Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Becks and his Galaxy add some Spice to all the hype

Sydney FC 5 v LA Galaxy 3

AS far as exhibitions and friendlies go, this was just about as good as it gets.

A magnificent turn-out, a vibrant and festive atmosphere, the main man living up to his end of the bargain, a sensational first half from 'the other' marquee, a host of accomplished displays from youngsters and veterans alike, goals galore and the enough Spice to highlight that Aussies and Yanks just don't do friendlies.

This was another great night of football at 'Australia's home ground'.

Of course, the majority of fans had flocked to see David Beckham, and they didn't leave disappointed, Becks proving just how prodigious a right peg he owns, dishing up one of his trademark free-kicks just before the break, delightfully struck, and generally stroking the ball from left to right, short or long, with the precision of a surgeon.

Playing in a withdrawn holding midfield role, one we haven't seen Beckham in too often and one which doesn't necessarily aid the balance of the LA side, gave him an opportunity to showcase his range of passing.

Whether he was hitting a diagonal ball 50 or 60 metres, or popping his foot under the ball and clipping one into midfield, the weight was eveything. His vision, too, was outstanding, while his delivery from the many corners he took was begging for someone like a Ruud van Nistolrooy to turn them into gold.

Ever the professional, he also survived a couple of hits, one of which (an accidental slip from Brendan Santalab) threatened to end his game after half an hour. Later, he had a couple of run-ins with sub Robbie Middleby, and almost lost his bundle on a couple of occasions. But the mental toughness saw him hang in there and honour his commitment.

A friendly this wasn't.

Setting the tone for most of the night was the Galaxy's central defender Kevin Harmes, who had a forgetful night.

Not only was he part of a central defence they pulled apart by the movement of Alex Brosque and the precision of Juninho and Ufuk Talay, but Harmes made himself very unpopular with the FC players, especially skipper Tony Popovic, first smashing Juninho into oblivion, before stomping on Adam Biddle's arm in the second period.

It was ugly work all round from the Galaxy central defence and new manager Ruud Guillt will be hoping he has the experienced Abel Xavier back soon.

Biddle may have been lucky to survive a straight red for retaliation, but it was easy to see why he and his skipper were so incensed.

The young Sydney right winger was one of Sydney's many success stories, his direct running always proving troublesome for Galaxy left back Ante Jazic. On the other side, both Nick Tsattalios and Ruben Zadkovich did well, while through the middle there was some eye-catching work from Talay, Juninho, Santalab and Brosque.

Fittingly for an exhibition, there was plenty of space in midfield, and the visitors enjoyed it just as much as the hosts. Landon Donovan, the usual skipper, was oustanding, a neat combination of pace and excellent work on the ball, while Clint Mathis did some sound stuff.

The Galaxy's constant switching of play, from right to left and back again, was wonderful to watch and a lesson many A-League teams have yet to learn. Problem for LA was that they lacked a cutting edge, and Brosque always looked the most dangerous striker on the pitch.

On this evidence, Guillt needs a stronger spine; a goalkeeper (or two), central defender, holding midfielder and striker.

As for Sydney, after a nervous start, this was an excellent display, especially in front of so many new fans. The Cove were magnificent, a throw-back to season one, and the banner reminding "70,000 people; we play every week", was well thought.

Let's hope that many of the new fans come back for more, but more importantly, that more A-League games are as open, exciting and full of action as this great night for Australian football.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Avoiding the banana-skin

RIGHT about now, every four years, there's a far more important ballot than the one we've just been witness to down under, as refreshing as the result last night was.

It's the prelimary draw for the World Cup qualifications, which takes place in the early hours of tomorrow morning (1.50am Sydney time) on SBS.

Up until this campaign there's been little interest in who the Socceroos draw in the early throws, with the likes of Vanauatu and American Samoa offering very little resistance.

Now, with the move into Asia and our first World Cup qualification path through the region, the draw from Durban throws up far more intrigue, with the Socceroos hopeful of avoiding any banana-skins. So the prelim draw seedings offer a bit to mull over.

