Saturday, May 31, 2008

A look at the Old Lady, and their New Man, but for how long?

GOTTA admit to knowing very little about Juve’s Raffaele Palladino before last night.

This Juventus side was missing so many stars, and not having seen them in Europe for a couple of years, it was hard to know exactly what to expect from Claudio Raineri’s men, despite the impressive third placed finish in their first season back in the top flight.

But I gotta say, it was a mightily impressive performance, and Palladino was always at the heart of the good stuff, proving he is developing into some player.

Little wonder, on this evidence, Arsene Wenger is said to have cast an eye over him. He sure knows how to spot a player, that Wenger. Even Man Utd was reported to have been interested a year ago.

While right-sided Marco Marchionni was officially named man-of-the-match and played well, capped by a wonderful header for Juve’s third, there was no doubt it was Palladino who really caught the eye, proving the perfect link between the midfield an attack, and also bringing to question just who decides these awards.

Often, especially in the first half, it was his final ball that played his team-mates in, and on one breathtaking Juve counter, he teed up Jonathan Zebina with a delightfully weighted diagonal ball that the Frenchman should have rammed home.

Later, in the second period, after Melbourne had an excellent opening 15 minutes, Palladino moved a little further up the pitch and had a massive influence in most of Juve’s good moments.

After tucking away a penalty to restore the lead, he moved out to the left, where, when he did manage to get on the pitch, he spent most of the just-completed Serie A season (unable to get himself in the centre due to the presence of Trezeguet, Del Piero and Iaquinta), did the business on Steven Pace and whipped in a delightful left-footed cross to the back post for Marchionni to head home.

Then the real moment of class, three minutes into stoppage time; reading a superb diagonal ball from deep on the left, he managed to drift away from his marker, Sebastian Ryall, find some space, cushion the ball with a superb first touch, using his thigh, and volley it home spectacularly. Brilliant, just brilliant.

Already capped at national level by Roberto Donadoni, Palladino is certainly one to keep an eye on, and if Juve can’t quite fit him into their plans, there are others, including Fiorentina, set to pounce.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Kingston's Town not enough but it leaves Pim plenty to ponder

International friendly wrap, Socceroos 1 v Ghana 0 and Matildas 2 v Canada 1

Tony Tannous @ the SFS

FOR 90 odd minutes last night, the SFS was Laryea Kingston's playground, but in a reminder of just how fickle, unpredictable and unjust this game can often be, the team that controlled it in the main ended up with nothing.

In a game that failed to scale any great heights, it was The Black Stars' dread-locked driving number 7, Kingston, a player normally on the fringes for his country, that grabbed his opportunity and illuminated this game with his drive, first touch, ability to hold the ball up under pressure, skill to extricate himself from trouble and find a teammate when under pressure, passing range, both long and short, with the inside and outside of his right peg and overall decision-making.

Even within a couple of minutes of the kick-off it was obvious this guy was a special talent, and his work in the first half really should have been enough to wrap this game up for the visitors by the break.

Currently at Hearts in Scotland, it has hitherto been a journeyman career for the 27 year old Kingston which has seen him go to Libya, Israel and Russia, but on the evidence of this performance against the Socceroos, here lurks a clearly talented footballer with the ability to play at a much higher level.

At times his work resembled that of his missing team-mate, and Ghana's biggest star, Michael Essien, and the Socceroos never really got to grips with him as he combined with Anthony Annan to dominate the midfield.

Sadly for Kingston and his teammates, they were unable to capitalise on their territorial and possessional domination, and their shooting was terrible.

In the first half the Socceroos were never able to deal with Kingston's movement, as the inexperienced holding pair, Mile Jedinak and Jacob Burns, retreated and allowed him too much space when he drifted in from his starting position on the right of a midfield diamond.

David Carney and James Troisi, Australia's left-side, looked lost and neither knew who should pick him up when he drifted to the right, and clipped in some lovely balls to the willing but isolated Goliath Junior Agogo.

The Roos were struggling.

