Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Musalik mystery takes another twist

THE mystery surrounding one of Australian most important footballers thickens.
TWO weeks ago Stuart Musalik was named in the Olyroos starting 11 to play Lebanon in the matchday 4 Olympic games qualifier in Beirut. The next morning we learnt he hadn't started; that his Jets teammate Adam D'Apuzzo had instead played in the 0-0 draw. No explanation was provided by the FFA.
He returned to Sydney on Friday morning, with news filtering from Newcastle that he would be sitting in the grandstand for his team's clash that night with the Roar. Again, no explanation from the Jets.
Then, last Friday, at the Telstra Dome, it was there for all to see. Musalik was clearly seen warming up after being named in the starting 11, but then, as the teams were preparing to kick-off, the Jets wanted to substitute Musalik for Noel Spencer. After a bit of commotion and debate with the officials, they did.
The explanation from the Jets assistant coach Mark Jones, at half time, was the Olyroo was suffering from a stomach bug that he may have picked up in Lebanon and that he was "still on the toilet".
Anyway, he was left on the bench, and not needed as the Jets performed their smash and grab raid on Melbourne.
Now comes the news, according to Gary van Egmond, that Musalik may even have an appendix problem.
Whatever the diagnosis, for the sake of our Olyroos and their crucial clash against Iraq on November 17, let's hope the Musalik is back on deck and influencing games soon.
To use van Egmond's words, it's not only the Jets that "can't afford to be without a player of his quality for any length of time."
Update, Thursday 01 November; according to this report, Musalik had his appendix removed yesterday (oh, the pain!), will not play in the blockbuster on Saturday night against Sydney, may not play next week (round 12), but should be right for the Olyroos fixtures. That's good news for Australia's Olympic Games hopes, but in the meantime, wishing Musalik a speedy recover.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A bumper round of entertainment and enterprise

A-League round 10 analysis

AT least one regular TRBA reader, Barca fan Adam, enjoyed the hit and miss format of my weekly wrap last week, so I thought I’d give it another go as we approach the halfway point of the season. Little doubt that after a poor opening third of the season, things have really picked up over the past three weeks. After the 15 goals of round 8, this week there were 18, just one shy of the A-League record set in round 11 of the inaugural season. In the past three rounds the goal average has climbed to above 2 goals a game, so let’s hope the upwards trend continues. But it wasn’t just the quantity of goals that provided entertainment, but rather the quality of the football, with another clinical Gary van Egmond job down in Melbourne, a cracker up in Queensland, the usual goals galore from the potent attacking force that is Adelaide and an eye-catching response from Sydney to all the drama and misadventure of the past week or so. And what’s even better, it was played out in front of over 73,000 fans, the best A-League gate since round 16 last season and the second best yet. Finally, v3 is living up to the billing it will not only be the tightest on record, but the best, so lets all pray that will continue. In the meantime, here are the round 10 hits and misses;

MV 0 v NJ 2


  • Gary van Egmond – played Ernie Merrick at his own game, hitting early, sitting back, absorbing and playing on the counter. There’s little doubt Melbourne prefer to be the counter attacker, as they demonstrated at home last week to Perth and two weeks earlier to the Roar, so thumbs up to van Egmond for doing to Melbourne what they’ve been doing to others this season – winning ugly.
  • As the coach said in the post match presser, his players are to be congratulated for the way they carried out van Egmond’s plan. Clearly, they believe in his every word, and, more importantly, understand how to effectively carry out a tactical template.


  • Melbourne’s attack – Allsopp was missing in action, there was little width and, after his recent good form, Hernandez had an off night, well looked after by D’Apuzzo and Spencer.
  • Merrick’s decision not to bring Caceres on until the 83rd minute. For all Melbourne’s domination of possession and territory in the second period, they only had one shot on target, and guess who provided it? Caceres, of course.
  • Matthew Breeze’s decision not to award a free-kick to Melbourne in the lead-up to the elbow incident that saw Pantelidis red-carded. Pulling up Joel Griffiths and awarding him a yellow for clearly pulling back Pantelidis would have avoided the flash-point. Melbourne felt they had a couple of other penalty claims against Durante and Breeze may well have missed an incident between Adam Griffiths and Allsopp in the scramble for the opener.
  • The pre-game mystery surrounding Musalik – that’s twice in the past couple of weeks he’s been named in the starting 11 (the other occasion was vs Lebanon for the Olyroos) but hasn’t start. Given the circumstances, Spencer was excellent, but what on earth is the matter with Musalik?

QR 3 v PG 3


  • Covered most of it here, but was very impressed by Perth’s first half, particularly the performances of Djulbic, Topor-Stanley, Downey, Colosimo, Danze, Celeski and Harnwell.
  • The performance of Marchino, especially in the first half when the rest of his team went AWOL. Miron Bleiberg made a good point a few weeks back on Total Football that Marchino is not the creative style of playmaker, but rather an attacking midfielder who likes to score, so he must provide goals. Here he provided some good drive, and finally one of his shots hit the target.
  • The second half performance of Seo, who started to demand the ball and make Queensland play. Nicholls wasn’t too bad off the bench either.
  • They copped three goals and have been leaking them of late, but both Coyne and Djulbic were good, especially the latter. Quick over the ground, Djulbic looks very relaxed on the ball. Coyne makes mistakes, but rarely drops his heads.
  • Bertos’s performance off the bench was his best this season.
  • Farina’s second half introduction of a second striker (Lynch) for a defender (Griffin) provided Queensland with just the right numbers in attack at a time they were getting on top.

  • They’ve been brilliant so far, but both Zullo and Kruse had a quiet night, despite Kruse’s good feet in setting up the Marchino strike. While most say it’s normal to expect this inconsistency from kids, credit must be given to both Downey and Topor-Stanley, who kept their respective attackers busy by having a go at them.
  • Liam Reddy, if there is any substantiation to the word from Ed Vegas in his comment to this piece, what a tool.
  • Farina’s use of a clearly injured Tiatto, and what’s worse, the fact he stayed on while despite struggling every time he touched the ball.
  • Where’s Murdocca?
  • The Roar back four has been ok of late, but they were all over the shop here.
SFC 3 v CCM 2


  • Let’s start with Sydney’s shape – Fyfe playing as a stopper in a back three (that’s his spot), Zadkovich and Middleby (both comfortable getting forward) deployed as wingbacks, Juninho and Corica both lending support to Bridges and Brosque, there just seemed to be a more natural shape about the hosts then we have seen. Milligan makes the back three.
  • Bridges made a wonderful debut, presenting often, holding the ball up well, passing and moving, running off the ball, creating space for others. It certainly helped that the Mariners played high, but his combination with Brosque, Juninho and Corica was excellent, and there just seemed to be this almost telepathic understanding.
  • The crowd and the vibe at the SFS – a good response to the off field drama coupled with a vibrant and upbeat atmosphere, something for the club to build on.
  • There weren’t many winners for the Mariners, but Hutchinson kept trying and got a couple of rewards. Aloisi wasn’t spectacular, but it was an encouraging debut.
  • Alex Brosque continues to score, a player full of confidence, finally fulfilling his promise. His movement has been very good of late, best emphasised by his diagonal drive for the second goal.
  • Juninho’s best game since his shoulder injury, while Popovic finally played a captain’s knock, his ball for the second inch perfect.

  • McKinna was spot on afterwards, this was the Mariners worst performance of the season, although the signs have been there of late.
  • Playing high up the pitch, the left themselves vulnerable to Sydney’s pace and movement. Vidmar in particular struggled to deal with Bridges, forcing both Boogard and Jedinak to take turns. So mobile was Bridges, none of them could cope with him, while the attention on him created room for others.
  • Petrovski was in irresistible form in round 1, but this was one of his most ineffective performances in some time – absent.
  • Popovic scored his first Sydney goal from a set piece, but closer inspection shows Vukovic may well have been illegally obstructed by Fyfe. I didn’t hear any Mariners protestations afterwards, but I wonder if it was discussed privately?
AU 4 v WP 1


  • Another performance full of drive and purpose from Adelaide, proving they are the most potent team doing the rounds. It featured four different scorers and first A-League goals from Giraldi and Spagnuolo.
  • Adelaide’s work at both the set piece (their first two goals) and the counter attack (their last two) was super impressive. Over the dead ball they had great delivery from the likes of Spagnuolo, Pantelis and Cassio, while their drive on the transition is too much for most teams, let alone the hapless Wellington defence.
  • Cassio and Alagich continue to impress as attacking fullbacks, providing plenty of decent distribution from the flanks.
  • No Salley, no worries. Diego drops back into the holding role proving just how adaptable he is, while Burns comes into the driving role previously occupied by Diego. Gee Vidmar is spoilt for choice.

