Saturday, February 28, 2009

Melbourne Victory vs Adelaide United LIVE – Running analysis of the GF

MATCH WRAP: It was far from a classic game, spolit in part by some of the officiating, but it is hard to argue that Melbourne, after the season they've had, didn't deserve their success. Adelaide were excellent tonight and really took it to MV, winning many of the indivdual battles and proving they are a collection. But again they finished as bridesmaids. This time there was no choke, and while there was little sympathy for them after their antics and implosion two years ago, this time around they will have many friends. Thanks all for contributing to the running analysis of the gf, hope you enjoyed, will pick up the dissection of this game at a later date.

93' FULL TIME. 1-0 MV. The two time premiers are now the two time champions, confirming their standing as the benchmark A-league team.

90' the end of the second half has descended into a bit of scrap-fest, as players go down and the referee blows the whistle, 3 minutes of stoppages.

87' AU running out of time, Merrick bringing on his two holding midfeilders Brebner and Lopez (the second sub forced by Berger's concussion), time to protect lead.

82' Agostino putting himself about, exactly what he does best, and if the service is there, he might just nick one. The cassio cross was sublime and Agostino had every right to get on the end of it, and Berger was lucky it didnt end up in Theoikliotos' goal. Who wouldn't mind a bit of extra time other than those 10s of thousands in navy blue?

80' another TRBA regular AA from Melbourne dropped me a txt from inside the stadium saying it was a little bit quiet. That was before the goal of course. Certianly not so quiet after the goal.

77' Sir Alex is loving this - "left pocket again!!!! allsopp = dirty player. gets his just desserts". For mine Sir Alex there was so much going on inside that box, he could have given a few more cards. I enjoyed the face-off between Muscat and Ognenovski, certainly no love lost there, and plenty of history.

75' Pondeljak's composure and experience proving key around the box.

73' Good decision to bring on Agostino, AU have no choice but to press and get bodies inside the box, it may open them up to the counter, but even if they have to go long to get Agostino into it, definitely worth it. Great game Jamieson, must be the injury he's been nursing the past couple of weeks.

65' Can't wait to find out what Breeze saw in all that, because the cameras were all over the place, but Allsopp's send off evens the numbers up and may give AU a chance to get back into it. Against 11 they had no chance. Against 10, you never know.

62' such a pity for AU, esp after dominating the previous 5mins.

60' 1-0 MV. Not long after Berger is on for Ward, and Merrick goes to two wing-backs to provide some much needed width, Pondeljak cuts in from the left and shapes one around a sea of bodies inside the box. Galekovic, unsighted by Salley and Hernandez, sees it late, and can't get to it. Not surprisingly, defending so deep invites shots from outside, and inevitably AU cop one from outside.

57' Sir Alex spent the half-time break putting this together.

"during the first 3 seasons of the league, one of my pet hates was the poor standard of refereeing. especially when it came to the 'big' calls. nearly all went the wrong way. do these guys have an instinct for the game? if they played the game or still play the game maybe they would be better. i know its harder than it looks, but has the standard improved at all this year? i didnt notice an improvement during the first 3 years?these guys should be getting most of these decisions correct. obviously the blood affected breeze's decision. initially he puts hid hand in his right pocket 9yellow card) then thinks better of it to consult his assistant. meanwhile vargas looks like he's gone one round with mike tyson (circa 1986 not 1990) so the hand goes in the left pocket and cristiano sees red as well. i assume the main football writers still havent dared criticize the standard of refereeing in australia yet? its a small backyard and no=one wants to tread on anybodys toes."

Would love to know the thoughts of others.

54' great goalkeeping theoklitos to deny Jamieson after a wonderful run from Mullen down the right. It resulted from a set piece where AU had men forward and then picked up seconds. Then an oustanding run from Dodd past both Vargas and Muscat, only to shoot straight at Theoklitos. AU proving they pack a punch, despite the 10 men. Rousing stuff.

52' AU doing a decent job of trying to hold up the ball, and Dodd looks likely on the counter. Such a pity he has little company when AU do break.

50' looks like ward has been told to get wider and provide some width down the right.

Second half kicks off

HALF TIME SUMMARY: 0-0 at the break, all the possession with Melbourne after the Cristiano send off, but only a couple of real chances created, thanks in no small part to the wonderful defending of Adelaide. Vidmar sprung a couple of surprises by adopting man-marking tactics on Thompson and Hernandez, and while we won't get the chance to fiully assess the decision thanks to the red card, both Mullen and Salley have done outstanding defensive jobs to date in my opinion.

The Football Tragic notes that Melbourne famed lack of width started to catch up with them and that it may be worth exploring the Berger option. Agree Mike, he's a great option to have on the bench as he will provide plenty of penetration, and maybe a few crosses for Fabiano to attack.

I would also, at some stage, look at a holding midfielder like Brebner for someone like Thwaite, which would then release Celeski to try and influence things around the edge of the box. He certainly has the technique and feet to unlock things. Merrick might be rueing the fact he has two holding midfielders on the bench, as it would be nice to introduce another striker on top of Fabiano.

45' HALF TIME whistle goes, and a few will be saying it's about the only thing Breeze has got right tonight. There's no doubt the decision has spoilt the contest, but Adelaide appear determined to make it one anyway and have done an outstanding job to date.