Indeed, about 30 minutes into the game, Australia under the pump, I looked up the spine and there wasn't much experience around. Of course, Mark Schwarzer was there, but in front of him were Jade North, Michael Beauchamp, Jedinak, Burns, Kewell and Joel Griffiths. Among that lot, only Kewell can be considered experience at this level , and even then he isn't experienced in the important position he was playing, in front of the two screeners, behind the striker, alongside the flankers.

How the Roos missed a calming, ball-demanding influence of a Vince Grella, Carl Valeri, Nick Carle or even Stuart Musialik, once the latter gets his act together.

I've said it before and I'll say it again; for all Jedinak's good work in the A-League, he isn't equipped with the tools to run a team in the holding role at international level, especially against higher quality, which clearly Ghana offer.

Jedinak is a midfield breaker, not a maker.

He is not the ideal link-man, the type to demand the ball from his defenders and play out, a strategy which has clearly been behind the Socceroos successful and eye-catching style over the past few years.

Maybe Verbeek learnt this about Jedinak last night. I guess that's what these games are for, but for me it was obvious in Singapore, and much earlier in the A-League.

Anyway, his decision to pair Jacob Burns alongside him meant the Roos had two workaholics in the holding role, but little subtlety on the ball. Burns's use of it was horrible in the main.

Clearly Verbeek, keen to give Culina time and without Valeri, Grella, Carle and Luke Wilkshire, was limited in his engine-room options, but even then his reluctance to introduce James Holland till late in the game was puzzling. At least the Jet likes to demand the ball, hold it, turn, and look to link with feet.

Rarely have we seen such an inept Roos central midfield, with Kewell as big a culprit as anyone. Playing in the advanced central midfield role, he rarely went back to help out his inexperienced holders and demand the ball. It was good he got the best part of 90 minutes, but his lack of involvement was worrying at times, and he was well looked after by Annan.

Clearly Kewell is not as strong as he wants to be, and his ability to go through the gears, the power that caught the eye in his early years, is dead. It probably has been for years. Maybe he needs more time or maybe his body has had enough?

Now Verbeek needs to work out if he can afford a half-fit Kewell in his starting 11 over the next month or if he's best utilised off the bench. A headache indeed.

In the attacking midfield role Kewell offered little forward penetration (like a Tim Cahill or Brett Holman) and an inability to control possession (like a Carle). Out wide he just couldn't go past his man like the Harry of old. Perhaps he has dropped in the pecking order when weighed up against others?

Higher up, Joel Griffiths tried and tried, but was without the service, while Troisi, the club-less Olyroo, needs more time and more games. The one shining light in the front-third was Mile Sterjovski, a man who played the first 45 minutes at the Asian Cup and has hardly been sighted since, despite some impressive stuff for Derby.

Most of time he looked a class above his peers, including Kewell, and took his goal beautifully, profiting from a rare John Mensah slip. While fatherhood beckons, fingers crossed we see more of him over the next month.

At the back, there was good and bad.

While the fullback space was worrying (Adam Griffiths confirmed what I saw against Singapore, that, on the ball, with or without pressure, he makes some daft decisions, and David Carney had his least impressive game in Green and Gold) at least there were some positives for Verbeek in the heart of the defence.

Jade North, continuing his good work from Singapore and China, looked composed when defending and comfortable in trying to play-out from the back. Indeed, he was the only defender with the range of passing to play-out.

While Michael Beauchamp was tragic with the ball at his feet (especially when it was on his left side, under pressure), he was very competitive in his man-marking duties on Agogo and eventually got on top after the big man gave him some early headaches.

Matthew Spiranovic, belatedly locked-in, was given about half an hour, and looked very comfortable at this level. He made his tackles, covered the ground surprisingly quick, and looked relaxed. Looking forward to more.

Schwarzer, for all his hesitation on the ball, was strong and made one save sharp save late on, down low at his near post.

But overall, the performance leaves Verbeek plenty to ponder, and no doubt most of it will focus on his teams inability to maintain the ball. He said as much;

"We made it easy for Ghana to play long balls, we failed to win many second balls, we gave the ball away too easily and our final passing could have been better," he said.

'“This is what we will work on next week. We have to improve, definitely, because this is not the level of football we can normally play.”

