Thursday, August 30, 2007

Defenders dropping all over the place

TRBA reports that there are up to 14 defenders on the sidelines this weekend and that a number of them will be out for some time.

WHAT is it with the curse of the defenders at the start of A-League v3?

Everywhere you look there are defenders dropping like flies, either through injury or suspension, and last week’s opening round only exacerbated the problem. Every club is affected.

Up in Queensland, Danny Tiatto’s two match suspension handed down this afternoon (one match immediate, the second suspended if he earns a caution or red card in his first game back) for a stupid two-footed lunge on Richie Alagich is only the latest in a series of suspensions rocking the Roar rearguard.

Hyuk-Su Seo, who has been playing at right back in the Roar pre-season, still has a week to serve on the suspension he picked up in the final pre-season cup round. He is joined by skipper Craig Moore, who will this week serve his automatic one match ban after losing the plot in his A-League debut.

Their opponents on Sunday, the Jets, are facing up to the news that Andrew Durante will be out for an extended period after tests yesterday revealed he has torn ankle ligaments after badly rolling it in the 0-0 draw with Perth last Sunday.

While the initially hope was that he would be out for two weeks, TRBA has it on good authority that it will be more like six weeks on the sidelines for the Jets right back, another cruel blow for a player who has already suffered two broken legs and spent the entire inaugural season on the sidelines.

In the same game, the Glory’s central defender, David Tarka was in severe pain after ripping the tendon in his right hammy, and will now require surgery and be out for months, possibly the season.

He joins Perth’s other central defender, Hayden Foxe (another long term casuality), on the sidelines, meaning the glory will travel to Melbourne on Saturday night to face the might of Danny Allsopp and Archie Thompson without their first choice central defence. Dino Djulbic is likely to be partnered by either Jamie Harnwell or Nikolai Topor-Stanley.

The Victory have their own problems at the back after big name signing Lubjo Milicevic limped off with strained medial ligaments after an early challenge by Wellington’s Tony Lochhead. The early prognosis was that he’d be out for over a month, but yesterday Ernie Merrick hinted Milicevic might be back a little sooner.

Tomorrow night at Bluetongue Stadium, the Mariners take on Wellington without skipper and central defender Alex Wilkinson after he tore his medial meniscus in the knee in the season opener against Sydney. While the club is still determining the length of his injury, a spokesperson said Wilkinson “could be back on the park within six weeks, but could also be out for as long as three months”.

Further tests will reveal whether he requires an arthroscopy.

With Paul O’Grady, Tony Vidmar and Andrew Clark all spending time on the sidelines in the pre-season, it’s been a torrid time for defenders on the Coast. At least Vidmar and Clark are back in contention to replace Wilkinson, but O’Grady continues to recover from a shoulder injury.

The Phoenix travel to Gosford without right-back Steven Old, reportedly suffering the flu, but at least he is replaced by a defender, Steven O’Dor, back from international duty.

Even Sydney and Adelaide, who clash on Saturday evening, have their own defensive headaches. Mark Milligan, who played in the centre of a back three in the second half against the Mariners, is reported to be ill, and has been left out of the squad for the clash potent Adelaide attack. Manager Branko Culina is showing signs of frustration.

His nominal replacement, Jacob Timpano, played for 45 minutes in Sydney’s pre-season clash with Penrith Nepean United, but hasn’t been sighted since. After a wretched season on the sidelines last term, Timpano is said to be at least five weeks away from a comeback.

Terry McFlynn, who played at right back in the first half against the Mariners, has also this afternoon been handed a two match ban (one match effective immediately, the other suspended if he is cautioned or red carded in his first two games back).

Adelaide is the only team not to lose a defender from last week, but is still waiting on the return of new central defender Milan Susak from a hamstring injury. He is said to be three weeks away.

By my calculations, that’s 14 A-League defenders currently on the sidelines, a staggering amount in a competition that has less than 200 registered players, and it’s only round 2.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

RIP Antonio Puerta, you'll be sorely missed

SHOCKED, stunned and saddened to hear that one of my favourites, Sevilla's Antonio Puerta, 22, has lost his battle for life after collapsing on the field in the La Liga season opener against Getafe on Sunday.

While I didn't get to see the match live, I was watching the replay on Sunday morning. Puerta went down just after the half-hour mark, just after back-tracking towards his own goal. There was a fair deal of commotion as teammates and doctors rushed to help him, fearing he'd swallowed his tongue. A short time later he was helped to his feet and walked to the dressing room. He seemed shaken, but ok.

The match went on, Sevilla came back from 0-1 down to win 4-1, his replacement Sergio Duda going on to play an influential role in Sevilla's fight-back. Not much was thought of Puerta's predicament.

Later came the news that Puerta has suffered a cardiac arrest in the dressing room and was rushed to hospital, where he was on life support. Last night, on SBS World News, the status was that he was "critical and facing up to the likelihood of brain damage".

