26 September 2005

Round Five Report

Unbalanced by one massive crowd in Brisbane and a decent turnout in Melbourne, overall attendance continued to remain fairly high through this week's action. If it would only stop raining! Most of us, I'm sure, simply can't wait for the start of summer, with many of us also looking forward to the end of other football codes in all the states.

In a couple of week's time I will prepare a report based on the first major arc of the season, covering the opening seven weeks where each team will have played one another once. I figure that by that time we'll know quite a bit about the structure and performance of the league. It's a little surprising, however, that some general trends have already started to emerge. Crowds are probably a lot better than most of us would have imagined. Player focus and intensity is extremely high, with referees sometimes struggling to keep a tight reign on proceedings. It has also been confirmed that on any particular day, any team can win. The Knights bizarre victory over the Mariners has been the biggest surprise, but we've also seen definite final four contenders like Sydney, Central Coast and Newcastle win one week and lose the next, as the playing field continues to demonstrate how even it is. With games against the Jets and Mariners coming up, all of a sudden it's Queensland who look in a spot of trouble; how strange that is after all the exciting football they've delivered so far! Media coverage is up and down, as expected, with some truly woeful journalism accompanying respectful evaluations of the country's greatest ever professional football league. Meanwhile, table toppers Adelaide are a massive surprise packet. Their tactical defensive style, one that puts points on the board ahead of beauty and elegance, seems to be indicative of a burgeoning international pattern if recent grumblings in the EPL are to be taken seriously.

One thing is for sure, there's plenty to follow for lovers of the round ball game.

Best of Round Five:

Player: Steve Corica (pictured) - two superbly-taken goals from the fired up midfield maestro

U-20 Player: Kristian Sarkies - proving he's more than just a free kick specialist

Coach: Ernie Merrick - pulling out Melbourne's first win while under intense criticism for his tactics and lack of showtime experience

Match: Melbourne Victory vs Newcastle United Jets

Referee: Craig Zetter

Goal: Terry McFlynn - faking out two Roar defenders and stylishly chipping over the advanced Willis with his left boot

4-4-2 Team of the Week:

Bobby Despotovski - Archie Thompson
Andy Vlahos - Nick Carle - Steve Corica - David Carney
Kevin Muscat - Jamie Harnwell - Michael Valkanis - Josh McCloughan
Liam Reddy

Subs: Ronnie Bull, Kristian Sarkies, Daniel Allsopp, Glen Moss

23 September 2005

Dead Air

Why is there no national radio coverage of A-League matches? Live streaming on Radio2 seems to have dried up since the opening week, which means fans are bound to Foxtel for their fix of all the live interstate action. There has to be free national delivery platform made available to A-League desperados, if only as an aural alternative to the Foxtel commentary team!

Sydney and Queensland fans have it even worse, hit by a total blackout when it comes to radio coverage of A-League matches.

Clubs of the A-League and Football Federation Australia please don't bind us to our televisions, nor our country's monopolist Pay TV service. I've heard of people listening to the live stream via the Internet from Singapore! How are diehard fans like those expected to follow their teams when radio is consigned to the technological scrapheap?

20 September 2005

Roster Fodder?

Who is in the gaffer's bad books?

We've heard a lot of opinions about the limitations of the 20-player roster forced on A-League clubs. However, not much has been said about the putative dead weight lurking on quite a few of the squad lists. Following is a brief rundown of the non-injured, outfield players over the age of 20 who are yet to kick a ball in the A-League, starting with the most conspicuous:

- Alejandro Salazar (Sydney): even in extreme striker-less circumstances, Littbarski has shown no confidence in the former US college baller

- Steve Laurie (Sydney): no love from Litti for Laurie either; apparently he is bound for Scotland, where he must be pretty well connected

- Stuart Young (Perth): nobody's talking, but clearly Young has been the instigator/victim of some very bad blood with coach McMahon

- Daniel Vasilevski (Perth): made it to the bench, but seems surplus to McMahon's requirements

- Paul O'Grady (Central Coast): with semmingly no way past the Beauchamp and Clark blockade, the experienced defender may only get to see a smidgeon of action

- Frank van Eijs (New Zealand): the least media-exposed foreigner in the league has ... gone fishing?