44' Sir Alex dropped me a note soon after red card - "the reds are gone, deja vu, crap referees as usual wreck games". Such a shame, couldnt agree any more, and I think you'll have a few on your side Sir Alex.

41' AU looking as organised as can be expected given the circumstance. They are dropping deep into the 18 yard box and at this stage getting a toe in when the ball is cut back to the edge of the box. It's a tough ask to sustain it for 80 minutes however, but mentally they are up for it, and will give it an almighty effort.

38' the texts keep flooding in, "shame about the card" says Brad, "it was a great start by Adelaide", "top distribution by Muscat". Agree brad, he can run the show now, step up when he wants to, pick whatever pass he wants. Agree he still has to hit his target, but it's much easier with no pressure.

32' Have received a couple of txts from regular TRBA readers Pinuts Pethia and Adam, both siting 'game-over'. That appears to be the case, but Adelaide will try and and pinch a few chances on the counter and wait for their opportunities at set pieces. Clearly the odds are stacked against them, and if they conceed one, it will be game over. They will have to defend like never before, and will need all the luck in the world. Dodd, Jamieson and Pantelis would appear their best bets on the counter.

27' Galekovic makes the first brilliant save of what is likely to be a very busy night, brilliantly tipping around an Allsopp effort after a great Muscat pass. Muscat will have a field day now stepping into mid and dictating things.

25' the early evidence after the send off of Cristiano is that Adelaide clearly have no choice but to park the bus, sit back on their 18 yard box and kick the ball away. It is likely to ultimately bring about their downfall, but they dont have much of the choice. Breeze has left them with little choice, effectively dictating the flow of the game

20' Mike Salter, of The Football Tragic, has txted me noting the decision was a disgrace, a sentiment that will be echoed around the country. Meanwhile Neil Zimmerman of a Victory in Melbourne, inside the stadium, wants to know if it was worth a red. Of course, no replays inside the stadium.

15' Cristiano has been a marked man for much of the season since gaining a bit of a reputation earlier in the campaign for being a diver, a little unfair in my opinion. Predicting that he would be doing the gf, I asked Breeze at the awards night if he wanted to avoid the headlines, unlike his mate Shield last year. Naturally, he said he'd like a quiet game with the attention firmly on the players. No such luck Matthew.

14' anyone for Strebre Delovski?

10' That type of jumping/leading with the elbow has been going on all season, goes on all around the world. Breeze has seen the blood and issued a card of the same colour. What a disappointment as that really changes the way this game will be played. Clearly he was going to issue a yellow, saw the blood, and bang.

8' Adelaide have started really well, competing all over the pitch.If MV are clever, Thompson and Hernandez might be able to move away and create space fro others.

5' fascinating move by Vidmar deploying Mullen with the man-marking role on Thompson, with Salley appears to be shadowing Hernandez. In a way he sacrifices the shape to nulify a couple of key men, so fascinating to see if it will work.

KICK-OFF, will be interesting to see if Adelaide sit back straight away, or try to press.

7.35pm; Sir Alex, regular TRBA reader, who predicted a blow-out to Melbourne a week ago, has asked for my prediciton. I think Melbourne have too much in attack, too much movement and interchangability (is there such a word?), and will win 2-1. Hoping for a classic, whoever wins, may the round ball be the winner. Your thoughts changed Sir Alex?

7.30pm; not far from kick-off, an amazing atmosphere on the way to Telstra Dome, some amazing scenes, congratulations Melbourne fans, outstanding.

7.25pm; Glad to hear the guys on Fox, Harper, Trimboli and Bosnich, speaking highly of Celeski. While he is playing out of position in the holding midfield, he has done an outstanding job there, keeping Lopez and Brebner out. I had the good fortune of catching up with Celeksi at the recent awards night and asked he specifically what he felt about playing in the holding role. He was diplomatic, saying he had some great attackers in front of him, but you sensed he would love to be influencing things higher up the pitch. In the long run, this stint as a holder will aid his development.

Glad also that they have given some attention to Galekovic, who may well be in for a busy night nad might be pushing for man of the match if he can make a few saves in normal time and also if it goes to pens.

7.10pm; We all know what a wonderful finish to the season Sergio van Dijk had, scoring at almost a goal a game in the second half of the season, but remarkably it was enough win him the Alex Tobin Fox player of the year award. After 14 rounds he was no-where near the leaderboard, with Moore and Miller leading the way, but 7 rounds later he was top, with Moore second and Archie Thompson third. Congratulations van Dijk,whose strength proved a handful for many of the league's best defenders. Interesting that the players' player of the year, Shane Smeltz, wasn't in the mix, proving once again just how even the spread of quality was this season.

7.05pm; Vidmar confirmed to Fox there no rockets this week. He said it had been a nice and relaxed week with the focus very much on "what we need to do today". He emphasised he's been very pleased with that. He also hoped that the experience gained from playing in some big game this season would hopefully hold AU in good stead. Vidmar looked very relaxed.

7.00pm; Ernie Merrick has just been interviewed by Mel McLaughlin, and answered her question about how much pressure the team in under by being the shortest price favourite yet in an a-lg gf by noting that the boys generally respond well to pressure. He emphasised that the leadership group have ensured everyone remains focussed. Meriick gives little away at the best of times, and his interview here looked like any other regular season game.