The Managerless Roos have been afforded the top seeding, in pot 1, as much for their work in Germany, so it means we'll avoid big guns South Korea, Iran, Japan and Saudi Arabia in the third (our first) phase, which features five groups of four.

But naturally, there are some nations in the other pots who are best to avoid in the early going, especially as the new manager, whoever he is, beds down his thoughts and modus operandi.

For example, if we were drawn with Uzbekistan or China from pot 2, Asian champs Iraq or the UAE from pot 3 and Asian Cup nemisis Thailand from pot 4, it wouldn't be the easiest of first phases.

Still, whatever group we draw, it would be a massive upset if we didn't finish in the top two, safely navigating a passage to the fourth qualification phase, where the real fireworks should begin.

Any preferences or thoughts on the prelim draw?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Air-time for Sarkies and his set-piece specialists

Matchday 6, Group A Olympic Games Qualifier, North Korea 1 v Olyroos 1

Beijing, Beijing, we’re going to Beijing….

JUST over two months ago, after the matchday 2 qualifier against North Korea at Newcastle, I remember asking Graham Arnold why he hadn't started with Bruce Djite. It was a surprise given Djite had been a regular Olyroo starter up until then.

His answer was telling. Arnold spoke not only of Mark Bridge's ability to link with his midfield, but of how he "just had to play Sarkies".

Of course, Arnold was referring to the Adelaide midfielder's ability over the dead ball. We’d all heard about it, and see it in snippets, but in truth, his delivery in two seasons of the A-League hadn’t lived up to the hype.

But ultimately, it was Arnold’s faith in the Sarkies set-piece took the Olyroos all the way to Beijing.

On that occasion Arnold used Sarkies on the left side of his front three. Sarkies had been short of a gallop, but was still good enough to deliver the killer ball, his 50th minute corner perfectly delivered for Mark Milligan to head home at the back post.

That move would prove to be Australia's modus operandi throughout this campaign.

So often, especially in the last two qualifiers, with Arnold’s men unable to break down Iraq and North Korea on the ground, it was the Sarkies/Milligan axis that came to the rescue.

Indeed, this arduous qualification campaign should be remembered not only for the work of the Twin Pillars at the back (Milligan and Leijer), but for Australia’s ability to dominate the slighter Asian teams, especially at the set-piece.

On Saturday, in the crunch Iraqi game, Sarkies provided both goals, the first falling to Leijer after a bit a scraps in the box, the second characteristically thumped home by the skipper.

And again tonight, with the frustration growing, time running out and Australia struggling badly on the pitch, in the cold and in all the thirds (front, back and middle), it was the Sarkies, Milligan and Leijer show, the former flighting one to the back post for Milligan to head across the goal for Leijer to bundle across the line, with whatever he could get in the way.

Whoever’s goal it was, and however ugly it was, it was b!oody beautiful and maintains Australia’s proud record of competing at the Olympic Games. That’s six on the spin and counting.

As expected though, this had been the most difficult of games, but even then, few would have expected Australia to have to come from behind.

The Olyroos clearly struggled with the artificial ground and weren’t prepared for a North Korea game plan which seemed hell bent on turning around the Aussies with a direct over the top approach.

On the ball, the Olyroos couldn’t get control, while off it, they appeared to second guess their own movement.

The hosts profited, catching out Milligan with an early long one. The Olyroos had conceded their first of the third qualification phase. How would they respond?

In truth, it wasn’t good, as the DPR continued to threaten, both through the middle and out wide, while the Olyroos, despite trying to build up patiently, could barely string a couple of passes.

Leigh Broxham, playing in Stuart Musalik’s holding role, was the biggest struggler, replaced by Nathan Burns after 37 minutes. Much maligned for his work at the Asian Cup, it was great to see Arnold prepared to alter something that wasn’t working, so early.

In truth, it didn’t make a huge difference. Later, the introduction of Nick Ward into the holding role did.

Australia, struggling to get Troisi, Bridge and Vidosic into the game, were second best throughout, but this squad has plenty of winners and determination, none better than the two central defenders.

A couple of days ago I wrote that it won’t be long before they’re both together at the heart of the Socceroos defence. Truth be told, it shouldn’t be long before they’re both permanent fixtures at a high level in Europe.

