Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Mariners rue bad luck and the lack of an away goal

Major semi final, first leg, NJ 2 v CCM 0

OVERALL I thought the Jets were very fortunate to come away from this one with a two goal advantage. The Mariners pounded them early with a physical and direct style and really unsettled the Jets rearguard, which was forced to retreat deep into its own box (too deep I thought).

But for a brilliant goal-line clearance from Jade North to deny a Sash Petrovski’s looping header, the Mariners should have gone ahead. The Mariners were hitting John Aloisi early, by-passing the midfield, and Petrovski’s trickery was adding another headache.

Gary van Egmond has spoken often this season about his team’s improved mental toughness and here was evidence of this greater ability to absorb pressure. And then, with one of their first genuine attacks, a quarter of the way in, they scored.

Once again it was the sublime delivery of James Holland, coupled with Adam Griffiths’s willingness to get into the box that did the trick. ‘The Other Griffo’s’ diving header was a gem. He might have had another soon after.

Back came the Mariners, clearly motivated by Jade North’s swipe in the press. Aloisi and Petrovski continued to be a handful, the latter winning a penalty that the former screwed wide. Soon he was denied by the post and then an eager referee’s assistant, so it was no surprise to learn he was kicking bottles around in the dressing room at the break.

This was absorbing stuff, a far cry from the cat-and-mouse first half on Friday night.

The Jets settled down a bit in the second period and started keeping the ball. Once again van Egmond’s honesty an insight at the break was refreshing. Paraphrased, it went along these lines;

We need to move the ball around quicker, use three or four passes to move the
ball into the front third instead of dribbling with the ball. That way we can be
more effective in the front third.

For evidence of this you just needed to cast the mind back a week, to the sublime second goal against Wellington, scored by Mark Bridge, but coming after a series of delightful one-touches from defence, through the midfield and into attack. It was arguably the goal of the season, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t even rate a mention in the final reckoning. Some 40 metre bomb more than likely will.

Another brilliant move that will probably not get much of an airing resulted in the Jets’ second late on. Once again it was Holland at the heart of it. Receiving a Noel Spencer free-kick with his back to goal and under pressure, he went back to the former Mariner, who drew a midfielder and returned a square ball back into Holland’s path.

By now he had turned and was facing the Mariners goal, so he played a ball to the edge of the Mariners box, where Joel Griffiths was tightly marked. Instead of admiring his couple of touches, Holland took off into the box.

Recognising that Griffiths had plenty of attention, there must have been space elsewhere.

Griffiths saw the run, the space and Holland’s intention, and while his first-time return ball was slightly over-hit, it attracted a lunge from the late-arriving Andre Gumprecht. Contact, penalty.

In this mood, Joel Griffiths must have seen the goal like a mountain, and he duly dispatched it.

It was harsh on the Mariners, who really deserved what would have been a valuable away goal. Now Lawrie McKinna’s men host a team they haven’t been able top topple in over two years, knowing that if they concede one (the Jets have been in rampant goal-getting mood, bagging no less than two goals in their past six games), they must score four. Tough ask indeed.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Tactical Analysis - Farina springs a surprise, but it's advantage FC

Minor Semi Final first leg, SFC 0 v QR 0

HITHERTO Frank Farina has been reluctant to play his two midfield dynamos, the M&Ms, Matt McKay and Massimo Murdocca, alongside each other, deep in the centre of midfield.

It was something his predecessor Miron Bleiberg did often, with some success.

But Farina has generally split the two with a deeper holding central midfielder, either Danny Tiatto, Stuart McLaren or Chris Grossman. But with Tiatto suspended and Farina seemingly unhappy with the alternatives, he reshaped his midfield for the first time in a long, since the kids came into his 11 in round 7 and forced Farina to go from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3.

Here he also played with a three man midfield, but with an interesting twist. Instead of the one holding midfielder flanked by the two buzzers in McKay on the left and Murdocca on the right, this time he played the two buzzers in the holding midfield, drafting in Marchino in the attacking midfield position.

