30 January 2006

Round Twenty Report

The final four have been decided. All that remains to be determined is who will finish second and gain the opportunity to meet Adelaide in the major semi-final.

Losses to Perth and Melbourne shut them out of the finals for good, while condemning Queensland in the process. After mauling the Jets 5-0, the Roar will feel unluckiest of the teams outside the top four. If the Mariners had drawn with Victory (they won 3-1), Queensland would at least have been able to determine their own destiny with a win over the Mariners in the final round next week. Sydney shut the door on the Roar's only other way into the finals when they beat Perth 2-1 away from home, effectively ending Glory's season as well as Queensland's.

What we do know is that Adelaide has asked to host the first leg of their semi-final. Sydney, Central Coast or Newcastle will travel to Adelaide, who have made long road trips to Perth and New Zealand in the past three weeks. With points no longer required, John Kosmina has been resting some of his key players and giving of his younger players a more extensive run. It'll be the tried and tested veterans who he calls upon to take out the championship, however. Veart, Costanzo, Valkanis, Rech, Qu, Aloisi, Dodd and Alagich have been as good as anybody in their positions in the league this season. But with Sydney looking to have recovered their lost form, the Mariners playing as strong and well as ever and Newcastle capable of taking out anyone on their day, the job is far from over for Adelaide's key men.

As for the Knights, Victory, Glory and Roar, the post-season analysis has well and truly begun. Contracts are the probably biggest talking points, with something like 50% of the playing and coaching staffs far from assured of their spots for next year. Can the clubs afford to terminate long-term contracts and bring in new blood? That remains to be seen. Considering the lengthy recruitment process for the A-League, which lasted some 18 months or more, it's not as if there are loads of talented players in the local market just waiting to be spotted and picked up. We're meant to be seeing the best of the best already. So if drastic makeovers are to occur, you have to imagine that club's will be very interested in bringing in more players from overseas.

For the four remaining clubs, offseason dramas can be put on hold for the time being. The hullabaloo over matters off the pitch can hopefully be nudged aside for the sake of quality football on the pitch. It might be too much to hope for a tight finals series, free of absurdly hot days or washed out spectacles, but at the very least we've got to expect some moments of brilliance. I'm not a fan of the finals format, but I have to admit these occasions can be upheld for the way they sort out the fakers from the legends. Over the coming weeks, I wonder who's going to bring it?

Best of Round Twenty:

Player: Ruben Zadkovich (pictured, while playing for Notts County) - a thrilling debut highlighted with hard running, silky touches and a great goal

U-20 Player: Ruben Zadkovich

Coach: Lawrie McKinna - getting his team over the line and delivering a finals blow to Queensland in the process

Match: Newcastle United Jets vs Queensland Roar

Referee: Simon Przydacz

Goal: Ruben Zadkovich - wonderful buildup, including Petrovski's flick out the back, and a terrific looping finish into the top corner (just topping Matt McKay's low drive in the Jets rout)

4-4-2 Team of the Week:

Alex Brosque - Fernando Rech
Ruben Zadkovich - Steve Corica - Noel Spencer - Massimo Murdocca
Dean Heffernan - Michael Valkanis - Mark Rudan - Spase Dilevski
Clint Bolton

Subs: Josh McCloughan, Lucas Pantelis, Jonathan Richter, Danny Vukovic

27 January 2006

Five Goal Curse?

Melbourne shocked the league when they did it. Perth accomplished the feat away from home a week earlier. Sydney have done it too. Now the three teams that have scored five goals in a match this season against an opponent currently in the running for the finals have been joined by Queensland after the Roar belted Newcastle 5-0 on Australia Day.

In each case, the result has been a winning margin of four or five goals. Demolition jobs against quality opposition. However, as it now stands part way through Round Twenty, all four teams who've pulled off the remarkable effort face intriguing battles to remain in contention for the finals. Indeed, if my maths are correct two of the four definitely won't make it and a third is very unlikely to do so.

