Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Dinho's gone fishing and Barca's gone missing

WHILE a certain classic was capturing our imagination last weekend, there was a far bigger derby hogging the headlines around the the world, the Super Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid on Monday morning our time.

It was far from a classic clasico, La Liga front-runners Real coming away from the Nou Camp with a clinical 1-0 victory courtesy of a smashing first half volley from Julio Baptista to extend their lead over the fiercest rivals to seven points at the winter break.

Last season's corresponding fixture, a 3-3 draw which featured a hat-trick from Lionel Messi was a indeed a classic. This one wasn't.

Instead we got a methodical display from the defending premiers and yet another insipid performance from Barca, particularly in the front third, and much of the blame for that has been placed on Ronaldinho, as detailed in this piece by The Guardian's Sid Lowe.

A couple of seasons ago, just before the 2006 world cup, Ronaldinho was the king of the world, the undisputed star of world football. Having just taken Barcelona to a second consecutive title and a victory in the European Champions League, he was being compared with the greats and his smile illuminated many a match.

At the time I wrote that he was on his way to becoming a "the sixth great" behind Di Stefano, Pele, Cruyff, Maradona and Zidane if he could influence the winning of a couple of World Cups and Champions Leagues.

Now we all know what happened to Brazil in Germany and how Ronnie was shut down by the stifling tactics of both the opposition and his manager, Carlos Alberto Pereira.

What followed for Barca last season was a 21 goal haul, impressive by anyone's standards, but not when compared to what we've seen in the previous two seasons. Gone was the trademark smile as rumours started to surface of rifts with teammates, excessive partying and a more missed training sessions than Harry Kewell.

The happiness had gone from Ronaldinho's game and Real went on to win the league.

By the start of this campaign, Messi had emerged as the new King at Barca, and with Ronnie on the sidelines in the early going, Barca were playing some swashbuckling football, such as this heaven-sent performance against Zaragoza in September.

But with the Brazilian back in the starting 11 of late and Messi out for a month or so with an injury sustained earlier in the month, Barca have been struggling, culminating with their first loss at home in what seems an eternity.

The prevailing attitude is that when Ronnie plays, Barca lose, and sadly, the evidence is mounting.

Here he wasn't Barca's only invisible man. All over the pitch and apart from Andreas Iniesta and Yaya Toure, who both toiled hard in midfield, this was Barca at their recent disjointed worst. Eric Abidal and Carles Puyol failed to lend support from the fullback areas, Rafa Marquez continued his recent hesitant work at the back, while the recently returned Sammy Eto'o, Ronnie and Deco looked hopelessly out of form in the front areas.

All this while the likes of Thierry Henry and impressive youngsters Bojan Krkic and Giovanni dos Santos warmed the bench.

Try as they might they couldn't crack the organised and deep defending Real, who absorbed the early Barca pressure and then hit with the classic sucker-punch, catching out the shaky Barca rearguard with a simple one-two that saw Baptista in behind Marquez.

After that, with Pepe in sublime form at the back, Diarra snapping around in midfield, Sergio Ramos controlling Ronaldinho and Ruud van Nistelrooy and a rejuvenated Raul looking lively up top, Real controlled proceedings.

Bernd Schuster continues to build a team that is not playing the sparkling football promised post Fabio Capello, but a team that has evolved from the Capello template - solid, hard working, organised, purposeful and damn effective.

The once free-flowing Madrid are now the stiflers, and Barca, it seems, are struggling to live with that.

While much of the heat is on Ronaldinho, a close inspection of Frank Rijkaard's recent work highlights the problems might lie with the manager. Since his assistant Henk Ten Cate left after the 2005/2006 'double' and was replaced by Johan Neeskens, things have been going pair-shaped at Barca.

Clearly something needs to change, and I, for one, am not convinced that Ronaldinho leaving will solve all of Barca's problems.

Sounds like Ronaldinho is off enjoying his Christmas and New Year break, so I think we all should. A big thanks to all TRBA readers for your interest and insight throughout 2007, and I hope you have a happy and safe festive season. See you all again in the new year, Tony.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Finally, a Christmas cracker to write home about

A-League round 15 match analysis, CCM 4 v SFC 5

HOW many times after an A-League game this season has one felt compelled to get straight on the PC and start blogging?

Well, to borrow a popular phrase from the competition's first season, "not many, if any".

In what has been a fairly disappointing version 3 to date, finally a game for the ages, a Christmas cracker if ever there was one.

It wasn't always aesthetically of the highest standard, but who cares about aesthetics when we're dished up entertainment of this variety.