6.50pm; In particular, I would expect to see Jonas Salley playing deeper that he did last week, thus helping Reid deal with the space in front of their back four, the space that Hernandez in particular likes, but you will often also see Thompson drop off into that space, and Ward and Pondeljak drive into it. Last week Salley played higher up the midfeild in order to disrupt the McKay/Murdocca duo, but this week I'd be surprised if he didn't sit alongside Reid. Barbiero, then, would be charged with disrupting Celeski.

6.40pm - Team news; As expected, no changes to either starting line. Adelaide have gone with the same line that was so organised against the Roar; Galekovic; Mullen, Cornthwaite, Ognenovski, Jamieson; Salley, Reid; Dodd, Barbiero, Pantelis; Cristiano. Ditto for Melbourne, as you were; Theoklitos; Ryall, Muscat, Vargas, Kemp; Pondeljak, Celeski, Hernandez, Ward; Thompson, Allsopp.

No real surprise that both managers have gone with the status quo. Will be interesting though once the game unfolds to see how the managers shape up and especially whether Vidmar does anything outside of the what we saw last week.

6.30pm; Hello and welcome to TRBAs running analysis of the a-league season 4 decider. It’s been a fascinating build-up to the big one, and I, for one, can barely wait. Melbourne are still deserved favourites, especially on TAB Sportsbet, where they were paying $1.65 when I checked this morning. Adelaide, remarkably in a two horse race, was paying $5.25 at the same time, great odds. Clearly the punters thought so, and when I checked again a couple of hours ago, Adelaide had come in to $4.75, while MV had moved to $1.70.

Two weeks ago you would have been mad to even think Adelaide could be in the decider, let alone have the chance in it, but the psychology has shifted somewhat, and after their gritty and well-organised win over the Roar, you sense they arrive at the Telstra Dome with a quiet determination and a sense of belief they can spring an upset.

Aurelio Vidmar has certainly been doing everything in his power to emphasise Melbourne’s favouritism, talking throughout the week about parking all sorts of things in front of Eugene Galekovic’s goal; double-decker buses, taxis, trains, whatever!

Conversely, MV have been anything but reluctant to accept the pressure that comes with favouritism. Archie Thompson was in particularly buoyant mood a couple of days ago, telling all and sundry that his side were pretty much untouchable.

At yesterday’s pre-game conference, Travis Dodd emphasised that MV had been “talking up a big game”, and would be expected to bag a few, and that if they didn’t, the pressure from the home crowd may mount.

Interestingly, he seemed to have some support from the Victory skipper, Kevin Muscat, who said there’d been plenty of talk from his side and that come kick-off it was time to walk-the-walk.

Pim Verbeek has also thrown a little puzzler in with his comments that Thompson and Allsopp were hopeless against Indonesia. As is Pim’s whim, he is no doubt throwing it out there to see how the two react. Should make for great viewing.

The psychology has been fascinating, and it’s certainly wet the appetite, so it’s time to get the show on the road. Throughout it I will try to keep you posted on the moves that really count.

The first moves, as always, will be made on paper, with respective starting line-ups, and the expectation is that both sides will stick with what worked last time out.

However, Newcastle manager Garry van Egmond made a very interesting suggestion for Adelaide in today’s Fairfax press;

"I don't think either side will change much although I would utilise Travis Dodd more centrally and use his pace to run off and move Kevin Muscat around. When Muscat has to concentrate more on defensive work it prevents him stepping into midfield and stops him organising and marshalling the back half, which he does very well and is very important for Melbourne."

That would no doubt mean someone like Barbiero or Reid playing a little wider on the right, in a tighter 4-4-2 which basically would almost mirror MV’s. That doesn’t exactly strike as the most balanced midfield. However, van Egmond makes a great point in that Vidmar needs to find a way to keep Muscat busy.

Another respected analyst asked to contribute to the pre-match discourse was Miron Bleiberg, who spoke about how Vidmar could instil the requisite belief in his men;

"You tell them that every one expects you to lose. But you tell your players that they are much better players than the last time they played Melbourne and lost 4-0 and that this is a different team. You tell them that they must go out and enjoy the match, the occasion, the game, and do their work as professionals. You tell them you trust them to do it. You tell them that every statistic or record is there to be broken and today is your day. You remind them that Melbourne is not invincible, you show them that Melbourne lost seven games during the regular season, two more than you, and that they conceded a lot more goals than you."

I’d imagine Vidmar has been emphasising much of the above throughout the week.

Merrick meanwhile should have been reminding his boys just how many goal-scoring options they pose – Thompson, Allsopp, Hernandez, Pondeljak and Ward for starters – and how they must remain patient if they can’t crack the rearguard early.

That’s the thing about Melbourne, they are blessed with goal-getting options, and if Adelaide do park the submarine, there’s every hope Hernandez will unleash a rocket from outside to break them down, or Archie will create a piece of magic around the box with his quick feet, or that Muscat or Kemp would provide the requisite penetration or drive to add numbers and movement to Melbourne's attack. That may be enough to break the Reds down.

