Saturday, March 22, 2008

Thai-riffic yet again

ACL matchday 2 review, Chonburi FC 3 v Melbourne Victory 1

EIGHT months ago, at the Asian Cup, we got a chance to marvel at the magic dished up by the Thai national team, who despite not making it through Australia’s group, were as eye-catching as anything at the tournament.

A combination or great technique, wonderful energy and clear joy for the game, the likes of Suree Sukha, Kiatprawut Saiweo and Dakskorn Thonglao made a massive impression.

Even against the Socceroos, a game they eventually lost 4-0, it was the Thais who made most of the running, at times sending the Socceroos ragged.

Fast forward to Wednesday night’s ACL matchday two clash between their club champions, Chonburi FC, and the Melbourne Victory and the sense of deja vu was obvious.

Here was another Thai side that played their more fancied Australian opponents off the pitch, only this time to end up of the right side of the scoreboard thanks to a couple of wonderful late strikes from substitute Stephane Baga.

Confidence flowing after losing only one of their past 19 games, Chonburi pressed the Victory early, pushing up high and never allowing the Victory to settle into a passing rhythm.

Recognising that the Ernie Merrick was sticking with his three-man backline, they stretched Melbourne wide by getting the ball forward early and using the left and right channels, where they stretched the likes of Pantelidis and Celeski on the right Vargas and Kemp on the left.

Often criticised for a lack of width, Melbourne were clearly out-stretched in the first half of this one, and Chonburi’s goal just before the break was a reward for the team that clearly had a game-plan.

On the left, the blond Arthit Suntornphit (#7) was causing problems, his cultured left peg teeing up the first for the excellent Brazilian front-man Ney Fabiano after a brilliant build-up that saw the ball won in midfield, then switched superbly from right to left where Suntornphit played the killer ball.

The goal summed up everything that was good about Chonburi; two players swooping in central midfield to dispossess Ward; swift movement of the ball forward, into the flanks, with great accuracy; a brilliant first-time cross; and a composed finish.

Merrick tried to adjust at the break by introducing Vasilevski and Ryall (for Caceres and Pantelidis), Vasilevski pushed onto Suntornphit, Ryall onto Fabiano.

In truth it gave the Victory a bit more control, but after the equaliser, the Thais had one last trump card to play.

Earlier in the night Andy Harper, calling the Adelaide-Changchum game, said Diego’s volleyed left foot screamer that smashed against the cross-bar would have been the goal of the decade.

Seemingly it came a few hours later, when the Cameroonian Barga danced through the midfield, onto his left peg and delivered and absolute rocket into Theoklitos’s top corner. Wow.

Later, with Melbourne pressing on, Barga glided into the box and applied the killer blow, this time with his right peg.

It was no less than the Thais deserved. As Merrick said afterward, they “worked really hard and were very quick in closing is down”. That was the key.

Yes the goals had come from their two imports, but this was an excellent team performance from a very well drilled team. Little wonder they pushed Gamba all the way.

Suddenly Melbourne’s aim of getting through the group just got harder, and with a double against Gamba Osaka to come, there appear to be three serious players in this group, and if it’s the Thai’s who get through, it won’t be through luck.


The man with a plan

MEANWHILE, in Adelaide, there was some fascinating insight from Aurelio Vidmar into the way United are going about things this campaign.

Clearly unhappy about conceding too many goals in v3, United have apparently spent the past month or so building from the back, working on their defensive structure, from Galekovic through to Djite.

And there’s early evidence it seems to be working after two very solid defensive displays, everyone seemingly more familiar with the job required of them without the ball.

Only in the past week, Vidmar said, have Adelaide started working on their forward structure, and it showed on Wednesday night, with United often looking short of ideas in the final third after the Chinese champions did a brilliant job of shutting Djite out of the game.

As their coach had so shrewdly analysed ahead of the game, most of Adelaide’s attacks are built through their big front-man, so shutting him out physically was the key to a well-earnt Yatai point.

Vidmar’s job over the coming months will be to add more attacking support to Djite, but for now it is great to hear an Australian manager talk about a plan.


Over to the kids

STILL in Asia, very excited about the prospect of seeing the young Socceroos (plus Kewell) take on Singapore in tonight’s friendly.

When we played Singapore almost nine months ago, ahead of the Asian Cup, most of the big guns were on deck, and it was far from smooth, so it will be great to see how some of the younger kids adapt to international football.

While there has been some talk about it devaluing the Socceroos strip, frankly the fact there are so many Socceroos games these days gives Verbeek a great opportunity to see who, if any, can step up to the plate, and the kids an opportunity to press their case for more important matters later on.

The central midfield space looks particularly threadbare for this game, so seeing if the likes of Jedinak, Broxham and Holland can make the step-up will be fascinating.

Jedinak is an interesting one. Clearly blessed with the physical attributes to compete at A-League level, he is often found out by the finer technical aspects of the game, such as his touch and range of passing.

These things are often exposed at international level, so tonight’s game will be fascinating. I’ll also be interested to see if Jade North can transfer his excellent A-League form to the international stage, where he is yet to grasp his opportunities.


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