Leijer is already at Fulham and should soon be a starter, while Milligan will captain his country at senior level soon enough.

Spare a congratulatory thought also for Rob Baan, who from all reports did some wonderful work with these guys early (indeed, you could argue they've not been as fluent in the front third the past couple of games), and both Musalik and Djite, such key figures in the early going.

This has been a wonderful campaign by what appears to be a wonderful squad, and, with drug dramas dominating too many other Olympic sports, let’s hope these guys get plenty of air time in Beijing.

Air-time. Both on or screens and over the dead-ball.

Monday, November 19, 2007

A mish-mash of thoughts...

....and just a spot of round 13 A-League analysis

APOLOGIES first for not posting of late. Life, lets say, continues to be busy. Of course, the beauty of this world is that the round ball stops for very little, and as always, the past week or so has been chock-full of great stuff, even if I haven't been able to see it all. For once, I've yet to watch all four A-League games, and will hopefully catch up with the games in Wellington and Adelaide soon enough. So, finally, there's no weekly A-League wrap and TRBA team of the week, but I'll incorporate some thoughts around the Roar in this mish-mash of thoughts from another chaotic week in Australian and world football;

We are Reds; it wasn't a classic climax by any means, but how fitting was the setting for the ACL second leg on Wednesday night between the Urawa Reds and Iran's Sepahan. One of the most endearing memories, for me, of the 2007 football calendar, was to have the good fortune of sitting in close proximity to the travelling Urawa fans at the SFS. Just amazing, but the sight at their Saitama headquarters is even better. Fortunately we got to see them (the fans) in action on a few occasions throughout the season (the most riveting was the semi final second leg penalty shoot-out win over Seongnam), and while Holger Osiek's men might have had a bit of fortune along the way, who can begrudge their 12th man the title. Fitting then that the Reds players, led by the man mountain Tulio Tanaka, presented the ACL trophy to the Reds fans, arguably the best supporters in world football. What followed was sheer poetry. It was a fitting way to end what I thought was a fascinating tournament, which is just great to be a part of.

Kruse-Missile; Alot of the talk and attention of late has been on the other kid, Michael Zullo, but Robbie Kruse, for me, continues set a breathtaking pace. As I might have said previously, he was among the three players that caught my eye at Peru 2005 (the others being Patafta and Burns), so it's great to see him get his chance and take it. Against the Victory on Friday he was dynamite, giving Mat Kemp a complete working over, and showing a healthy appetite to work back and drift across the forward line, as he did with the goal. Teed up by the excellent Matt McKay, Kruse took his chance with great poise. Later, he struck the post, but his composure in the box is the stuff of a seasoned finisher. In a league without too many natural and composed finishers, Kruse is a breath of fresh air.

Twin Pillars; How fitting that the Olyroo's two goals in their crunch matchday 5 clash on Saturday night against Iraq came from the two towers in central defence. Hitherto the Olyroos are yet to concede in the third phase of qualifiers, and that's in no small part to the work of Milligan and Leijer, who have looked a splendid combination and will one day (soon on current evidence) play together in the centre of the Socceroos defence. Blessed with plenty of pace and bite in the challenge, they are comfortable at holding a high line because they know they can always make it back. This allows the fullback to bomb on forward, knowing the back two have the pace the cover everything. Against the lively Karrar Jassim and an Iraq side that settled well after the initial half hour, Milligan (despite slow-mo replays showing he was luck to stay on the pitch after elbowing the keeper) and Leijer were outstanding, and helped in no small part by Vukovic (great concentration), McClenahan (surprisingly subtle coming forward) and Topor-Stanley (despite the latter having a torrid period just before the break). With Krisitian Sarkies providing both goals from his brilliant work over the dead-ball (little wonder Arnold is so insistent on starting him), the Olyroos, despite missing Stuart Musalik, were physically too much for the silky Iraqis. They must now dot their i's and cross their t's in what is sure to be an interesting trip. When the Matildas recently travelled to Pyongyang they are reported to have had mobile phones confiscated and contact withe outside world limited, so there are at least a few hurdles left for Arnold and his men . But somehow, with Milligan and Leijer (and you can throw Vukovic into the back three) leading from the back, Beijing no longer looks like a dream. Good luck boys.

