Thursday, April 24, 2008

The two and a half minute Lesson

WHATEVER you do over this Anzac Day long weekend, even after a spot of two-up, make sure you get your hands on copy of the Melbourne Victory's 2-0 loss away to Gamba Osaka last night.

If you haven't taped it or don't have a mate who's got a copy, be sure to catch or record a replay on Fox. For those of you who missed this morning's replay, there's one at 3.30am on Friday (by the time you read this you've probably missed that as well). The next replay I've found is 1.30am (Eastern) next Wednesday, April 30, so be sure to ask around.

Anyway, get your hands on it however you can (even send me an email if you're desperate and I'll see what I can do).

Trust me, it's worth it, and you don't have to watch it all, I promise.

All I want you to do is fast forward it to the 28 minutes and 30 seconds mark and then tune in for the next two and a half minutes. It's worth every second and every effort.

Here goes....

It's 0-0, almost half an hour in. Melbourne throw-in on the left hand flank, in their own half. Kemp takes it and finds Ward's feet, under pressure he turns back and plays it to Ryall in central defence, who plays a one-two with Celeski on the right. Ryall has time, looks up and squares it to his skipper Muscat, who takes one touch, and instead of the using the short option of Ward, who is available in space and asking for it in the centre of midfield, decides to go long to Allsopp, who, under pressure from the Gamba right back, can only head it straight to the Gamba keeper. Aimless stuff.

Immediately the Gamba keeper is looking for a short option and releases it to a nearby defender, who plays it into central midfield for Yasuhito Endo, who goes back to one of his central defenders, before asking for it again. Under a bit of pressure, in central midfield, Endo receives the ball a second time, releases it quickly, and gets it back a third time, all in the space of a few seconds. Another teammate gets a touch in central midfield before the ball is at the back again, worked from left to right.

Ten passes later, none more than 10 metres, there is a forward option, and the ball is played across the half-way line. This time it's a 30 metre ball, on the deck and accurately to the feet of an attacking midfielder, who is coming to meet it.

A quick one-touch flick from Takahiro Futagawa, facing his own goal, seemingly with eyes in the back of his head, finds its intended target. A sharp triangle and Futagawa is back on the ball, facing forward, looking to hit Bare, who wins a free-kick some 30 metres out and 14 beautifully constructed passes later.

Just magic.

Nothing comes of Endo's free kick. Melbourne clear it with a header which falls to Yasuda on the left, who takes one touch and sends it back into 'the mixer'. Gamba give away a free-kick competing for the ball on the edge of the Victory box and their attack is over.

It seems like an eternity, but Melbourne get another chance to have the ball. What can they do with it?

From the quickly taken free-kick, Melbourne play it out to Celeski, this time popping up on the left, close to the line. Under pressure from a fast-closing Endo he goes back to Vargas, who is being closed down by Bare.

First time, Vargas knocks the ball long, over the halfway line, where it is met by the chest of unmarked Gamba midfielder Hideo Hashimoto. In one touch, with the chest, moving forward, he controls and passes to Futagawa, who plays a quick one-two with Hashimoto, who has continued his run forward.

Taking it in his stride, Hashimoto links with Endo, who has drifted out to the right. Endo flicks it down the line, into Hashimoto's run and another one-two has just been executed.

Not content with the movement and passing to date, Endo continues his run. Hashimoto ignores it for once and clips a square ball towards the head of Bare, who cushions a sublime header directly into the path of the Endo run.

It's all about the weight and timing.

Suddenly Endo, who by my calculations has already touched the ball five times and covered every part of the pitch in the past two and a half minutes, gets his sixth and most vital touch. Running onto the Bare cushion, because it's better than a pass, he looks square and weights a delightful short cross, on the deck, to the near post for Masato Yamazaki to drill past Theoklitos.

Goal? Try Lesson. Melbourne ripped apart by technique - the movement, patience, one-and-two-touch play, the triangles, flicks, perfectly weighted touches with ever part of the body and the in-synch Gamba play.

Certainly one of the most inventive and constructive team goals and passages of play I've seen in a very long time, and a lesson to us all.

Be sure to watch it and show a friend or 40, and do let me know your thoughts when you do.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Favourites

A FOOTNOTE to yesterday's piece about Australia's crowded football calender, the news has just filtered through from Beijing that the Olyroos have been drawn to take on the tournament favourites and defending champions the Albiceleste in Group A, along with first timers Ivory Coast and Serbia. The group is based in Shanghai, while the Olyroos draw looks like this;

August 7 v Serbia (Shanghai), 7pm Eastern
August 10 v Argentina (Shanghai), 7pm Eastern
August 13 v Ivory Coast (Tianjin), 9.45pm Eastern

It's tough, but with only 16 teams on deck, which group isn't? Ok, Brazil's group looks comfortable.