In comparison, minor premiers Adelaide have managed four goals, but only once in a relatively slender two goal victory over Queensland, a team currently outside the top four. The rest of their campaign has been founded on solid defense and decent one-goal victories, e.g. the 3-2 versus Sydney in Round Fourteen.

The message is simple. Score all the goals you want in a one match wonder, but it's results over twenty-one games that matter. Chalk it up as another reason why Adelaide deserve all their success this season.

25 January 2006

Merrick, Bleiberg, Littbarski to Get the Boot?

Have your say:

Sack Merrick - over 250 signatures! (Update: and now closed.)

Sack Miron

Sack Pierre

Surprisingly, there doesn't appear to be an Internet campaign to sack John Adshead. Let me know if you find one.

23 January 2006

Round Nineteen Report

Seven teams are still in contention for the finals, but only five stand a realistic chance of qualifying. Following their classy 1-0 victory over Melbourne and Sydney's capitulation to Queensland, Newcastle now look certain to join Adelaide in the major semi-final as second place finishers. Amazingly, Sydney's spot in the final four is still under threat, and while they're very unlikely to miss out it seems that there is still a surprise or two left in this home-and-away series. Perth kept their finals aspirations alive with a superb 4-1 drubbing of the Knights, a result that has them in fifth with two difficult matches against Sydney and Newcastle remaining. The Mariners will fancy their chances of staying in fourth given that their last two games are against lower placed opposition in Melbourne and Queensland. But both those teams remain in the hunt if numerous other results go their way. Back in Round One, we expected a close finish to the season. With the exception of high flyers Adelaide and cellar dwellers New Zealand, we're seeing exactly that. Considering the high stakes, it won't be surprising at all if several players earn suspensions from accumulated yellows or outright reds in the next two weeks. Since only Adelaide can cruise into the finals, they would do well to minimise the injuries and suspensions that can totally derail a do-or-die finals campaign.

A special dunce award this week for referee Neil Fox's assistant on Perth Glory's attacking flank in the Auckland match who gave Damian Mori offside following Bobby Despotovski's blocked shot on goal in the 31st minute. Whatever the referee's assistant was up to at that moment, it can't have had much to do with stayling in line with the last Knights defender nor even watching the match. A good three or four metres on side when the ball was struck, Mori can feel mollified that the ludicrously disallowed goal had no outcome on the final result. If Perth fail to qualify for the finals due to a solitary goal on goal difference, it'll be quite a different story.

Best of Round Nineteen:

Player: Alex Brosque (pictured) - difficult to overlook the contribution of his two goals in the upset win over Sydney

U-20 Player: Stuart Musialik

Coach: Alan Vest - dealing with multiple injuries, suspensions and question marks over his and his club's future and annihilating the Knights after the long, long flight from Perth to Auckland

Match: Adelaide United vs Central Coast Mariners

Referee: Matthew Breeze

Goal: Naum Sekulovski - his first goal, a well executed volley from Coyne's lofted ball after a terrific late run into the box

4-4-2 Team of the Week:

Alex Brosque - Bobby Despotovski
Naum Sekulovski - Stuart Musialik - Kevin Muscat - Massimo Murdocca
Alvin Ceccoli - Michael Valkanis - Mark Rudan - Jade North
Liam Reddy

Subs: Danny Hay, Noah Hickey, Jonathan Richter, Michael Theoklitos

20 January 2006

Player Exodus?

Following Archie Thompson's loan move to PSV, there has been a stampede of players leaving or requesting loan moves away from their A-League clubs.

Perth Glory has received an offer from Kallithea (currently propping up the top flight in Greece) for Simon Colosimo. FCU Poli Timisoara (4th in Divizia A), who are coached by Romanian legend Gheorghe Hagi, have enquired into the availability of Sydney FC quartet Sasho Petrovski, David Carney, Iain Fyfe and Dwight Yorke. Michael Baird will be released from his two-year contract at the end of the season in order to pursue a career with Universitatea Craiova (1st in Divizia B Serie II), the same team that snatched Karl Dodd from the Roar just before the transfer deadline.