Baan-stormer; perhaps the late withdrawal of Tim Cahill decided it for him, but Rob Baan's decision to start Nick Carle in the hole behind the front two in the 1-0 win over the Super Eagles on Sunday morning (our time) is, in my mind, to be applauded. It was a move Arnold appeared reluctant to make (preferring the likes of Holman), but here was the evidence that Carle is the ideal tempo setter, the link man that makes a team tick from his advanced spot in midfield. While, to his detriment, he's not a goal-getting attacking midfielder (like say Cahill), he's better on the ball, and here he played a pivotal role in helping the Socceroos control the match, playing some superbly weighted balls. While the centre of defence, at times, looked shaky, especially when exposed on the counter, Schwarzer came to the resource and the Socceroos deserved their win. Well done to Baan, who's work as a fill-in has been good.

Dick-off; Speaking of fill-in, with only a couple of months till the world cup qualifiers start, the news that Dick Advocaat has decided to take the Russian Ruble might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Somehow, I never suspected he would quite be the right fit for Australia, so good riddance. A big name he might be, but a bigger ego he seems to be. And when Zenit qualified for the group stages of Uefa Cup recently, it was always likely the club would throw the bank at him. It leaves the FFA in a quandary, with limited time, and with more harsh lessons learnt. As always, interesting times ahead.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Veterans regain some of the Glory

A-League round 12 analysis

WHILE version 3 has, in the main, been one for the youngsters, with the like of Burns, Djite, Zullo, Kruse, D’Apuzzo, Boogaard and Holland all making an impression to date, round 12 will be remember as the one where the veterans struck back. For Perth, there were big performances from Colosimo and Harnwell, the latter back in the heart of the defence. For the Mariners, there were accomplished displays from their experienced spine, Vidmar, Pondeljak and Aloisi all massive in their best performance of the season. Later that night, Bolton and Muscat stood out for their sides, while yesterday the likes of Seo, McLaren and Moore were all steady, despite the Roar’s youngsters and Brazilians grabbing the headlines. While the veterans shone, it was also a round that featured some accomplished displays in the front third, and while I could only choose three up front in my team of the week (below), there were some unlucky front-men, including Thompson, Simon, Kruse and Joel Griffiths. Here is my take on all four round 12 games;

NJ 1 v PG 4

Problems for Gary van Egmond at Newcastle. The manager has done a brilliant job, in my mind, to have this squad where it is at the halfway point of the season, but now the real test begins. The Jets’ South American signings – whether his or Con Constantine’s – have largely been a miss, and there is clearly not enough depth in the front third to get the job done consistently. Joel Griffiths continues to be a threat, but he was a lone ranger on Friday. Bridge has been quiet of late and needs to come back from Olyroo duty on fire if the Jets are to stay in the four. D’Apuzzo continues to impress in midfield, but could do with the support of Musalik, while Laybutt is, well, laboured. While Durante should have done better in mopping up, the first goal was Laybutt’s, and the rot set in. As for Perth, some interesting work from David Mitchell, starting with Harnwell in central defence and Rukavytsya in attack. No doubt about it, Perth was happy to defend deeper and play on the counter, especially after they took the lead fro the second time, and it worked a treat. The other good work from Mitchell was his decision at the break to go to a back three and switch Downey over to the left. His, Bertos and Rukavytsya’s pace on the counter proved far too effective for a Jets side chasing the game.

CCM 2 v AU 0

The Mariners might be sitting atop the league, but they haven’t been flash of late, despite Lawrie McKinna’s protestations to the contrary. This was their best performance in some time, perhaps all season, controlling the driving Adelaide midfield through the tagging working on Pantelis, Burns, Dodd, Diego and Sarkies. Far too physical for a United side missing the formidable muscle provided by Salley, Djite and Costanzo, it was good to see that once the Mariners won the physical battle, the football followed, and some of it was a delight. At the heart of most of the good stuff was Pondeljak who dominated the centre of midfield along with Jedinak, outstanding in looking after both Pantelis and Burns. It provided the platform for Aloisi to prove he’s still a striker of note, at least at this level. Adelaide not only lacked a physical edge, but had little presence up front, and Aurelio Vidmar will be sweating on the return of Djite. Like van Egmond, it will be interesting to observe how Vidmar comes out of this rough patch.