To play at this "normal" level, Verbeek will definitely need some ball-playing central midfielders, which he should soon get through the likes of Culina, Grella, Valeri and Carle.


MEANWHILE, in the earlier game, it was a case of the brilliant Matilda's in the first period and the lucky Matildas in the second.

In the first they totally dominated for all but a five minute period and deserved their 2-0 lead. Smaller than their opponents, Australia were far too quick and mobile, keeping the ball on the deck, finding feet, getting it out wide, and getting good balls into the middle, where the ever-willing front duo of Kaitlin Munoz and Sarah Walsh competed.

One of the features of this half was the pace in which the Matildas counter-attacked. On one occasion, Melissa Barbieri caught a cross and the Matildas broke in numbers, the ball switched from the left, through the middle and out to the right, where a chance was created from a first-time cross. It was rapid, incisive, and thrilling, just wonderful play.

Only when Canada started to win some set-pieces and slow the game down did they look a threat.

The second period was completely different. Australia was bogged down, and it was Canada's great physicality that came to the fore. Had it not been for the fact they hit they crossbar twice, they might have rounded off a miraculous comeback.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Opportunity knocks - Socceroos vs Ghana preview

VERY excited about the prospect of seeing the latest Socceroos 11 take on The Black Stars of Ghana tomorrow night at the SFS and seeing who, if any of the team, can step up to the plate.

Pim Verbeek has already been on the record as saying the result isn't so important, that this game is more about the performances, and he's right of course. But that won't disguise the fact he wants a result, as much to protect his own unbeaten record and also to maintain confidence and momentum ahead of the upcoming quartet of qualifiers.

Whether he gets the result though isn't so straightforward. Not only will the Roos be fielding a largely second-string side, but they'll be doing it against a pretty decent outfit.

Ok, sadly Ghana are missing two of the biggest names and two of my favourite players, in Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari, but it's still a pretty formidable team and contains a number of 'first-choice' players that finished third at January/February's African Nations Cup, including Eric Addo, Anthony Annan, John Pantsil, John Mensah, Haminu Draman and Junior Agogo.

Of those, one of the most impressive is striker Agogo, who caught the eye and scored the late equaliser against the Socceroos in London in November 2006 and was the 'star' of their Nations Cup run.

The Black Stars will have much to play for tomorrow, with world cup qualifiers on the horizon and uncertainty over who will take them through the campaign. Like the Roos, spots are up for grabs, which should make this very competitive.

Up front, Agogo will get ample support from either Owusu-Abeyie Quincy or the new kid on the block, Emmanuel Agyemang Badu, who might yet be brought off the bench.

It is likely there will be plenty of work for the 'new-look' Socceroos rearguard, which in all likelihood will be marshaled by the "new number two" Jade North, who was so impressive in A-League version 3 and recent Roos games against Singapore and China.

If the flexible Verbeek decides to go with a back three, it will mean the two Nurnberg towers, Michael Beauchamp and Matthew Spiranovic, belatedly making his debut, could surround North.

Verbeek is said to be impressed with his first glimpse of Spiranovic in camp, and while he noted a bit of 'shyness', it was his 'tactical decision-making' that caught the managers eye.

Translated, that means he is confident Spiranovic can do the job. Whether he starts could depend on Ghana's tactical plans, whether they play two or three up front.

If Verbeek sees Ghana adopt the modern trend of the front three, he can revert to a back four. In that case, Adam Griffiths might get another chance at right back with David Carney on the opposite side. Spiranovic, you sense, would start on the bench.

In midfield, missing Vince Grella and Carl Valeri, you sense another opportunity might arise for Mile Jedinak, who is said to have impressed the manager in the Singapore game. Against Ghana's power, he might be suited, but he will need to be disciplined.

If distribution isn't Jedinak's greatest attribute, nearby the dependable Jason Culina should provide that, even if he isn't fully fit. Such a professional.

All the while he will be looking to prompt and support a front trio of Harry Kewell, Joel Griffiths and the on-call Mile Sterjovski.