The hosts have been in wonderful touch at home, while Adelaide has only bagged 6 on the road this season, one of them from the spot and two from defenders. If one thing appears clear, it is highly unlikely the Reds would score more than one (they’ve yet to do it on the road this camaign). Melbourne appears to have more up-front punch, and that should swing it in their favour.

Stay posted for regular updates, and touch base if you have a question or wanna get something off the chest; or alternatively leave a comment below.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Coming up on TRBA - the Grand Final LIVE

Running Analysis of the big one from 6.30pm EDT

CAN'T get a ticket to the game, got no access to pay, radio doesn't do it for you and getting very little from the blow-by-blow commentary out there that barely scratch the surface, then be sure to tune into TRBA before and throughout the grand final for in-depth running analysis. Like Fox, TRBA's coverage kicks-off an hour before the game, at 6.30pm, starting with a dissection of the line-ups, followed by regular thoughts and insight throughout, so if you enjoy having the computer on while you're watching or want to drop by during the break, look forward to seeing you. The aim will be to make it as interactive as possible, so be sure to drop me an email before, during or after the game to, or leave a comment below. Here's to a grand final classic!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Just the tonic

YOU'D be pretty wrapped if you were Ernie Merrick and, on the eve of the gf, heard the national team boss refer to your two main strikers as being 'hopeless' against Indonesia, right?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Playing pragmatic isn’t always a closed shop

NO DOUBT the context of youth and disappointment needs to be factored into an assessment of these words from gun Roar youngster Michael Zullo, but they also emphasise the festering attitude that has been doing the rounds of late; that you can only gain a result by playing positive, go-forward football, all the time.

Let’s get one thing straight for starters. It wasn’t for the whole second half that Adelaide put up the shutters. Indeed, for the first 15 minutes of the second stanza I felt they had a calculated crack at Queensland, with the objective clearly to pinch a second on the counter.

As Andy Harper noted during his commentary about 15 or 20 minutes into the second period, it was a surprise that Adelaide hadn’t tried to shut-up-shop earlier.

The decision, for me, to shut up shop effectively came in the 75th minute, when Cristiano was replaced by Agostino.

The Brazilian is a player capable on playing in a counter-attacking formation, and he almost proved it with an enterprising run and volley from the right-hand edge of the box that was drilled hard at Reddy.

Agostino is an altogether different player, a target man that likes to get on the end of things inside the box. He is more suited to pressing style, when Adelaide are on the front foot and he can hurl himself around, trying to get on the end of crosses. A counter attacker he isn’t.

So, by introducing Agostino, Vidmar was effectively only using him to hassle and pressure the defenders. Adelaide killed any hope of trying to grab a second. That’s when the ‘closed’ sign went up.

And in any case, what’s wrong with attempting to kill the game after going one-up. The reality is that you have to be organised and extremely disciplined to pull it off, and only the best teams have the ability to defend a lead for long periods.

Teams all over the world try to do it. It’s a gamble. Sometimes it works, but often it doesn’t. Italy, for example, has had as much success at defending a lead as they’ve had failures. I vividly remember the 2000 European championship final, when France’s Wiltord banged in an equaliser deep into stoppage time, and Le Bleus went on to win it in extra time. The Azzurri, in clichéd style, had gambled on defending their 1-0 lead and lost.

Aurelio Vidmar gambled on Saturday, had his fair share of luck, and won.

Of course, we all love teams that win with quality and class, none more so than this correspondent, but even the classiest teams often rely on a degree of pragmatism to get what they want.

I remember Barcelona winning their only European cup a few years ago. That belated success was on the back of a pragmatic approach, as I wrote at the time.

One can’t always win playing pretty, and while we love it when it works, very few are successful at it consistently.

Indeed, it’s an admirable quality to be able to acquire results, something that Australian teams (national and club) have traditionally not been very strong at.

There are signs though that we are learning, and learning quick, and Pim Verbeek and Aurelio Vidmar have lead the way in this regard over the past 12 to 18 months.

There was a fair degree of criticism in the blogsphere and beyond about the Socceroos’ cagey, defensive performance on the road in Tokyo. Given the context of the opposition, our preparation and the need to consolidate top spot, some of the comment lacked perspective, I felt.

Catching up with a Czech mate over the weekend, we got talking about Australia’s run. He agreed Verbeek had done an outstanding job in getting Australia to where we are, and sighted an example from his own country ahead of the 1996 European Championships when the then Czech coach Dusan Uhrin and his striker Pavel Kuka said the perfect campaign would entail winning at home and drawing on the road. Sound familiar?

Of course, we now know the Czechs went on to not only qualify for the tourni, but make it all the way to the final, playing some wonderful stuff after doing the job to get to there.

Back in Adelaide, and having calculated their way into the grand final, Vidmar would be best served by adopting a similar strategy; solid and organised across the pitch, tight at the back, with just enough punch in attack to create a chance or two.

Finding that recipe against the Victory has proved difficult this season, but grabbing that first goal might just give them enough belief to defend it.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Irresistible Raul

AS Barcelona was slipping up at home to cross-town rivals Espanyol, Real Madrid continued its wonderful recent run under Juande Ramos (the bloke who was pushed out of London because he apparently can’t coach, only for the “messiah” Harry Redknapp to keep the Spurs within touching distance of relegation). This time it was an outrageous first half performance against Real Betis, which saw Madrid 6-1 up at the break.