Even tougher is the fact the Olyroos have to play three times in a week, but the first game, as it was for the Socceroos in Germany, looks crucial.

Not wanting to think too far ahead, but if the Olyroos can finish top-two in the group, they will face either first or second from Group B in the cross-over. That group contains the Dutch, Nigeria, Japan and the USA.

The excitement it building, can hardly wait.

Note; Thanks to Peter Kandy, a regular TRBA reader, who pointed out via txt that our group is the exact same group as the 'Group of Death' at Germany '06, only that the Olyroos have replaced Holland. Some would argue, given there are so many Dutchmen in our technical ranks, that there's no difference.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Off-season’s off the radar as the round-ball rolls in

For now, Australia feels like the centre of the football world

GROWING up as a football fan in this country even a few years ago, every May would approach with both the anticipation and enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas Eve and the wary knowledge the fun wasn’t gonna last forever.

The excitement came from the fact we were about the bare witness to what SBS soon dubbed the Mad Month of May, a calendar chock-full of European finals and live early morning or late broadcasts. The despair came from the fact we knew it would be a few months before the European and local seasons would be back in full swing, and that wait was often unbearable.

Of course, every second year there was a World Cup or European Championship to quench the thirst in the interim, but the period between the end of May (end of European season) and end of August (start of new season) invariably seemed liked an eternity.

Gradually, over the past few years, as Australia has engaged with football world, the 'off-season' has been getting shorter, so much so that this year, the Mad Month of May is just the prelude to what must surely be one of the craziest and busiest periods in Australia's football history.

Come the first day of June and the Socceroos will embark on a four game, three week, odyssey from Brisbane to the Middle East and back to Sydney in order to get through to the next phase of world cup qualifiers, which will start later in the year (fingers crossed we are there).

Of course a week or so prior to the June 1 game against Iraq in Brissy, the Socceroos will play host to Ghana in a friendly in Sydney, a prelude to a week in which all the heavy hitters in the world game will be in the Harbour City for the FIFA Congress.

The night FIFA’s think-tank winds up, on May 30, the old lady, Juventus, visits the Victory in Melbourne.

Two days later, on the same days the Socceroos host Iraq up North, the great Zinedine Zidane, my favourite all-time footballer, is said to be playing an exhibition game in Sydney. You beauty.

It’s crazy stuff – three big games, in three cities, all on the same weekend.

By then, the Victory and Adelaide United will have completed the first phase of their ACL campaigns, hoping there will be more action in the coming months.

If all this Australian action isn’t enough, there are three full weeks of European madness between June 7 and 29 in the shape of Euro2008. Madness indeed.

While July looks relatively quiet in comparison to the two previous months, it soon picks up again in August with the Olyroos going to the Beijing Games, where the football program begins two days prior to the opening ceremony, on August 6.

In the meantime, the Olyroos will warm-up for the Games by travelling to Malaysia next month for the inaugural Intercontinental Cup among the likes of Argentina, Nigeria, Croatia and Ghana.

Meanwhile, our other national teams will not lying idle. The Joeys will be in action in Indonesia in July and Uzbekistan in October, the Young Socceroos will be on deck in Saudi Arabia in December, and the female sides, the under 17s, the Young Matildas and the senior side are all either currently on deck or soon will be.

The Matildas, so eye-catching at last year’s World Cup, will be in Vietnam next month for their second stab at the AFC Asian Cup.

And if all that’s not enough, before we know it, A-League v4 will be back in August….

How on earth can we keep up?

Times sure have changed.

What are you most looking forward to over the next few months and what’s your football calendar like?

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Everything Bare the defending

Champions League reviews, Liverpool 4 v Arsenal 2 (5-3 on agg.) and Melbourne Victory 3 v Gamba Osaka 4

FROM Liverpool to Melbourne, Anfield to Docklands, from Europe's premier club competition to Asia's replica, rarely has there been a more enthralling and entertaining day of football.

Starting at 4.45am eastern and ending just short of 9.30pm, deep into stoppage time, there were goals galore, more changes to the lead than one could keep count of, and a Brazilian named Lucas in both winning squads, Liverpool's Leiva and Gamba's goal-scoring substitute.

Liverpool vs Arsenal, the second leg of the quarter final was where the fun, at least for a Reds fan, started, Liverpool fortunate start the match level after being second-best at Ashburton Grove a week earlier.

And early on it looked like the Gunners would finally be rewared for their domination of the first leg. In the first 30 minutes here they battered Liverpool yet again, their movement of the ball and off it proving far to hot for the hosts, typified by the wonderful build-up that led to Diaby's opener.

Had Adebayor managed to stay on side a couple of times, they tie might have been buried. The Reds were rocking and never in the match, until half an hour in, when Hyppia took advantge of some sloppy work at the corner from his marker Senderos and Fabregas on the post.