The south-bound arrow had become a triangle.

The plan appeared to be two-fold; use the buzzers to crowd the midfield and try and get Marchino forward in support of Reinaldo, who had looked isolated in recent weeks.

The second bit was less successful, but the nullifying aspect worked a treat. Every time Juninho touched the ball, they they were, Murdocca and McKay, right in his face, snapping at his heals. His compatriot, Marchinho, was never too far away, while the two kids on the flanks, Zullo and Kruse, always doubled back and tucked in to make it a five man midfield.

With Ognenovski and Moore pressing up and following Brosque and Corica into midfield, there was rarely a moment when an FC player had time to take a touch and turn.

It was a template meant to frustrate and nullify the hosts.

The same was happening in the other dug-out. Hitherto John Kosmina has chopped and changed between and three and four man defence, but here he cancelled out the Roar by congesting the midfield and going with three at the back. Problem was that his two flankers, or wingbacks, Brendan Renaud and Robbie Middleby (later Ruben Zadkovich) were both very defensive minded, concentrating first on ensuring Zullo and Kruse had little room.

Indeed, from very early on it was clear Kosmina wanted to apply alot of physical pressure on the two wide kids, with the wingbacks and Ian Fyfe putting in a couple of early hits, especially on Zullo. It had the desired effect, with both kids struggling the shake off the attention.

Little wonder Farina was frustrated, but he can hardly complain given the treatment his men dished out to Adelaide's kids in the opening round. Remember that? In the meantime, Farina will be hoping for a similar outcome.

With both teams in the business of nullifying each other, not for the first time this season, it was little wonder a stalemate ensued.

Things livened up considerably in the second period, with the Roar looking a little tired and FC finally getting on top in midfield due to sheer weight of numbers, which allowed Juninho more freedom to thread a pass. Brosque should have given the hosts the win, troubling Ognenovski and Moore with his mobility in the second period, but he couldn't prize a finish past Griffin McMaster, who at times looked kamikaze coming off his line, despite a couple of decent one-one-ones.

But the injection of Tahj Minniecon late on breathed a bit of life back into the visitors, and they were soon in behind the pedestrian Renaud, adding to the mystery of why the kid wasn't given more time by his manager after destroying Renaud a few weeks ago.

Ultimately, both teams survived and will go to Suncorp in a fortnight hopeful rather than flowing with confidence.

While Farina had an away draw, it was a goalless one, meaning that Sydney will travel north knowing that if they can maintain their unbeaten away record and bag a goal, they will be through.

History proves there is very little between these side and on the evidence of this latest clash, it's not unrealistic to expect extra time and penalties.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A-League team of the season, v3

CHOOSING version 3’s team of the regular season, I’ve got to say, wasn’t as easy as the past two seasons. While Pim Verbeek’s comments yesterday that it’s better to be training in Germany than playing in this league were a little unflattering and far from diplomatic, the truth is, and it’s been widely circulated, that the on-field standards haven’t been as strong as expected this season. Things have improved a touch over the past month with the return to form of the defending champions, the organisation of the Newcastle Jets and the odd decent showing from Sydney, the Mariners and the Roar, but in the main v3 will be remembered more for its closeness on the field and some amazing breakthroughs off it, but more on that in another blog. Right now it’s time to assess those players that have caught the eye, and while the likes of Diego, Nathan Burns and Bruce Djite started the season brilliantly, injuries soon put paid to theirs and Adelaide’s title aspirations. Elsewhere, the likes of Adam Kwasnik, Nigel Boogaard, Mark Milligan, Michael Zullo, Robbie Kruse, Daniel, Felipe and Tom Pondeljak all had good periods, but how many of the competition’s players where consistently producing the goods? This team, in the main, rewards consistency, with the odd little twist;

J. Griffiths----------------Brosque

Keeper, Ante Covic, NJ; had a poor start to his A-League career when he returned home in the middle of v2, but this season he has been in brilliant form, rediscovered some of the coverage that had him first noticed at Marconi. Newcastle have kept more clean sheets than most, and Covic’s shot-stopping and cross-handling has been a key. It’s enough to get him the gig in this side ahead of some fine glove-men in Danny Vukovic and Michael Theoklitos. Others to shine included Liam Reddy, Glenn Moss and Clint Bolton.

