Monday, February 25, 2008

Van Egmond's Victory

A-League v3 grand final review, NJ 1 v CCM 0

IF any further evidence was needed of the importance of the manager to the success of a football team, then it was there in bucket-loads at yesterday's v3 F3 derby grand final.

While Gary van Egmond had a load of luck 93 minutes and 20 seconds in, just 10 seconds before Mark Shield's final whistle was due (three minutes of stoppages plus the 30 seconds for Denni's stoppage time introduction), the fact is that van Egmond, more than anyone, delivered Newcastle's first ever domestic football title.

While Con Constantine provided the backing and Joel Griffiths worked the space and provide the goals, it was van Egmond's eye for detail, his decision-making, that invariably was on the mark, that did the trick.

Yes, he stuffed up, badly, in the major semi second leg a fortnight ago, but the mark of a good manager is to get it right more times than not, and that's exactly what 'Dutchy' has been doing from day one at the helm at Newcastle.

Just over 13 months ago, 14 weeks into his tenure, I put together this detailed dissection of his work up until that point. Then, a month or so ago, I noted at the bottom of this piece that van Egmond is arguably at the head of the local pecking order for a national team gig.

Not now, perhaps, but surely if he's fortunate enough to serve some time overseas, as he hinted he is keen to do in this interview with ESPN's Jason Dasey earlier this month. More recently, of course, Craig Johnston has suggested he is good enough, and others have been jumping on the van Egmond bandwagon.

If it continues to roll-on, no doubt we will soon have a local manager capable of dealing with the cat and mouse, cut-and-thrust of international football.

Last night, the stakes as high as they get at this level, he took his legend to another level.

Hitherto he has used a 4-2-3-1 almost exclusively, but last night, recognising that there was little these two sides didn't know about each other after playing five times already this season, he threw a spanner into the works, switching to a three-man backline.

Travelling between the church service and reception of my sister-in-law's wedding, I tuned in to SBS Radio's coverage of the game, where the on the spot Scott McIntrye was interviewing Mariners squad member Brad Porter at half time.

Porter admitted that van Egmond had caught the Mariners out by switching to a 3-4-3.

Having watched a full replay a little while ago, in my view it effectively did two things;

1. nulified the threat of Sasho Petrovski and John Aloisi by deploying twin markers Adam Griffiths and Jade North as stoppers, covered by the courageous Andrew Durante, and
2. with youngsters Tarek Elrich and Adam D'Apuzzo pushed up into midfield on the right and left respectively, the Mariners width, such a key ingredient of their success a fortnight ago, became non-existent. Suddenly Adam Kwasnik and Greg Owens had to contend with the more advanced position of the Jets fullbacks.

It was a master-stroke from van Egmond, and I sense the Mariners didn't see it coming. They might have if they'd read David Lowe's insightful tactical preview on the eve of the game, where the former NSL front-man hinted at the possibility of a re-shape.

Having read it myself, I thought van Egmond would be nuts to change things around at this late stage, but he is clearly a man of his own mind, and the Newcastle-based Lowe might have had a bit of insight into it.

Another master-stroke was the deployment of Joel Griffiths in the playmaker role in front of Stuart Musialik and behind Mark Bridge. Griffiths’s ability to play the ball into the space between midfield and attack kept Mile Jedinak chasing his tail and the Jets’s link between the midfield and attack flourishing.

While the Mariners tried to unsettle Musialik by surrounding him with the physical John Hutchinson and either Petrovski or Aloisi working back, van Egmond had other ideas. By stretching the two Mariners front men by pushing Adam Griffiths out to the right and Jade North out to the left, suddenly Musialik had a bit of space and was able to keep the ball moving.

Out on the right, Elrich tucked in and Song provided the width, combining beautifully, while D’Apuzzo and Thompson did well on the other side.

The Jets were in control in the middle, at the back and out wide, while their movement in the front third was frustrating the Mariners rearguard.

The only thing missing was a goal, which eventually came on the back of a Tony Vidmar error, such a sad way for the Aussie football stalwart to bow-out.

After that the Mariners pressed, the Jets shut-up shop and the stoppage-time drama unfolded, James Holland getting away with one.