A record Mariners regular-season crowd, nine goals, the most in a game in the short history of this league, two Mariners sends-offs, two penalties, players dropping all over the place for the hosts and a Sydney winner with the last kick of the match that took them above Adelaide into the top four.

Anthony La Paglia, sitting in the Sydney dug-out and a regular at FC training of late could rarely have come across a more riveting script.

This match had it all and rightly there will be a rush to declare it the best game in competition's short history, at least from an entertainment perspective. In analysing the 'football', let's remember that much of the goal mouth action came from set-piece scraps.

Tragically for the hosts, the match ended in pain not only on the scoreboard but the sickening news that their left fullback Dean Heffernan looks to have broken his leg after an awkward fall from a late Ufuk Talay challenge. Best man at his brother's wedding this afternoon, he must have thought long and hard about whether to take part in this postponed game.

After attending the service this afternoon, the idea was to scamper back to Sydney and deliver the best man speech at 11pm. Tragically, it looks like he'll still be in hospital, where the loss, the thought of missing his brother's wedding and realisation that he has missed out of a chance to represent the Socceroos will compound the pain.

Life can be cruel.

Another man feeling the pain, both for his Mariners and for his hopes of representing the Socceroos against Qatar in February 6 is Danny Vukovic. After being exposed by the looping Paul Agostino header last week, this week he raced off his line and was beaten by the slick Bluetongue surface. Pounded by rain this afternoon, a long Sydney ball skidded off the surface and came to him quicker than he would have expected, leaving him little choice but the thrust the left arm out and Matthew Breeze little choice but to issue red.

Coming just over a quarter of an hour in, it altered the flow of the game.

Up until then the hosts had dominated and were two up, exposing the makeshift Sydney rearguard. John Kosmina's decision to play journeyman midfielder Mark Robertson in the centre of defence looked a calamity, and but for a lax moment from Sahso Petrovski it should have been three for the Central Coast, who had Tom Pondeljak on fire in the early going.

But Vukovic's moment changed everything. With Petrovski sacrificed for Mathew Trott, Kosmina moved Robertson to his rightful place, in the centre of midfield and Sydney went to a back four.

Suddenly Sydney had the numbers in midfield and Talay enjoyed the space, quarter-backing the game, directing traffic from left to right. The visitors were in control and the corner count started to mount.

The set-piece became Sydney's outlet and best friend. Their first came from a Talay corner, powered home by Fyfe just after half an hour. Their equaliser, after the break, was from a Nick Tsattalios corner, Terry McFlynn expertly spinning on a loose ball after Trott had denied Tony Popovic.

By then the wheels looked to be falling off the competition front-runners. Soon, they looked gone, John Aloisi going down and looking to have some serious damage to his left knee.

Vukovic at one end, Aloisi at the other. Pim Verbeek, despite being at home in Holland, suddenly might have even more to think about than he thought he originally did.

In any case, Matt Simon, on for Aloisi, did as he does best and started throwing himself about, making a nuisance of himself. Popovic, struggling to deal with him and not at all at peace with the man between Sydney's sticks, Ivan Necevski, panicked in the box and gave away a penalty.

This time it was the hosts at the set piece, minus their first three penalty takers (Kwasnik, Aloisi and Petrovski), but Greg Owens calmed nerves and no doubt reserved a thought for his old boss in the Sydney dug-out. Great character from the Mariners.

But Sydney, desperate to bounce back after last week's missed opportunity against Perth, had a fresh injection off the bench from Adam Biddle and Brendan Santalab. No doubt emboldened by their displays against the LA Galaxy, both made telling contributions.

First Biddle did Heffernan's Socceroos hopes no favour with a dink inside, catching out the slow Trott, before Santalab profited from another set piece and lashed the visitors into the lead. Thrilling stuff.

Surely the Mariners were gone!

Not so. This time it was Adam Kwasnik, another late sub, who picked up some back-post pieces from another free-kick, sneaking one under Necevski. 4-4, just breathtaking stuff.

But neither side seemed content with that. The Mariners pressed on, exposing the space down Sydney's right (Kosmina had earlier made a positive substitution, bringing on Biddle high on the right, taking off Tsattalios on the left and shifting Middleby over to that side - it created plenty of space in behind Biddle, a gamble Kosmina seemed prepared to take).

But when Heffernan was upended by Talay, Sydney broke forward with purpose and resorted to the aerial route that had hitherto reaped so much success. Once again it drew a poor response from the Mariners rearguard, Kwasnik penalised and red-carded while Sydney earnt a stoppage time penalty.