  • That’s four losses on the spin for the Phoenix, but worryingly it’s their first by a margin of more than one.
  • Karl Dodd was dropped. In came Old, but it was the same scenario, gaps aplenty in the heart of the defence. How Herbert could do with an experienced central defender, or maybe even a return to central defence for Cleberson, who impressed there in the second half of round 1.
  • Beltrame limped off with an injury, but he did a couple of sloppy things, including being beaten at his near post for Smeltz’s fifth of the season. His distribution for the Pantelis goal was better.
  • Lia, Aloisi and Felipe (and his red mop) really struggled in central midfield.

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

Goalkeeper; Reddy (QR)

Defence; Alagich (AU), North (NJ), Djulbic (PG), Topor-Stanley (PG)

Midfield; Celeski (PG), Hutchinson (CCM), Marcinho (QR), Juninho (SFC)

Attack; Brosque (SFC), Bridges (SFC)

Updated Tuesday 30 October 2007 to include TRBA team of the week

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Pass marks for Perth, but only one credit

Round 10 match analysis, QR 3 v PG 3

WHAT a match at Suncorp. In arguably the game of the season, Perth found another novel way to throw away valuable points, but it was the way they got themselves in front that was most impressive about their performance.

Skipper Simon Colosimo was despondent in the post match interview with Nick Meredith, describing the performance as ‘crap’, but these were the words of a skipper shattered his men couldn’t maintain yet another two-goal lead.

Understandable, considering the context of their season and the need for three points, but a closer inspection highlights more signs that a couple of wins surely aren’t far away.

For much of the first half it was Perth’s brilliant passing game that allowed them to control the match and gave them a deserved 2-0 lead approaching the break.

Ron Smith has been under the pump of late, but here was an emphatic response, a performance of real swerve and verve from a Glory side clearly intent on playing football.

The fact his starting 11 featured the likes of Celeski, Danze and Micevski, all ball players, told much about Perth’s intent. Couple that with Colosmio’s placing in midfield and the recent willingness of fullbacks Downey and Topor-Stanley to get forward and link, and you have a far more attractive Glory than we had seen in the opening third of the season.

Their first goal was a classic case in point, a seven pass move shifting the ball from the left side of defence, efficiently through central midfield, creating the space for Celeski down the right.

While his cross was inadvertently converted by Moore, it was the series of one touch football involving Colosimo, Danze and Celeski that pulled the Roar out of shape. Wonderful play.

It got better. A minute or two before the second, Perth strung together a wonderful series of 14 passes, shifting the ball through the midfield and around the back until some space was created for Topor-Stanley down the left.

It started with a hasty Queensland clearance which fell at the feet of Celeski on the right. Instead of blazing away and firing a ball into the mixer for the sake of it, he put his foot on it and squared it for Colosimo, who did the same. The patient pattern continued until a switch of play from right to left, where Topor-Stanley, having a smashing half, won a throw-in. Watch it if you can find a copy.

A minute later, another incisive four pass move involving Coyne, Colosimo, Harnwell and Danze again found Topor-Stanely, who burnt Griffin and teed up Harnwell. Thrilling stuff, a reward for the earlier patience. Perth was all over it.

Surely they wouldn’t let it slip again!

But they did. In stoppages, Marchino, having his best game in orange, got on the end of some neat hold-up play from Kruse and finally found the back of the net with a clinical finish.

Given the lifeline, the second period was a completely different affair. Suddenly it was the Roar keeping the ball, Seo dictating terms from deep in midfield.

Sensing a shift in the flow, Frank Farina introduced a second striker, Lynch on for Griffin. Hit and miss up until now, Lynch gained a bit of confidence from the spot (nothing like hitting the back of the net!) before finishing expertly to give his side the unlikeliest of leads.

Poor Perth, poor Smith, more points lost it seemed. But spurred on by the confirmation of five minutes of stoppages, Perth didn’t resort to pumping it into the box. They kept playing. When Downey and substitute Bertos had the ball on the right, seemingly with nowhere to go, it was a neat one-two that saw Bertos driving into the box. Nothing came of it, but it was wonderfully inventive in restricted space.

Then, when Coyne, excellent throughout (along with his central defensive partner Djulbic), played a neat one-two with Bertos through the centre of the Roar’s midfield, Perth had their reward.

Three goals, from three one-two’s, but no three points.

Only one credit on the table, but the real credit was the manner of their performance. Pass marks indeed.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Youngsters continue to make impression

A-League round 9 analysis

WITH all the shenanigans at Sydney FC this week, haven’t really found the time to dive into a comprehensive wrap of what I thought was a very good round of football, so here’s a briefer than normal snapshot of the things that caught the eye, both good and bad. Hope you still find it relevant;

NJ 1 v QR 1


  • Seeing the kids light it up, with Zullo and Kruse standing out for the visitors and James Holland brilliant for the hosts. What a couple of brilliant games from Holland, hope to see him again very soon.
  • The way Queensland came out pressing Newcastle high up the pitch and disrupted their early passing rhythm. Worked a treat, they got themselves the goal.
  • The way the Jets worked themselves back into the game, sticking to their patient passing game and going backward to start again if nothing was on. It confirmed they are arguably the best passing team in the comp, and that this style can also create openings.
  • The overall quality of the game which featured two teams that really wanted to play.
  • The defensive performance of Moore and Ognenovski – building up a nice little partnership.


  • The performance of Laybutt, who not only gave away the penalty that Covic saved from Moore, but generally looked hesitant, slow and a bit too aggressive.

SFC 0 v AU 1


  • Adelaide looked far too silky across the pitch and overall had too much pace and movement for Sydney, controlling all but the second half of the first half.
  • Their midfield combination of Salley holding, surrounded by Pantelis and Diego was too mobile and powerful for Sydney, while Cassio chimed in well down the left.
  • Sydney’s best was Adam Casey, playing in the unfamiliar central midfield. In the second half of the first half, he provided a spark, driving out of the midfield and utilising the space down the right to provide a couple of telling crosses.
  • After Sydney had dominated that period before the break, Aurelio Vidmar cancelled Branko Culina out by going to a similar 3-5-2. United controlled it from there, hats off to Vidmar.


  • Beltrame looked hesitant and heavy, especially in dealing with crosses.
  • Sydney missed Milligan. The back three, patrolled by Popovic, was constantly exposed for pace and looked disorganised. Popovic isn’t a sweeper, while Rudan looked lost without the pace of Milligan nearby.
  • Sydney was dominated in the holding midfield, Talay and Juninho powerless to deal with the drive and penetration of Diego, Pantelis and Dodd, who dropped infield to led support and create the goal.
  • As a result, the front two had little service and Brosque had his worst game in some time.

WP 1 v CCM 2


  • The workrate and fighting capabilities of Simon. He mightn’t be technically flash (indeed, he’s rough) but his workrate is immense and he went all the way to the final whistle, hassling the Phoenix defence and forcing panic, which was enough for Petrovski to pounce.
  • After going behind, the hosts, led by their marquee man Elrich, fought back, playing the better football. Their goal was a peach, brilliantly taken by Elrich, who despite his lack of fitness, was magnificent. Went all afternoon, and looks like he’s added some mobility and football smarts to his game. Before Europe he was one-dimensional, up and down the flank, but here he drifted infield and linked up with people around box. Very impressed and surprised.
  • The news that Kwasnik put his hand up to play off the bench, despite being injured. Typical Mariners.


  • The Phoenix deserved at least a point, possibly more, but their Achilles heel was their defending, especially through the middle. O’Dor and Dodd have improved in recent weeks, but here they were back to their worst, gifting the Mariners their goals. O’Dor was responsible for the first, Christie the second with a terrible backpass.
  • Kwasnik took the pens last season, but Petrovksi decided to take their first for the season and screwed it. Now Aloisi’s on board, who takes them? Personally, I remember Pondeljak being pretty handy from the spot…spoilt for choice.