Right-back, Hyuk-Su Seo, QR; James Downey, blessed with blistering pace, was a revelation at Perth and is one to watch, Tarek Elrich was arguably the most improved player in the league while a bloke at the other end of his career, Richie Alagich, had a very good final season at Adelaide, but for sheer consistency, hard to go past the South Korean up in Queensland. For the past couple of seasons he has been chopped and changed between midfield and right back, but this season he made the position his own, keeping out Ben Griffin in the process. Not the most dynamic coming forward, but if you’re looking for someone to do the defensive job and do it well, Hyuk-Su is your man.

Central defender, Jade North, NJ; we saw signs of his maturity last season, but this year, entrusted with the captaincy and the responsibility for bossing the defence after the retirement of Paul Okon, North took his game to another level. Quick on the ground, courageous in the challenge and reading the game better than ever, he combined well with both Andrew Durante and Covic and was as responsible as anyone for ensuring the Jets had the equal best defensive record.

Central defender, Rody Vargas, MV; probably the hardest choice of the lot was choosing North’s partner in the centre of defence. There were a number of decent candidates, including Sydney’s Mark Milligan and Mark Rudan, Queensland’s Craig Moore and Sash Ognenovski, Newcastle’s Durante, Perth’s Dino Djulbic and Jamie Coyne and Central Coast’s Nigel Boogaard, but in a team which struggled for much of the season, Vargas again stood out for the Victory and makes TRBA’s team of the year for the second season on the spin.

Left back, Cassio, AU; Dean Heffernan was fairly consistent for the Mariners and Tony Lochhead ok for the Phoenix but I really enjoyed Cassio’s contributions for Adelaide. While he didn’t produce one of his apparent ‘Roberto Carlos style’ efforts on goal, he was a constant source of good work down the left, looking comfortable when he brought the ball forward, and equally at home when he was called on to defend. One of the few successful Brazilian imports.

Holding central midfielder, Mile Jedinak, CCM; emboldened by a full time contract in the off-season and handed the responsibility of bossing the Mariners midfield, Jedinak relished it, proving he is as physical as any player in this physical league. Whether it was rising for a trademark header, tagging an opposition’s playmaker, reacting first to some scraps in the centre of midfield or making a bone-jarring tackle, Jedinak kept putting his hand up. As influential as any Mariner for the minor premiership, he formed a formidable partnership with the likes of John Hutchinson and Tom Pondeljak. Other notable performers included Queensland’s Danny Tiatto and Stuart McLaren, Sydney’s Ufuk Talay and Perth’s Simon Colosimo.

Right-sided central midfielder, James Holland, NJ; while he only played a third of the season in total, what an amazing seven game contribution it was, better than most players’ full season. Blessed with wonderful poise on the ball and a natural ability to be in the right place at the right time, he played in a crucial role in picking up the Jets at the back end of the season, a point I delved into in this piece. He gets into the side ahead of John Hutchinson because of his more subtle approach and the need to provide a bit of creative midfield balance to the hard working Jedinak and Matt McKay. In a season a graft an industry, nice to see a natural footballer. Another player who was ultra-impressive in the early going but soon faded due to injury was Adelaide’s Diego, while Billy Celeski and Tom Pondeljak were great to watch, on and off the ball.

Left sided central midfielder, Matt McKay, QR; Mr. Consistent, Frank Farina could always rely on McKay’s all-action efforts in the heart of his midfield. While the equally mobile and dynamic Massimo Murdocca didn’t settle into the 11 till the second half of the season and Farina chopped and changed in the holding role, McKay was ever-present on the left side of a midfield trio, a bundle of energy and gets in hear ahead Lucas Pantelis, who was excellent for Adelaide.