Then, this morning, I woke to watch the Sevilla-AEK Champions League game. It wasn't on. I feared the worst.
The internet confirmed the news that Sevilla's number 16 had lost his battle, tragically a month and a half before the birth of his first child. Forget the footballing side for a minute, this is the greater tragedy. Spare a thought for his girlfriend, family, friends, teammates, manager and fans of Sevilla.

Antonio Puerta emerged for me as one of the most promising left backs in the world in Sevilla's UEFA cup winning season of 2005/06, scoring a couple of crucial goals in his teams European run. While Dani Alves was grabbing all the headlines down the right, it's was Puerta's steady and consistent work, both in defence and attack, down the other side, that caught mine and many other eyes, so much so that I thought he should have been at least a part of Spain's world cup squad.

Aragones ignored him, but the kid bounced back. Last season he was again excellent, giving me little choice but to have him in my La Liga team of the season. He finally made his Spain debut as a substitute in their Euro qualifier loss away to Sweden in October. Naturally, this season, he was one of the first players I picked in my La Liga fantasy team.

Antonio Puerta will be sorely missed. The tributes will flood in, and so they should, starting with Saturday morning's UEFA Super Cup clash against AC Milan, a match now dedicated to Puerta. But it will be hard for some to focus on the football at a time like this, and there is talk that Sevilla will also postpone their next La Liga game against Osasuna on Monday to accomodate this morning's postponed Champions League game.
Football hardly seems relevant at a time like this.

Image above courtesy of

Monday, August 27, 2007

23 hours late; The A-League kicks-off, literally

Round 1 analysis

SFC 0 v CCM 1
QR 2 v AU 2
WP 2 v MV 2
PG 0 v NJ 0

AFTER a fairly tepid season opener on Friday night, v3 really took off 23 hours later in Brisbane and then reached a high point in the final quarter hour at Wellington, before coming back down to earth in a big way in Perth late yesterday.

At Suncorp, two teams with plenty of feeling dating back to the inaugural season, when then managers Miron Bleiberg and John Kosmina locked-horns on the sideline, were back at it. There might be a whole heap of new combatants on the bench and on the pitch, but clearly there is still plenty of tension. Couple that with the start of the season and it's easy to see why the tackles were flying in everywhere, many of them X-rated.

No-one was keener to impose themselves on proceedings than returned Socceroo Danny Tiatto. Never shy of a two-footed lunge, Tiatto’s early work was burgeoning on assault. The only miracle was that he survived a red card, let alone a caution.

Not so lucky was his Socceroos pal Craig Moore, who ultimately snapped after a frustrating evening trying to come to grips with a couple of Socceroos in the making, Bruce Djite and Nathan Burns.

Clearly, and not surprisingly, the Roar aren’t planning to be a soft touch this season. In Moore, Sash Ognenovski and Tiatto, they have three of the most rugged and ferocious defenders in the league.

The thing is though, on this night, they came up against a side that was equally as up for the physical battle. In Jonas Salley and Djite, Adelaide have two guys who love the body combat.

Djite is fast developing a reputation as Australian football’s ironman.

Fresh off the plane from 90 minutes in the heat of Doha with the Olyroos, he backed up with another 90 minute all-action display, grabbing the first of what I’m sure will be many A-League goals by shaking off Ognenovski. Djite is tough, quick and works the house down, and while he might lack the subtlety of a Mark Viduka on the ball, for a big man he offers plenty of mobility and will be hard to match up on.

Big defenders will struggle to keep up with him and the more agile defenders will struggle to deal with his body-work.

His combination with Burns is fast becoming one of Australian football’s biggest weapons, and Burns is no doubt set to profit from Djite’s dirty work in the years ahead, as he did for the opener, a wonderfully struck half-volley.

Elsewhere Adelaide looked solid and confirmed that they will be one of the teams to beat this season, but for the most part it was the hosts that had the ascendancy. Pressing Adelaide high, this was a decent display from the Roar, but it still exposed a number of gaps that will thwart any title ambitions unless they are rectified. While Adelaide always looked a threat up front, Queensland lacked the composure in the front third, relying instead on the thrust of midfielders Matt McKay and Massimo Murdocca for most of their penetration.

Reinaldo was busy and robust, but missed a sitter in the first half, and will need to improve his goal-getting return, while Ante Milicic is no longer the threat he was. Marchino was keen to make an impression but was probably guilty of over-trying. He should improve.

Speaking of improve, the next day, in front a bumper and boisterous Wellington crowd, the ‘new’ Phoenix showed wonderful fighting character, something rarely seem by their predecessor, the NZ Knights, to bounce back with two late goals in a pulsating finish against the champions.

Down 2-0 with little over 10 minutes left and seemingly gone after Daniel missed a penalty early in the second half, the Phoenix rolled up the sleeves and, inspired by Brazilians Daniel and Felipe (a late substitute), kept knocking, eventually cracking Melbourne’s defence, which had hitherto been in total control.