MV 2 v PG 1


  • Victory’s first 30 minutes, simply brilliant, their best of the season. Hernandez combined really well with Thompson, who was really in the mood from the start, clearly intent on putting behind him breaky-gate.
  • In the heat, Perth finally realised that it’s no use going long againt Melbourne. They started to get the ball on the deck and get it wide, where the narrow Melbourne appear most vulnerable this year. And it worked, Downey getting some change down the right and Topor-Stanley bombing on down the left. Harnwell loved it, and so started a great contest with Vargas and Theoklitos.


  • Melbourne’s second half was the most bizarre imaginable. They basically dropped back to their 18 yard box, let Perth have the flanks and were prepared to just sit back and defend their 2-1 lead.
  • Good thing Perth had no creativity, subtlety or imagination around the box. Instead, Perth just kept getting it wide and knocked in predictable crosses, which Melbourne, inspired by Theoklitos, dealt with for the remainder of the evening.
  • Smith seemed content to just keep doing this and it became comfortable for the hosts.
  • If it was Merrick’s idea to just sit back and protect their lead, he was lucky. He’ll get punished against a better team than Perth.

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

Goalkeeper; Theoklitos (MV)
Defenders; Cornthwaite (AU), Vargas (MV), Ognenovski (QR), Cassio (AU)
Midfield; Holland (NJ), Jedinak (CCM), Diego (AU)
Attack; Ahmand Elrich (WP), Thompson (MV), Kruse (QR)

Sydney crowds; will they turn up?

THERE were strong comments after my most recent piece from some Sydney FC fans not happy with the sacking of Branko Culina and the club’s move to appoint John Kosmina.

The feeling among many fans, including those that have commented, is that the club has become Frank Lowy’s play-thing.

Fair enough, some might argue, since it was Lowy who basically bailed out the club after the largesse of the first season. The club was said to be six or seven millions dollars in the red.

However, there are others who argue it is a throw-back to the early days of NSL when Lowy presided over the Sydney City Slickers, the league’s best backed club financially, but the worst backed club in terms of numbers, as Lowy himself confirmed in Ross Solly's Shoot Out;

"It [Sydney City] was very successful, the players loved it.....but we didn't have spectators."

The fear among many fans is that Sydney’s crowds, already sliding, will continue to dwindle, and many regulars are claiming they will no longer attend. Some will even switch allegiances.

Here are the thoughts of one Sydney FC member, who has forwarded TRBA the email he sent to the club after hearing about the way the whole Culina matter was handled;

“This club is a shambles. Three coaches already and we aren't even half way through the third season. Instead of sacking the coach, the club should take a closer look at the squad of players. Half of them shouldn't even be there. And the other half are too bloody old. Our playing roster has to be the worst in the league. I was teetering whether to continue my membership this year and only did so on the appointment of Culina, and the hope of influx of new players. What do we get...Popovic...(dont we have a tall lumbering slow central defender already?). Thanks for making up my mind about next year. Cant wait for a second Sydney team, in the meanwhile, Go the Mariners.”
It’s stinging stuff, and there’s no doubt it’s the last thing the club and the A-League needs, fans of the game to stay away.

Yet there is a feeling the club has done very little to engage its fans or the community, with many feeling they’ll need some convincing to stay on board.

Others will be there through the good and the bad, as another SFS regular confirmed;

“Sydney City Hakoah reunion – Lowy, Kemeny, Kossie…not sure if it’s good or bad. I am not a member, but attend every home game, and yes, I will be there again
– I back my teams to the end.”

Right now the club looks like it could go either way – will it move forward and offer the stability and sound management fans crave, or has the goodwill be lost? Will fans give the club another chance?

In his piece yesterday, Mike Cockerill signed off by writing that there should be a spike in crowds for this weekend;

One positive at the end of a bad week for the club is the likelihood of a bumper crowd to witness Kosmina's first game in charge. With former English Premiership star Michael Bridges making his Sydney FC debut, and Socceroos striker John Aloisi making his debut for the Mariners, club officials are hopeful of a season-best crowd for a match that could decide Sydney's title aspirations.

Interesting times indeed for Sydney and the A-League.

Whether you’re a Sydney FC regular or casual, will you be turning up? If you’re not a Sydney fans, can you understand if fans turn their back on the club given what has gone on so far? Let us know your thoughts either via a comment or email me at

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Sydney Football Circus rolls back into town....

....if indeed it ever left

RIGHT now, Sydney FC are not only the laughing stock of the Australian football, they are up there with the West Coast Eagles as the laughing stock of Australian sport.

Sydney FC? Try Shambles FC, or Sydney Football Circus.

A third coach in less than two and half years has been given the flick, Branko Culina (and his assistant Aytec Genc) sacrificed in the power politics move that was meant to have been consigned to ‘Old Soccer’.

After all, how else can explain the club’s decision to part ways with a manager that has had only 15 games to get things right?

While Culina’s record in those games isn’t the greatest (won 4, drawn 6, lost 5), it isn’t a record to warrant such a knee-jerk reaction from a trigger happy club.

No doubt Culina hasn’t done everything right. Some of his signings have been poor to say the least, a prime example being the acquisition of his skipper and old mate Tony Popovic. In a squad already suffering from an imbalance between old and young, and chock full of central defenders, that money could have been better spent elsewhere, like in the wide areas of defence, or up front.

Nowhere was this more evident than on Saturday night, against Adelaide, when the defence, marshalled by Popovic at sweeper and missing Mark Milligan, looked slow and leaky, repeatedly carved up by the pace of United.

Elsewhere, with his hands have tied by the number of older players (the likes of Zdrilic, Rudan, Talay, Middleby and Corica) on long term and lucrative deals, signed back to season one, he has had little choice but to throw peanuts at a number of younger front players. Little wonder then that the likes of Adam Biddle, Brendan Santalab, Patrick and Ben Vidaic have hardly set the world on fire.

But all appear to have been hand-picked by Culina, either by first hand experience or, in the case of Patrick, via DVD, so he must shoulder some of the blame, despite the lack of salary cap space. And speaking of shoulder, the injury to his marquee man Juninho hasn’t helped, nor have the moments of ill-discipline that appear to run-rampant throughout the squad.

But when he joined the club in February, Culina went on the record saying there would be “no excuses”, no doubt a parting dig at his predecessor Terry Butcher, who made a habit of whinging about injuries, suspensions and almost everything else.

Yet I’ve almost lost count of the amount of times Culina has begged to be judged when he has his full list available. No doubt he's had more than his fair share of injuries, suspensions and international commitments, but some of comments haven't helped.

Whether all of this was enough to for him get sacked, so soon, is very debatable. Surely a bit of a common sense should have prevailed, Culina given fair time to mould his own squad.

Clearly there appear to be bigger games being played, and if the rumours are to be believed, the appointment of former Sydney City club captain John Kosmina (David Mitchell has also been linked by SBS, although he is on the record tonight, on Fox Sports News, as saying the job has “gone somewhere else I think”) as his replacement is imminent.

If so, it would be dangerous territory indeed for a club already being likened in chat-rooms to the old Hakoah, a foundation member of the National Soccer League with links to the Jewish community.

Certainly, if Kosmina is the man, there’s little doubt questions will be raised about his friendship with Frank Lowy and FC chairman Andrew Kemeny.

Lowy, when he came on board as the ‘white knight’ a few years back, spoke of his hope that nobody (no cowboys) would derail his process. Right now, it seems his was the key word. Most recently he has had the temerity to berate Sydney Morning Herald journalist Mike Cockerill for his backing of Graham Arnold, covered here by fellow blogger Mike Salter.

Talk about hypocrisy. What, anyone with half a brain will ask, is the difference between Cockerill or Robbie Slater’s support of Arnold and Lowy’s backing of Kemeny and Kosmina?

Mersey misery for Benitez, despite the win

ONE of those bizarre substitutions from Rafael Benitez on Saturday night that sets the mind boggling.

Midway through the second half of the Merseyside derby, with the scores level, Everton reduced to 10 men and Steven Gerrard finally providing the trademark drive that has been absent from his game ever since he injured his toe a month or so ago, Benitez decides to take him off.