Right sided attacker, Joel Griffiths, NJ; undisputedly the A-League player of the season, he started the season as the man every opposition fan loved to hate and the man who attracted more attention from the referees than anyone else. During it he was in involved in the now infamous groin-gate, a turning point for his campaign, and by the end of it he was the man even the most ardent Mariners fans had to admit was the stand-out player of the campaign, universally admired and respected. Whether he was dropping off the front-line to pick up the ball in midfield, running at defenders, lurking off the shoulder of defenders, over the dead ball or rounding a keeper, Griffiths was simply untouchable, so much so he set an A-League record of 12 goals. Golden Boot and Golden Ball, it truly was a golden season.

Striker, Archie Thompson, MV; with Griffiths and Alex Brosque stand-outs for two of the front three spots, the choice of who got the central striker spot was more difficult. Nik Mrdja looked a shoe-in early, soon followed by the powerful and fast-improving Bruce Djite, but injury befell both. In Wellington, Shane Smeltz was a consistent threat, with neat feet and nous around the field, while the much-maligned Reinaldo silenced many a critic. John Aloisi came on board midway through the Mariners campaign and proved he is a class act, especially inside the box, while Jamie Harnwell, sadly for Perth, was their main threat. But for sheer entertainment and brilliance on the ball, it was hard to go past Thompson once again. While the goals dried up, his magical feet and pace still proved too much for most defenders, and he was responsible for five assists, equal top in the league.

Left sided attacker, Alex Brosque, SFC; Sydney had a poor start to the season and one of the guilty under-achievers in the first few weeks was this man. But soon something clicked. It was his partnership with Juninho. Before you knew it Brosque was feeding off the Brazilian’s forward promptings, finishing with more ruthlessness than we have seen in the past two seasons and proving too mobile and slippery for most defenders. One of the other intriguing advancements in his game was his ability to handle the physicality of the league, not something you always associate with Brosque. After promising to emerge for what seems an eternity, this season should finally be his making, the one when the kid with promise became a man. Elsewhere on the flanks, there were impressive seasons from the Roar kids in Michael Zullo, Robbie Kruse and Tahj Minniecon, while Nikita Rukavytsya showed promise and Daniel caught the eye with his wonderful left peg.

Manager, Gary van Egmond, NJ; as I noted at the bottom of this piece, given the hurdles placed in front of him, van Egmond would be a fitting choice for manager of the season, getting his men to the finals for the second straight year, in his second year. Frank Farina also did a very good job in Queensland while John Kosmina has instilled some belief in his men.

Reserves team of the year (4-3-3); Danny Vukovic; Richie Alagich, Nigel Boogaard, Mark Milligan, Dean Heffernan; Massimo Murdocca, John Hutchinson, Lucas Pantelis; Bruce Djite, John Aloisi, Shane Smeltz.

There it is, TRBA’s team of the v3 regular season. So who would you have included or left out? And while on the subject of the players that have stood out in v3, why not vote in the Fans’ Choice A-League Awards, hosted by Eric over at the MVFC Blog. There’s four categories including best player of the season, best foreigner, best under 23 and most missed player from v2, which must surely be between either Fred or Nick Carle.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Mariners the maids no more

A-League final round analysis

FITTINGLY, the team that has been on top of the competition for all but the penultimate round of the season, have finished it as premiers, the first team through to the 2009 Asian Champions League.

Often the bridesmaid, the Central Coast Mariners will finally walk down the aisle in white and be greeted at the other end by an ACL campaign that is sure to excite the masses that have been flocking to the Bluetongue of late.

While it's been a bumpy ride, especially in the final third of the season, where they picked only one win in their seven matches before last night's 2-0 win over the Phoenix, the fact they set the pace for all but the final stretch means they are deserving premiers.

It is also a fitting reward for the three record crowds that flocked to the stadium throughout December and January, only to leave on the wrong end of the scoreboard on each occasion.

Queensland Roar, with a clear equation, just couldn't handle an away trip to an Adelaide United unit with plenty to prove, a stalwart to farewell and a young duo back in unison up front.