Level on the night, level on aggregate, the confidence was back and gradually Liverpool took control, helped in no small part by the 40th minute injury to Arsenal's influential holder-cum-driver Flamini.

It was the sniff Liverpool needed, and in the second period we finally saw the Anfield and European version of the Reds, pressing Arsenal high in typically relentless fashion, rarely giving them time on the ball.

Soon Senderos (what was Wenger thinking starting him in the centre of defence and wasting Toure on the right? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but surely Eboue at right back and Walcott on the right) was at it again, allowing Torres to turn inside the box and fire a peach to make it 2-1 (3-2 on agg). Surely the Reds were home!

Behind, belatedly, Wenger reacted, introducing both Walcott and Van Persie, at least 10 minutes late in my mind (at 2-2 on aggregate, they may have been the game-breakers).

Soon Walcott shook-up the tie and gave the visitors the lead on aggregate, going on an amazing slalom run past four men, from the edge of his own box deep into Liverpool's, squaring it up for Adebayor. A little earlier he's fluffed a similar chance. No such mistake this time.

If Torres's strike had been worthy of the winner at one end, then Walcott's run was even more worthy. But the Gunners couldn't hang on, the referee missing a Fabregas tug on Babel outside the box and instead being caught by Toure's proximity to Babel and the Dutchman's fall inside.

It was harsh on the Gunners, and Babel rubbed it in late on, Fabregas again shaken-off by a player seemingly more at peace playing through the middle (yet Benitez continues to use him wide on the left).

Liverpool, pathetic at home, march on and on in Europe, probably keeping their conservative manager alive for another season.

Meanwhile, Melbourne played host to another clash where defence was often a secondary consideration as the lead changed hands on four occasions, the first time very early, the last time too late for the Victory.

Both defences retreating, the gap between them creating acres in the midfield, this was as open a game as you could imagine, the Malaysian referee playing a big part in keeping it going.

Gamba came with a reputation for being frail defensively and vibrant in attack (read this excellent and prophetic preview from Mike Tukerman via Neil Zimmerman's Victory in Melbourne), and they certainly lived up the reputation. Of course, it was their attack which caught the eye, none more than the massive Brazilian front-man Bare, who was a constant headache for Melbourne, both in the air and on the ground.

One of the features of Gamba's game was their use of the flanks, and better still, their delivery from out wide and at the set-piece. Most of their damage was done down the left, where the irresistable wingback Yasuda, he of the orange boots and hair, was super, setting up the winning goal with a brilliant run and ball to the near post, which Lucas expertly angled past Theoklitos.

Earlier Yasuda had laid one on the plate for Bare, who's header looked like it crashed off the crossbar and over the line. Goal-line technology anyone?

While Yasuda's masterful left peg was hitting the spot often, it was Endo's precocious right foot from the set-peice that also proved profitable for Gamba and such a headache for the Melbourne's custodian, the A-League's best gloveman of version 3, but finding the standard in Asia more difficult to deal with (witness Stephane Barga's thunderbolt on matchday 2, matched by Futagawa equally amazing strike in this one).

From one side Endo clipped in a perfect corner to the near post for Bare to attack and catch-out Theoklitos, before shaping one away from the other side, this time for his skipper Yamaguchi to attack. Again Theokiltos was caught out by the quality.

While his two assists will be remembered, it was Endo's all-round variety from the corner flag that caught the eye, whether near post, far post, flat or drifted. Some range, and a reminder of just how impressive he was at the Asian Cup. Also, a benchmark for some of our own set piece men.

Melbourne certainly played their part in an enthralling encounter, and had a couple of their own set-piece specials, albeit from deeper positions (as apposed to the by-line), but no-doubt ran out of juice towards the end. Ever the schrewd match-reader, Paul Trimboli hit the jackpot when he noted Melbourne were inviting trouble in the last five minutes by coughing up the ball coming out of defence.

Perhaps Merrick paid a price for predictably taking off Caceres with 10 to go, for the Mariners-bound man had looked a threat throughout and combined well with Allsopp, who proved a handful in the air.

Elsewhere, Ward and Celeski looked handy on the ball and worked the house down, but the Victory lacked someone to really take control in the centre of midfield. Pace was sacrificed for Pantelidis before the break, but from my view, it was the visitors who shaded it and deserved their win.

Footnote; the late drama and goals continued in the late ACL game between Adelaide and Binh Duong. While Adelaide hung on for a 2-1 win, the real star of the show was the Vietnamese side's South African import, the number 10, Philani. While he was a little lucky the stay on pitch after a late lunge on Galekovic, he deserved his wonderful goal from a free kick with six minutes left. It was another left foot bomb, something our teams are getting used to coping. On the balance of the game, Binh Duong deserved at least a draw. Philani deserved even more.