Danny Vukovic lost his bundle and, for now, has paid a hefty price, while John Aloisi and his Mariners crew left frustrated.

Ultimately though, on the day, they were outplayed by the better, more thoughtful team, who had their manager to thank for it all.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Jets soar as the v3 finals continue to roar

A-League v3 preliminarly final, NJ 3 v QR 2

CAN the A-League v3 finals get any better?

Another night on the East coast and another extra-time thriller, this time the Newcastle Jets finishing on the right end of 3-2 scoreline in front of their own fans, finally beating the Roar at home and shaking off the disappointment not only of last week, but last season's exit at the same stage.

Last week they let slip a 2-0 first leg lead to end up 3-2 aggregate losers to the Central Coast Mariners. Tonight they were finally able to put away the Queensland Roar, but only after surviving a controversial injury time equaliser that took the Jets to extra time for the second week on the spin.

Now, into Asia in '09, they meet the premiers and their closest neighbour in the most mouth-watering of F3 derbies, and if the championship decider in neutral Sydney in a week is half as enthralling as what we've witnessed over the past month, it'll be a beaut.

Tonight's game was arguably the best and most even of the lot, played at breathtaking speed, with plenty of open play and goal scoring opportunities.

In truth, the Jets should have sealed the match in normal time, but twice they were denied by some poor officiating. With 10 miniutes left in normal time, up 1-0, the Jets's main man, Joel Griffiths, was through, on side, with only Liam Reddy to beat.

Game, set and match, it seemed.

But up went the offside flag, incorrectly, and the Roar had a lifeline. Into injury time they used it, substitute Simon Lynch adjudged by Peter Green to have have been up-ended by Adam D'Apuzzo. Penalty.

Replays showed it was Lynch doing the pushing. Little wonder the Jets were so ropable.

In a way, they had themselves to blame. More and more in the second period they retreated, defending too deep, allowing the Roar to press on in search of an equaliser.

When it came you could hardly begrudge the Roar, who had earlier in the game peppered Ante Covic's goal, despite conceeding most of the ball.

It was a strange and absorbing opening half. The Jets, with master link-man Stuart Musialik back in the 11 and back to his tempo-setting best, controlled the possession, passed the ball around crisply, yet it was the Roar creating the better chances.

Partly these were on back of some Jets mistakes, partly they were a result of some rapid Roar counter-attacks, with Michael Zullo in particular in a rampant mood down the left.

But what was lacking for the Roar was the finish, the final touch. What's new, I hear you ask.

Zullo, Matt McKay, Marcinho and Robbie Kruse were all guilty, and the Jets soon punished them.

After hiting the post early after a breathtaking bit of footwork in the box, Matt Thompson, pushed into the front third by his ever-thoughtful manager, reacted first as Reddy could only parry a teasing near-post cross from Mark Bridge.

The Jets, taking advantage of some running repairs to Sash Ognenovski on the sideline, had their opener and were in the box seat. In a one-off game, not over two legs, no team has been able to come from behind to beat them this season.

The second period was completely different. The Roar dominated possession, territory, fouls, balls into the box, corners and chances (mainly to Reinaldo from Zullo delivery). It seemed only a matter of time before they would score, but the defensive axis of Andrew Durante, Jade North and Musialik in front of them stood strong.

Seemingly they'd done enough, until Green intervened, incensing the hosts, who argued long and hard about the decisions.

Soon, 13 minutes into extra-time, the referee, perhaps still feeling the Jets complaints echoing in his ears, squared things up. After a wonderful flowing eight-pass build-up by the Jets which saw the ball moved from the left, through the back, via Musialik and into the feet of Griffiths, who found the diagnol run of the fresh Ji-Hyung Song, who copped the slightest touch from Ognenovski. Griffiths bagged his 14th of the season and fourth set-piece goal against the Roar this year.

The the penalty was soft, no doubt, but the Jets had earnt it for at least taking the initiative in the first period of extra time and stringing some lovely passing sequences together. Good to watch.

The Roar looked content to settle for penalties and were punished.

Now they had to come out and play, which left space for the likes of Bridge, Griffiths and Song to exploit, which they did so thrillingly in the 110th minute. A blocked McKay shot fell to Song in midfield, who played a quick one-two with Griffths before pushing it on to Bridge, who turned and found Griffiths to his right. While Bridge had sprinted off to the left, hoping for the return ball, Griffiths saw something on the other side, and in a flash it was 3-1.