Perhaps the signs were there when the Roar turned up without their away strip? Pressure does strange things to people.

No team knows this more than the Mariners. For the past couple of months they have been conceeding goals and finding ways to lose games they had earlier in the season been sneaking.

Here they had the easiest of the final round assignments, a home clash with the rapidly sliding Wellington, a much improved unit on their Kiwi predecessor, but one still a few players short of challenging teams like the Mariners on a regular basis, especially with so much on the line.

With the central midfield duo of Jedinak and Pondeljak back in commanding form after a number of quiet recent performances, the Mariners had too much class and drive, Pondeljak particularly.

There was a day, not so long ago, when a constructive and influential performance like this one was par-for-the-course for Pondeljak, but theses days, because the legs can't produce it weekly, he does tend to be up and down.

When he is in this mood though, he is irresistible. It is little wonder Pim Verbeek is interested. Both assists were the stuff of a class-act, the first a dinked diagnol ball into a space between Phoenix defenders, inviting Aloisi to prod home, the second a typical link-and-drive move which took him deep into the box, beyond defenders.

From there it was heads up and a cut-back, a ball not used often enough in this league.

While Pondeljak's continues to please Verbeek, Mariners fans and purists alike, there is little doubt McKinna will have been equally as pleased with the defensive shape.

While skipper Alex Wilkinson continues to get caught out by the odd foot-race (this time it was young live-wire Costa Barbourouses doing the testing), here his combination with Tony Vidmar, Nigel Boogaard and Alvin Ceccoli looked far more compact.

They will need to lift their performance to another level over the next fortnight, for the combintation of Joel Griffiths, Mark Bridge and James Holland are sure to offer a far sterner test than the 'Nix did on this wet night.

Indeed, the Mariners have some recent experience in trying to deal with the Jets, finishing on the wrong side of a 2-1 scoreline a week ago.

The good news is that the midfield enforcer Jedinak will be on deck, depsite the Fox commentary team claiming his unlucky first half yellow equalled a one week suspension. Indeed, as he confirmed on 2ky's Football Fever tonight, it was his fifth card for the season, meaning he's available.

He will need to do a far better job at containing Holland than in did in round 20, where the youngster gave him the run-around.

It appears the Jets and Mariners will be battling to 'host' a grand final in Sydney, the city that almost typically reacted to having something on the line by turning up in their droves to see if 'their' team could claim the premiership.

Disintersted for most of version 3, suddenly the sniff of minor premiership and the realisation that everyone else has lifted their game of late brought out 33,458 fans, this correspondent among them, creating one of the most electric atmospheres at this stadium since grand final day in the opening season and the night Urawa came to town.

Not only was it a version 3 record, but it re-inforced that if Sydney can start to get things right on and off the field, as they have been of late, the fans will engage. Time for the club to build on the good-will and not take it for granted, as has happened far too often in their short history.

Fittingly, the game lived up to the hype, even if the result didn't particularly please the masses. Sydney did some good things, taking the lead twice and reacting to the rousing support, but they also did some naive things, exposed on the counter-attack a few times too many.

While this match was expansive and exciting, like so many Sydney-Melbourne clashes, there's a good chance Sydney's minor semi-final clash with the Roar will be less pleasing on the eye. Last week's dour 0-0 draw in the 'match of the season' at Suncorp was just the latest in a number of lacklsutre clashes between the two, with only one goal in their three games so far this season.

Factor in the pre-season and it's three 0-0 draws in four games. Fingers crossed something gives.

Right now the only given is the the Mariners have the premiers plate and will be factoring in ACL action at the end of next season. The pressure slighty released, it's time to focus on an even bigger prize, the championship.

The closest A-League season yet promises an even closer post-season.

Stay tuned to TRBA over the coming weeks for all your regular season and finals analysis and feel free to share your thoughts by either posting a comment or sending me an email to Enjoy the football.