It is an opportunity for all three, for different reasons. Sterjovski was a regular starter under Hiddink, but appeared to lose out to the 'stars' (how to fit 12 into 11) at the Asian Cup. He is yet to play under Verbeek, but did some decent stuff in a terrible Derby side.

Kewell's career continues to stall due to injury. The manager has made no secret of his love for Kewell, so fingers crossed the 'skipper' can get through some decent minutes, and have his usual influence. After breaking down in Singapore and missing Kunming, Kewell will be hoping his body can hold up.

Which brings us to Joel Griffiths, who finally gets a sniff and will be moving all over the place trying to find an opening. Mobility and an eye for goal are his biggest assets and the Ghana defenders will sure know they've been in a contest by the 90th minute. The pressure is on, so fingers crossed he can handle it.

Of the youngsters, Verbeek has hinted that Mark Bridge and James Holland will start from the bench. James Troisi and Nikolai Topor-Stanley are others in the mix and should get some time, so seeing how long that is and how well they use it will make for fascinating viewing.

With so many players out, and others there or thereabouts, it's not everyday opportunities like this knock, so it's time to grab them.

ALSO looking forward to getting out the SFS early to see how the 'new-look' Matildas are developing post last year's World Cup. There's some fresh faces about, but my biggest hope is that they're defending higher up the pitch.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Nick Carle – to fit in or fit around?

THE recent influential appearance of Nick Carle in the first leg of the Championship play-off away to Crystal Palace, which I wrote about while holidaying last weekend, has incited the usual fierce debate about just where he sits in the Socceroos pecking order.

Jesse Fink, subsequently writing a piece on The World Game, continues to push Carle’s case for the national team and has even had the opportunity to personally endorse Carle to the national team manager this week.

Rarely has an Australian player incited so much debate, and trust me, it’s been going on since he burst onto the scene for Sydney Olympic back in the 1997/98 season, scoring on his debut as a 15 year old Geoff Harcombe substitute against Marconi.

I was there that day, and have been following his career closely ever since, even interviewing him for a feature piece in the Australian and British Soccer Weekly back in December 2000, just after he’d turned 19.

At the time Carle was on the verge of fulfilling the reputation as ‘the next big thing since Harry Kewell’ (by virtue not only of his ability on the ball but the fact he came from “Harry Kewell territory”, the western suburbs of Sydney), a tag bestowed on him after his goal on debut. That season, the 2000/01 NSL season, he was having a mighty influence for Olympic, running the show for the Branko Culina coached side that led the table for much for the campaign and played some brilliant stuff, but ultimately fell a couple of games short of the grand final.

By the following season, 2001/02, Carle was off overseas (an unsuccessful stint at French club Troyes), and guess what happened at his old club that season?

Yes, Olympic won the NSL title.

Sound awfully familiar? Yes, the Jets won the title one season after the influential Carle fell a couple of games short in A-League v2.

Timing is everything, and so far the stars haven’t quite aligned for Carle, who was famously also left out of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games squad after playing an influential role in getting Frank Farina’s men there.

But now appears to be his time, and the clamour for his inclusion in Pim Verbeek’s Socceroos 11 is certainly gathering momentum. Certainly, I made no secret of my disappointment at the lack of match-time afforded to Carle in the pre Asian-Cup warm-up against Uruguay in Sydney last year. Here is what I wrote at the time;

The Socceroos were now struggling to hold the ball up front, and the midfield and defence were under greater pressure. The game, at the break or soon after, was crying out for the introduction of Carle, who might have been able to hold the ball up and relieve some of the defensive pressure.

Conversely, he might be have been able to conjure up a moment of brilliance - as we so nearly saw with his first touch - for the likes of Allsopp and Thompson, but they too were given little time to make an impression.

The pity for all three - like all the A-League players not involved in ACL or Olyroos - is that they haven't been playing regularly since late February (depsite Carle being at Sydney Olympic), an issue the A-League powers need to address.

It now leaves them and Arnold with a headache ahead of the Asia Cup. Given the lack of impact from the likes of Ryan Griffiths and McDonald, there is still enough of
that 'joker' element, as Hiddink liked to call it, in selecting Carle and Thompson, and maybe even Allsopp.