Swiftly, with five one and two-touch passes, the ball had been moved from midfield to the right side of attack, where Tarek Elrich, somehow finding reserves of energy, thrashed his shot past Reddy.

Energy Australia went potty. Surely the Jets were in the big one and off to Asia.

There was still time though for more drama and Green was soon pointing to the spot after the goal-scorer was guilty of up-ending Zullo. Reinaldo expertly converted his second penalty, but with the Roar reduced to 10 men after Craig Moore had lost the plot a little earlier, this was the Jets' night.

The Roar had contributed to thrilling night but had been found a little short in the final third. The fact both their goals came from the spot despite numerous chances told of their fall-down, a lack of composure in the final third.

The Jets meanwhile proved they can muscle-up and still play some flowing football, and, in a one-off game, have every chance in next week's grand final. If they can compete physically with the Mariners, they have the better football in them, and can realistically expect to compete.

Their physical and technical work in this game will give them plenty of confidence and the fact all their players survived the 'second-yellow' disaster will further hearten them.

Plenty to look forward to, and the hope is that while both teams will be travelling south along the F3 for the grand final, hopefully next week's climax continues to take the v3 finals upwards.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Mariners muscle-up in a night "better than sex"

Major semi final 2nd leg, CCM 3 v NJ 0 after extra time (3-2 on aggregate)

Tony Tannous @ Bluetongue Stadium

BRUTE force met the subtle craftsman at the Bluetongue last night and it was the Central Coast Mariners who came out on top, powering into the grand final in an edge-of-the-seat thriller, played out in front of one of the most electric and divided A-League crowds yet.

Demonstrating their physical strength in all the key areas, the Mariners proved far too strong for the Jets, not only reeling in a two goal deficit from the first leg, but going past them with an extra time classic from man of the match Sasho Petrovski.

Heading into this one, the idea that the Mariners could over-turn the two goals from the first leg looked very slim, especially when you considered that the Jets had scored so rampantly in the past two months; 13 goals in their past six games.

Indeed, it had been over two months (December 7) since the Jets hadn’t scored in a game, and an away goal here would have meant the Mariners needed four. Surely a task too big.

But football often has a knack of surprising, as this match so demonstrated.

While Gary van Egmond had pulled the first surprise pre-game by throwing in his new signing, South Korean Jin-hyung Song, the starting formations threw up a couple more.

First, for the Jets, Song was deployed on the right, as part of van Egmond’s three-man forward line, this despite word he was a central midfielder. Perhaps the manager wanted to keep him out of the heat in the early going, but even then he couldn’t escape the attentions of Alvin Ceccoli, who got him a couple of times.

Soon Song had his revenge, biting in with a studs-up challenge that had Ceccoli limping off. But the Korean was struggling with his wide posting, seemingly preferring to drop in and lend a hand in the middle, where the Jets were really struggling.

That’s because Lawrie McKinna had pulled a surprise of his own in the mixer by pairing Mile Jedinak with the equally combative John Hutchinson instead of the more subtle and skilful Tom Pondeljak, who was deployed on the right.

It was a central midfield built to destroy, and that’s exactly what they did, muscling up and strangling the life out of James Holland and the Jets’s two holders, Noel Spencer and Adam Griffiths.

All three had a miserable first half, and Spencer in particular struggled to dictate the play, turning over the ball far too often with sloppy distribution.

With Mark Bridge also having one of his worst A-League nights on left, the Jets had little outlet on the flanks, such a key part of their game, and with Spencer spraying his work all over the shop, it was the Mariners who bossed the game.

Clearly they were intent on stretching the Jets as wide as possible, and while Adam Kwasnik was hammering away at Tarek Elrich down one side, Pondeljak was chipping away at Matt Thompson down the other. All the while, the two front men, John Aloisi and Petrovski, were present, putting themselves about and causing headaches for Jade North and Andrew Durante.

The pressure was everywhere, and while the first half had few genuine goal-scoring moments and was generally very scrappy, it’s hard to argue the Mariners didn’t deserve their lead, as fortunate as it eventuated.