While plenty of youth players, reserve goalkeepers and injured unfortunates have also failed to get on the park so far, in all likelihood their time will come. But for one reason or another, this rather 'exclusive' group of non-performers seem to have no such hope.

Round Four Report

Referees were under fire this week as red cards flashed again, foul counts remained high and coaches vented some steam against the universally disliked men in yellow. Positively, crowds topped 46,000 as Sydney and Queensland fans demonstrated the strength of their support with large turnouts for the second time. Sydney were embarrassed by the Noel Spencer's looping 92nd minute goal for the Mariners, Adelaide overcame a bizarre own goal to win yet again, Victory and the Roar fought out a controversial draw, and Newcastle pounded a miserable New Zealand. As a reult, ladder positions have started to stretch apart a little but with 17 rounds of football left in the season there're oodles of opportunities remaining for the strugglers.

It was also an active week for transfers. Shin Tae-yong pulled a Van Basten when he decided that his ankle has already taken enough punishment in his long, distinguished career. Similar to recently retired Aurelio Vidmar, Shin will now become an assistant coach for the Roar. Replacing Vidmar in Adelaide, Fernando Rech has agreed to resume relations with Kosmina, a partnership that once netted Rech the Australian footballer of the year award. Finally, Adelaide resident Damian Mori has at last come to terms with an A-League club. Presumably signed as yet another injury replacement, Mori will turn out for Perth Glory over the coming weeks.

With other sporting competitions drawing to a close, A-League football is primed for a secondary boost in the wake of its already impressive launch. Sunny days and balmy nights await the supporters over summer, which will surely increase crowd figures - hopefully in the smaller pockets (Mariners, Newcastle, Knights) as well as the largest. Here's hoping we ain't seen nothing yet.

Best of Round Four:

Player: Ross Aloisi (pictured) - telling contributions in the middle of the park (every week!) and a cracking goal on the hop

U-20 Player: Stuart Musialik - putting a diving header into the back of the net and commanding the midfield in tandem with Richard Johnson

Coach: Richard Money - injecting exuberance into a once stagnant, always talented team who're firing on all cylinders at last

Match: Sydney FC vs Central Coast Mariners

Referee: Matthew Breeze

Goal: Michael Baird - from a pinpoint Alex Brosque cross, perfectly angling a volley past a helpless Theoklitos

4-4-2 Team of the Week:

Danny Allsop - Dwight Yorke
Matt Thompson - Seo Hyuk-soo - Ross Aloisi - Hiroyuki Ishida
Alvin Ceccoli - Michael Valkanis - Ned Zelic - Wayne O'Sullivan
John Crawley

Subs: Scott Miller, Stuart Musialik, Alex Brosque, Tom Willis

19 September 2005

Player Eligibility Fiasco at the U-17 World Championships

Due to a horrendous misunderstanding between FIFA and the FFA, seventeen year-old striker David Williams has been ruled ineligible to play for Australia at the U-17 World Championships in Peru. Williams was a member of the Australian U-20 squad that failed to advance past the round robin stage of the U-20 WYC in Holland earlier this year. He never made it onto the field in Ange Postecoglou's conservative lone striker system. But due to his presence in the U-20 squad, Williams comes under a new FIFA ruling that bars players from backwardly participating in the world youth tournaments.

Williams is considered one of the stars of the U-17 team. Currently he is unafilliated with any A-League team, but Queensland Roar was known to be tracking him early in their roster preparations (currently Williams trains and plays with the Queensland Academy of Sport). He will almost certainly continue to represent Australia in the future. But for now, through no fault of his own he has been forced (by coaching decision and by administrative error) to miss out on two World Cups in the space of a few months!