When Shane Smeltz grabbed a deflected equaliser, all of a sudden the Victory defence was rocking and had to rely on a brilliant Michael Theoklitos save, sharp down to his right, to deny substitute Royce Brownlie, before Smeltz headed just over the bar.

It was an encouraging finish from the Phoenix that should give them plenty of confidence for the season. Early on though they looked very shaky, struggling to keep the ball and putting enormous pressure on centre backs Cleberson and Karl Dodd, who struggled to deal with the movement of Melbourne’s front-three. Cleberson grew more comfortable with the game and was a monster in the second half, when the Phoenix kept the ball and stopped pumping long balls to Vaughan Coveny and Smeltz.

If the Phoenix-Victory clash in the east featured the most riveting finish, the one over in the west between the Glory and the Jets was the fizzer of the round, and on this evidence, both teams will be struggling unless there is significant improvement.

While Perth shaded the game overall in terms of control and chances created, the Jets still had a couple of great chances, but were wasteful. While the conditions were terrible - severe winds, driving rain and a poor pitch - the lack of quality from both sides was a massive let-down.

Newcastle had problems all over the pitch; poor distribution out of the back (they were already missing Paul Okon), a lack of fluency in midfield (Denni struggled to get into the game) and little penetration in the front third (Mark Bridge had a poor game by the lofty standards he set last season and Tarek Elrich was barely in the game. Only Joel Griffiths looked a threat). The likes of Denni and Jorge Drovandi (an ineffective substitute) might need a little more time, while Adam Griffiths will need to settle after a very nervy debut.

Perth weren't much better, struggling to lend support to Mate Dragecevic in the first half and lacking a cutting edge in the second. Billy Celeski tried to provide it with an energetic display, but there was little chemistry in what the Glory were doing.

It was a disappointing way to end what had otherwise been a decent first week. Three draws and a Mariners victory by a one goal margin confirmed what many had been saying in the build up; that this will be the closest season yet. On the evidence of the first week though, it will also be the most physical yet, and let’s hope that isn’t to the detriment of the quality of football.

TRBA team of the week (3-4-1-2)

Goalkeeper; Ante Covic (NJ)
Defenders; Matt Osman (CCM), Cleberson (WP), Dean Heffernan (CCM)
Midfield; Andre Gumprecht (CCM), Mile Jedinak (CCM), Matt McKay (QR), Daniel (WP)
Attacking central midfield; Nathan Burns (AU)
Strikers; Sasho Petrovski (CCM), Bruce Djite (AU)

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Heavyweights knock-off the lightweights

Round 1 match analysis, Sydney FC 0 v Central Coast Mariners 1

HOW Sydney FC could have done with a Sasho Petrovski or Nik Mrdja in last night’s season opener against the Mariners as the SFS. That was the major difference between the teams, the quality up front.

The Mariners had two of Aussie football’s best strikers going around, Sydney had nothing.

Mark Rudan spoke during the week about the riches at Lawrie McKinna’s disposal in the front third, and here was the evidence. Every time Mrdja and Petrovski had the ball at their feet they looked a threat, likely to carve out a chance.

Big but mobile, they were heavyweights in every sense. With almost his first touch, Petrovski profited from a casual piece of work from Clint Bolton and Steve Corica, placing a ball past both Tony Popovic and Bolton after some alert work from German monster in midfield, Andre Gumprecht. Wonderful finish in the conditions.

Contrast that with Sydney’s starting duo of Alex Brosque through the middle and young Adam Biddle down the right, lightweight both in stature and punch.

Sydney were indeed the Manchester United of Oz football; bereft of strikers.

While the Mariners rarely allowed the ball to get up front through the excellent work of Mile Jedinak, Gumprecht and John Hutchinson in midfield, when it did Sydney’s lightweights weren’t able to keep it there.

Biddle in particular was struggling to shake off the attentions of Dean Heffernan, back in Australia and demonstrating that, despite spending a year on the bench in Germany, he is a far improved footballer. Outstanding from the Mariners left back. How the Socceroos could have done with him in Asia.

Even in midfield, Sydney’s lightweight trio of Steve Corica, Juninho and Ufuk Talay were struggling to shake off the attentions of the physical Mariners midfielder. Jedinak, in particular, was all over Juninho, hammering him every time he got on the ball.

With a bit of luck, the Mariners might have had a couple more, Mrdja smashing one against the post and then Petrovski heading just wide from another excellent cross from the right.

Everywhere you looked the Mariners were all over it, stretching FC. While Heffernan and Adam Kwasnik were dominating the left, Matt Osman and Gumprecht were combining well down the right, exposing Sydney’s lack of natural left-sided width, a point so obvious a week ago.