His skipper looked dumb-founded, Liverpool fans in the Goodison Park (wow, a football stadium not named after a company) crowd were visibly shocked, while Liverpool fans around the world were looking at each other and wondering what on earth was on the managers mind.

Fair enough, the substitute, Brazilian Lucas, he of the hair-style made famous by Karel Poborksy, went on to have a very eye-catching debut and ultimately played the vital hand (pardon the pun) in the stoppage time winner, but what was Rafa thinking taking off his skipper?

After a quiet first half, predictably it was Gerrard that got Liverpool back in the game thanks to a trademark powerful run past Everton right back Tony Hibbert. While the first contact was outside the box, referee Mark Clattenberg was no doubt influenced by the fall inside, awarding the penalty and sending off Hibbert.

The 54th minute incident was undoubtedly the turning point in a game that the hosts had bossed, and from then on Liverpool was always bound to dominate. The question was, could they score again?

For the next 15 or so minutes, it was Gerrard that looked most likely to grab a winner. So when Lucas limbered up on the sideline, the expectation was that the fourth official would summon either of the holding midfielders, no. 20 (Javier Mascherano) or no. 22 (Momo Sissoko) to the sideline. Both had been peripheral to say the least, Sissoko in particularly living up to his recent poor form, struggling to complete even the simplest of passes.

Ultimately Benitez was let out of jail thanks to Phil Neville’s impressive impersonation of Tim Howard and Clattenberg’s failure to award Joleon Lescott an injury time penalty, but his explanation of the Gerrard substitution was even more dumb-founding;
“In this game, sometimes you need to play with the brain and we were playing with heart. We needed to keep the ball and pass the ball.”
Fair enough, sometimes Gerrard can be accused of over-commitment, of trying too hard, of being a bit single-minded, but it is generally because he craves success for Liverpool.

No doubt Benitez is feeling the pinch. Under pressure to deliver Liverpool’s first premiership in what seems a life-time, and with the Gunners and Man U slipping into irresistible form, things haven’t been smooth lately.

After an impressive start to the campaign, in which Fernando Torres has caught the eye, the wheels have fallen off with draws against Portsmouth, Porto, Birmingham and Tottenham, and a loss to Marseille, and the manager has come under massive criticism for his rotation policy, much of it justified, I believe.

Personally, I felt Liverpool, for this season at least, could have done without the distraction of a Champions league campaign, and I for one won’t be too disappointed if they finish bottom of group A (third place takes you into the Uefa cup, yet more games).

The premiership is not lost by all means, and the Reds are still one of only two teams yet to lose (along with Arsenal), but if they lose at home to Arsene Wenger’s artisans next Monday morning, it might as well be.

Liverpool will be nine points off the pace, a relative mountain.

While much focus will be on the Besiktas clash in Turkey this week, personally I wouldn’t mind Benitez tinkering yet again and fielding a second-string side in Europe, especially if it means a win against the Gunners.

The premiership means everything this year, particularly for Benitez.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Refereeing appointments for round 9

Newcastle Jets v Queensland Roar
Referee: Mark Shield
Assistant Referees: Rodney Allen & Murray Wilson
Fourth Official: James Lewis

Sydney FC v Adelaide United
Referee: Matthew Breeze
Assistant Referees: Ben Wilson & Gavin Martin
Fourth Official: Strebe Delovski

Wellington Phoenix v Central Coast Mariners
Referee: Peter Green
Assistant Referees: Paul Dunham & Nick Waldron
Fourth Official: Peter O’Leary

Melbourne Victory v Perth Glory
Referee: Simon Przydacz
Assistant Referees: Hakan Anaz & Luke Brennan
Fourth Official: Kevin Docherty

A few observations;

  • It’s the first time I can remember the FFA releasing the names of the officials in their round preview.
  • Ben Williams and Peter O’Leary, who stood over the controversial Sunday games last week, don’t get a game this week, although Kiwi O’Leary is the fourth official when the ‘Nix host the front-runners.
  • It’s the fifth time this year both Mark Shield and Matthew Breeze are on the panel. After poor games in round 7, both stood over open and free-flowing thrillers on Friday night.
  • The Telstra Dome clash on Sunday will be New South Welshmen Simon Przydacz’s first game since the round two clash between the Jets and Queensland, when he send off Stuart McLaren for two yellow card offences. The second yellow, of course, resulted in a free kick on the edge of the box, expertly converted by Joel Griffiths.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Olyroos primed for comfortable win

Matchday 4 Olympic Games qualifier preview, Lebanon vs Australia

GRAHAM Arnold has named a strong starting line-up for tomorrow morning’s (1am AEST) matchday 4 Olympic Games qualifier against Lebanon in Beirut, and it looks a fairly settled one, despite the change in formation from a 3-5-2 to a 4-2-3-1;

Vukovic; Zadkovich, Leijer, Milligan, Topor-Stanley; Ward, Musalik; Sarkies, Burns, Troisi; Bridge.

No Bruce Djite, out with an ankle injury, but in comes Newcastle’s James Troisi, who is reported to have looked the goods in the most recent phase of qualifiers. He is expected to start on the left side of a three man attack, with Mark Bridge through the centre and Kristian Sarkies shifted to the right after impressing on the left during the Newcastle and Gosford double header early last month, covered by TRBA.

It means there’s no room for Brondby’s David Williams in the starting 11, who’ll again have to be content with a cameo role.

“Sarkies just had to play”, said Arnold after the North Korea game in Newcastle. He was talking of course about his ability from the set piece, which was eventually the source of Australia’s opener.

Sarkies also forged a terrific understanding with Nikolai Topor-Stanley down the left, dropping infield whenever the Perth’s fullback marauded upfield, so it’ll be interesting to see how he combines with Ruben Zadkovich on the other side. Then latter often appears more inclined to make diagonal runs rather than straight ones, so that might require Sarkies to stay wide and open up the space.

If Sarkies ‘has to play’, the same can be said of Nathan Burns, who missed the Newcastle and Gosford games through suspension and injury respectively. Here he comes in for Billy Celeski, so impressive on matchdays 2 and 3.

Arnold, on route to Beirut after an eight-day camp at the Al Jazira in Abu Dhabi, commented that “I have Nathan Burns at the top of the diamond [he’s actually at the top of a triangle], with two working midfielders behind him. If anything it’s a more balanced side than what I had on the Central Coast.”

By that he means that Burns can exclusively focus on getting forwarding in support of Bridge, knowing he’ll be screened by Musalik and Ward, whereas in Newcastle and Gosford Celeski and Ward took turns in getting forward, and both had responsibility to get behind the ball.

Truth is that worked really well, but I can see what Arnold means. Burns is definitely a natural at breaking from midfield to link-up, support and get beyond the lone striker.

It does look a very strong unit, and should have too much strength, size and drive for the diminutive Lebanese, but as Arnold has cautioned, few away games in Asia are easy, and heads will need to be screwed on to get the job done.

Lebanon should have defender Mootazbellah El Junaidi back, but as their technical director noted, they are second best to Australia - “one of the best teams in Asia”- in terms of “speed, fitness and tactics”.

Speaking to members of the traveling Lebanese delegation after the 3-0 loss in Gosford, it was a similar message (“they are too strong”), so anything less than a comfortable Olyroos win will be a major shock.

Monday, October 15, 2007

180 minutes, 180 emotions as the A-League finally takes off

A-League round 8 analysis

AU 4 v MV 1
PG 3 v SFC 3
NJ 2 v WP 1
CCM 0 v QR 1

IT’S TAKEN the best part of two months, but the A-League version 3 is finally up and running.

A pulsating double-header on Friday night was the perfect way to launch into the second phase of the competition’s three.

After a far from entertaining opening phase of cat-and-mouse, stifle at all costs football, let’s hope that the fair dished up on Friday October 12 sets the standard for the remainder of the season.

Just when the absence of so many players through international commitment, injury and suspension was expected to have a detrimental effect on the quality of football (as happened in round three) we got the opposite.

Adelaide kicked things off with a brilliant display in the round opener, proving they have the depth to mount a serious push for the minor premiership, and maybe more. No Djite, Burns and Sarkies, no worries.