MV 0 v SFC 0

After a relatively average first period, things livened up in the second, both teams having a real go, which was great to watch. Melbourne might have gone up early in the second, but Bolton, after his worst period in probably a decade, appears back to his best and was up for everything Thompson threw at him. Back came Sydney, especially after the introduction of Juninho, and it was Brosque, full of confidence, who might have given the visitors the lead, but for a combination of the post and some wonderful scrabbling from an undermanned Victory rearguard, lead superbly by Muscat. Back came the hosts, the addition of Caceres (far too late in my opinion), providing the spark that might have seen Thompson grab a late winner. In the end though, I felt a point each was a fair reflection of the match, but it was a result that appeared to suit the visitors, who’s fans appeared the happier of the two. But the carry on before and afterwards and the resultant hysteria does nothing for the image of our game, so whoever knows these kids/young adults, please pull them aside and tell them to pull their heads if they care for the game. If they don’t, tell them they aren’t welcome, which is pretty much the point made by fellow blogger Mike Salter, who was at the game.

QR 3 v WP 0

The Roar are flying and still have improvement in them. In truth though, this game turned on the red card to Elrich for a silly swinging elbow a third of the way in. While the Roar had looked the more dangerous up until then, suddenly they were able to relax and get their young wide men in the game, and once that happened, it was bad news for Christie and Lochhead. Some of the Roar build-ups were patient and easy on the eye, and one memorable one in the first half saw the ball knocked around from right to left and back to the right again for at least 10 passes until space was created for Seo to blast one across the keeper. Top stuff. Yet for all their domination, the Phoenix were holding on, scrambling well, until Farina took off his holding midfielder, McLaren, and brought on the direct Marchino. Suddenly the Roar had a player who could up the ante, and it was he who started driving forward, getting into the box and linking up with his compatriot Reinaldo, confidence booming after finally getting one last week. With the two midfield pocket-rockets (McKay and Murdocca) and the two wide pocket-rockets (Kruse and Zullo) lending support, it was a matter of time, and after the first came the flood. Marchino’s work in making the first and finishing the third were sublime, while Reinaldo’s Viduka-esque back-flick was that of a man on top of his game. Meanwhile, Kruse and McKay played a lovely hand in creating the second, while Zullo’s pace in creating the third was breathtaking. Indeed, the Roar are flying, but there are still plenty of tests ahead.

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

Goalkeeper; Bolton (SFC)
Defence; Seo (QR), Muscat (MV), Vidmar (CCM)
Midfield; Pondeljak (CCM), Colosimo (PG), Jedinak (CCM), Marchino (QR)
Forwards; Reinaldo (QR), J Aloisi (CCM), Rukavytsya (PG)

Monday, November 05, 2007

Away glory but for the Victory

A-League round 11 analysis

WHAT a bizarre weekend. Three 1-0 wins for the away sides, and the truth it should have been four, with the Melbourne Victory, reduced by a man for three-quarters of yesterday's match, finally dishing out a performance worthy of the title champions. Ironically, it wasn’t enough, the Mariners pulling the finger out in the final 10 minutes. This game at least featured a rousing finish in an otherwise stagnant weekend, a bit of a come down from the recent highs, but at least it emphasised just how tight this whole thing is, with only six points now separating top (the Mariners) from sixth (the Victory). Here’s a snap-shot;

AU 0 v QR 1

A deserved win for the Roar, who came with a revised template and a much improved performance from their back four. Farina made the right call by shifting Seo to right back, dropping Griffin, who had been poor the previous week. Into the holding role came veteran McLaren, who had a good game screening Moore and Ognenovski, both of whom clearly lifted their game after such sloppy performances against Perth. Adelaide was off, badly, and the short turn-around looks like it didn’t help. Dodd, Burns, Pantelis, Spagnuolo and Giraldi all had quiet nights, but it didn’t help that McCloughan and Seo nullified them down the flanks, while McKay, Murdocca, Kruse and Zullo also worked back with real energy. Indeed, the Roar pressed Adelaide high and rarely allowed them to build any momentum. While the Roar were brilliant defensively, they weren’t much chop in attack, and their goal, while delightfully struck by Reinaldo (finally!!!), who was well spotted by Kruse, resulted from a spot of aerial ping-pong. In a way it summed up the game; Queensland were the hungrier side.