Certainly Carle, as an option off the bench, might even provide some decent delivery at the dead ball, an area the Socceroos have consistently been poor in. This time it was Emerton entrusted with most of the delivery, and almost every time the next touch was a Uruguay head.

Carle, when he came on, either wasn't given the responsibility or didn't take it on. Either way it was to Australia's detriment.

That cameo appearance incited much debate, with many people arguing that Carle’s failed cross with his left peg, from the right side, was a case of showboating, and unnecessary. To my mind, they were looking at the glass half empty.

Just before that game, in my preview of the likely candidates for the Asian Cup, I wrote this about Carle;

the ‘keep-ball merchant’ of the national competition, it was wonderful to watch Newcastle build its play through him. There is no reason why he can’t fulfill the same role with the national team, in behind the main striker and in front of the likes of Grella and Culina. Main problem is that this is the same space that the likes of Cahill and Holman like to forage. Carle’s other problem is that he isn’t really suited to preferred Socceroos formation which already has Viduka as the focal point in attack. However, a player of this much ability would be a fixture in most national set-ups, if only for the fact he can conjure up an opening with one moment of inspiration.
Now, the latest to add his voice to the Carle campaign is none other than Tim Cahill. It’s quite ironic given that Carle occupies the space that is invariably occupied by Cahill when he’s fit and well.

They are different players, as I’ve noted previously.

Cahill is more to type to do his business off the ball, ghosting into the box late to get on the end of a header or some scraps in and around the box. He is the perfect foil, and can play the role of the second (or shadow or ghost) striker, or equally can get forward and support two strikers. But he is unlikely to get on the ball and thread killer final balls to the strikers.

That is Carle’s game.

Carle is the type to get behind strikers, get on the ball, keep it and kill teams, like an Andrei Arshavin on Thursday morning.

As he noted in my interview almost eight years ago, “my favourite position is in behind the strikers in that creative role”. Nothing, you sense, has changed, but what he has been doing of late is adding things to his game, like work-rate, mobility, competing in the air, making tackles, even if many of them aren’t always perfect.

What Carle doesn’t offer enough of though is that currency that attacking midfielders are often measured by, goals.

Cahill provides them, Brett Holman has been providing them of late in the Eredivise, Arshavin provides (and creates) them for Zenit and Carle, while he creates his fair share, longs to provide them.

It has been his desire to improve his goal-getting ratio for what seems an eternity. In the above-mentioned interview, he admitted his aim for that season was a return of 12 goals. He ended it with two in 26 games.

At the start of A-League v2, he went on the record claiming he wanted goals. Despite his brilliant season, he only managed three in 20.

He is desperate to prove he has the all-round game that can readily translate from league to league, competition to competition and club to country, and there is no doubt from what I’ve seen over the past week (I saw both legs of Bristol’s semi final play-offs against Crystal Palace) he is a far more aerobic and competitive player, but let’s hope that’s not at the expense of his creative and technical game.

In other words, I’m not convinced the box-to-box style of the Championship, or even some Premiership clubs, best suits his attributes. Fair enough, add those things to your game, but don’t let them become your game.

After an impressive first leg, Carle showed signs, in the second leg, that he just doesn’t have the power to drive up and down the field for games after game. Truth be told, for most of the second leg, Ben Watson was giving him the run-around.

Fortunately for Carle and Bristol, Watson missed the most important kick of his career, and the Aussie marched on, having a brilliant opening period of extra time, where he got on the ball, high up the pitch, and did what he does best; offer his team the ability to control a game.

After a few moments of doubt (after giving away the penalty), he also showed in that extra time period that he has the mental toughness to "handle the pressure", something Verbeek is constantly harping.

So, looking ahead, if that’s what Verbeek and other Socceroos managers are after – a player who can control games and create openings, if others do the donkey work – then use Carle.

But if you’re looking for a player who will score you a shit-load of goals and offer consistent box-to-box drive, then right now you'd have to look elsewhere.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Justice for the team that came to play

Uefa Cup Final wrap, Zenit St Petersburg 2 v Glasgow Rangers 0

JUST as a follow-up to my earlier piece today, critiquing the lack of team goals in Fox Sports's selection of the 20 outstanding goals of season 2007/08, another classic recent example came in yesterday's Uefa Cup final with the last kick of the game.