In stepped the likes of Dez Giraldi, Lucas Pantelis and Jason Spagnuolo, and along with the rocket that was no doubt launched by Aurelio Vidmar after an insipid performance the week before in Perth, that was too much for the defending champs.

In truth, it was the loss that Melbourne deserved. Sitting second, undefeated, after the first phase, there’s little doubt that that position flattered last season’s all-conquering unit.

Defensive and combative, their play this season has generally lacked spark and imagination in the front third and they had already played a number of get-out-jail cards; like fighting back for a draw after being battered by Newcastle in round 5; like being second-best at home to Queensland the following week and still ending up with the win.

No such luck this time around. Missing their leader and driving force Kevin Muscat, along with his side-kick Grant Brebner, the Victory’s defensive structure, both in the backline and through the middle, was a shambles, best summed-up by the confusion between Joe Kennan and Steve Pantelidis that led to United’s second.

Lubjo Milicevic, short of a gallop, was drafted into the holding midfield role, surrounding by Matthew Kemp and Carlos Hernandez, but they were powerless to halt the drive and mobility of United’s front five. Pantelis, playing in the hole behind Giraldi, was particularly effective, a neat combination of pace, mobility and technical ability, proving just how much United and the league missed him last season.

As with Tom Pondeljak, it’s a pity there were so many good attacking midfielders under the Frank Farina era, for Pantelis’s football over the past five or so years has surely been deserving of greater honours. At least, at 25, the former AIS graduate and youth international has time on his hands to make the senior side.

While Pantelis’s lovely left peg shone throughout, it was Brazilian Diego doing a wonderful job of prompting and joining United’s front four. After struggling to adapt in his first few A-League games last season, his work this year has been excellent, both simple and creative. At this stage, he appears a perfect compliment to the combative Jonas Salley.

Meanwhile, it was great to see last season’s surprise packet, Spagnuolo, back in the starting fold and influencing things, doubling up with Cassio to give Sebastian Ryall a working over. While Melbourne was missing its skipper, his equivalent Travis Dodd really stepped up, tormenting Kennan throughout and helping himself to two soft goals and a wonderful assist.

Indeed, given the tightness and physicality of the season to date, it was refreshing to see the openness and attacking intent, both in this game and the one that followed at Members Equity.

Certainly, both referees played a significant part in this, staying on top of any tight stuff. After poor games last week, both Mark Shield and Matthew Breeze were back to their best.

Also back to his best was Perth skipper Simon Colosimo, who started in an attacking midfield role and was a constant driving threat, getting on the end of a heap of chances in and around the box. How the Glory managed to be 1-0 down at the break was a mystery.

After battering Sydney for the entire opening half-hour, they again succumbed to some sloppy defending, gifting in-form Alex Brosque the opener. Given their fragile recent state, it was tempting to think the match was over. But back they came. Inspired by the surging runs of Jimmy Downey from right back and the presence of Jamie Harnwell and James Robinson up front, it was a breathtaking three goals in less than 20 minutes. Staggering.

Surely the Glory had done enough! Certainly, when Nikita Rukavytsya zoomed in on goal with only Clint Bolton to beat it looked all over. But he fired wide, and Sydney had its lifeline. With Patrick looking lively and Perth retreating, Sydney halved the deficit thanks to some persistence from Tony Popovic and Patrick, before the game moved into stoppages.

Could the desperate Perth hang on? When Juninho stepped up for a free kick, the cross-bar came to their rescue, but when Anthony Danze gave away the ball in midfield, Juninho was able to feed Mark Rudan, who clipped it towards Brosque. Jamie Coyne wasn’t able to clear his header, and Patrick was there to head back to Brosque to celebrate his 24th birthday in style and go to equal top A-League scorer.

Guttering for Perth, sheer relief for Sydney.

On the evidence of the past two weeks, better days lie ahead for Perth, who appear to be responding to the pressure on their manager. If v3 was meant to be all about “90 minutes, 90 emotions”, one can only wonder how many emotions Ron Smith had just gone through.

Certainly, fans of the A-League had just been witness to 180 plus minutes of breathtaking football. Keep it coming, was the cry.

Unfortunately few fans got to see the start of the Jets/Phoenix game thanks to some extra innings at the baseball, and by the time Fox ventured over to Energy Australia, the hosts were firmly in the ascendancy.

Missing five players due to (postponed) All Whites duty, Ricki Herbert had a massive problem at right back, not for the first time this season. He gambled on Brazilian Cleberson and lost.

Ever the shrewd analyst, Gary van Egmond sensed the opportunity and threw his trump forward that way. While he shouldn’t have been playing, Joel Griffiths was in irresistible form, teasing and tormenting Cleberson, teeing up the first before grabbing the second.

Missing both Bridge and Musalik, the manager played another Joker in youngster James Holland. A more conservative option may have been Paul Kohler, but van Egmond gambled and won, Holland driving forward with monotonous regularly and getting on the end of his fair share, including the opener.

Couple that with his ability over the dead ball and it really was one of the most eye-catching A-League debuts, stealing the thunder from another debutant, Phoenix marquee man Ahmad Elrich.

By the time the Socceroo came on at the break it was his younger brother, Tarek, who was making the headlines. After teeing up the second with a sublime pass from right back, he moved to right midfield in the second period and continued to dazzle, smashing one against the post before playing in Denni, who somehow screwed his shot.

While the Phoenix were clearly disrupted by their missing men, they might have had a little more luck if Ben Williams had had the conviction to send off Steve Laybutt after he brought down Vaughan Coveny when he was clean through.

Certainly, when you compare Williams’s ‘non-decision’ with Peter O’Leary’s send-off of Mariners right back Brad Porter a short time later in Gosford, it is easy to see why fans continue to clamour for consistency.

The one thing that is certainly consistent is the Mariners’ bad luck with injuries. Already missing the likes of Mrdja, Osman, Wilkinson, Vidmar and O’Grady, they soon were without both Damien Brown and Adam Kwasnik.

Farina, on the other hand, was the only manager who had the luxury of choosing the same 11 as last week, and it is an option he took, starting with both Michael Zullo and Robbie Kruse in support of Reinaldo. Early on the trio looked very dangerous, combining beautifully to produce a wonderful save from Matthew Trott, before the keeper failed to deal with the resulting corner and made a present of it to Josh McCloughan.

After a sprightly start, the game deteriorated into a scrappy affair, especially after Porter’s confusing send-off, but given some of football dished up 48 hours earlier, it was hard to be too critical.

TRBA team of the week (3-5-2)

Goalkeeper; Liam Reddy (QR)
Defence; James Downey (PG), Simon Colosimo (PG), Cassio (AU)
Midfield; Tarek Elrich (NJ), Noel Spencer (NJ), Diego (AU), Lucas Pantelis (AU), Travis Dodd (AU)
Strikers; Joel Griffiths (NJ), Patrick (SFC)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Round 8 rounds

WITH so many players out of action this week due to Olyroo and New Zealand national team duty, you’re probably scratching your head wondering what the various managers are going to throw out there on the weekend. Here I run the rule over what’s left, and in some cases, it’s pretty thin, with Sydney a chance of sending David Zdrilic back to where it all started, the backline. The only manager that has the luxury of choosing the same 11 from last weekend is Frank Farina, but even then, you sense, away from home, against the combative competition front-runners, he might draft in Mass Murdocca at the expense of one of the youngsters, leaving one of them to provide some impact off the bench. The Phoenix not only have to deal with not having Ricki Herbert and a stack of Kiwi reps around, but they won’t know about Ross Aloisi until after his judiciary hearing tomorrow. I’ve included him and Felipe (who limped off with what looked a serious injury last week) in a possible 11 at this stage, but that could soon change, with Ahmad Elrich the most likely to benefit if either is out. Here are some possible line-ups for this disrupted weekend;

Friday, Hindmarsh Stadium; Adelaide United v Melbourne Victory

Adelaide United squad: 1.Daniel BELTRAME (gk), 2.Richie ALAGICH, 3.Milan SUSAK, 4.Angelo COSTANZO, 6.CASSIO, 7.Lucas PANTELIS, 13.Travis DODD (captain), 14.Shaun ONTONG, 15.Jonas SALLEY, 17.Isyan ERDOGAN, 18.Robert CORNTHWAITE, 20.Robert BAJIC (gk), 21.Jason SPAGNUOLO, 22.DIEGO. 23. Dez GIRALDI.