PG 0 v WP 1

Not surprisingly, under pressure Perth, fielding the same 11 for the first time this season, pressed early, only to be denied on more than one occasion by Moss, back between the sticks. For all their flow and in-touch work in Queensland last week, the Glory were far less convincing this time around, and often Harnwell, who never stops trying, was isolated as Celeski and Robinson lost touch and Perth resorted to a more direct approach. For his part, Ricki Herbert made plenty of changes, dropping not only Paston, but Aloisi, Old and Felipe, bringing Brown, Johnson and Dodd into the mix. The addition of Brown and Johnson certainly stiffened the midfield, and Lia was perhaps the biggest beneficiary, having his most influential game yet for Wellington. Ultimately, it was the Phoenix midfield that got on top, and by the time Brown pinched a ball in midfield and played in Daniel, it was no major surprise. Ron Smith’s fate had been sealed.

NJ 0 v SFC 1

Gary van Egmond was spot on in his post match summary; at no stage did the Jets have enough players on the pitch that looked like they believed they could win. While it was close and competitive, Sydney shaded this one throughout, especially in the second period. While the Jets created their fair share of half chances, Sydney looked a little more convincing in the front third, with Bridges again proving what an astute purchase he looks, finishing with the aplomb of a guy who has been hitting the back of the net all his life. So relaxed and composed was his finish, he had time to wheel away and start his celebration. Sometimes, as a striker, you just know. The Jets, by comparison, looked hesitant, and it was only when Jardel came on that they seriously looked a chance of scoring. One of the more interesting aspects of this game was the cat-and-mouse tactical battle, van Egmond, for once, having his colours lowered. While Kosmina's central defence might have been caught out by the pace of the Jets early on, he re-adjusted with Milligan and gave Sydney some control. Van Egmond countered, but there was enough evidence in the second half to suggest he missed his Brazilian (Denni) more than Kosmina missed his (Juninho). Rarely have the Jets looked so hesitant and wasteful on the ball, a credit to Sydney's high pressing game.

CCM 2 v MV 1

With 10 or so minutes to go, it looked liked we'd have our fourth 1-0 away win, and it would have been a just result, but this was the strangest of games. Early on it was all the Mariners, Pondeljak driving out of the midfield and pulling the new-look Victory defence all over the place. Muscat, drafted into the centre of a back three alongside rookie Steven Pace and Vargas, came to the rescue a couple of times, yet it was the send off of Kennan that ironically shifted the momentum back to the Victory. Suddenly the Mariners relaxed, both mentally and physically, and they started to defend individually, letting Melbourne have first access to every ball out of defence. The Mariners played so high up the park they were just inviting trouble against the pace of Thompson and Allsopp, who linked up splendidly with Hernandez. The second half was quite bizarre. Melbourne simply sat back and continually hit CCM on the counter, and when Allsopp put the after-burners on, went past Boogaard, and teed up the Costa Rican, it looked like they had their reward. But there was another twist. After defending so well and so deep, suddenly Melbourne allowed themselves to be stretched and exposed on the counter, Pondeljak utilising the space to set up the equaliser, before grabbing the winner a few minutes later with another neat instep finish. Rough on the Victory, who now face the prospect of as home clash with Sydney minus two more defenders after Vargas's soft late red.

TRBA team of the week (5-3-1-1)

Goalkeeper; Vukovic (CCM)
Defenders; Vasilevski (MV), Moore (QR) , Muscat (MV), Ognenovski (QR), McCloughan (QR)
Midfielders; Pondeljak (CCM), McLaren (QR), Lia (WP)
Attacking midfielder; Hernandez (MV)
Striker; Thompson (MV)