It featured another two outrageous pieces of finishing from one of the best strikers of the modern era, Raul. The diminutive Spaniard, who in the past week has gone past Alfredo di Stefano as Real’s all-time leading scorer and Real’s all-time leading La Liga scorer, continues to produce football and finishing of the highest quality.

If you haven’t seen them, check out the overnight goals. Incredible from Raul.

They now take him to within 34 goals of the all-time La Liga record, and at 31, who would bet against him getting them.

Undoubtedly his best football was during the era when Zidane, Hierro, Makelele, Helguera and co. were conquering La Liga and Europe, but his longevity and quality throughout has been the remarkable thing about his career, and the last couple of seasons has seen him re-produce some of his best stuff. Undoubtedly a bonus for the Bernabeu regulars, who could have been forgiven for thinking they’d seen the best of him.

With Klass Jan Huntelaar seamlessly fitting into things of late, there are ominous signs for Rafa Benetiz’s men ahead of this weeks UCL blockbuster.

As for La Liga, this ninth straight win under Ramos and Barca’s slip-up against Ivan de la Pena’s cellar-dwellers sees Real close to within seven points. With Raul and co. in such fine form, Barca might start looking over their shoulder, and if the quality continues to be so high, it will certainly be worth looking at.

For Sir Alex...

THIS short piece is for Sir Alex, regular TRBA reader, who has been proding from his post in Athens for some youtube clips. It's a little late and it's been edited (by 6 passes), but the TRBA goal of the season I wrote about here, is here (the second Perth goal). Fat chance of me writing about the EPL standings at the moment Sir Alex.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

After the rocket it was back to foundations

Preliminary final wrap, AU 1 - QR 0

AFTER all the drama of the last week, the big questions leading into this crucial game were around how Adelaide would respond, both mentally and strategically.

The team we saw over the past fortnight, smashed by Melbourne, looked like it simply didn't want to be there. Unhappy.

At the final whistle last week it looked for all a Melbourne-Roar grand final. Vidmar's rant shifted things, forcing a heart-to-heart between the club and the players, clearing a few gripes (at least for now), and suddenly all the talk was about everyone being back on the same page.

The proof of course would be in the actions on the field tonight.

One way to often gauge the mood of this Adelaide unit is to listen closely to the the pre-match tone of their skipper. It tells much.

Throughout the ACL he was upbeat. Shortly afterwards his tone was tired and lethargic, and his team's performance followed that mood. Against Melbourne, ahead of the major semi second leg, you had no doubt from listening to Dodd speak to Fox in the pre-match that Adelaide had no hope.

Tonight the quietly confident tone was back. Mentally, Adelaide seemed happy again. They were up for it.

Now for the strategy.

For much of the season Adelaide had built it's success on a simple format; 4-2-3-1, defend deep, compete in midfield with three busy central men, keep the ball when you win it and counter swiftly when the opportunities present. Foundation first, attack to follow.

In recent times they had gone away from that template, playing a far more open game. It often comprised of only one holder, Reid, at times in a 4-4-2, with only two central midfielders. Against Melbourne it proved a disaster, with Reid and Pantelis powerless to deal with the movement of Hernandez, Ward, Allsopp, Thompson and Pondeljak. There were holes everywhere, and Hernandez had a field day.

Other times, when Vidmar has played three in central midfield, it's been Reid deep, Barbiero in the half-and-half role and Pantelis as the attacking central midfielder. The emphasis has been on attack, and it hasn't looked balanced.

Here it was return to the more defensive template of the first half of the season, with Salley adding muscle in midfield, Reid playing alongside him and Barbiero playing in the attacking role.

Elsewhere Pantelis was deployed in his rightful place on the flank, while Dodd was restored wide-right.

All three central men were very good, helping suffocate McKay and Murdocca. There was still a little too much space for Nichols, whose mobility, strength and game-sense troubled Adelaide. Nichols had most of the Roar's chances and should learn from a rare off night in front of goal.

Salley in particular was very strong. Interestingly, while most, including me, expected him to sit in the hole, in front of his back four, Salley was often found higher up the midfield. The objective was clear; get in McKay and Murdocca's face. It worked a treat.

The other keys to controlling Queensland were in defence, where Mullen did an outstanding job on Zullo, rarely allowing him to get in behind, while Ognenovski and Cornthwaite took turns in controlling van Dijk. Jamieson had it all over Cernak and was back to his marauding best.

The defensive platform set, the mood back, Adelaide looked like the organised side that had blunted so many sides in Australia and beyond. Barbiero's bomb was enough, despite relying on some good fortune after the late injection of Miller.

As for Queensland, they had most of the better chances and will be guttered not have have made Asia, a place that suits their ambitions (and geography) perhaps more than most.

Adelaide, having finally shaken the finals monkey, can now plan to try and finally get one over Melbourne. Strategically, now that their nullifying template is back, they have a chance, but Vidmar's biggest challenge this week will undoubtedly be the mental side.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Vidmar's brinkmanship?

AFTER all the riveting drama of the past few days, thought it was great to see the subject front up for a couple of interviews on SBS's Extra Time and Fox's Fox Sports FC this evening.