Sydney’s only chance was a piece of scraps in the box, Brosque rushing his finish, not for the first time in his Sydney career. Much hyped on his arrival a year ago, it has been a disappointing return so far, and with Sydney’s stocks up front thin, Brosque will need to come good soon. He worked had, no doubt, but he is paid to finish and will need to be more clinical. The Cove will be praying Patrick da Silva is a gun.

Only when Jedinak was yellow-carded for one too many hits-from-behind on Juninho did the little fella break the shackles. Just before the break Branko Culina shifted Biddle to the left, Brosque to the right and played his two guns, Corica and Juninho through the middle.

It almost worked a treat, Juninho playing in Corica with a neat through ball before the Brazilian glided through the Mariners defence. He hesitated and Danny Vukovic did well to stay upright. Juninho had just learnt a thing about Australia’s no. 1 in waiting. But the signs were improving for the hosts.

At the break Culina went further, changing from 4-2-3-1 to 3-5-2, with Juinho thrust further forward in support of Brosque, allowing him to shake off Jedinak. Biddle went off, Ruben Zadkovich came on at right wing-back, Terry McFlynn went from right back to central midfield, Mark Milligan went to sweeper and Ian Fyfe went to left wing-back.

But for Fyfe looking uncomfortable as a wing-back, Sydney’s shape looked better and they started to control the game, but the Mariners were up for the fight, and had heroes all over the place, none more so than Jedinak. On this evidence, they might just revive the verve of season one and certainly one of the teams to beat this season.

Sydney created the odd half chance and might have considered themselves unlucky not to grab an equaliser, especially when Mark Rudan turned on a volley.

But the desperate goal-line clearance by promising defender Nigel Boogaard summed up FC’s night, close but no cigar.

That was being smoked by Sydney’s all time top scorer.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

England vs Germany Live

International Friendly from Wembley
Refresh screen every couple of minutes

Hope you enjoyed the coverage, do revist TRBA soon.

Germany controlled much of the second period and always looked likely on the counter-attack, with Kevin Kuranyi always looking a threat. As the match went on, lahm looked more comfortable in midfield, while Hitzelsberger and Scheinder were excellent. Debutant Chrsitain pander was shacky early but got better with the game and his goal will be the long-lasting memory from this game. England still have plenty to ponder ahead of the crunch Euro qualifiers against Israel and Russia, but on the evidence of this, McLaren still doesn't convince.

While england created a couple of half-chances ion the second period, especially when they got the ball wide, it was a fairly confortable second half for jens lehmann.

Hard to feel sorry for England. Instead of bringing on Jermaine Defoe on in the second period, McLaren brings on Crouch, who is suspended for the important Euro qualifier against Israel anyway. Against tall and physical defenders like mertasacker and metzelder, that's bread and butter defending for germany

94' FULL TIME, England 1- Germany 2

94' kuranyi holds off two defenders and fires just over.

93' shorey does well down the left, but cross cut off bny lehmann.

91' beckhaep m dropping deinot his own half to play a long diagnol ball aimed at crouch. comes to nothing.

90' schneider off, excellent game, 4 minutes off stoppages.

89' this is playing right into germany's hands. they can sit back and pick england off on the counter.

87' Kuranyi, who missed out on the world cup squad, doing an excellent job up front in shielding the ball and waiting for his teammates. england running out of ideas and starting to revert to type - the long ball.

84' a nothing long ball from terry from which germany counter-attack swiftly and earn a corner. good delivery from pander, dealt with by james

82' germany now look in reasonable control at the back.

78' England doing most of the attacking, especially through wright-phillips, but germany looking lively on the counter. nicely poised.

76' beckham corner, terry header, cleared off the line by mertasacker.

72' change for germany, Rolfes on

72' great ball/cross from wright-phillips, with numbers driving from midfield lampard gets on the end of it but cant control.

70' another change for england. shaun wright-phillips for joe cole. decent perfromance from cole, one of england's best.

68' beckham starting to get more of the ball

66' now the tempo is lifting, beckham in behind down the right and squares it up for dyer who, under pressure from metzelder, lunges but puts it wide. good chance for england, a rare time in behind.

65' right on cue, a couple of great long passes from both sides create half chances. first schneider clips in a delighful ball over the kuranyi and then beckham plays in dyer.

63' not the greatest start to the second period, the changes have taken a bit shape out of the game.

60' Not the greatest contribution up front from owen and smith. both struggled to get inot the game and were well looked by mertasacker and metzelder, two quality defenders, first choice at the world cup.

58' shorey gets forward, plays a square ball to cole, who shoots from distance but wide.

57' more england changes. Crouch and Dyer on for Owen and Smith respectively.

55' England change. carrick replaced by Gareth Barry.

54' Germany change. Stuttgart's Roberto Hilbert comes on for Odonkor.

50' german midfeild starting to function well with lahm, schneider and histz getting on top.

47' david james with an opportunity to stake a claim for starting role in the upcoming euro qualifier against Israel, especially after robinson's mistake

46' second half starts with richards tucking in to central defnce and wes brown being pushed to the right. surprising given the excellent contribution from richards going forward in the first period.