Still in Queensland, Jordan Simpson has cut ties with the Roar. Officially, he is returning to hometown Sydney in order to move closer to his family and pursue academic studies. According to the Courier Mail, however, it seems that Simpson's relationship with Miron Bleiberg may have been a large factor in the decision. Simpson's twin brother Tyler remains with the Roar.

So long as Perth remain in contention, Colosimo will probably be asked to stay. Likewise the players from Sydney, who will certainly be featuring in the finals. But as more sides fade out of championship contention over the coming weeks, the rate of players leaving their clubs is likely to increase. With a transfer deadline that extends until the day of the A-League final, Romania will remain an attractive option for players, both those seeking a transfer and others wishing a loan move before the World Cup. It's also apparent that many players on one-year contracts will not have their deals extended as clubs reassess their financial positions and goals for next season. A mass return of players to the state leagues could well be on the cards.

Those Pesky Spies

I wonder whose leg Jairo Leal is pulling?
Brazilian spies report on Socceroos

Weighty files on Brazil's World Cup rivals, including the Socceroos, will be handed over to coach Carlos Alberto Parreira this week in a sign the champions are leaving no stone unturned in pursuit of a successful defence of their title.

The dossiers were compiled by Jairo dos Santos and Jairo Leal - the two 'spies' commissioned by the Brazil Football Federation to undertake the information gathering exercise.

"It's incredible, Jairo dos Santos has carried out painstaking work on all the teams," Jairo Leal told the O Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper.

"He shows where the player comes from, his age, his weight, and how he's played over the past few matches. He's put together an extensive file."

Incredible work, indeed. These comments must have been spoken like a true spy, with a deadpan facial expression and suggestive raising of the eyebrows. If such a dossier exists, I imagine it contains quite a bit more information than one could extract from the latest version of the Football Manager computer game!

A cursory glance of this relatively cheap data repository tells us that Harry Kewell was born in Sydney, Australia on September 22, 1978. He is 181 cm tall and weighs in at a rippling 75 kg. Kewell has played for Leeds and Liverpool in the English Premiership. We can deduce that Kewell is a winger with a penchant for the dribble. He can cross and shoot with equal effectiveness. His distribution is comparable with a high quality central midfielder. His work rate is average but, his movement off the ball is exceptional. Above all, he is a highly creative and skillful player on the ball. Weaknesses include a tendency to lack concentration and determination in meaningless games, occasionally catching himself out of position, and a defensive game that doesn't stand up to his attacking prowess. He is not the best corner taker nor a distinct threat from the free kick. Using my extensive insider knowledge of world football amassed from countless years 'spying' on the game, I note that Kewell was last seen cracking a fantastic left-footed goal on the volley in front of the Kop.

Not so painstaking, even with the minor subjective embellishments. Of course, the game could tell us just as much about Ricky Diaco, but some things have to be kept in perspective around here...

18 January 2006

Structural Changes?

The Age has reported that the FFA is considering a later start to the competition next season, but not a later finishing date nor a longer format with more games played.

The later start (October 6 has been mooted) will be countered with the absence of a mid-season break in December due to the non-participation of an A-League club at the Club World Championships, if indeed that tournament remains in existence.

Pay TV rights holder Fox Sports has indicated its preference for a relatively short season, nixing the players union's hopes for a longer one. In defence of Fox, the FFA has come up with the rather bizarre notion that over-familiarity with opposition clubs will turn supporters away, thus agreeing that three home-and-away matches between each club is better than four. I find this lack of faith in the tolerance of fans quite disturbing, and have to believe it's a rather thinly veiled disguise for a different concern. This is pure speculation, but perhaps it's the fear of ongoing (training, matchday) expenses exerting too much pressure on a club drawing tiny gate receipts and thus leading to an insolvency.