How does something like this happen?!

As I understand the current FIFA regulations, Williams will thankfully be allowed to represent Australia again at the U-20 level. But the next WYC is two years away, and two years for a seventeen year-old is like an eternity. Let's just hope our national officials over in Peru have some idea how to mollify a miserable teenager. They certainly seem to have none when it comes to reading a rulebook and/or negotiating with FIFA's arbitrators.

Meanwhile, after losing 1-0 to Turkey the U-17s will have to find a way to bang in a goal or several in their remaining two games. A task made all the more difficult without one of their leading lights up front, and within the confines of Postecoglou's high workrate setup that favours automatons over individual talents. But let's hope the boys can do it, if only to negate Andrew Orsatti's unfavourable, Fozzie-copying 'report' concerning their technical capabilities.

13 September 2005

Injury Replacements

What do Alan Picken, Spase Dilevski, Jeremy Christie, Adrian Caceres (pictured) and Johnny Buonavoglia have in common? Wearing #21 or #22, they've all seen game action as replacements for long-term injured players. The contributions of Picken, Dilevski and Caceres in particular have been quite substantial, with each playing full games and putting in performances among the best on ground.

So what's going on here? In light of their small 20-man rosters, clubs have found it tough to deal with injuries. In order to put a competitive team on the park, coaches have called on specialist replacements to fill specific voids in their lineups. Non-rostered players can have an immediate impact because they fulfill a certain necessary function. But this practice might leave some rostered players scratching their heads. I wonder how Alejandro Salazar felt when Buonavoglia was selected on the bench instead of him for the New Zealand game? What does Todd Gava think about Dilevski seizing the spot on the right defensive flank? When Naum Sekulovski returns from his niggling injury will coach McMahon continue to select Caceres as the left attacking midfielder?

The issue here is whether the short-term contract replacement system is the fairest way for the FFA to allow club's to deal with injuries to full-time squad members. I don't know for sure, but I assume replacement contracts come at the bottom end of the wage scale, and thus present a desirable option for management. (I assume these contracts also lie outside the 20-player $1.5 million salary cap.) By negotiating a low wage with a desperate state leaguer or an out-of-contract returning international, clubs have been able to secure talented players for a premium, players that have slotted straight into a first-team role.

Is this fair on other clubs who have not been troubled with injuries or chosen not to employ a replacement? Perhaps fairness is not the right context for the issue. Is it unprofessional? Does it tarnish the reputation of the league? Should clubs be allowed to positively gain from an injury? To pose a hypothetical situation, what if an injury is used to enable a club to sign a superstar on a megabucks short-term contract? This may seem a bit far fetched, but would a club actually prefer to have a fringe player ruled out for several weeks so they could pick up a useful, or possibly an exceptional, short-term replacement? Would this be good for the league and simply tough luck on the injured roster player? Or would it seem a tad distasteful? Wrong?

The FFA certainly has a lot to think about concerning the future of the salary cap and the limitation on the size of the roster (a 'strict' law that the replacement system proves is already quite flexible).

12 September 2005

Round Three Report

Crowds declined again as the finals in other codes heated up and the smaller A-League markets dominated this round's home turf, but this was an important week as winless clubs got desperate and the pack jockeyed for position on the ladder. Some savage action was fought out across the land, as three red cards were handed out along with a spate of yellows.

While Richie Alagich, Steve Corica and Mateo Corbo will be spending some time on the sidelines in the future, to varying degrees of effect some other seemingly permanent benchwarmers were promoted into the starting lineup. Robbie Middleby, Scott Higgins, Tyler Simpson and Ricky Diaco may not have done enough to remain the apple of their respective coaches' eyes, but Labinot Haliti, Steve Pantelidis, Adrian Leijer, Aaron Goulding and Matthew Kemp all put in solid performances to exert some pressure on the pecking order at their clubs.