Talay, so influential throughout in a team missing a number of key men (Mark Milligan, Juninho, Ruben Zadkovich and Clint Bolton among them), did the rest and sent FC into the four for the first time under Kosmina's reign.

Whether they stay there might depend on how Adelaide respond to their recent poor form, and next week's clash on what is sure to be a slick Adelaide Oval could prove decisive.

The Mariners, meanwhile, remain atop the league, but will be counting the costs of a horror evening of injuries and suspensions. A box office success, this epic was a disaster on the field.

Next week, when the champions come to town, the Mariners will be missing Hutchinson, Vukovic and Kwasnik through suspension and at least Heffernan through injury, while Aloisi and Owens look doubtful.

Plenty of soul searching ahead for the Mariners, but for the A-League, this was a night to remember.

Updated 11.30pm; have just had confirmation from the Mariners that Dean Heffernan has broken his tibia, will have his operation tomorrow and will be out for the season. TRBA's best wishes are with Dean and his family.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Pim's observations and options

HE'S BEEN in the job for just over a week and in the country for only a couple of days, but already there is a fair-bit to mull over when it comes to the Socceroos and their new manager Pim Verbeek.

Of course, much of that attention has centred around his first Australian press conference on Thursday and his first TV interview on Fox's Total Football later that night, where he spoke at length to host Andy Harper and his studio guests Robbie Slater and Simon Hill.

While his body language was a little defensive early after both Slater and Hill declared their first choice would have been Troussier, overall it was a very enlightening and honest take from the Dutchman.

He admitted to knowing very little about the local league (a bit of a concern), to being undecided about whether to draft in the Europeans, to having already spoken with most of the European based players, to his admiration for Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell and the need to use them wisely throughout the campaign, about his respect for the opposition and his confidence that we would qualify for South Africa.

Overall it was a very insightful interview and answered a number of questions. But it also highlighted how little time Verbeek has to get his selection right for the first qualifier in less than two months.

No doubt his first challenges is to decide whether he relies on the A-League players alone for the first two qualifiers (at home to Qatar on February 6 and away to China on March 26) or blends in a mixture of European based players, whether they be the EPL and Serie A cream or the players from the second tier, the likes of Nick Carle, David Carney, Mile Sterjovski, Carl Valeri, Michael Beauchamp and Luke Wilkshire.

Verbeek has already admitted to being on the phone with "most of the European players" and believes that, apart from Mark Viduka, who is still "struggling after the Asian Cup" and "under a bit of pressure at a big club", they have all indicated their commitment to the campaign.

Of course, Verbeek has also admitted to knowing nothing about the local competition, so right how he's on a steep learning curve to find out whether the local lads can cut it.

If he's not convinced by what he hears and sees over the next month of so and in a muted A-League training camp in January (there is also talk of a possible friendly), then he will be left with no choice but to draft in some of the European names.

Yet the football calendar doesn't exactly come to the rescue. Verbeek has openly admitted that if a player plays on the Sunday in Europe, we mightn't expect to see him here until Wednesday, the morning of the Qatar game; too late.

So naturally, with an eye on the European fixture list, we are looking for players who either have the weekend before February 6 off or are otherwise scheduled for Friday night or Saturday afternoon fixture, which might give them enough time to make it to Melbourne by Monday at the latest.

The good news, for starters, is that there a no scheduled Turkish Super League fixtures that weekend, which might bring the likes of Carle and Sterjovski into the frame. The former, especially, could be very important, as we don't appear to have a player of his ilk (an advanced midfielder who can keep the ball, dictate the tempo and link with the attack) on the local scene.

Elsewhere, in Holland, Luke Wilkshire's Twente Enschede are scheduled for a Friday night away trip to NEC Nijmegen, meaning he could be in Melbourne in time. Whether he's needed in the centre of midfield is another thing. Here, Verbeek should keep his eyes the likes of Stuart Musalik, Matt McKay, and if they recover from form and injury respectively, the more experienced Kevin Muscat and Simon Colosimo.

Another central midfield option, Jason Culina, plays on Saturday for PSV.

Considering all Serie A games at this stage are scheduled for the Sunday, tieing up Grella, perhaps there might be another opportunity for Mini Vinnie, Valeri, who is due to play for Grosseto on Saturday.

Certainly, Verbeek has to make the decision on whether Musalik, such an accomplished performer for club and country over the past 18 months, is ready to dictate the tempo of the senior side from his quarter-back role.

Another big decision is who he has been the sticks. Local options include Danny Vukovic, who was caught out by Paul Agostino last night, Ante Covic, Michael Theoklitos and Clint Bolton, who appears to have some confidence back after a disappointing 12 months or so.