Monday, January 14, 2008

In Holland, age is irrelevant

SO PIM has played his latest card, assimilating the Socceroos and Olyroos into one squad for the second of his weekly camps in western Sydney;

John Aloisi (Central Coast Mariners)
Clint Bolton (Sydney FC)
Mark Bridge(Newcastle Jets)
Alex Brosque (Sydney FC)
Simon Colosimo (Perth Glory)
Steve Corica (Sydney FC)
Ante Covic (Newcastle Jets)
Jamie Coyne (Perth Glory)
Bruce Djite (Adelaide United)
Travis Dodd (Adelaide United)
Andrew Durante (Newcastle Jets)
Adam Griffiths (Newcastle Jets)
Joel Griffiths (Newcastle Jets)
James Holland (Newcastle Jets)
John Hutchinson (Central Coast Mariners)
Matt McKay (Queensland Roar)
Mark Milligan (Sydney FC)
Kevin Muscat (Melbourne Victory)
Stuart Musialik (Newcastle Jets)
Jade North (Newcastle Jets)
Lucas Pantelis (Adelaide United)
Tom Pondeljak (Central Coast Mariners)
Ufuk Talay (Sydney FC)
Archie Thompson (Melbourne Victory)
Matt Thompson (Newcastle Jets)
Nikolai Topor-Stanley (Perth Glory)
Rodrigo Vargas (Melbourne Victory)
Danny Vukovic (Central Coast Mariners)
Alex Wilkinson (Central Coast Mariners)

While weeding out some of the Olyroos that were part of the first Marconi camp, Verbeek has also drafted in James Holland, one of the most promising and well-rounded talents this country has produced, proving that age is irrelevant and that the current generation of kids (including Burns, Patafta, Kruse, Zullo, Spiranovic, Vidosic and Minniecon) promises plenty.

Back in October, while a couple of Queensland kids were catching the eye and creating all the headlines, I watched on in amazement at maturity of Holland’s two performances for the Jets against Wellington and the Roar.

In round eight he made his debut against the Phoenix and while he caught the eye with the opening goal, it was his all-round contribution, continually ghosting into the box and, more importantly, barely coughing up possession, which made such an impression.

That debut was just about as good as they come, and it was meant to be his only game, for he was on a one-match contract.

Gary van Egmond, as astute a football man as there is this country, spoke glowingly in the aftermath about just how much the kid had added to his yet-to-gel front third.

‘Dutchy’, missing the creative class of Nick Carle, must have moved earth to get Holland into his starting 11 against Queensland the following week.

There, “thanks to an injury”, he stepped it up another level. He was dynamite, everywhere, the archetypical box-to-box central midfielder.

But it wasn’t just running for the sake of it. It was running combined with wonderful dexterity on the ball and an awareness and feel for the game that just seemed to come naturally. This was a footballer first and foremost.

In an age where athletes get by masquerading as footballers, here was a combo-deal, Tim Cahill meets Deco.

There was little doubt he’d made an immediate impression where it mattered most, in his manager’s mind.

After a trip away with the Young Socceroos throughout November, van Egmond, no doubt recognising he had something special on his hands (Newcastle suffered a mid-season slump after Holland’s round nine departure, winning only two of its subsequent eight games) was quick to snap Holland up till the end of the 2009/2010 season.

One of the hottest prizes in Oz football had been secured, and upon signing him van Egmond spoke of the balance it would provide his at-the-time dysfunctional front third.

True enough, it has. In the four games since his ‘signing’, the Jets have won three, culminating in them sealing a third straight semi-final spot after the weekend’s riveting derby win at Bluetongue, where Holland was a key playing in the attacking midfield role that is so vital to the way the Jets play.

Not only did he score the opener, his third in six outings, but he generally gave Mile Jedinak the run-around.

Suddenly a season that appeared to be slipping away has been re-ignited. In the past four rounds the Jets have bagged nine, compared with five in seven games without Holland.

Now another Dutch-man, Verbeek, has recognised the obvious talent, adding Holland to the latest 29 man list which featured the original list of 22 non-Olyroo A-Leaguers and a revised list of six Olyroos (Milligan, Vukovic, Topor-Stanley, Djite, Musalik and Bridge).