An hour in and van Egmond restored some hope for the Jets, bringing on Stuart Musalik for Spencer. The Jets were soon back into it and started gaining and controlling a bit more of the ball.

Ultimately they fell down because they had very little in the front third. While Joel Griffiths tried and tried, on this night he had very little support as Bridge and Holland were effectively shut-down, and Song struggled with the physicality.

Alex Wilkinson and Tony Vidmar had their best games in some time at the heart of the defence, the latter looking cool and calm when the pressure was on, just like his former Socceroos mate Craig Moore on Friday night.

That calm and desperation at the back and through the middle allowed the Mariners to power on upfield, where Alosi’s physical presence and Petrovski’s changes of angle pegged the Jets back.

The Jets defenders looked spent, the pressure eventually told, and by the time Petrovski levelled the tie it wasn’t a surprise.

Soon, early in extra time, they were ahead, breaking forward rapidly after the Jets had again given the ball away in their final third. Petrovski, exposing the space left by Elrich, ducked inside Durante, who couldn’t get close enough and thumped it in emphatically.

The momentum was with the hosts, but just one goal would be enough for their F3 rivals. Belatedly, Troy Hearfield was introduced and immediately was in behind, only to be denied the go-ahead by Vukovic’s head.

If the luck had deserted the Mariners in the first leg, then here it was with them, and deservedly so. Gary van Egmond now has a massive job of picking up his men for next week’s prelim against the Roar, while the Mariners, having finally shaken off the Jets bogey, can rest and wait.

It will be a wonderful couple of weeks for the Central Coast community.

The scenes outside the stadium and the leagues club afterwards were of disbelief and cheer joy. Walking out of the stadium, one local was overheard telling her husband and kids about a txt message she’d just received from a friend, assumingly also at the game; “That was better than sex”, her friend had written.

The ever-quick husband replied, “tell her that’s because you’re not doing it with my husband”.

A couple of years ago, in the corresponding clash in the minor semi final, there were 17,000 odd fans at Bluetongue, but many you sensed were there more for the theatre, the occasion, with attention divided between the game and the social opportunity.

Last night, the sea of yellow were there for the football, immersed in the drama, knowingly cheering on their beloved team, proud they represent the region.

This community has come a long way in a short space of time, and after last night, you suspect it might multiple in about nine months time.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Sydney's defensive Shield cracks

Minor semi final second leg, QR 2 v SFC 0 (2-0 on aggregate)

OVER the next couple of days, much is likely to be made by Australia's largest city of the refereeing performance of Queenslander Mark Shield in tonight's second leg of the minor semi.

But in truth, Sydney FC can have few complaints, and the credit should instead go to Frank Farina and his men, who deservedly go through to a preliminary final, likely to be against the Mariners.

For much of the second half of the season FC have been the beneficiary of a number of borderline decisions, both on an off the field, which had helped propel them all the way into the semis.

Even a fortnight ago, after a controversial game in which Queensland's young wingers, Zullo and Kruse, were battered by the Sydney defence, Ian Fyfe was fortunate not to have a case to answer for an off the ball hit on Zullo.

Farina was right to feel dismayed about the lack of action from the Sydney-based FFA given how much he and his players had come under scrutiny this season.

John Kosmina, having secured himself an extended contract, labelled Farina a 'whinger' only a week or so after whinging about his players having to go off to a Pim Verbeek training camp.

Farina then reminded the FFA about their pre-season directive to managers about criticising their fellow managers, but still no action was taken against Sydney or its manager.

Perhaps it was all theatre, designed to build and sustain interest, but the muted response only fuelled the belief of those concerned about a conflict of interest.

Little doubt these double-standards, perceived or justified, were used by Farina to fire up his men, for they started tonight's delayed match in the mood to make a statement.

Static in the front third a fortnight ago, here the three men behind Reinaldo were full of movement, proving far too mobile for the slow Sydney midfield and defence. Zullo and Kruse, shackled in Sydney, dropped off and ran away from their markers, while Sydney's central midfield struggled to get anywhere near Marcinho, who was finding space between the two lines.

Of course, behind the front four were the irresistible M&Ms, McKay and Murdocca, who seized on everything loose and controlled the game's tempo.