At the back, in the middle, there are less headaches, at least in my mind. A central axis of Craig Moore on the right and Mark Milligan on the left would be brilliant, Moore's experience complimented by Milligan's pace and level head.

Failing that, perhaps Adrian Leijer, such an impressive partner alongside Milligan in the Olyroo campaign, might be released by Fulham. Hopefully for him though he's a first team fixture by the time they take on Mark Schwarzer's Middlesbrough on Sunday February 3, which would count him out.

Elsewhere, Michael Beauchamp's Nurnberg play on Saturday, so it will be interesting to see where he and Josh Kennedy are at come February. Certainly, in the central defensive area, Jade North's form this season brings him into the frame as a back-up, while other versatile local options are Muscat and Nikolai Topor-Stanley, who might yet have aspirations to be the left back, given his decent work there for the Olyroos.

One of the more interesting observations from Verbeek on Thursday was his emphasis on having "attacking fullbacks, especially at home". It is very much a Dutch method and one Verbeek used for South Korea in the Asian Cup, where the left back, especially, added to their forward thrust.

Topor-Stanley and Ruben Zadkovich were certainly "attacking fullbacks" in the Olyroo campaign, while Trent McClenahan impressed when given the chance, but question marks remain about whether they are ready to step-up to the senior side.

Elsewhere, locally, because he can't have Cassio, his eyes might be fixed on Dean Hefferan, who defended well in the first half last night and then sprung to life as an attacking force in the second. Inexperienced at international level, he is worth looking at at some stage.

Pim needs to decide if that is in the cut and thrust of a world qualifier. As he said on TF; "It's not just the quality [of the A-League players] but it's also the pressure on their shoulders because they all know it's and important game [the first against Qatar]. It's not just a friendly against Argentina or Nigeria, it's qualification for the world cup."

One left sided option that has consistently stepped up to the plate of late is David Carney. At this stage though Sheffield Utd are scheduled for a Saturday February 2 game.

On the right there are also some interesting scenario's. Zadkovich and McClenahan did well for the Olyroos, and North has played there before, but seems to be more comfortable centrally these days. Reason for that is he is a more solid defender than an attacking one.

Elsewhere in the A-League, nobody really stands out at right back.

Brett Emerton made some very positive noises in this recent interview with The World Game's David Lewis, but the fact Blackburn have a Saturday date with Tim Cahill's Everton, might mean he misses at least the first qualifier.

But it seems he'll make himself available for the matchdays 3 to 6 mini-tournament in June, his fifth straight 'off-season' commitment to the national cause. Bravo Brett.

Seemingly a man of detail, Verbeek spoke about balance in his TF interview. If the attack-mind Carney is able to make it back on the left, perhaps the steady North is the safest option on the right. Zadkovich is certainly in the mix, but he did his chances of impressing the manager no good with his reckless lunge last week which means he misses tonight's chance to impress.

Up front, Verbeek will certainly have been impressed with John Aloisi and Sasho Petrovski last night. Both were everywhere, presenting, finishing, linking and throwing themselves about. Agostino is more a rugged option, but continues to find the net and might be value off the bench against Qatar, not a physical side when you compare them to China and Iraq.

Certainly, if Kennedy isn't available, Agostino might play a similar role to the one Kennedy did against Japan in Kaiserslautern. Another physical all-action man is Bruce Djite, who would certainly have been higher up the pecking order had injury not intervened a couple of months ago. He still has time, especially if he can rekindle his form from earlier in the season.

As he showed Verbeek last night, Petrovski offers another option, subtlety and composure in and around the box.

But if Aloisi is fit, he will most certainly start, but I've always seen Aloisi at his best when he has someone sharing the load up front. In Verbeek's 4-3-3, he will need to get seamless service and support from his 'wide' men and the attacking central midfield.

One of those men around him could be Archie Thompson, who will need to transfer his good A-League form to the national side. If Scott McDonald is available and banging in the goals, he would be hard to ignore. His confidence, right now, must be sky-high.

Of the other local options, Joel Griffiths continues to make strides and would certainly be a viable wide option, while Alex Brosque has finally made a breakthrough this season. While his goal-getting ratio has improved, I've been even more impressed with his ability to compete physically in such a combative league. Once a light-weight, he now rarely gets bundled off the ball, and his pace is good.

Elsewhere, the likes of Travis Dodd and Lucas Pantelis at Adelaide have gone off the boil of late, while Nathan Burns has been burnt by a heavy schedule. Kristian Sarkies and Mark Bridge are talented but still developing consistency.