So while the likes of Broxham, Boogaard, Cornthwaite, Zadkovich, Zullo, Kruse, Sarkies, Ward and Velaphi have been left out, either through injury or not making enough of an impression, Holland is a left-field inclusion, proving Verbeek will judge a player on his quality, first and foremost.

If your good enough, you’re old enough, and if it works for Barcelona, why not the Socceroos!

Of the Olyroos to miss out, perhaps the most surprising omissions are Zadkovich and Ward, the former said to have impressed in the hit-out last Tuesday and the latter very impressive in the Victory’s win over Wellington on Friday.

The other surprise is that Nathan Burns isn’t in, but after returning only yesterday from a long term injury, perhaps treading cautiously is the best bet with him. After all, it was his heavy schedule throughout ’07 that at least contributed to his injury in the first place.

Of the 22 non-Olyroos, who extended their cause after the weekend?

Covic, Bolton and Vukovic all did some great stuff between the sticks, North and Durante were solid for the Jets, Muscat was poise personified on Friday night, Vargas played one sublime 50 metre ball to create one goal, while Thompson and Joel Griffiths continued to be dynamite in the front third.

Australian football certainly appears to have something dynamic at its disposal in the shape of James Holland, and watching his development throughout ’08 will make for fascinating viewing.


ON the subject of all things Dutch, what a great job Dutchy van Egmond has done to get to the Jets into the finals yet again.

In my pre-season preview, I left the Jets out of my four, mainly because I felt they didn’t have the quality to replace the likes of Carle, Okon, Coveny and Rodriguez, some spine.

At the time I noted van Egmond was the key to their season, and along with Joel Griffiths, and the central defensive trio of Covic, North and Durante, van Egmond has been excellent, proving he is fast emerging as the best of the local managers.

At this rate, and given Verbeek appears to be in love with the Jets style, who’s to say he won’t one day be a Verbeek offsider, or eventual successor? That would be double-Dutch indeed.

While he erred in signing Steve Laybutt, most of his other work this season has been spot on, including his development of the likes of Tarek Elrich, Adam D’Apuzzo, Troy Hearfield and Jason Hoffman.

There’s no doubt van Egmond has chopped and changed, using more players than most, but that is a reflection of his limited resources.

The off-season purchases from South America, seemingly out of his control, didn’t do him any favours, but Dutchy has still been able to mould a competitive unit, built from the back.

Given the job he has done with the resources at his disposal and the pressure from Con Constantine to play Jardel, the FFA could do a lot worse than reward van Egmond with the manager of the year award.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

A fresh start for the technicians of our world

A LITTLE more insight yesterday afternoon into Pim Verbeek’s thoughts ahead of our first 2010 world cup qualifier in just over a month.

In selecting a 22 man all A-League training squad for a two day meet-and-greet in western Sydney, starting on Monday, Verbeek provided some insight into the type of player he likes, and the good news is he has littered his squad with the cream of the A-League’s technicians.

He proved, in just one selection, that he values players who value the ball and can pass it, and has at long last provided some recognition to a couple of players who might have seen more national team time over the past decade had the Socceroos been in the hands of managers who valued the more subtle approach.

I’m talking about Tom Pondeljak and Ufuk Talay.

The former, Pondeljak, is past his best, no longer the influential attacking force that made him the NSL’s hottest attacking force in the final five years of the now defunct league, yet Verbeek has seen in the space of a few weeks what Frank Farina and Graham Arnold must have been blind to for years.

Over the past couple of years, on this blog, I’ve made no secret of the fact I felt Pondeljak should have played many more games in green and gold than the four he had in 2002, so it is great to see him recognised, even in the twighlight of his career, when injury appears to have slowed him down.

As a driving force from central midfield, someone who can link with or get beyond the striker, there have been few better on the domestic scene, and if his legs can hold out, there is little doubt he would be as hard to pin down for Qatari midfielder as he is for a Leigh Broxham or a Jonas Salley.