In: Dez Giraldi (promoted), Shaun Ontong (promoted)
Out: Nil
Unavailable: Paul Agostino (calf – 1 week), Bobby Petta (calf – 2 weeks), Bruce Djite (ankle – 6 weeks), Nathan Burns (National Team duty), Kristian Sarkies (National Team duty) Michael Valkanis (knee – season)

POSSIBLE LINE-UP (4-2-3-1); Beltrame; Alagich, Cornthwaite, Costanzo, Cassio; Salley, Diego; Erdogan, Dodd, Pantelis; Giraldi.

Melbourne Victory Squad: 1.Michael THEOKLITOS (gk), 2.Kevin MUSCAT (Captain), 5. Ljubo MILICEVIC, 6.Steve PANTELIDIS, 7.Matthew KEMP, 9.Danny ALLSOPP, 10.Archie THOMPSON, 11.Joseph KEENAN, 12.Rodrigo VARGAS, 13.Kaz PATAFTA, 14.Adrian CACERES, 15.Leandro LOVE, 16.Carlos HERNANDEZ, 17. Daniel VASILEVSKI, 19.Evan BERGER, 20.Eugene GALEKOVIC (gk), 21.Sebastian RYALL.
* two to be Omitted

In: Ljubo MILICEVIC (returns from injury), Daniel VASILEVSKI (promoted), Evan BERGER (promoted)
Out: Grant BREBNER (suspended – 1 week)
Unavailable: Daniel PIORKOWSKI (shoulder – 12 weeks), Leigh BROXHAM (thigh – 1 week)

POSSIBLE LINE-UP (4-3-3); Theoklitos; Ryall, Vargas, Pantelidis, Kennan; Kemp, Milicevic, Hernandez; Love, Allsopp, Thompson.

Friday, Members Equity Stadium; Perth Glory v Sydney FC

Perth Glory Squad: 50.Tommi TOMICH (gk), 4.Simon COLOSIMO, 5.Jamie HARNWELL, 6.Dino DJULBIC, 7.Anthony DANZE, 9.Mate DRAGICEVIC, 13.Nikita RUKAVYTSYA, 14.Jamie COYNE, 15.Mitchell PRENTICE, 16.Nick RIZZO, 17.Jimmy DOWNEY, 19.Naum SEKULOVSKI, 21.James ROBINSON, 25.Tyler SIMPSON, 20.Danny MILOCEVIC (gk).

In: Dino DJULBIC (return from suspension), Anthony DANZE (promoted), Mate DRAGICEVIC (promoted), Naum SEKULOVSKI (promoted), Danny MILOCEVIC (short term replacement player)
Out: Nikolai TOPOR-STANLEY (National Team duty), Billy CELESKI (National Team duty), Leo BERTOS (National Team duty), Jordan SIMPSON (National Team duty), Tando VELAPHI (National Team duty)
Unavailable: David TARKA (hamstring – season), Jason PETKOVIC (leg – 3 weeks), Stan LAZARIDIS, Hayden FOXE (knee – 3 weeks), David MICEVSKI (groin – TBA)

POSSIBLE LINE-UP (4-4-2); Tomich; Downey, Djulbic, Colosimo, Coyne; Simpson, Prentice, Sekulovski, Rizzo; Harnwell, Rukavytsya.

Sydney FC squad: 1.Clint BOLTON (gk), 2.Iain FYFE, 3.Nikolas TSATTALIOS, 4.Mark RUDAN, 6.Tony POPOVIC (captain), 9.David ZDRILIC, 11.Brendon SANTALAB, 12.PATRICK, 13.Ben VIDAIC, 14.Alex BROSQUE, 15.Terry McFLYNN, 20.Ivan NECEVSKI (gk), 21.Adam BIDDLE, 22.JUNINHO, 23.Ufuk TALAY.

In: Nikolas Tsattalios (promoted), David Zdrilic (promoted), Ben Vidaic (promoted), Adam Biddle (promoted), Ivan Necevski (return from injury).
Out: Ruben Zadkovich (National Team duty), Steve Corica (suspended – two matches), Mark Milligan (National Team duty), Adam Casey (National Team duty), Matthew Nash (gk) (released).
Unavailable: Robbie Middleby (quad - 1-2 weeks), Jacob Timpano (thigh - 1-2 weeks), Michael Enfield (knee - indefinite).

POSSIBLE LINE-UP (4-2-3-1); Bolton; Zdrilic, Rudan, Popovic, Fyfe; McFlynn, Talay, Santalab, Juninho, Tsattalios; Brosque.

Sunday, EnergyAustralia Stadium; Newcastle Jets v Wellington Phoenix

Newcastle Jets Squad: 1.Ante COVIC (gk), 2.Adam GRIFFITHS, 3.Jade NORTH (C), 7.Jorge DROVANDI 8.Matt THOMPSON, 9.Joel GRIFFITHS, 10.Denni ROCHA DOS SANTOS, 11.Tarek ELRICH, 12.Paul KOHLER, 14.Jobe WHEELHOUSE, 15.Scott TUNBRIDGE, 17.Troy HEARFIELD, 18.Noel SPENCER, 20.Ben KENNEDY (GK), 21.Mario JARDEL, 23.Jason HOFFMAN, 27.Stephen LAYBUTT
*Two To Be Omitted

In: Scott TUNBRIDGE (Promoted), Jorge DROVANDI (Promoted)
Out: Nil
Unavailable: Steve EAGLETON (Injured), Stuart MUSIALIK (National Duty), Andrew DURANTE (Injured), Adam D’APUZZO (National Team Duty), Mark BRIDGE (National Team Duty).

POSSIBLE LINE-UP (4-2-3-1); Covic; A. Griffiths, North, Laybutt, Thompson; Kohler, Wheelhouse; J. Griffiths, Denni, Hearfield; Jardel.

Wellington Phoenix squad: 4. CLEBERSON, 5. Karl DODD, 7. Ross ALOISI (captain), 8. Vaughan COVENY, 10. Michael FERRANTE, 11. DANIEL, 12. Richard JOHNSON, 13. Steven OLD, 14. Steven O’DOR, 15. George PALADINI, 17. Vince LIA, 18. Ahmad ELRICH, 19. Greg DRAPER, 20. Glen MOSS (gk), 21. FELIPE, 22. Royce BROWNLIE, 23. Costa BARBAROUSES, 30. Jacob SPOONLEY (gk).
*three to be omitted

In: DANIEL (return from suspension), Vince LIA (promoted), Royce BROWNLIE (promoted), CLEBERSON (promoted), Ahmad ELRICH (promoted), Greg DRAPER (promoted), Costa BARBAROUSES (promoted), Jacob SPOONLEY (gk, promoted)
Out: Mark PASTON (gk) (National Team Duty), Jeremy CHRISTIE (National Team Duty), Tony LOCHHEAD (National Team Duty), Tim BROWN (National Team Duty), Shane SMELTZ (National Team Duty).
Unavailable: Nil

POSSIBLE LINE-UP (4-2-3-1); Moss; Lia, O’Dor, Dodd, Old; Johnson, Aloisi; Ferrante, Felipe, Daniel; Coveny.

Sunday, Bluetongue Stadium; Central Coast Mariners v Queensland Roar

Central Coast Mariners Squad: 1.Matthew TROTT (gk), 2.Matt SIMON, 4.Ian McANDREW, 5.Bradley PORTER, 6.Andre GUMPRECHT, 7.John HUTCHINSON, 8.Dean HEFFERNAN, 10.Tom PONDELJAK, 11.Damien BROWN, 12.Greg OWENS, 15.Andrew CLARK, 19.Adam KWASNIK, 22.Sasho PETROVSKI, 23.Mile JEDINAK, 30.Andrew REDMAYNE (gk)

In: Ian McANDREW (Promoted), Bradley PORTER (Promoted), Damien BROWN (Promoted), Andrew REDMAYNE (Promoted)
Out: Nigel BOOGAARD (National Team Duty), Matthew OSMAN (Injury), Danny VUKOVIC (National Team Duty), Damian MORI (Omitted)
Unavailable: Nik MRDJA (Knee – Indefinite), Tony VIDMAR (Suspended – 1 week), 17.Matthew OSMAN (Knee – Indefinite), 18.Alex WILKINSON (Knee – Indefinite)

POSSIBLE LINE-UP (4-4-2); Trott; Porter, Clark, Jedinak, Brown; Gumprecht, Hutchinson, Pondeljak, Kwasnik; Petrovski, Simon.