A couple of changes for england at the break. David James from Robinson in goal and Wes Brown for Ferdinand in central defence.

Two excellent goals, the first from lampard, opening himself up and balsting it first time from inside the box, the second from pander a thunderbolt, teed up by some neat work in midfield from lahm.

Hitzeslberger warmed up with a couple of long range efforts before Schalke debutant christian Pandar blasted one on the left peg, a wonderful drive that was too much fro robinson to deal with. it fizzed by him and gave german the lead. even then england came back, with owen having two excellent chances to equalise, one a header, one from a spill by lehmann.

Wonderfully open game, england dominating early with richards down the right and cole down the left doing most of the damage, but as they do, germany were able to get themselves back in the game. as soon as they had a shair of the possession the chances started to come and they were able to find a bit of space between the england midfeild and attack.

HALF-TIME, England 1- Germany 2.

45' owen blasts wide after lehmann spills a ball into his path. tight angle from the right but it was a great chance and owen probably rushed it a bit

43' pander struggled early but is growing with the game. the strike will give him enormous confidence.

41' back come england, owen header well saved by lehmann. end to end.

40' GOAL to germany, 1-2. Panar with with outrageous strike from distance on the left peg, great hit.

40' match evenly poised, germany looking good when they have the ball.

37' richards drives down the right and wins a freekick edge of the box, beckham's free kick dealt with by german header.

34' cole gives away a free kick in midfield and earns a yellow. robinson troubled by the excellent free kick from pander, with the header just over.

32' back come engalnd with a free kick to beckham on the left, whipped in to the near post where the near post flick on evades everyone at the back post, then beckham plays in lampard with a lovely ball but he is denied by lehmann.

30' in robinson 's defence it wasnt the easiest ball to deal with, one of those wicked crosses

28' fair to say it's a mistake from robinson but the defence to was equally asleep to let kuranyi to pounce with almost his first touch.

26' GOAL to germany, 1-1. hitz gets forward and drives one of ther right peg this time, spilled by robinson. it falls to schneider on the right who whips in an early cross to the near post which catches out robinson. he cant deal with it and it falls to kuranyi for the easiest of tap-ins

23' germany getting into it. hitzeslberger hits one on his left peg, just wide.

21' it's taken germany 20minutes but final theyve been able to muster a counter attack, breaking down the right through odonkor. he wins a free kick against shorey which leads to a corner, from which metzelder heads wide. at least it's a relief for germany to be at the other end.

18' interestingly fro germany lahm is playing in the holding role alongside his captain schneider but he is struggling to get into the game.

16' german left back is chrsitian pander, making his debut, struggling early as richards runs at him and wins a free kick. pander was the player exposed one on one by richards in the build up to the goal.

14' germany prepared to sit back early allowing england to build from the back and have paid for that. england having far too much tim on the ball.

12' quality strike from lampard but neat work in the build up from richards who has been playing in central defence for man city but is back on the right side in this game.

9' GOAL to ENGLAND. richards makes a nice run down the right, cut's inside and plays lampard in. he blasts one with the right foot with his first touch, hammering it past lehmann

9' England starting to dominate, joe cole the main threat.

5' Quiet start, england winning a couple of free kicks in midfeild, both teams feeling their way in.

Germany; Lehmann, Freidrich, Mertasacker, Metzelder, Pander; Lahm, Schneider, histzelsberger; Odonkor, Kuranyi,

England lining up as follows; Robinson; micah richards, ferdinand, terry, shorey; beckham, carrick, lampard, joe cole; smith, owen.

Welcome to this coverage of the friendly between england and germany, live on TRBA. its a late start due to to the late arrival of tghe german team. Both teams are descimated with injury.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

B-League version 3; brimming with excitement and improvement

A comprehensive preview of A-League season 2007/08

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Play A-League Fantasy

AS promised a couple of weeks ago, here are the details of The Round Ball Analyst's private league for the Foxsports A-League Fantasy game. If you've picked a team or intend to, don't hesitate to pop it in our private league. The code is 340-211.

The winner of last season's TRBA private league, Peter Rompies, is back for the another go with his cheekily named team 'SBS', so have a go and see if you can knock him off this time around.

Good luck and enjoy.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Juninho's still got it....

......otherwise it was a Long night for Sydney

Penrith Nepean United 2 v Sydney FC 1

IF the first impression is any indication, then Sydney will soon fall in love with Juninho Paulista, if it hasn't already.

Sydney's marquee for version 3 made his debut last night in a pre-season scratch match against Penrith Nepean United at the CUA Stadium in Penrith, and it was a wonderful 45 minute contribution.

Walking towards the stadium, half an hour before kick-off, there he was, warming up with the "first 10" outfield players, playing keep-ball.

Watching it from a couple of metres away was great viewing. While you could barely hear him ask for the ball, when he got it the touches were crisp and his ability to recycle it was excellent. Indeed, his presence appeared to lift those around him, for the quality of the warm-up was high.

