle it in. Newcastle had proved in 30 minutes in Sydney and for 90 minutes here they have the charcter and belief to go with the technical and tactical smarts. Sydney, hitherto such a major psychological barrier, had been crossed.

Much as they'd been on the receiving end of a similarly wonderful night on the Central Coast at this stage last season, now it was Newcastle's turn to celebrate, both on and off the field. And now, just like their southern neighbours last season, they will go to Adelaide with the belief they can at least get to the big one.

Do visit again for a comprehensive review of yesterday's gripping major semi final second leg at the Dome.