Not dismissing the notion that his outburst may have been pre-conceived, essentially Vidmar said things have been cleared up and that the major issue appeared to be the lack of clarity from the senior club management (ie. the owners) about the strategy for the club.

Likely this applied to the lack of explanation for some of the decisions around players contracts over the past few months, when a succession of senior and key players had either been let go, or where rumoured to be leaving.

Reading between the lines, it appears these decisions have been made at a level well above Vidmar and that those below him (the players) have obviously been scratching their heads trying to gain an understanding on why such decisions have been made. Seemingly, there has been a lack of explanation, or, at least, mixed messages, causing angst.

Vidmar, it appears, has been left in an unenviable position of having to serve his masters (ie. toe the party line) and still try to get the best out of those disgruntled by these decisions. All the while, he is no doubt feeling whatever control he exercised slipping away, and quickly.

Of course, in any organisation, this lack of clarity from above causes discontent, and Vidmar now claims this has been smoothed over through honest and open communication. Interestingly, after Monday's two-hour "crisis meeting", the word was that the owners did most of the talking, with Vidmar adding his bit at the end.

Evidently the playing group wanted to hear from management, and, having done so, they might just be satisfied enough to offer a response on the weekend.

Perhaps this was Vidmar's objective all along. As the two Mike's, Cockerill and Lynch, noted on The Club, perhaps there was no better time for Vidmar to push the button, whatever the outcome; the season seemingly gone, two weeks after being named coach of the year, a few days after being given the keys to the city, with clubs in Asia sounding-out his services.

If Saturday night was in any way calculated, it may yet prove to be a very clever piece of brinkmanship, one that might just save the Reds' season.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Viddy's outburst - reading between the lines

ALL this;
  • one of the best and most experienced defenders in Australian football - Angelo Costanzo - suddenly becoming surplus to requirements half-way through the club's most successful season, one built on a solid defence, which Costanzo was very much a part of,
  • arguably the best holding midfielder of the first seven rounds of the season - Jonas Salley -suddenly lost without a trace,
  • an aging club veteran in Mike Valkanis who hasn't been a part of things of late, mainly because he just isn't good enough any more, gets his odd chance and really struggles,
  • the decision to suddenly release arguably the team's best player over the past two seasons - Diego Walsh - from his contract,
  • the clamour from the likes of Ognenovski and Younis to seek out opportunities in Asia,
  • players who were once first team regulars - the likes of Spagnuolo and Beltrame - no longer a part of things,
  • a marquee player in Paul Agostino who is struggling for game-time makes little to no impression when he does get some game time,
  • skipper Travis Dodd being left out of Pim's Verbeek's A-League selection,
  • the clique that has apparently surfaced around the the Brazilians at the club,
...and no-doubt plenty more (who knows what's going on in the management office and boardroom). While it in no way excuses Vidmar's outburst, it's little wonder, with so much bubbling beneath the surface, he snapped.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Pim’s accumulators making their point

World cup qualifier wrap, Japan 0 – Socceroos 0

THE stall set, a job done, tonight's was another mechanical and methodical performance from a team that has warmed to Pim's process of accumulating points and qualifying.

Far from pretty, but effective, Pim Verbeek is proving himself the master of the clean sheet and the nil-all draw.

For a football nation like ours, young and desperate not to have to wait another 32 years to reach the big dance, it’ll do for now.

Hopefully, if and when we’re there, the football will follow, for the pressure to get out of the group will be there and the clamour for better football will heighten.

Tonight was about earning another point on the road to South Africa, and Verbeek and his men worked the house down to ensure they got it. Yeah, there was a little bit of luck, but for the most part this point was build on incredible work-rate, wonderful organisation and a little bit of half time tinkering.

Verbeek did spring a surprise with his team set-up. Instead of the mooted 4-2-3-1, he went with a Christmas tree 4-3-2-1, with Culina lining up alongside Grella and Valeri in the second line, and Bresciano and Holman playing narrowly in behind Cahill.

It effectively made it a five man midfield, with little or no width. By playing Bresciano and Holman so narrow, Verbeek effectively ceded the flanks to Takeshi Okada, and the quick Uchida took advantage of the space afforded to him down the right.

This forced Chipperfield to step up and meet Uchida around the half-way line every time he received the ball, effectively disrupting the Socceroos back-four shape. The livewire hole-man Tetsuya Tanaka was clever enough to exploit the space in behind Chipperfield, sprinting diagonally and dragging Moore out of position, allowing Japan to get in behind a couple of times. It looked dicey for a while.

As they struggled to keep the ball (Bresciano and Holman were the most culpable), the pressure and fouls mounted on the Socceroos, Holman guilty of giving away a few. Fortunately Nakamura and Endo weren’t able to find the magic ball, and for all the Blue Samurai’s possession and control, they failed to trouble Schwarzer.

This was largely down to the resilient scrambling and reading of the game of Neill and Moore, outstanding throughout, and the incredible work-rate and commitment of the men around them.

Verbeek should also take further credit for adjusting things at the break. Recognising Uchida’s influence, he asked Valeri to step up and meet him, thus allowing Chipperfield to sit with the back four, and keep the shape.

It worked a treat, Chipperfield outstanding in the second period as Japan’s threat down the right waned.