Something we can hope for, at least, is a straight reversal of the home-and-away fixtures from this season, which for instance has seen Sydney and Adelaide come to Melbourne just once each during the regular season.

Other suggested changes include keeping the squad size limit of 20 players, while re-examining the requirement for three of those players to be aged under-20. Hypothetically, a club may need to release three overage players simply to make room for three new underage signings just to meet the restriction. Obviously that is a costly and undesirable situation. Over time, we're probably going to get closer to a youth or reserve league for the involvement of fringe players. Working out a cost-effective and competitive format will be quite difficult. And of course the FFA also needs to keep in mind what will happen once expansion becomes a reality. Further down the track, a B-League with a promotion and relegation system could evolve. All of these factors will no doubt entail an emphasis on the development of youth, especially if some kind of Aime Jacquet and/or Guus Hiddink-inspired revolution sweeps through the country.

The implementation of what The Age has called a "rookie list" would be a small step in that direction. It seems most clubs already allow promising young players the chance to train with them, sans any form of contractual obligation. A fellow like Ruben Zadkovich is essentially a Sydney FC player in waiting, with only the league's player restriction rules (and the lack of an injured first teamer) standing between him and a contract. Incorporating a standby system into the regulations would allow the league to scrap the dodgy injury replacement system and give juniors and other fringe players the opportunity to rotate in and out of the side, on and off the list. Maybe what's needed is a new tier in the contract system - a division between full-time and part-time players, with perhaps a bunch of currently full-time players having their contracts downgraded to make way for a similar number of new part-timers. The FFA could set minimum and maximum numbers of players for each, while the market can determine the level of pay needed to satisfy the player and the additional restriction of the salary cap.

17 January 2006

Round Eighteen Report

It was a week that witnessed Adelaide all but wrap up the minor premiership (what's so 'minor' about coming on top after 21 games rather than just one game in the final?) and Queensland fall out of serious contention following a crucial loss to Melbourne. Mathematically, every team except New Zealand can still make the finals series, but only given a slew of highly unlikely results over the next three weeks.

Stuart Young finally got his chance to start a game after spending the bulk of the season watching on from the sidelines, grandstand or living room. Late in the match, ex-Knights captain Danny Hay joined Young up front in a makeshift Glory forward line that beared no resemblence to the fearful attacking unit of weeks past. It was a sign of how far the league has come since that Perth evening on August 26 last year when Noel Spencer's thunderous 30-yard dinger past Jason Petkovic's helpless gaze opened proceedings with a touch of the spectacular.

Adelaide have got some tough assignments over the coming weeks, which equates to either excellent or dangerous preparation for them. Following a home game against the other form team of the competition, the Mariners, they travel across the Tasman and then over to Sydney for what shapes up as a potential pre-Grand Final showdown. I still find it hard to believe how well they've performed this year and how good fortune has arisen at all the proper moments in their quest for goals and victories. Of course they are an excellent, professional and dedicated team, travelling better than Sydney at the moment. But we all know it only takes one bad week for a negative turn in form and morale. They're not across the line yet, and it will take all their oft-vaunted iron will to walk away with the A-League frisbee - I mean trophy - come the fifth of March.

It's almost impossible to imagine Queensland, Melbourne or Perth making it all the way to that date with destiny. All three will probably miss the finals completely, but if by some quirk of scheduling, referee error, or mercurial skill one happens to earn a spot in the final four at the expense of Sydney, Newcastle or Central Coast then a quick exit after the first home-and-away semi-finals is surely what awaits. Queensland continue to look thoroughly out of sorts in front of goal, Melbourne have just lost their best player to Europe and seem under-equipped in midfield, while the length of Perth's injury list defies even the cosy luxuries of the suspect injury replacement system.