Certainly, watching Verbeek find the right combination up front and all over the pitch will make fascinating viewing. Time mightn't be on his side, but he has options, and the more the likes of Aloisi and Petrovski perform as they did last night, the less inclined Verbeek will be to look in Europe.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Pim the man to pin our hopes on

SO, after all of that drama, it’s Pim Verbeek who will attempt to guide the Socceroos through to South Africa.

It’s certainly a victory for Rob Baan and Guus Hiddink, both of whom, it’s been reported, made no secret of their support for their compatriot.

Time will tell whether it’s also a victory for Australian football, but on the surface it at least appears a continuation of the Dutch theme that has been the FFA’s want of late.

For Phillipe Troussier, the much-traveled Frenchman and the other part of the two-horse race, I guess the writing was on the wall the moment the trio of FFA decision makers boarded the plane to Singapore to chat with Verbeek.

There’s no doubt Troussier has a solid CV, having guided the Blue Samurai to the World Cup in 2002 (admittedly without a qualification campaign) and the Bafana Bafana to the one before that.

But there was talk that he not only wanted to stamp his own mark on things, but that things had to be done his way or it was the highway. Word is he’d just left Morocco because he didn’t get the right support from its FA.

Patently this didn’t sit too well with the FFA and the talk that he wanted to bring in his own men would have thrown a spanner into the works given the likes of Graham Arnold and Tony Franken are contracted till 2010.

An expensive signing may have been made even more expensive if contracts had to be paid out.

Ultimately, it seems, the FFA went for the safer, more cost effective option, the one they knew most about, and the communication from the FFA was more measured than ringing;

“After very careful consideration and a rigorous recruitment process I am delighted that we have secured the services of a very experienced and respected national coach for the Qantas Socceroos,” said FFA Chairman Mr. Frank Lowy.

“Football fans can rest assured that the FFA has worked diligently to secure a coach with the qualities and enthusiasm that will give the Socceroos every chance of success.”

“Pim Verbeek has a vast range of experience he has gained over 25 years in coaching, including several stints in Asia, and we believe he is the right man for the job of leading the Socceroos to the 2010 FIFA World Cup.”

While Lowy initially wanted a big name, word is he eventually caved in to the fact we just couldn’t compete financially for the likes of Capello. The ultimate line was that he wanted someone with the relevant skills in Asia to get the job done, which brought the likes of Verbeek and Troussier into the frame.

So what to make of Verbeek as a manager?

I certainly can’t vouch for his work as an assistant to Hiddink or Advocaat at South Korea, but we can certainly judge him on his work at the Asian Cup this year, which was pretty good in the main.

Admittedly, South Korea didn’t play the most eye-catching football in the tournament, but, given the young squad at his disposal, they were very effective in making it to the semis, where they lost to the eventual champions in a penalty shoot-out.

Indeed, South Korea was probably the only team that really dished it up to Iraq, pressing them high (it is Verbeek’s modus operandi – dare I say, Pim likes to Pin teams back) and controlling the game in the middle of the park and out wide. Indeed, as I reported in my summary of that semi, Verbeek totally out-thought Jorvan Vieria on that night.

Had he had a bit of quality in the front third, someone like a Younis Mahmoud, the overall result of the Asian Cup might have been very different.

From a structural perspective, Verbeek used the Dutch 4-3-3 favoured by Hiddink, Baan and now Arnold. Always the emphasis was on an incredible fitness and workrate, solid defence and plenty of running, but often I sensed the sole striker was left isolated, despite the impressive attempts from Kin Jung-woo to link from midfield.

It was a largely cautious, results-based, agenda.

After scoring three and conceding three in the group stages, the knocks-outs saw Verbeek’s men draw all three games 0-0. That was after 120 minutes of football.

The conclusion to draw from that is that his football won’t always be easy on the eye, but it should be enough to get the job done, which is ultimately how this tricky campaign, our first in Asia, should be judged.

Who knows, with that little bit more quality in the front third that he has at his disposal, the shackles might even be released at some stage.

Whatever transpires, I think it’s fair to say we have a decent-fit manager, someone who is familiar with the recent goings-on in Asia, someone who looks to have an eye for detail, someone ready to hit the ground running.

There are questions marks, at least in my mind, about how Arnold will feel working alongside a manager that was at his same level only five months ago, but they can be address through level heads.

There are also some questions on how the odd ego within the Socceroos dressing room handles a non-big-name manager, and this could be Verbeek’s first and biggest hurdle.

But overall, it isn’t the worst appointment in the world. Let’s get the show on the road and start Piming teams back.