When the team broke from the warm-up for a s spot of long-and-short passing, a quick word with Steve Corica confirmed that Juninho would be playing in behind Alex Brosque, with Corica consigned to the left wing and new signing Adam Biddle given a chance to make an impression on the right.

Warming up with the reserves was David Zdrilic, a sign perhaps that Branko Culina is running out of patience with the big man.

On to the game, and while Juninho felt his way into the opening 10 or 15 minutes, hardly getting a touch, he soon sprang to life. Moving around the midfield, trying to shake off the attentions of Penrith's central midfield duo of Javier Manchino and Jack Long, he soon started getting on the ball. The class was obvious. Juninho still had it.

Soon he was turning and facing the goal, splitting the United defence with two wonderful through balls, each played with immaculate timing and just the right amount of weight. Both recipients, Brosque and Corica, could rarely have recieved better service, but were each deined by some wonderful reactions from goalkepper Chad Taylor, impressive throughout.

Regardless, it was splendid stuff from the little Brazilian.

The other pleasing aspect for Culina will have been the understanding between Juninho and Corica. No doubt these two quality performers were on the same wavelength throughout their 45 minute so-journ.

Whenever Corica drifted central, Juninho instantly pulled out the left. When Juninho cut in from the left, there was Corica, driving into the box from a central position, recognising that there were opportunities to get on the end of his quality service. And there is was, the ball played right on cue.

On this occasion Corica's touch was a little heavy, but the understanding was obviously there, as it so often is whenever quality players are put on the same team.

Elsewhere Sydney looked solid without every really providing a cutting-edge. Worryingly, it has been lacking throughout the pre-season, and the battle will be to find goals when the A-League kicks-off next week.

One of Culina's biggest headaches will be to find a solution on the flanks. Biddle is raw and promising but will need time. Down the left there was a clear lack of width. Corica always wanted to drift infield, while Iain Fyfe, solid defensively, was always more inclined to cut-back onto his right peg, whenever he ventured forward from left back.

At the back Mark Rudan and Tony Popovic looked solid whenever the ball was aimed at Penrith's target-man Brad Boardman, but less so when the ball was on the ground, at the feet of the mobile and hard-working Mitchell Long.

While Juninho drew much of the attention, there is little doubt that most of the impressing on this brisk night in Sydney's west was being done by the hosts, especially the younger of the two Long's.

While they finished bottom of the NSW premier league in their first attempt, this team coached by former Sydney Olympic great Abbas Saad is a far cry from the robust one I watched so often throughout the 2006 Winter Super League.

That team was coached by former NSL defender Claudio Canosa, known for his rugged and committed approach. His team was certainly in the mould, experienced, uncomprising and competitive.

Saad's young team is far more prepared to keep the ball on the deck and build out from the back, and against a team like Sydney, who let you play, they gave a wonderful account of themsleves.

After Mark Milligan scored a headed goal to open proceedings, Penrith came back well. Their equaliser came from a set-piece corner, but owed much to a wonderful build-up out of the back that led to the corner. Not surprisingly it coincided with the replacement of Boardman about 10 minutes from the break.

Up until then Penrith had been guilty of looking for it's target man far too often, and when he did get it he was unable to hold it up. When he was replaced, Penrith had to play, and play they did.

Mitchell Long was the fulcrum, buzzing all over the place, defending from the front and dropping back into central midfield whenever Saad asked him to. On this evidence, the wrap from his manager in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald isn't far off.

After the break, with Sydney fielding a 'fresh 10' of reserves and trialists, it was Long who stood-out, setting up Penrith's winner with a superb dribble and cross, which pressured FC's right-back into a hand ball.

Ben Gough, Penrith's adaptable right back, capped off an impressive night with a neat spot-kick.

He wasn't the only defender shining for hosts. Captain Ryan O'Shea, marshalling the centre of defence, was excellent, while a host of youngsters caught the eye, outplaying their more illustrious opponents, proving there is plenty of talent in these parts.

Certainly, a the club with plenty of ambition, did the cause of a western Sydney A-League club no harm whatsoever.

For now though attention turns to the original Sydney club, and on the evidence of this performance, Juninho will certainly excite. Whether it's enough to help Sydney re-find the glory of the inaugural season, the jury is still out.

Friday, August 10, 2007

EPL Fantasy update

IF you enjoyed putting together your fantasy team through the official EPL site and you've become a bit obsessed with this whole fantasy thing, then why not have a go at the new Foxsports EPL Fantasy comp. With $10,000 up for grabs, you just never know your luck. If you have or intend to pop a team or two in, then whack 'em into the 'TRBA' private league via the following code; 6049-931. To give you a bit of time to assess the form on the first matchday and to get your teams together, there'll be no scoring in the TRBA private league until matchday 2, but if you want to be in the running for the major Fox prizes, you better get your teams in quick smart as the deadline for matchday 1 is 8.30pm EST on 11th August.