Which is not to say that the league's "better half" haven't their own problems. Off-field distractions like the not-so-small matter of Pierre Littbarski's expensive contract extension seem to be hurting Sydney's bid for second place. Newcastle can't put two decent results together and their 3-0 scoreline over the Knights on the weekend was quite flattering. Pound-for-pound the Jets can match it with anybody, but at various times their attitude, style and teamwork just don't seem to click. Richard Money has been a fairly low profile coach throughout the season. I wonder if he'll increase his rate of exchange with the media as we approach the do-or-die end of the campaign? As for the Mariners, they now have to contend with a fresh injury since it looks like winger-turned-striker John Hutchinson has been rubbed out for months after suffering ligament damage in his knee. Will it be one too many critical injuries for the Mariners, or can they dig deep into their squad and surprise the league with another diamond in the rough, e.g. Jamie McMaster?

Finally, has anyone else noticed how Graham Arnold's commentary for Foxtel has become quite intriguing vis-a-vis gaining an understand of who he has mind for national team selection from the pool of players based in the A-League? His well founded praise for Alex Brosque has been heard all year, but lately Arnold has lit up a cigar for Pondeljak, Valkanis, Bolton and a few other fringe Socceroos. I'm sure he also wishes that Andre Gumprecht had already gained his citizenship!

Best of Round Eighteen:

Player: Stuart Young (pictured) - grim determination and strong play from the 'debutante' after a frustrating season

U-20 Player: Mark Milligan

Coach: John Kosmina - hard to overlook after a minor premiership clinching away win in Perth

Match: Sydney FC vs Central Coast Mariners

Referee: Perry Mur

Goal: Tom Pondeljak - a lengthy gallop, then just when it seemed he'd missed the opportunity to shoot another deft turn to find space resulted in an accurate push into the left corner

4-4-2 Team of the Week:

Stuart Young - Danny Allsopp
David Carney - Nick Carle - Ross Aloisi - Zenon Caravella
Remo Buess - Josh McCloughan - Alan Picken - Richie Alagich
Danny Vukovic

Subs: Mark Milligan, Tom Pondeljak, Shengqing Qu, Michael Theoklitos

13 January 2006

A Trophy of Sorts


It's a frisbee. A donut. A toilet seat. Wear it around your neck or perhaps, if your head is big enough, on your temples like a laurel wreath. Wrap some razor wire around the edge and wield it like a weapon ala the Predator or Oddjob. If Sydney win will it be nicknamed the 'Bling Ring'? Will hundreds of fans throw cheap plastic frisbees onto the field during the trophy presentation as a sign of protest? Some of these and other hilarious comments about the A-League's newly designed trophy can be found on the Sydney FC-Unofficial forum.

The official statement from the FFA reminds us that issues of difference and divergence remain the key marketing hooks of their vision for football development in Australia:
In the end, the panel of judges felt the D3 design would best reflected the brand values of 'New Football' and could easily become intrinsically and enduringly linked with the Hyundai A-League.

The aim has always been to develop a trophy that is both prestigious and enduring, but also differentiates the Hyundai A-league competition from the other sports. We have a new national league and we feel it is important to re-define the conventional view of a trophy to reflect this.

Let's hope that all of this breaking with convention doesn't go so far as to include some of Miron Bleiberg's suggestions to "improve" the game itself.

For the record, I didn't vote for the frisbee in the public poll, but it certainly wasn't because one of the other four options was far superior. (The option that looked like an Olympic torch was a sad farce indeed. Imagine the captain running a celebratory lap with that glorified stick in hand! He'd be lucky to make it back to the podium without being mugged.) Now that we're lumped with the strangest looking piece of silverware in the country, I'm more than happy to embrace its publicity and freakshow values.

But, I sincerely hope Ross Aloisi doesn't wear it around his neck.

'Volcano' for the Green and Gold?