On the other side Wilkshire was a monster, from start to finish, while the holding trio of Grella, Culina and Valeri shuttled their way to a stand-still, affording very little freedom to the Japan midfield. Only the Endo strike from the edge of the box, strongly dealt with by Schwarzer, comes to mind.

Otherwise, every Socceroo was in touch.

Now Verbeek’s men really are within touching distance of South Africa, six points ahead of third place. If the stay as organised and focussed, it will be a matter of process and few more clean sheets.

Perhaps the football and planning for South Africa will start once enough points have been accumulated.

As for Japan, all the talk of this game being a must-win was well off the mark. The point will do. Certainly, on this form, they are still good enough to finish top two and reach another World Cup.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Pim’s puzzler – the strategy for Japan

World cup qualifier preview, Japan v Socceroos

A FEW little selection puzzlers for Pim ahead of tomorrow night’s crucial world cup qualifier, and as usual, how the manager shuffles the deck will decide how much the Socceroos come away with.

Give the short preparation, with the whole squad only together for a day or so, anything more that a point would be an almighty achievement, especially in light of the fact the Blue Samurai have reportedly been together for weeks.

‘Win at home, draw on the road’ has been the Verbeek mantra since day one, and his away selections and strategies, but for an attacking minded outlook in Qatar in the first phase, have generally followed the philosophy.

Cram the midfield, play with one up front (often a midfielder) and get the wide men funneling back into the midfield in order to deny the opposition space. When in possession, keep the ball, but don’t commit too many men forward at any one time. It’s often calculated, safety first football, and it’s hard to fault the manager when you look at where he has the Socceroos almost a year and a half out from South Africa.

It is hard to see Verbeek veering too far away from that, especially against a Japanese side stacked with neat ball-playing midfielders of the ilk of Yasuhito Endo and Shunsuke Nakamura.

Give guys of this quality time on the ball and it’s carve-up time. Give them too many set pieces and the aerial powerhouses Tulio Tanaka and Nakazawa (he of Gamba fame) will be licking their lips.

The Japanese philosophy is generally fairly predictable, and it’s built on patient keep-ball play, with the ball moved from side to side, allowing the wing-backs to involve themselves in the forward thrusts. When the ball is out wide, at the feet of a wing-back, a midfielder will go out to meet him and try and create an overload. They then try to break teams down through some intricate play in an around the box.

It’s often picturesque stuff, but its success or otherwise often depends on the pace at which the ball is moved.

At the Asian Cup, under the tutelage of Ivica Osim, that movement of the ball was nice to watch, but too often failed to result in anything meaningful in the final third. Put simply, the ball movement was too slow.

As such, it will be interesting to see tomorrow how swiftly Japan can move the ball, and whether they can make an impression on the structure of the Socceroos, which has, in the main, been well organised (at least from a defensive perspective) under Verbeek.

The Socceroos will do everything humanly possible to disrupt this rhythm, which is why we can expect Verbeek to again stack his midfield. The interesting thing will be to see how high up the pitch the Socceroos press, for the Japanese can certainly pull you apart if you press too high.

Let’s face it, a draw would not prove too terminal to either side, and as such I wouldn’t expect either side to go full throttle for 90 minutes.

Perhaps Verbeek though, sensing a bit of unease from his counterpart Takeshi Okada and looking to apply the killer blow, will have an early crack at the Japanese, for surely an early Socceroos goal would really shake the Japanese.

Conversely, Japan, knowing the Socceroos haven’t had the greatest preparation, should come out firing and try and get on the board before the Roos shape settles into a familiar pattern.

The tactics, and the battle to see who can wrestle the initiative, should make for fascinating viewing.

As such, much will be told by Verbeek’s 11, and while he has the potential to spring a surprise, it would be a surprise if he did.

For starters, the back three picks itself, with Schwarzer behind a central duo of Moore and Neill. If Chipperfield is deemed fit, he starts. If not, it’s a risky start for Carney, or maybe a better defensive option like North or Coyne.

Wilkshire seems the obvious choice at right back, but with Emerton out higher up the pitch, Verbeek, if he want the totally suffocate Japan, might deem Wilkshire necessary in midfield, which might open up right back for someone like North. Neill could also play on the right, or left, for that matter.

In midfield, away from home, there seemed little doubt Verbeek would go for twin holders Vinnie and Mini-Vinnie, Grella and Valeri, however the news filtering out of Japan (via Fox Sports FC) about Grella limping out of training throws that plan in doubt.

If he doesn't pull through, the options are plenty. Jedinak could be a straight swap, but the more likely option would see Culina slotting in alongside Valeri, which would mean Verbeek has to find an extra body for his midfield.

One option is to bring Cahill back into midfield and bring in Kennedy (or McDonald) up front, or push Wilkshire into midfield and leave Cahill up front, as had originally been mooted.

If Cahill does play in midfield, it is likely that Holman will be shifted to the right, and asked to break forward along with Bresciano on the left.

If Verbeek is really bold he could start Sterjovski on the right, but the noises emanating out of the camp suggest the attacking options like Sterjovski, Kennedy and McDonald will be kept for later.

While the options are bountiful, the likelihood is Verbeek will go for a familiar look, and that could just be enough to suffocate the game and give the Socceroos the draw they covet. A scoreless one for me.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

TRBA's A-League gongs, season 4

IT's been a frantic few days in the football world, here and aboard, with players and coaches, big and small, coming and going, but a few moments to reflect on the major gongs from the A-League's night of nights on Monday, where TRBA was on hand at The Ivy.