By the time Reinaldo sublimely rounded a static Milligan and sent the 36,000 potty, the Roar was on top.

The controversy had started a few minutes before the opening goal, FC claiming a penalty for a 'handball' by old-boy Andy Packer. Robbie Slater was adamant he'd handled it, ignoring the push from Alex Brosque.

Then came the game's pivotal moment. Bursting out of midfield, McKay was cleaned up by Middleby. While he was angling slightly away from goal, McKay had the momentum and the nearest defender, Milligan, was some distance away. It could have gone either way, but Shield ruled in the Roar's favour and FC's job became harder, despite needing only an equaliser to go through.

There was a period early in the second half when it looked likely, the Roar, almost typically, struggling to handle the pressure. But then the experience kicked in. Despite a couple of moments, Moore remained calm at the back and McKay started to get his foot on the ball again, stroking it around from left to right, then right to left, then backwards, then square. Murdocca followed suite and the control was back.

In Minniecon, Farina had the only trump card on either bench and it was the speedster who went on an electric run down the right after skinning Zadkovich on the halfway line. Soon he was driving at a retreating Popovic, and while the chance looked to have gone, Popovic unnecessarily thrust out his arms.

The contact was soft, but it was contact, and the off-balance featherweight went down. Sydney's skipper was ropable, earning himself a card as Ognenovski thrashed his spot-kick straight down the guts.

Fortunately spot-kicks had been averted, and after far too many cagey affairs between these two sides this season, it was congratulations to the Roar for taking the initiative and marching on.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Heading in the right direction

2010 World Cup qualifier, Socceroos 3 v Qatar 0

EARLY days, but happy days.

As far as a world cup campaign launch goes, this this was just about as good as it gets; three nil, three points and three cheers.

After the disappointment of the Socceroos showing at the Asian Cup, Australia, collectively, can breath a little easier. So our team can play!

Tellingly, the damage was done early. Pim Verbeek promised goal-getters and he delivered, pairing Kennedy with McDonald up top, with the king of midfield goal-getters Cahill lending aerial thrust from behind.

Not surprisingly, with such aerial power, the modus operandi was to utilise the fullbacks, Emerton and Carney, and charge them with the responsibilty of getting plenty of ball into the box for Kennedy and Cahill to attack.

Both got on the scoresheet within the first 20 minutes, Kennedy after a brilliantly patient build-up which saw the ball moved swiftly from the right, to the left, back through the middle and out to the right again, where Emerton provided a pin-point ball to take the weight of Pim's and the nation's shoulders. Cahill soon had the chill-pills out again, getting on the end of an excellent Wilkshire set piece, catching the keeper in no-mans land.

Emerton was everywhere, dominating the right and feeding off the service of the tempo-setter, Culina, who had a field day in the holding role, moving the ball around from left to right, all with accuracy and pace.

In front of Emerton, Wilkshire, often maligned, had one of his best days yet in green and gold, always tucking in, lending support to Culina and allowing Emerton to bomb on. He even provided the odd thrust out of midfield, firing one shot just wide and drawing a save from another.

On the other flank Bresciano provided more width and linked up well with McDonald, while the movement of Cahill and Bresciano proved too much for the Qataris in the first period. Defending far too deep, they also showed the Aussies far too much respect, rarely getting close enough to make a challenge.

Bresciano soon found himself untracked and on the end of a neat square ball from McDonald. Bang, 3-0.

It could have been a few more, Kennedy forcing a good save at the near post, while Cahill kept ghosting in late, remarkably free.

At the back, the world cup duo of Moore and Neill were back in tandem for one last dance, the latter, entrusted with the armband, stepping on the ball, bringing back the memories. The former, Moore, was as relaxed as ever, the pity being that there aren't enough A-League games to keep him ticking over till at least the end of the first phase of qualifiers.

Moore will be missed, but at least he went out in style.

This was a brilliant first half performance, helped in part by Jorge Fossati's error in not starting the central midfield holder, Wasim Rizik, who made a positive impression for the visitors in the second period.

While Qatar were poor in the first period, it was great to see the Socceroos rekindle some of the vibrancy of Germany. A disorganised posse seven month ago, at times it was hard to recognise this in-synch and on-song mob, the movement of the ball and off the ball eye-catching.