Spectacular goals dried up some this weekend, but top bill strikers Yorke, Milicic and Despotovski (with a brace and a missed penalty) stepped up the top goal scorer competition a notch with some fine finishes. The goalkeepers shone yet again, with Danny Milosevic and Jason Petkovic in particular surviving a near ceaseless bombardment of their area. I don't think there's too much doubt that our goalies are among the best in any league in the world - growing up among other sports that develop hand-eye coordinaton is surely a big reason why we've developed so many fantastic shot stoppers. Unfortunately, they also conspire to keep scores low. Will we see a 7 or 8 goal match anytime soon?

Melbourne Chairman Geoff Lord must hope so. Lord was definitely wary of miserable tallies from his accountants when he vented some steam after his side lost to a gutsy but relentlessly defensive Adelaide. While crowds matter, results matter too, and after Alagich was sent off
United coach Kosmina had few options but to try and secure the points. Even though the Reds are the unlikely ladder helmers at the moment, Lord's bitterness shouldn't be misconstrued as a case of cellar-dweller envy. Indeed, we all want exciting, attacking football. But imagine if similar comments were extended towards Australia's World Cup campaign, where according to Lord's logic it wouldn't matter if we made it to Germany or not so long as we banged in a few goals? That'd be dangerous talk in these woods, pilgrim. So, yes let's be concered about the quality of the attraction (football) and the financially detrimental effects of 'boring' defensive attitudes, but above all let's keep one eye on the bigger picture, eh? There's a competition to be won and lost and while it's early days yet every point counts. With so much at stake (e.g. qualification to the Asian Champions League), winners will most definitely be grinners. Besides, there's always next week, Mr Lord.

Best of Round Three:

Player: Danny Hay (pictured) - dealing with late inclusion due to a groin injury and captaining the Knights to their first victory

U-20 Player: Adrian Leijer - another solid deputisation for Mark Byrnes

Coach: John Adshead - keeping the faith and extracting a miraculous victory against both the odds and the run of play

Match: Perth Glory vs Queensland Roar

Referee: Matthew Breeze

Goal: Dwight Yorke - lurking on the edge of the box, taking a deft touch and rapidly firing home with consummate ease

4-4-2 Team of the Week:

Ante Milicic - Bobby Despotovski
Nick Carle - Angelo Costanzo - Andre Gumprecht - Matt Thompson
Kevin Muscat - Ned Zelic - Danny Hay - Jade North
Danny Milosevic

Subs: Michael Valkanis, Ross Aloisi, Michael Baird, Jason Petkovic

5 September 2005

Round Two Report

The weather turned, crowds were down and national team commitments robbed the league of some its major attractions, but the standard of football remained high and almost 45,000 fans witnessed some enthralling, energetic clashes over the Father's Day weekend.

By losing to Sydney, the Knights find themselves on the bottom of the table, a position from which they may never rise - at least according to some observers. In fact, they are playing quite well and given a few more games should be able to challenge the mid-table teams. Defensive woes seem to be the major problem for them, with both their starting centre backs already collecting injuries. Import Simon Yeo showed a few glimpses of what he is capable of, and combined with Zenon Caravella, Joshua Rose, Noah Hickey and Sean Devine the Knights offer fairly potent attacking ability.

Sydney still don't look like the maurading, runaway champions that so many news outlets predicted they would be. It will be very interesting to see how they hold up near the end of the season, given they've had the most extensive longest pre-season (which included a trip to the Middle East) and will feature in the World Club Championships.

If Adelaide and Queensland had managed to score a goal a piece, their match would have been a ripper. The first 0-0 draw in the league was a bit of downer for the spectators, who were nevertheless treated to some spectacular long-range bombardment and aggressive midfield play. Roar's Korean import Seo Hyuk-seo is quickly proving himself one of the outstanding form players in the competition. Wouldn't it be interesting if one day we could have a Local vs. International matchup between the stars of the A-League?