It was an absolute peach, with Zenit's impressive playmaker Andrei Arshavin involved twice. Check out the six-pass move here. As a regular TRBA reader from Melbourne noted today via email, it involved some "super movement and one-and-two-touch play and completely carved open the Rangers defence".

Indeed, the movement and passing from Zenit was the feature throughout their Uefa Cup run, and while they struggled to break down the dogged and determined blue brick wall of nine men parked behind the ball, they were eventually able to crack it thanks to some wonderful drive off the ball from one of the men of the match, Igor Denisov.

His desire to pick up a loose ball in midfield, knock it to Arshavin, and then drive through the heart of the Rangers defence, between Carlos Cuellar and David Weir, was rewarded with a superbly weighted ball from the Russian international. Top shelf. Keep an eye out for Arshavin at Euro 2008.

The other player to really make an impression with his mobility out of central midfielder was the final goal-scorer, Kostantin Zyrianov. He was everywhere. Not far behind Arshavin, Denisov and Zyrianov was the Zenit left-back Radek Sirl, who might still make his way into Karol Bruckner's Czech Republic Euro 2008 squad.

Overall, while there were a couple of dicey moments in their own box, this was a disciplined and controlled performance from the Russians, proving that these ties are often won or lost between the ears.

Rangers, as they have done throughout the campaign, especially against Fiorentina in the semis, set their stall out to defend for 120 minutes, and the battle for the Russians was to not lose control.

Russians and Russian sides, particularly over the past couple of decades, have had a reputation for melting on the big occasion, but clearly the work of the Dutchmen, Dick Advocaat here, and Guus Hiddink for the national team, are having a massive impact, as they did in South Korea, as they are doing down-under.

Anyway, in the battle of wits, the Zenit players didn't lose their control or composure, and got their reward.

While it's a credit to Rangers for getting as far as they did, it was really hard to fell sorry for a side that crowded the midfield with five defensive minded workhorses and left Nacho Novo on the bench.

In an age where it doesn't always happen, great to see justice for the team that came to play.

Yet another 40 yard bomb...

NOT sure if you managed to catch Fox Sports's take on the top 20 goals of the current season last night on Total Football, but, for me, there was very much a same, same feel about the selection, with 17 of the 20 the result of individual bombs from outside the box.

The other three were the result of individual pieces of brilliance inside the box (a Cristiano Ronaldo reverse-flick with the instep, an Akos Buzsaky flick over the keeper and an Sylvan Ebanks-Blake reverse netmeg and powerhouse finish).

While all 20 goals were easy on the eye, and some of 40 yard bombs particularly special (Noe Pamarot or Stephane Baga anyone?), not one of the featured Fox goals was what I'd describe as a team goal, an intricate build-up involving five, six or seven passes, with a simple finish....

Like the brilliant Gamba Osaka goal I described in this piece a few weeks ago. To catch it again, check out the first 23 seconds of this video.

Another example that came to mind was the beautiful opening goal Arsenal (Abou Diaby) scored in first leg of the UEFA Champions League semi final against Liverpool, which I commented on here, but perhaps we can excuse Fox for not including that one given that their selections focused entirely on competitions they were covering (EPL, A-League, Coca-Cola Championship and Asian Champions League).

It's all subjective, but perhaps, in hindsight, the TF selection should have been described as the strikes of the season.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Box-seat Kangaroos

WHILE the Coca-Cola Championship play-offs are not normally high on my list of football priorities, this season’s battles between fourth (Bristol City) and fifth (Crystal Palace) and third (Hull City) and sixth (Watford) provided a special incentive to tune-in, the chance to see how Aussies Nick Carle (Bristol) and Richard Garcia (Hull) are coping in the English second flight, and more importantly, an opportunity to track their form with the upcoming Socceroos World Cup qualifiers in mind.

So, away on a short trip up north, I managed to catch both first legs over the weekend. While I went into them with much anticipation and many questions, and the hope of seeing a couple of influential performances from our boys, primarily I was just hoping to see them play, so the fact both started was a victory in itself.