Michael Valkanis has probably been the standout central defender in the league this season. No wonder Graham Arnold is thinking of selecting him for the Socceroos squad to face Bahrain. There are a few other guys who are no doubt in the running, e.g. Michael Beauchamp, Iain Fyfe, Jacob Timpano, Adrian Leijer, possibly even the formerly unheralded Alan Picken. But it's hard to think of someone more deserving than Valkanis, a workhorse who has epitomised Adelaide's incredibly successful season with his ferocious commitment and timely goals. What an excellent reward it would be if he is chosen to partner, say, Craig Moore in the heart of the national team's defence versus a strong Bahrain outfit with plenty to prove after being pipped-at-the-post in their World Cup qualification campaign.

11 January 2006

Melbourne Hustlers Rebuff PSV

Archie Thompson might still be headed for PSV but Melbourne Victory's counter offer has ensured that the deal will be anything but a steal for the Dutch champions.

Melbourne has refused the initial offer from PSV, which involved a six month loan arrangement with PSV paying 100% of Thompson's wages, an option to purchase Thompson for $500,000 at the end of the contract, and a 20% cut of any future transfer deal involving Thompson.

The counter offer requests that (1) the transfer fee remain negotiable at the end of the six months, and (2) a fee of 100,000 euros be paid to Melbourne if PSV's option to sign Thompson is not carried out. This proposed arrangement would allow Melbourne to extract a higher fee for Thompson should he be a revelation at PSV, perhaps even in a sale to another bidder on the open transfer market. It also protects the club against the possibility of injury, poor form and the like. According to the original offer, if Thompson doesn't make it for whatever reason then PSV has simply lost a few dollars in wage payments, while Melbourne has lost arguably its biggest asset and drawcard just before a desperate plunge for the finals. It remains to be seen if PSV consider this form of guaranteed compensation realistic within the terms of a loan arrangement.

You have to feel for the player amid all of this business interaction. There's no doubt Archie prefers to be with PSV in the build up to the World Cup.

There is perhaps another answer to the dilemma. Why not just loan out Thompson with no clause regarding his subsequent purchase? After six months, if PSV or any other club want him they can make an offer. I know it sounds too simple and totally unsexy, but given the complicated circumstances (Melbourne can still mathematically finish second on the ladder!) maybe it's worth considering -- especially if PSV rejects the latest counter offer.

Who knows what's going to happen now. Maybe PSV will turn around and offer a $1 million bid for outright purchase of Archie, which is close to the sum total (inclusive wages and re-sale share) of the initial offer anyway. Or perhaps they'll decline and look elsewhere. I wonder what's going through the mind of Guus Hiddink right now, who as much as anyone is probably quite helpless to the machinations going on between PSV and Melbourne's administrators.

10 January 2006

Round Seventeen Report

It was a fantastic week in terms of bumper crowds, but not such a good one as far as spectacular football goes. With drab matches all around the league, it's difficult to discuss highlights. Sydney and Newcastle epitomised the high stakes tension when their desire to gain points was cancelled out by the fear of losing any. Melbourne's finals dash has all but whimpered to a halt after their unspectacular 1-0 loss in Adelaide. The most important item on the agenda for Victory this week is whether or not to immediately accept PSV's offer for Archie Thompson or (foolishly I would think) negotiate better terms. Perth somehow manufactured a truly pathetic display in their encounter with Queensland. Running out comfortable 2-0 winners, the formerly goal shy Roar have offered hope to their patient fans and with three home games to come they might just be an outside chance for the top four. Next week Queensland hosts Melbourne in what is shaping up as a desperate battle. Finally, the Mariners had a fortuitious win over the Knights, who for the fifth game in a row have either drawn with their opponents or lost by the narrowest of margins. Dean Heffernan was the stoppage time hero, giving Central Coast fans a little more comfort over the next few harrowing weeks.