Johnny Warren medal; the evenness of the teams and the evenness of the playing standard meant this year was perhaps the hardest to pick the winner since the inaugural one, when Bobby Despotovski surprised many. Nick Carle and Joel Griffiths were lay-down miseres in versions 2 and 3, but this season there was a far more even spread, with the quality of football and the quality of the footballers far improved. For the record, I felt Craig Moore might just sneak it, which isn't to say the golden boot wasn't a deserving winner. Indeed, too often Smeltz stood out for the 'Nix, and clearly he did it all with enough class to impress the opposition. Speaking to Billy Celeski on the red carpet ahead of the announcement, he felt the Queensland duo Moore and Miller would be right in the mix, while one could also have made strong cases for the likes of Galekovic, Ognenovski, Jamieson, Reid, Dodd, Celeski himself, Cassio, Jedinak, Simon, Caceres, Rukavystya, van Dijk, Murdocca, Dadi, Pellegrino, Cole, Sigmund and a fair few more. Anyway, congratulations to the Johnny Warren medalist on an outstanding season and a deserved award.

Goal of the season; Earlier in season, within the space of 24 hours, we saw two clear candidates for goal of the season, one a brilliant individual goal, the other an even better team goal. Not surprisingly it was the individual goal which won, a trend we see right around the English speaking world. For me, as great as Smeltz's goal was, it doesn't touch Rukavytsya's team goal, not even close. Perth involved a touch from every outfield player. Anyway, after receiving the award I asked Smeltz if he'd had whisper into the ear of the player he'd burnt in taking his goal of the season, or whether he'd wait for the pre-season, when he and Michael Thwaite would be teammates (or will they?). Smeltz, not hinting of any move to Turkey, said he might have a quiet word in the pre-season, but modestly noted that few defenders would have been able to do anything about his spin. Too true.

Rising star; in an excellent year for the kids, Jamieson stood out just above Rukavytsya for mine, as much for his consistency as his class coming forward. At one stage, before he tapered off in the final five or so rounds, I felt he was right in the running for player of the season, not that someone his age was likely to win that. While Rukavystya was at times breathtaking in the second half of the season, Jamieson was the more consistent. The others to really impress were Jets duo Elrich and Kantarovski, Roar trio DeVere, Zullo and Minniecon, and Adelaide kids Barbiero and Mullen (and what about the performance of Michael Marone in the final round?), who came from nowhere. Dumped John Kosmina unearthed a number of exciting kids in Ryan Grant, Brendan Gan and Kofi Danning.

Goalkeeper of the year; easy choice that of Eugene Galekovic, a key part of the A-League's meanest defence.

Coach of the year; ditto, Aurelio Vidmar was the obvious choice. Hard to believe that a year ago, having missed the finals in his first year, there were calls for his head. As I've noted numerous times on this blog, this is when he started building from the back, and it has been some wonderful construction over the past 12 months. One of the biggest features of his work is the fact he isn't afraid to make the tough calls by getting rid of the likes of Petta, Costanzo, Spagnuolo and Diego, at a time when others (especially Sydney) have stuck for too long. It is a point I asked him about after he claimed the award. He admitted it was the toughest part of the game, but in the manner that is fast becoming characteristic matter-of-fact Vidmar, he said it had to be done (in a nice way, of course). His ability to build and rejuvenate has been impressive.

Import of the year; this was by far the best crop of imports yet. Last year everyone went Brazilian. Prior to that it was far too British (remember the quality of the likes of Sean Devine and Steve McMahon Jr?). While there is room for so many more Asians (the likes of Thonglao, so impressive at the Asian Cup), at least this season there was something resembling an even spread, and the (far from) wee Scot Charile Miller is a deserving winner. Earlier in the season he was the Roar's front third, until the likes of van Dijk, Zullo, Minniecon and Nichols took over in the final third of the campaign. Van Dijk has been killing 'em of late, while Adelaide's Brazilians Cassio, Cristiano and Diego impressed at various times, as did Ney Fabiano before that spitting incident. Sydney's Terry McFlynn was outstanding in the front half of the season.

Referee of the year; Matthew Breeze won it, but for me the best was Strebre Delovski, who demonstrated that you don't have to run around brandishing cards, and that all A-League games don't need to resemble a heavyweight bout (take note Ben Williams). Breeze singled out his "friend" for praise after receiving his award, and the fact Delovski gets the major semi this weekend means he's being highly thought of by the new referees boss.

So there are a few thoughts from yours truly on what I believe has been the best A-League season yet as far as playing standards are concerned. Perhaps all the off-field dramas are for another day (we might need a month), but it's crystal clear the buzz around the league has dipped markedly in season 4. Thankfully the early signs for season 5 are good, with the likes of Miron, Fowler, Palmer, Milicevic, Culina (x2), Okon, de Groot, Traktovenko, Barlow, Mattheson and Lavicka (and Zach) offering plenty of intrigue, even if others take flight to Asia. In the meantime though there's a finals campaign to follow, and on current form it's hard to look past the top three, who look too close to split. Who's been practising their penalties?