If you can't be bothered with the EPL and want to throw all your managerial nous into the A-League, then log back on next week for details of our A-League Fantasy private league. Enjoy it all.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

EPL Fantasy - Join in

SO the EPL kicks-off on Saturday, and as always, the new season offers plenty of intrigue, with a succession of big-name signings always throwing up a series of interesting questions.

Little doubt that the title will end up in the hands of one of the big four yet again, but just which one remains less obvious. This time last season, pundits were only interested in talking about Liverpool as Chelsea's likely challenger.

Man United were third or fourth in the line of betting. This time around they are clear favourites, especially with the likes of Hargreaves, Nani and Anderson on board, and Tevez set to join. The latter three will add plenty of sparkle to any already potent counter-attack, but their success could well hinge on keeping Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo on the pitch.

But they shouldn't have it their own way. For once, Chelsea have been conservative in the transfer market, preferring the settled approach, but they have added an absolute gem in Florent Malouda, the left-sided Frenchman. Let's hope he provides Mourinho's men with more flair, for their football was hard to stomach last season.

One team that didn't fail to dazzle, as they always do, was Arsene Wenger's young Gunners, who, along with Man U, saved last season's league from being the bore that it so often was. They mightn't have won any silverware, but won plenty of admirers for the way they played the game. Thierry Henry might be gone to Barca, but don't for a second think this team won't be worth watching. Up front much will hinge on the maturing Robin van Persie, but Croatia's naturalised Brazilian Eduardo looks the goods. At the back, keep an eye out for former Auxerre right back Bacary Sagna, a strong and technically edpet (which Wenger player isn't?) player who should take to the EPL with ease and force Emmanuel Eboue into right midfield.

He's not the only former Auxerre defender set to make an impression. At Tottenham, look out for young central defender Younes Kaboul. Many pundits feel that Martin Jol's team is the only one that can upset the domination of the big four, and they certainly have some firepower in Keane, Berbatov, Defoe and newly signed Darren Bent. While I'm looking forward to seeing Kaboul, equally as exciting is the signing from Hertha Berlin of the Bundesliga's young player of last season, 20 year old midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng. Expect a few headlines.

Elsewhere, I was wrapped to hear that one of my favourite midfielders, Ghana's Sulley Muntari (so impressive at Germany '06) has joined Portsmouth from Udinese, while another youngster making the move from Italy is Fioretina's Bulgarian striker Valeri Bonijev. He is one of the many men brought in by new Manchester City boss Sven Goran Eriksson, himself brought in by new City chairman Thaksin Shinawatra. Seemingly, Mark Bresciano will be among them.

Another Aussie Mark on the move is the big man, Viduka, joining Newcastle and it's new manager Sam Allardyce, responsible for some of the most archaic, yet effective, football at Bolton. The big battle for Big Sam will not be to get Viduka and Martins firing up forward, but to tighten up what has arguably been the most porous EPL defence of the past decade. At least Titus Bramble is gone, but Peter Ramage is equally is tragic. The success or otherwise of his two central defence signings, Czech David Rozenhal and Brazilian Claudio Cacapa, could well decide Newcastle's season.

One team with no such problems at the back is the team I have been waiting for what seems a lifetime to win the league, Liverpool FC. Their problems have been at the other end, and to that effect Fernando Torres has been brought in along with Dutch starlet Ryan Babel and Israeli Youssi Benayoun. There is little doubt Liverpool need more from their strikers and wide men, and the promising pre-season news is that Steven Gerrard will be driving out of central midfield. But after 17 years of frustration, I'm not about to start getting excited about Liverpool's title prospects. That will come in March or April, if we are still in the title hunt.

Liverpool's start will be the key. Five losses in their first seven away games decided their last campaign.

Whatever happens, here's to some football that's easy on the eye.

ONE way to keep on top of things is to register and play Fantasy Football. The one featured on the official EPL site is the one we - friends of TRBA - have been playing for at least the past seven seasons. Some take it more seriously than others, and there is the odd fantasy gun, like the winner and second place in Four Four Two's Asian Cup fantasy comp, Connor and George Giannopoulos, but they're beatable if you put in the time and effort. Once you've registered and chosen your team, the code to enter the private league is 309716-62482. Enjoy, and good luck.

Edited 10th August 2007 to include second place in Four Four Two's Asian Cup Fantasy comp.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Asian Cup Team of the Tournament

WITH excitement building ahead of the upcoming A-League season, one last bit of reflection on the Asian Cup, my traditional sign-off to a major competition, the team of the tournament. Of course, I featured a team of the group stage a little earlier, but since then another eight games to mull over, all important, altering the make-up of my final selection.

The Fox Sports team featured their own in the build-up to the final, and it was set out in 4-3-3 formation; Woon-jae; Sukha, Saiwaeo,Yulianto, Denisov; Teymourian, Nashat, Abdulrahman Al Qahtani; Malek, Younis Mahmoud, Yasser Al Qahtani.