Meanwhile, Sydney FC, on a hot streak, have been controlling games of late, and a fair bit of that control can be attributed to the deep-lying promptings of Ufuk Talay, a player ear-marked for Socceroos honours ever since he burst onto the national football scene as a teenager for Marconi.

Against the Central Coast, who were down a man, it was Talay who pulled the strings and wrestled back the ascendancy for FC after the Mariners had gone two-up. What has been so impressive about his game, especially of late, his been his range of passing, both short and long, as well as his ability to put his foot on the ball and slow things down to the tempo he wants, qualities that would do doubt resonate at international level, which isn’t always played at the helter-skelter pace of some A-League games. The same can be said about his FC team-mate Steve Corica.

Pondeljak, Talay and Corica aren’t the only technicians rewarded by Verbeek. The Newcastle Jets, up until this week’s loss to Wellington, have been doing a great defensive job, especially when Andrew Durante and Jade North have been at the heart of the defence.

Verbeek no doubt recognised this after seeing a dominant defensive display by the Jets at Telstra Dome in round 17, where Durante, in particular, and North, had smashing games. No doubt he compared it with the shocker against Wellington, where Steve Laybutt was back in the defence (thanks to a Durante suspension) and proving what a calamity it was that he played so many Socceroos games under Farina.

Again, when Durante made his NSL debut as a 17 year old sweeper for Sydney Olympic (I was fortunate enough to be there), many a judge spoke about how poised he looked on the ball and how well he read the game, qualities that have no doubt caught Verbeek’s eyes seven years and two broken legs later.

Another libero style defender who impressed in the NSL and has continued to do so in the past two A-League seasons is Melbourne’s Roddy Vargas. Like Durante, he is often looking to play out of the back, but probably shades the Newcastle man for pace.

Much has been made about the recent defensive frailties in the A-League, which might open the door for a player who impresses Verbeek in Bossley Park and beyond.

One of the interesting selections was choice of six Jets players. No doubt he was impressed with Gary van Egmond’s system and style of play, one that mirrors the Dutch 4-3-3, the one favoured by Verbeek.

Other than Durante, Jade North, Ante Covic and the Griffiths brothers, Joel and Adam, there is the interesting selection of Matt Thompson. Bereft of quality left-sided defenders, especially after Dean Hefferan’s broken tibia (Verbeek is said to have been impressed by the Mariner), Thompson comes into calculations as he offers plenty of drive from left back, combined with solid technique.

After a brilliant v2, he had a poor start to v3, but in the past few weeks, after a spell further forward, he has re-discovered some of his forward drive.

Another player who has come back from long term injury and proved he can combine drive from midfield with good use of the ball is Adelaide’s Lucas Pantelis, a player, like Pondeljak, I’ve felt has been very unlucky not to wear the green and gold the past five or so years.

Perhaps his Adelaide team-mate, Travis Dodd, can consider himself a little more fortunate after some recent poor form, but once again he is a player that suits Verbeek’s three-man forward formation. Another man lucky to be there on recent form is Kevin Muscat, but his leadership qualities are obvious, especially if Craig Moore isn’t around.

Elsewhere, the likes of Archie Thompson, Joel Griffiths and John Aloisi choose themselves, while Matt McKay, Alex Brosque and, to a lesser extent, John Hutchinson, Simon Colosimo, Alex Wilkinson and Jamie Coyne, deserve a call-up after recent good form.

Between the sticks, Michael Theoklitos looks out of the race for the no. 1 local no. 1.

Ultimately, whether any of these A-Leaguers are selected in the final Qatar squad might depend on how much they impress in the month ahead (I still suspect we will have a few European-based players), but for now many will be just wrapped to have finally been noticed.

Different coaches think in different ways, and the early indication is that Verbeek will value sound passing technique, brains, good skill and pace over the physical attributes that have at times dominated the A-League. Too often in the past reputation has superseded performance, so this is a refreshing selection, despite the age of many of the ‘newcomers’.