While the team lost "power", to borrow Verbeek's phrase, in the second period, the damage had been done.

Verbeek must surely take much of the credit for moulding the team into cohesive unit in such a short space of time and making the right call in recalling the Europeans. Managers at this level live and die by their results and decisions, and for Verbeek, this was an emphatic first impression.

For now, having got off to the all-important perfect start on the road to South Africa, the FFA will also feel vindicated for sticking with the Dutch theme, and it was easy to see that infleunce all over the place here. While Verbeek, Henk Duut and Rob Baan were part of the off-field brains-trust, on the field there was PSV's Culina, Twente's Wilkshire and Feyenord old-boy Emerton, not to mention substitute Holman.

No doubt challenges lie ahead, but for now the Socceroos can take a bow and the rest of us rest assured our team are back, ready to have a crack at world cup qualification.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Some more Pim observations

IN reducing the squad to 21 players, Pim Verbeek has done a few things; kept his players on their toes; kept the opposition and media guessing (remember the naive days when Farina announced his starting 11 a day or two out from every game, thus giving his opponent valuable time to devise a game-plan?); and giving himself the option of further assessing how the travelling contingent pull up in the morning.

NIKOLAI Topor-Stanley and James Troisi appear to be the beneficiaries of a lack of left-sided options. David Carney and Mark Bresciano seem the likeliest options on that side, but congratulations to both Olyroos,who really impressed in the Beijing qualifiers.

MICHAEL Thwaites is the only Euro-based Roo to miss out, so far, which really is a glowing endorsement for Jade North, who appears ahead of him at this stage. North has had an outstanding A-league season, arguably the defender of v3.

VERBEEK really does have a handy headache up front. At the Asian Cup with South Korea he played a 4-3-3, with a sole striker through the middle, too often isolated from his wide men and the midfield, which I delved into in this piece. Here he is spoilt for choice, with Kennedy, Aloisi, Thompson and McDonald all in the starting mix. However, with Cahill in the mix as 'second striker', someone who can join the front-line coming from behind, as he does so often for Everton, this may be his option. Carney is said to have been practicising his crossing a couple of days ago, and an aerial combo of Kennedy-Cahill might be too much for the Qatari's. Aloisi is also handy attacking aerial ball, while McDonald has been in hot form sniffing around the box, picking up scraps and attacking the near post.

IF Bresciano starts, it's really time to step-up in front of his home crowd. After a disappointing World Cup and Asian Cup, it will be interesting to see what Verbeek can get out of 'the Bresc'.

IF the Kennedy-Cahill combo gets a start up front, through the middle, they are likely to be screened by two holders, so the 4-3-3 will be more like a 4-2-3-1. Culina should be one of the screeners, with the other likely to be either Wilkshire or Valeri. If Verbeek is really daring, he could have one holder, with attacking central thrust from two strikers, with Cahill adding a third goal-getting threat from deep.

WHO gets the gig on the right side of front three? Perhaps the great feet of Thompson have made an impression? Verbeek spoke of the goal-scoring potential of his starting 11, so don't be surprised to see him accomodate Thompson out wide. McDonald would certainly be a surprise anywhere but through the middle, but Thompson, you sense, is more adaptable.

INTERESTINGLY, he also spoke of how his team would be practicising the set-pieces at the final closed door training session this afternoon. This is certainly one area where the likes of Kennedy, Cahill and Aloisi could prosper, as the Olyroos proved in their campaign. Carney and Bresciano's delivery will be crucial.

THE defence looks like it will have a familiar world cup feel (right to left; Emerton, Moore, Neill, Carney), all but for Chipperfield. Let's hope any defensive deficiency from Carney isn't exposed.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Finally, a real WC campaign to sink the teeth into

2010 World Cup qualifiers; Australia vs Qatar and beyond

SO Wednesday night it begins, the start of our first ever world cup qualification campaign through Asia.

Fair to say it hasn’t exactly been the smoothest of build-ups.