Queensland Roar FC Squad: 1.Liam REDDY (gk), 4.Craig MOORE (capt), 5.Josh McCLOUGHAN, 7.Michael ZULLO, 8.Massimo MURDOCCA, 9.Simon LYNCH, 11.REINALDO, 14.Ben GRIFFIN, 15.Matt McKAY, 16.Hyuk-Su SEO, 17.Mitch NICHOLS, 18.Danny TIATTO, 19.Sasa Ognenovski, 22.Robbie KRUSE, 23.MARCINHO, 30.Griffin McMASTER (gk).
*one to be omitted

In: Mitch Nichols (promoted).
Out: none.
Unavailable: Matt Ham (shoulder injury – out for season), Ante Milicic (groin injury – 2 weeks).

POSSIBLE LINE-UP (4-4-2); Reddy; Seo, Moore, Ognenovski, McCloughan; Murdocca, Tiatto, Marchinho, McKay; Reinaldo, Kruse.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Derby week turns into bash-a-ref week, quite literally

A-League round 7 analysis

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

AFTER the up-lifting performances of two Roar youngsters on Friday night, it was hoped the two ‘big derbies’ – Sydney v Melbourne on Saturday night and the F3 Mariners v Jets clash yesterday – would provide some riveting action to round out what has been a largely disappointing first third of version 3.

Such a pity then that the attention has instead turned to the officiating of both games, with flash-points and controversies dominating both.

The first thing to note of course was the absence of Ben Williams from the panel this week. Was this down to his poor handling of the previous week’s Victory v Roar clash at the Telstra Dome, where he waved away what appeared to be two decent Roar penalty claims and generally allowed the match to develop into an overly physical one? Quite possibly.

In any case, the premier whistle-blower in the country, Mark Shield, was back on deck this week and seemingly intent on making a statement in one of the calendar’s biggest clashes. From very early on in the Sydney/Melbourne match it was clear Shield wouldn’t be tolerating much, and it wasn’t long before Ruben Zadkovich and Kevin Muscat were in the book.

Both were massive talking points. Zadkovich, already on three cards and one away from a mandatory suspension, chopped down Muscat, giving Shield little choice. The talking point is that he now misses a trip to Perth he was going to miss anyway, because of Olyroo duty. Talk about a convenient card.

Muscat’s was even more fascinating, reportedly booked for mimicking the referee’s whistle. Now we’ve all heard the stories about how Muscat is constantly in the ear of his teammates and the officials, trying to coach and referee every game he plays, but surely this is taking it a step too far!

In any case, this incident was soon forgotten thanks to Steve Corica’s dismissal for petulant karate-kick style raised leg on Steve Pantelidis. Flashbacks of last season’s Robbie Bajic/Fred/Telstra Dome incident came rushing back, and there could only be one response from Shield, a deserved red.

The Sydney fans and manager were livid, a few idiots losing the plot as the referee departed for the break.

At the time I sensed much of this frustration from the Sydney camp was down the lack of consistent application. For much of the season, referees had allowed this sort of 'thuggish' stuff to do unpunished. Suddenly, with the spotlight on, it warranted red.

Certainly, when you compare William’s lax officiating of the above-mentioned round 6 clash or the round one match up in Queensland (when Danny Tiatto re-introduced himself to Aussie football) with Sheild’s tough handling of this one, it is easy to see why fans get confused.

In any case, Corica’s dismissal steeled the hosts and, led by Mark Rudan, they produced a dogged display of defending, keeping out the champions until Adrian Caceres was able to again provide impact off the bench.

After his silly impersonation of Sheild, Muscat put his mind to better use and produced his most dominant performance of the season, combining with Grant Brebner to control the flow of the midfield. Crisp and well weighted, some of his passing was the best seen this season.

Indeed, Melbourne moved the ball around the best they have in a very long time, their goal coming from a crisp interchange of passing in midfield involving Kaz Patafta, Archie Thompson and Danny Allsopp, before Leandro Love dragged a couple of defenders infield and allowed Allsopp get around the back and meet Caceres’s cross.

Lovely goal, reminiscent of some of the stuff the Victory produced last season.

While Shield took the no-nonsense approach, Matthew Breeze was far more lenient less then 24 hours later when he allowed two ‘red-card’ incidents involving Joel Griffiths to go relatively unpunished.

While Griffths earnt a yellow for his fourth minute jab at assistant referee Alex Glasgow’s private's, replays showed he was extremely lucky to stay on the pitch. This sort of the stuff should be frowned upon, but Griffiths is very lucky he’ll escape further censure as the incident was “dealt with” on the pitch.

Later, in the 56th minute, Griffiths was through with only Danny Vukovic to beat, and as he tried to go around him, the Olyroo keeper appeared to make contact just outside the box. Strangely, Breeze swallowed his whistle. It was neither a red to Vukovic nor a yellow to Griffiths for ‘simulation’.

The two incidents and a yellow card count of 6-1 against the visitors again overshadowed an otherwise absorbing derby. While the first period was rather lacklustre, things really livened up in the second. Just as they had in the first period, it was the Jets making most of the running, with Denni and Griffiths looking a threat in the front third.

Yet when Tommy Pondeljak, finally getting a start, provided a wonderful finish, it looked like all Newcastle’s cut and thrust, and initiative, would go to waste. Increasingly frustrated by the mounting yellow card count and their inability to score, it looked like one of those nights, but they ultimately got what they deserved when Mark Bridge profited from a bit of ping-pong in the area and volleyed home through a forest of Mariners defenders.

Over to Members Equity Stadium and the under pressure Perth came out determined to do the pressing, pushing Adelaide back and dominating most of the match. It wasn’t a flowing show but any means, but at least it was a positive statement that not all is lost.

Once again, Ron Smith did his best impersonation of Rafa Benitez, chopping and changing his unit, looking for that elusive chemistry, and for once Perth had the better players on the pitch, the likes of Leo Bertos, Nikolai Topor-Stanley and Simon Colosimo having their best games of the season.

But ultimately, the luck and the composure wasn’t with the Glory, best summed when Topor-Stanley’s header crashed against the crossbar and substitute Jamie Harnwell blazed away with only the keeper to beat. That, and a couple of outstanding defensive performances from Angelo Costanzo and Robbie Cornthwaite.

Fortunately in the end for the hosts, Nathan Burns had a quiet one, missing a terrific second half chance.

So, a third of the way in, the heat remains on Perth and Smith, just as it was on the Jets and Nick Theadorakopoulos at the same time last season. The pity for the competition is there are a few referees who know just how Smith is feeling.

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

Goalkeeper; Michael Theoklitos (MV)
Defence; Mark Rudan (SFC), Robert Cornthwaite (AU), Angelo Costanzo (AU), Nikolai Topor-Stanley (PG)
Holding midfield; Kevin Muscat (MV), Simon Colosimo (PG)
Attacking midfielder; Denni (NJ)
Front three; Robbie Kruse (QR), Joel Griffiths (NJ), Michael Zullo (QR)

Updated Tuesday 9.26pm; Joel, not Adam, Griffiths as striker in the TRBA TOTW.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Frankly, what have you been waiting for?

A-League round 7 match analysis, QR 2 v WP 1

SEVEN rounds, a third of the way into the season, and finally Frank Farina takes the hint and gives youth its chance, and what an almighty response from the two left-footed pocket-rockets, Michael Zullo and Robbie Kruse.

Giving them both their full debuts, Farina finally lost patience with the likes of Simon Lynch, and not before time. Helping make up the manager’s mind was the fact Ante Milicic is out injured.

So Farina went to a front three, with the hard-working Brazilian Reinaldo through the middle, supported by Zullo down the left and Kruse down the right.