The big derby match was a washout, quite literally. Featuring fewer than 6,000 spectators brave enough to face the cold, wind and drizzle, the game failed to spark to life or promote much interest in the media. Ante Milicic scored, but still hasn't shown anywhere near the form expected of him by the Jets. Ned Zelic finally put together a solid performance, and Nick Carle stepped it up another notch, but the Jets still have a long way to go if they're going to challenge for the title. Without Tom Pondeljak, the Mariners struggled early, but their fitness, speed and genuine class in the middle of the park slowly overpowered the opposition - a story that will repeat itself time and again this season.

Melbourne Victory administrators must have been extremely pleased with the tremendous sellout crowd at Olympic Park. A once-off 30% reduction in the ticket price helped some, as hundreds of fans were reportedly turned away as the gates closed more than an hour before kickoff! If this is a true indication of the level of support the club can count on every week, the new stadium (without a running track!) can't be built soon enough. The coach and players would have been less impressed with the 2-2 scoreline, which flattered an underachieving Perth Glory. If not for a bit of Bobby Despotovski magic and an unfortunate drop by keeper Eugene Galekovic (who might be lucky to hold his spot in Merrick's rotation system) and some good saves from Jason Petkovic in the first-half, Victory would have coasted to an easy win.

It was another promising weekend for the A-League, though perhaps one with few significant highlights. Kinder weather and the lack of competing football codes throughout summer should ensure that total attendance remains steady around the 45,000 mark, with marked improvement a strong possibility. And if the national team can keep developing under Guus Hiddink and put on the show of their lives against Columbia, Uruguay or Chile (who do you prefer?) late in the year, we will be headed to Germany and the game of football might just start to fly in this country.

Best of Round Two:

Player: Nick Carle (pictured) - more than a few times, almost single-handedly stealing the match from the Mariners

U-20 Player: Spase Dilevski - running riot on the flank in the early stages of the match

Coach: Lawrie McKinna - half-time adjustments that finally compensated for the late withdrawal of Pondeljak

Match: Melbourne Victory vs Perth Glory

Referee: Matthew Breeze

Goal: Robbie Middleby - aggressively challenging for the ball in the air, regaining his footing before the defender, chasing down the ball and after a couple of touches striking it sweetly into the bottom left corner from 25 metres

4-4-2 Team of the Week:

Alex Brosque - Brian Deane
Adrian Caceres - Nick Carle - Seo Hyuk-soo - Massimo Murdocca
Kevin Muscat - Ned Zelic - Michael Beauchamp - Richie Alagich
Daniel Beltrame

Subs: Chad Gibson, Angelo Costanzo, Steve Corica, Clint Bolton

1 September 2005

It's Derby Time!

Match of the Round: Central Coast Mariners vs Newcastle United Jets

After Nick Mrdja smahed Andrew Durante's leg in the Club World Championship and the Mariners knocked the Jets out of the competition, will it be payback time? But wait, there's more! It could be brother vs brother as Nick and Leo Carle, supposedly not on speaking terms, lineup on opposite sides of the field. Will McKinna give the mohwaked-one a run before the 90 mins draw to an end? Will the first exchange of words between the siblings involve Leo serving up a savage aesthetic critique of Nick's so far less than useful heel-flicks? Will Kevin Muscat enjoy watching Nick enter a challenge on Leo with studs up and stomping action primed?

The Mariners are on a huge high after winning the Pre-Season Cup and emerging victorious from a tepid encounter with Perth, a match with few highs that nevertheless produced one of the greatest on the league's opening weekend: Noel Spencer's stunning goal from the deep.

Newcastle are already reeling after an ordinary performance at home to Adelaide saw them drop valuable points. Big guns Zelic, Milicic and Carle are yet to fire. Novocastrians want them to, need them to, demand that they do.

The smart money is on the Mariners, but indications are that this is going to be a league full of first-year surprises. My conservative tip is a toughly fought draw, but hopefully one with an early goal to open up the game. And let's hope the brothers Carle can sort things out and show us some of the sublime football talent they both possess!