Our first Asian cup last year was a disaster for all concerned; the FFA, the ‘caretaker’ manager and the players. Then, shortly after deciding to go with a ‘big-name’ foreigner, the FFA had to deal with a stunning about-face from Dick Advocaat, who decided to stick with the Russian Ruble. Then, after a very public process, Pim Verbeek was eventually appointed in December ahead of Phil Troussier, giving the Dutchman six or so weeks to assess whether the locals had the gear to get the job done in our first qualifier.

What has he learnt in that period? Well, in the main, the A-Leaguers, both on the training paddock and on A-League matchdays, haven’t quite stepped up to the plate, or so we’ve been led to believe, forcing Verbeek to go with the ‘safer’ option, or the one he knows more about, the Europeans.

Problem with that, because it’s not an official world cup qualifier date, is that most of them, bar the peripheral Jacob Burns and James Troisi, have barely set foot in the country, giving Verbeek no more than 48 hours to work with his preferred 11, if indeed he knows what that is. Factor in his number one’s arrival tomorrow and it’s only one full training session together.

Not helping him, it appears, has been a lack of total support from the Australian football establishment, be that the governing body, media or even the odd A-League manager.

Indeed, it is hard not to imagine that he doesn’t quite have the total support of his right hand man, Graham Arnold, given that a couple of Arnold’s closest confidants, Robbie Slater and John Kosmina, have been among the most vociferous Verbeek snipers.

Surely if Arnold was in total support of Pim - and we haven’t heard anything from the former caretaker since Verbeek’s appointment - these noises wouldn’t be emanating.

In all, it doesn’t quite paint the healthiest of pictures, especially when you weigh it up against a Qatar side that’s been together for the best part of a month and played three warm-ups. At least the FFA came to the party late and flew the Euroroos over in first class comfort.

Yet, for all the drama, in a strange way, all of this has made us a little more cautious and humble, which I sense might be a good thing.

I remember thinking, and writing (as I occasionally did at the time for, shortly before the two-legged world cup playoff against Uruguay in 2001, just how unrealistic some of the expectations was of us knocking off the Uruguayans.

I mean, here we had an ‘L’ plate manager, Frank Farina, coming up against a bloke who had been driving around the hard-to-navigate roads of South America roads for what seemed an eternity, and we were expecting him to get the job done.

Ultimately, we now know, Victor Pua proved too wily for Farina over those two legs, and our optimism/arrogance was shot.

The good thing is we seemed to learn from that experience. Next time around the ‘i’s’ were dotted, the ‘t’s’ were crossed, little other than the odd spot kick was left to chance, and Guus Hiddink did what he does best.

Then, ahead of our first Asian Cup, giving we’d done brilliantly in Germany, the arrogance and short-mindedness was back. Turn up and we’d win.

It showed a complete lack of respect, and we copped a left squarely in the jaw, with most of Asia looking on in amusement.

Now comes a qualification campaign that is sure to have its hurdles, so it’s great to see an element of caution in the air.

There are so many questions that lie ahead; just how will Verbeek handle the campaign? How will he juggle the home and away games, the balance between the locals and Europeans, playing at altitude, playing in the heat? Now will the player respond to his promptings?

It’s all so damn intriguing, and after years of envy at the rest of the world, complaining about the vagaries of a two-legged lottery to decide our world cup fate, it’s just wonderful to have a whole campaign to look forward to.

Given the tough draw and the belated campaign launch, fingers crossed it extends beyond the initial six games.

Results will ultimately be the judge, and the three home games will be crucial. The style, if it ever comes, can follow.

Qatar are said to be here to sit and counter, so an early Roos goal would be lovely.

If it doesn’t come, nerves will jangle and patience will be the key, so cool heads are called for. For the record, I sense, or perhaps I pray, that the home ground advantage might just swing it in our favour. 1-0 Australia.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

v3 season wrap - Wellington Phoenix

TODAY’S post is the first in a series of v3 season wraps, and I start from the bottom, by looking at the competition’s newcomers, the Wellington Phoenix.