Suddenly the Roar had a bit of mystique and excitement about them, and sure enough the space and goals followed. After an impressive showing off the bench last week in Melbourne, Zullo was particularly brilliant, getting the ball as his feet, dropping the shoulder and zipping past Jeremy Christie, both outside and in.

The fact he was able to grab an early goal helped settle everyone’s nerves – players, coach and fans – and what a goal it was. When Reinaldo competed aerially from a long throw, it fell to the edge of the box for Zullo to volley spectacularly into the top corner.

Soon the ball was at the feet of birthday boy Kruse, one of Australia’s better players (I remember him catching the eye along with Kaz Patafta and Nathan Burns) in a disappointing under 17s world cup campaign in Peru a couple of years. Shaping to hold the ball up, he skinned two Wellington players with a wonderful Cruyff turn, before shaping a smashing left-foot drive just a few centimetres too high.

Soon he was also on the scoresheet. When Reinaldo competed aerially once again from a long Liam Reddy drop-punt, it fell to the feet of Zullo on the left. Finding time and space, he shaped a ball towards the penalty spot, where both Matt McKay and Kruse were waiting to pounce. It evaded McKay, but Kruse powered home the header.

A goal a piece to the two debutants, 2-0 up, at home, it could hardly have been better for the Roar and Farina. Perhaps a Reinaldo goal?

No doubt he had his chances, particularly when Zullo skipped past Christie and squared it up to him, with an open goal at his mercy, but even then, the verbal barrage from commentator Robbie Slater was a touch harsh.

No mention was made of the fact that both goals came from Reinaldo competed in the air and drawing the attentions of Wellington’s central defenders, Karl Dodd and Steven O’dor, opening up the space for Zullo and Kruse to pounce.

For the first goal, both Dodd and O’dor challenged the Brazilian, meaning there had to be space elsewhere. For the second, it was Dodd challenging again, opening up some space for Kruse to attack.

While both Zullo and Kruse probably slipped under the raider and were afforded plenty of space, soon the heat will be applied.

For example, Zullo was rarely double-teamed when he had the ball, allowing him to go one-on-one with Christie. Compare that the Phoenix’s technical wizard, Felipe, who was double and triple-teamed every time he went near the ball, and chopped down before getting into stride.

That same heat will soon be applied to the Roar’s two kids, and like Bruce Djite and Nathan Burns, they will need to prove they can handle it.

But for now, it’s just great to see a couple of fresh-faced kids burst onto the A-League scene, proving that these kids are often good enough, and provide a surprise element, if given the chance.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Too D-jite to quit

A-League Round 6 analysis

MV 2 v QR 0
SFC 1 v NJ 0
WP 4 v PG 1
AU 2 v CCM 1

FINALLY a victory for perseverance for the team that has played among the most entertaining brands of football this season.

Hitherto Adelaide United have dished up some of the most enterprising stuff in a league that has been consumed by negativity, but they have often come up short, punished for some lax work at the back.

But there's little doubt their play in the front third, lead by the two Olyroos, Nathan Burns Bruce Djite, has been good, if not always the most clinical.

New manager Aurelio Vidmar has been patient, persevering with his youngsters and developing them in the cut and thrust of a serious competition, and he's to be commended for that. Zero wins from five might have convinced him to look at more experienced options, but he kept the faith, realising they have been among the most hard-to-handle strike-forces in the league, and here was his reward, a pulsating late winner from the new ironman of Aussie football, Djite, giving United a deserved win over the comp pace-setters.

At one stage, very late, it looked like being one of those frustrating nights that have been all too familiar this season, where the team taking the initiative comes up short, but Djite, never one to quit, kept coming.

Earlier he had been denied twice by a combination of desperate defending and poor officiating, but he kept knocking, kept presenting himself and kept asking questions of the Mariners defence. A lesser man may have gone hiding, especially after one effort was cleared off the line by Damien Brown and another was denied by some over-zealous work from Matthew Breeze, who failed to play advantage after a Mile Jedinak foul on Burns on the edge of the box.

But when Djite got on the end of a late Richie Alagich cross, not even his magnificent Olyroo teammate Danny Vukovic could keep out his bullet header, despite his best efforts.

It was no less than United deserved, and other than their manager, perhaps Breeze was the most relieved man in the ground.

Another referee who might still be feeling the heat after his match is Ben Williams, who was as responsible as the home manager for one of the scrappiest games on record, as fellow blogger Mike Salter has pointed out. Allowing the Victory-Roar game on Friday night to develop into a niggly and physical slug-fest, he then turned down what appeared to two reasonable penalty claims to the Roar when they were down 1-0.

First Williams waved play-on when Reinaldo appeared to dragged down by an arm across the shoulder from Steve Pantelidis, before Josh McCloughan ventured forward from a set-piece a short time later and appeared to suffer the same fate. Neutrals and Roar fans alike might have wondered whether the Victory had been doing a spot of cross-training with the Melbourne Storm, for it seemed the arm around the neck 'grapple-tackle' was back.

The fact that Queensland have only ever been awarded one penalty in two and a third seasons adds fuel to those who believe they have been dealt a rough hand by the officials. Kevin Muscat, in comparison, has had more than a dozen spot-kicks.

Ultimately though, the way the Roar have been finishing, who's to say they would have put away a penalty? One of these days they might just put the cleaners through a team, but for now it's status quo. Once again they were the side showing all the initiative against an extremely negative home team, prepared to sit back and counter, perhaps knowing that they had a get-out clause in Archie Thompson, who was able to set up the first with some sublime foot-work, before pinching the second.

Remarkably, the Victory are the only team yet to lose, but fans will soon start demanding some style, if they aren't already.

One team with no such problems on the style front is the Wellington Phoenix, who again relied on sparkling display from one of their Brazilians to give them their first home win on a bitterly cold Wellington afternoon. For the past few weeks it's been Felipe, but this week the supply line was all Daniel, who created three of the Phoenix's four in a brilliant display of crossing, from both right and left.

A few weeks ago I had a go at Ricki Herbert for dropping a striker to draft in Felipe (a negative move which I thought contributed to a 1-0 loss at home to Newcastle), but on this occasion he is to be applauded for finding room in his formation for two strikers (Shane Smeltz and Vaughan Coveny) as well as the two creative Brazilian buzzers. Here was his reward, a comprehensive hiding of a Perth Glory side that is struggling to live up to it's pre-season form. They remain the only team without a win.

Some of the interplay between Felipe and Daniel was too much for the Glory defence to handle, best summed up by their work down the left in teeing up Tony Lochhead, who crossed to Coveny for Wellington's third. Goal of the week, involving some lovely one-touch football.

Little doubt that along with the marquee man Juninho, Felipe and Daniel have been the best of the Brazilian buys.

Juninho, back after three weeks out, showed his quality and worth on Saturday night with a sublime left-footed defence-splitting ball for the lively Alex Brosque, which was enough to decide an otherwise lacklustre match bereft of goalscoring opportunities.

The Jets owner, Con Constantine, meanwhile, demanded a start for his own big name Brazilian, Mario Jardel, but he clearly looks out of shape and is quickly shaping as the flop buy of the season. Little wonder Gary van Egmond appears to have been so reluctant to use him.

Missing Joel Griffiths and Stuart Musalik, he gave a debut to Steve Laybutt, who looked slow and sloppy, both on the ground and with his distribution, while Adam Griffiths looked less suited to the driving midfield role he was deployed in, out-pointed by Ruben Zadkovich.

While Newcastle tried to make a conscious effort to keep the ball, their work was sloppy, allowing Sydney to control the game.

FC are far from the finished product, but are showing improvement and the combination between Juninho and Brosque looks promising, while Zadkovich has been excellent in midfield the past two weeks.

Branko Culina had been criticised in the pre-season for comparing his club with Manchester United, but in the past two weeks the comparison has certainly been favourable, 1-0 becoming each club's preferred mode of victory.

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

Goalkeeper; Danny Vukovic (CCM)
Defence; Richie Alagich (AU), Rodrigo Vargas (MV), Mark Milligan (SFC), Tony Lochhead (WP)
Midfield; Ruben Zadkovich (SFC), Richard Johnson (WP), Nathan Burns (AU), Daniel (WP)
Strikers; Archie Thompson (MV), Bruce Djite (AU)