First to the A-League v2 MVP.

Like many, I was gobsmaked when Carle landed at Bristol after a terrible time in Turkey. But apparently, or so we’d been told by Carle upon his signing, the Bristol “gaffer” likes to ‘play’, and likes players who ‘play’. No better at that than Carle.

This supposed ‘Bristol style and sophistication’ went against everything we’d ever heard, seen or been told about the English second flight; that it was the domain of the long-ball, x-rated challenges, second-ball-scraps and little else.

So, I, for one, couldn’t wait to see Bristol and their Aussie playmaker in full-flight.

The first interesting observation was that the ‘number 10’ was shaping up in the centre of what was once the stock-standard English 4-4-2 (these days it’s relative luxury to be playing with two up front, at least in the Premier League).

It was strange to find Carle in such a system and intriguing to see how he’d handle its box-to-box demand in what was sure to be a game played at breath-taking pace.

Here, while he worked his socks off in v2 of the A-League, he’d always been protected by two screeners, and allowed to play higher up the pitch by Gary van Egmond, who clearly saw his value to Jets front-third, so much so that everything the Jets did invariably went through Carle. He was the fulcrum, full stop.

How influential would he be in the helter-skelter here?

Well, truth is it took Carle about 30 minutes to get into this one, and Bristol were the poorer for that. Crystal Palace, the momentum flowing from a string of impressive recent results, playing at home, bossed the opening exchanges and controlled the centre of midfield, their former Premier League red-head Ben Watson dominating with this box-to-box drive, and creating the opportunity for the wide men Scott Sinclair to make an early impression.

Carle and the entire Bristol side were behind the pace, and they were not ‘playing’. Indeed, Carle looked keen to be involved, but wasn’t seeing much of the ball, and his energy boiled over into a horrible over-the-ball challenge that might, on another day, in another league, have see him sent. He was lucky.

Tackling has never been one of Carle’s strong-points, and there were a couple of other dicey attempts, but the willingness to work and get ‘stuck-in’ was clearly there. No more bludging for a player who was known in his early years to wonder back to the half-way line after an attacking move had broken down.

Indeed, his back-tracking and gut-busting work was a feature of the Bristol midfield, and on one occasion he was even there to clear off the line.

Tick, tick for his defensive work, but as all of Australia had realised from watching v2, Carle has so much more to offer in attack. Problem was he wasn’t being used.

Bristol were just knocking long-ball after long ball to their ever-wiling front-two Adebola and Truddle, who, to be honest, played the roles of target-men better than I have seen in a long time.

Adebola especially. He was everywhere, providing a contest, holding the ball up, hassling the Palace defence, getting on the end of crosses and dropping behind the ball.

But it was nothing of the ‘play’ we’d been told to expect. Carle was essentially being bypassed by his defenders and asked to pick-up scraps around the Palace 18 yard box.

Then, in the blink of an eye, just after half an hour, he played a one-two deep in his own half, switched it out the right, where the Bristol right back Orr provided a cross for Adebola to produce a solid stop from Speroni.

Bristol was finally in the game, and proceeded to dominate the rest of the half. While Carle wasn’t exactly the go-to that he should be (as he was at Newcastle), he was invariably effective when he had it, and often found a target. He even ghosted into the box on a couple of occasions, a la Timmy Cahill.

In the second period, with Bristol on top, it was Carle who played the vital final ball for both their goals. The first was when he weighted the ball neatly into the path of his skipper at a rehearsed set-piece (who better to play the key link role), the second when he had the composure, under pressure, to use his head, literally and metaphorically, to cushion a loose ball into the path of Noble for the winner.

It was some contribution.

In and around all that though, there was still time of the commentators to remind us just how backward the football in the Championship can often be. Midway through the second half, when Carle controlled a loose long ball deep in his own half, out on the right, and tried to play out from the back (there was no danger to his team), he was castigated by one of the commentators (name escapes me) who said something like this;

“Carle almost played himself into trouble there. I’d rather see him just hoof it out in that situation.”

“Hoof it out”? Yes, they were his words.