Regarding the healthy attendances, it was the best turnout since Round 13 and the highest so far when only one of the top three crowd pullers (Sydney, Queensland, Melbourne) played at home. If not for the rain in Gosford (again!), the figures would be even more impressive. Over the remaining rounds there will be a few barometer matchups leading into the finals, when the FFA will be hoping for record sellout crowds. Perth hosts Adelaide next week in a match they must look to gain something from. If the Glory faifhful aren't willing to turn up for the league leaders, a team they've historically done very well against, I'm not sure where Perth will stand in the final analysis of this season's home ticket sales. Sydney and Queensland have massive home games next week against the Mariners and Victory respectively. Roar faces Sydney at home in Round 19, a match that's certain to draw in more than 20,000 viewers, while Adelaide hosts the Mariners in what looks to me one of the potential games of the season. In Round 20 the Knights have a chance to boost their overall average atttendance when they host the table toppers, while Perth gets another chance to view the Dwight Yorke show the next day. Then in the final round of the season two showcase matches stand out, both of which may be critical to the championship aspirations of the teams involved. Sydney and Adelaide do battle at Aussie Stadium in a showdown between two teams most likely to face each other two or three more times in the finals. Then in Newcastle, the Jets and Perth will face off in a kockdown drama that could well decide fourth spot on the table.

All of this suggests an increase in average attendances across the league. Currently a shave under 11,000 per game and three-quarters of a million in total, I think we can be quite hopeful of eclipsing 11,500 per game, comfortably over one million total admissions, once the finals series concludes. (If the Knights home matches are taken out of the equation, the overall figure for matches played in Australia will get close to 12,500, i.e. approximately what the FFA aimed for at the start of the season when "ten to fifteen thousand" was an often quoted objective.)

Best of Round Seventeen:

Player: Lucas Pantelis (pictured) - plenty of enterprising work from the flanker

U-20 Player: David Micevski - sterling debut from the Perth youngster who was among the best on ground

Coach: John Adshead - shrewd defensive tactics are playing a big part in the revival of the Knights

Match: Central Coast Mariners vs New Zealand Knights

Referee: Mark Shield

Goal: Dean Heffernan - an important goal, well controlled and placed into the corner with a fairly cunning low drive

4-4-2 Team of the Week:

Alex Brosque - Archie Thompson
Lucas Pantelis - Terry McFlynn - Zenon Caravella - Massimo Murdocca
Dean Heffernan - Alan Picken - Michael Valkanis - Jade North
Liam Reddy

Subs: Simon Colosimo, David Micevski, Ante Milicic, Glen Moss

9 January 2006

Hiddink Swoops for Archie

Have we seen the last of Archie Thompson? Having lost 1-0 to Adelaide, Victory seem sure to accept PSV's offer purchase the striker, which will secure him a home in the buildup to the World Cup.

It's been a brilliant freewheeling season for Thompson, who has climbed into the upper echelons of national team selection and been a wonderful ambassador for the A-League in its nascent days. Considering their fiscal problems, Melbourne can certainly use the money from the sale, rumoured to be as much as $1 million. Whether or not the Thompson deal will focus the attention of other European clubs on Australia is questionable, though. Given Hiddink's involvement with the Australian national team and the substantial gap between the end of the A-League season and the start of the World Cup, the pending Thompson transfer is a unique situation. Of all the players in the league he is the most likely to make Hiddink's finals squad. Petrovski, Bolton, Fyfe, Colosimo, Beauchamp, North, Brosque and the rest would probably not be adequate first team performers for PSV nor many other upper-tier clubs in the largest European leagues. As the Karl Dodd departure to a second-tier team in Romania reminded us, however, the majority of our home based players are almost always thinking about a career Europe. One of our priorities for the FFA, then, will be trying to make sure we attract as many players back from overseas as possible in order to offset the inevitable flood of quality talent moving abroad. Whether the likes of Viduka, Schwarzer and Kewell would ever want to play - or even live - in Australia again is seriously debatable. But as the recent return of Jamie McMaster has happily demonstrated, the exceptions are far outweighed by the norm. Tracking potential returnees will be a very interesting aspect of the offseason.