Not a bad team at all. Every one of those players had an excellent tournament, and I’m especially pleased to see Saiwaeo in there. Mine is similar, at least in shape, but I just had to honour the best team in the tournament, so there are five Iraqi players in TRBA’s team of the tournament;

----------Nashat---------K Nakamura-----

Lee Woon-jae, keeper, South Korea; old ‘spider-hands’ was a rock throughout, producing save after save, both from general play and the penalty-spot, and providing a steadying influence for his young backline.

Suree Sukha, right back, Thailand; enough said earlier, but great to read his performances earnt him a trial in England. Let’s hope we see more of him soon.

Kang Min-soo, central defender, South Korea; probably the hardest position to choose. Saiwaeo and the two Indonesian stoppers, Maman and Yulianto, were outstanding in the group phase, while Nakazawa was a monster against the Socceroos. But as the tournament went on, the defences that stood out the most were South Korea and Iraq. Not surprisingly, players from those teams get my spots in the heart of the defence. Min-soo was ultimately sent-off for an innocuous challenge against Takahara in the 3rd/4th place play-off, but up until them he was outstanding, covering the ground quickly and dominating in the air. For a 21 year old, did a top job for Pim Veerbek, marshalling the Korean defence.

Jassim Gholam, central defender, Iraq; like Min-soo, grew with the tournament, peaking with outstanding displays in the semi and final. In the semi he shut down Cho Jae-jin, while in the final he was responsible for Yasser Al Qahtani, doing a brilliant job. Combining beautifully with Ali Rehema and Bassim Abbas, there was barely a challenge he didn’t win.

Bassim Abbas, left back, Iraq; like his bald-headed mate Ghloam, one of the characters of the tournament with his ferocious tackling, tight man-marking and extravagant over-heads. Was a monster against the Socceroos, and after a tough contest against Yeom Ki-hun in the semis, was back to his outstanding best in the final, shutting down the dangerous Malek Maaz. It was a tournament of brilliant left backs – Denisov, Ridwan, Zandi and Kamano – but the Al-Nejmeh based Abbas was the standout.

Qusay Munir, defensive central midfielder, Iraq; a peripheral figure in the group stage (he started the first two games on the bench) and suspended for the quarter final win over Vietnam, he burst to life in the final two games, dominating the midfield in both. Against Korea he was the one Iraq midfielder that kept them in the game, while in the final he combined brilliantly with Nashat, buzzing all over the place, breaking up the Saudis at the first hint of a build-up and using the ball intelligently. As influential as any midfielder in the tournament and as responsible as anyone for Iraq’s win, he just had to be in this team. Machine.

Nashat Akram, central midfielder, Iraq; enough has been said on this forum and others about how silky he is, but what impressed me was how he finished the tournament. After a quiet semi, it looked like he could have disappeared towards the end of tournament, but in the final he raised his game, proving he can handle the big occasion. Hope to see him gracing the fields of Europe soon.

Kengo Nakamura, central midfield, Japan; outshone his more illustrious namesake Shunsuke with his all-round play at the heart of the Japan midfield. Strong defensively, he showed surprising forward drive, getting on the end of some action around the penalty box. He just pips Uzbek Server Djeparov who was consistently good in all four games and excellent in the quarters, especially his set-piece delivery. In comparison, Andranik Teymourian had a poor quarter final, while Abdulrahman Al Qahtani had an excellent group phase but was clearly playing injured in the knocks-outs, replaced in all three games. Korean pair Kim Jung-woo and Yeom Ki-hun caught the eye and were unlucky not be make this team.

Malek Maaz, right-sided attacker, Saudi Arabia; a handful throughout the tournament both on the ground and in the air (a huge leap for a little man), he was particularly brilliant in the semi final win over Japan, toying with Yuki Abe both in the air an on the ground. His second was a peach, the best individual goal of the tournament, gliding past Abe and Nakazawa and smashing it past Kawaguchi. Was bottled up by Abbas in the final, but almost grabbed an injury time equaliser.

Younis Mahmoud, central striker, Iraq; a leader in every sense. Remarkable workrate, cunning around the box, strong in the air and decent over the dead ball, he was a handful for every defender he faced. Crowned player of the tournament and joint top scorer, he more than anyone deserved Iraq’s victory.

Yasser Al Qahtani, left sided attacker, Saudi Arabia; like Maaz, ‘The Snipper’ was well looked after in the final, but he was as responsible as anyone for getting the Saudis there. Predatory around the box, he lived up to his nickname, but he was equally as strong when he dropped outside to pick up possession and either play a sublime pass or drive forward. Like Mahmoud, a wonderful leader.

So there you have it, the Asian Cup done and dusted for '07. Hope you enjoyed TRBA’s coverage, if not the Socceroos performances.