All in all, while the overall quality of the football was often hard on the eye, it was an entertaining spectacle, and it was great to see Carle play a pivotal role in the 2-1 Bristol away win, even if the brain-dead commentators didn’t always acknowledge it.

However, in my mind, it is still hard to say Carle truly belongs at this level. He is much much better than it. Anyway, at least he’s getting paid very well, is happy, is developing his aerobic capacity and defensive game, adding strings to his bow and, most importantly, playing.

What then of Richard Garcia and his Hull outfit?

Hitherto we haven’t seen too much of the WA flier, and after this performance, I’ve gotta say, the jury is still out.

Clearly he likes to get the ball in open space and run at defenders, and doesn’t mind a shot (he has a decent goal-getting record from midfield, 5 goals in 36 games this season), but his willingness to work back in defence needs developing.

In his defence, Garcia was playing his first game in almost a month thanks to a bung shoulder.

Stealing the limelight for Hull were two on the veterans, the goal-scorers, 39 year old Dean Windass up front, and Nicky Barmby (of Leeds fame) on the left (which meant Garcia played on the right). All the while they were teed up by the impressive front-man Frazier Campbell.

Again, it wasn’t the greatest spectacle, but it was illuminated by a string of outstanding saves by Hull's American keeper Boaz Myhill.

Regardless, Hull and Bristol, and their respective Aussies are now in the box-seat for a Wembley show-down, with the prize on offer the jackpot that is a spot in next season’s EPL. It is supposedly the richest day in football, so fingers crossed it’s one of our boys that provides his side the dividends.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Oh the memories...

CAST your mind back 10 years to France '98 and you will remember one of the endearing features of the tournament was the picturesque Stadia, including the old but impressive Parc Lescure (now Stade Chaban-Delmas) in Bordeaux.

Watching the highlights of the Coupe de France semi final between Amiens and Paris St Germain on Europsorts a little earlier, I stumbled across another little beauty, the Stade de la Licorne, home of French Ligue 2 side Amiens.

The pity for Amiens is that they couldn't win at their impressive stadium, PSG putting aside their terrible domestic form, and the disturbing use of tear gas by some of their fans (half an hour in the match was held up for 10 minutes), to win 1-0 thanks to a goal to Yannick Boli. Remember that surname? Yes, Yannick is the nephew of the great Marseille defender and 1993 champions league match-winner Basil (was that really 15 years ago?).

If you want to sample a bit of atmosphere inside the stadium, before the game, then check this out.

And one last bit of nostalgia from the highlights I saw. The ball they used looked like this;

Sunday, May 04, 2008

A move befitting the Nou-Kemp

WHILE I watch a fair bit of NRL when I'm not tuned into the round ball, it's not every day I feel compelled to write about the egg-ball code, but a moment of sheer instinctive brilliance last night, born from the round-ball, certainly got me to my feet. It was a WOW moment for sure.
It came as I was flicking between Man United's predictable hammering of the Hammers on Fox and the Channel 9 delayed clash between the Wests Tigers and Brisbane Broncos.
Shortly after I'd just seen a brilliant Tevez strike, followed by a wonderful Dean Ashton over-head volley, Denan Kemp, the Bronocs left winger, provided another moment of sheer exhilaration.
Waiting for a Darren Lockyer long pass, with the tryline open, the pass eventually came, but uncharacteristically for Lockyer it was low and mis-directed, towards Kemp's feet. While most league wingers (or players) would have bent down and tried to get their hands to it, Kemp improvised.
He trapped the ball with his right in-step, dropped the shoulder and shifted the ball around his direct opponent, into the Tigers in-goal area, diving on it ahead of Brett Hodgson (as pictured above, courtesy of Getty Images).
But for the use of his hands at the end, it was a move that wouldn't have looked out of place on any football field, even the Nou-Kemp, a wonderful piece of 'football' technique.
Turns out the kid was a pretty decent footballer in his younger years, where he played for one of the Gold Coast's big clubs, Mudgeeraba Soccer Club. On the evidence of his move, which you can track down in the Tigers/Broncos highlights package here, looks like he might be one that got away.