Season summary

OVERALL, a decent season and an improvement on their predecessor, the NZ Knights. Yes, the ‘Nix ultimately finished bottom, in the same position as the Knights did in both their seasons, but a closer look at the table and results shows gradual improvement. Here they finished on the same points as Perth, 20, only 14 from top spot. In the previous years the gap was 37 (v1) and 26 (v2), while the goal difference was -32 (v1) and -26 (v2). This season the goal difference was -12, and while it was a vast improvement, in truth it was the reason they finished bottom. While their attack was competitive (25 goals, equal to the second placed Jets), their defence was the worst, especially through the heart of it, where there just wasn’t enough experience and quality, despite the mid-season purchase of Kristian Rees. The gap is narrowing and Ricki Herbert at times had his team playing some good football, especially in the first half of the season, when the likes of Felipe and Daniel were on fire. The high-point for the ‘Nix came very early, when they beat Sydney, 2-1, away in round four, followed soon after by a 4-1 pounding of Perth in Perth, but they had two terrible months which defined their season. In October they lost four straight, including a 4-1 hiding at Hindmarsh, while in January they rounded off the campaign with three straight losses and zero goals. Away from home they lost seven of their 11 games, something that has to improve, while at home (2 wins, 4 draws and 4 losses) they tended to draw more than they won. At least the crowds and atmosphere at Westpac Stadium were great.


Terry Serepisos; for chipping-in, quite late, to rescue the NZ franchise and throwing his dollars behind it.
Yellow-fever; Windy Wellington proved it loves its sport, and more importantly from a round ball perspective, loves its football. Excellent crowds, excellent colour, and in the early part of the season, some cracking games, so it’s a pity they only won two of their 10 home games.
Shane Smeltz (pictured in action above, courtesy of; Wellington’s player of the season, the returned Kiwi was a constant headache for opposition defenders, proving himself to be surprisingly subtle on the ball, deceptively quick and a pretty decent finisher. Pity he didn’t have enough support.
Glenn Moss; with the centre of defence a constant headache, Herbert was lucky he had this bloke between the sticks.
Tony Lochhead; one of the success stories in defence, very consistent down the left, doing a good defensive job and proving a decent option coming forward.
Daniel and Felipe; very good early, but like the rest of the team, they wilted towards the back-end. Daniel, with his wonderful left peg, started brilliantly but tended to go down too easily, while Felipe looked the buy of the season until opposition teams soon saw to that and started smashing him around, as tended to happy far too often this season to any player who could actually ‘play’.


Central defence; the problem area of the campaign. Karl Dodd is, at best, a squad player in the league, and the two Stephen’s, O’Dor and Old, struggled to step up. Rees made a bit of a difference as Herbert went to back three midway through the season, but he is also slow.
Ahmad Elrich; brought in as the marquee midway through the season and looked out-of-shape. In truth, his fitness improved as the season went on, but often he looked very isolated out on the right flank, and, worryingly, disinterested in the last few games.
Ross Aloisi; driven out of Adelaide last year, he was given the responsibility here, but soon found himself on the outer again. In truth, I felt the Kiwis missed a little bit of his leadership in the back half of the year, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens to him.
Cleberson; in the first half of the first game he looked the worst player ever. In the second half of that same game he looked the best ever. Played the odd game after that, but seemed to fall out of favour.
Michael Ferrante and Vince Lia; The combo-deal, I’ve bundled these guys together because they were both brought across from Melbourne, where both were peripheral, and both played too many games in my opinion. Both improved a bit, but there are still massive question marks about whether they have the quality to be first 11 players at this level.

Some of the others

Ricki Herbert; did some good and bad things. At times I felt he was too conservative, playing only one up front. For me the ‘Nix looked best when they had two in tandem up front, despite Coveny looking past his best. He also seemed a little lost about what to do with the centre of midfield and his leadership. Early on it was Aloisi, later Tim Brown, while Ferrante and Lia seemed ever-present at the back-end of the season.
Off season recruitment; again, like most of the Wellington season, a bit hit and miss, but I guess, given the time they had and the players available, it can be excused to some degree. Some of the returned Kiwis were good, some of the Brazilians were good, but at the moment, other than Smeltz, there doesn’t appear to be any genuine leader.

What next?

Sorting out the spine. I’ve touched on it further up, but the ‘Nix really need to sort out the centre of their defence first and foremost. Finding a couple of experienced and quick central defenders will help, but sorting out the screeners, the defensive central midfield, will also help. Up front, some genuine goal-scoring support for Smeltz would be great and, overall, Herbert needs a couple of leaders.