5 January 2006

Round Sixteen Report

For fans, it was a welcome return to action for the A-Leaguers after what felt like a long December break (but was only a few weeks). Among the players, a few hangovers and cobwebs were evident, which may have also had something to do with the extreme pressure surrounding the handful of remaining matches. Over the next few weeks, the stakes are highest for Perth, Central Coast and Melbourne but the table is so tight that only Adelaide and New Zealand are really free of the psychological baggage associated with the demand for finals qualification. Round Sixteen didn't really shape up as a turning point for all of those teams, but given some of the extraordinary results it may well have important ramifications as we approach February.

The Knights pulled off the surprise of the round, drawing 2-2 with an over-confident Sydney FC thanks to a late equaliser from starlet Jeremy Brockie. The late appearance of substitute Neil Emblen as a target man up front derailed Sydney's momentum, forcing them to defend (what?!) and in the process lose track of mobile forwards like Brockie and Kris Bright. It was a great display from the Knights, who have usually appeared out-classed even when they've picked up a win or another draw. I'm still not sure they can finish with more than double-figure points, but it looks like every team visiting Auckland will at least be made to work a lot harder to take anything away from the Knights. It's just a shame that in the eyes of so many fans and critical observers the damage has already been done, i.e. the Knights remain loathed and unwanted. Pulling off a stunning victory to wreck the finals aspirations of another club would be a big morale boost for the team and its supporters. At home to Perth in Round Nineteen seems the most likely candidate, a match that may well see ex-Knights captain Danny Hay return to the A-League in the white and purple away attire of the Glory.

Another shock over the weekend was Newcastle's 4-1 capitulation to Central Coast. Before this round, the Jets were of the opinion that a win against Adelaide in Round Fifteen would have all but secured for them a spot in the finals. The rise of the Mariners and the likelihood that Perth will continue to achieve decent results over the coming weeks now means that the Jets top four aspirations are under threat. Poorer goal difference compared to their closest rivals may hurt them in the final analysis, a statistic not helped by their thrashing at the hands of the extremely motivated and fit Mariners outfit. I don't think the Mariners can achieve the second spot they're aiming for, but third on the table is not by any means a far fetched proposal. I can't wait for the appearance of Jamie McMaster in their midfield, nor to see what happens with their suddenly congested forward line. It's an embarrassment of riches for Lawrie McKinna, one that augers very well for a solid run at the title. Their visit to Adelaide in Round Nineteen is one of the major highlights of the remaining program.

Melbourne's life got very difficult with its failure to top Perth at home. The 2-2 draw was not the required result, given the difficulty of their mostly away-based run through Janurary. Glory would be happy to capture a point, which came in quite comical circumstances courtesy of a Bobby Despotovski special. Having had his powerful header saved by Michael Theoklitos, Despotovski face down on the ground in front of goal. When the blocked ball returned to him, he raised his legs and trapped it between his thighs before plonking it on the ground 'below his crack' as Graham Arnold put it. Following up behind the striker, Nick Ward overcame the desire to drive the ball over the line along with the man in front of it and deftly chipped it over the top of the now advanced Theoklitos. It all looked pretty comical, but Despotovski's insight and awareness may have kept them in the finals hunt. (Jamie Harnwell's point blank rejection of a Michael Ferrante's goal bound shot also warrants more than just a pat on the back.)

Queensland can kiss their season goodbye after losing 4-2 to Adelaide in a match they led early on and lost in dizzying eleven minute spell featuring the multiple talents of Adelaide's ferocious forward line. In full flight, the 'train wreck' combination of Rech and Qu is something to behold and only a team capable of shutting one or both of them down for ninety minutes will have any chance of winning the championship. The unveiling of Reinaldo Elias de Costa was a modest success for the Roar and it will be interesting to see if they seek his services in the longer term. With the long layoff between the end of the finals and the start of next season, it does seem unlikely that players such as Reinaldo will stick around to enjoy the Australian winter. Miron Bleiberg will also be thinking about his career, with poor results and supporter disgruntlement epitomised in campaigns such as www.SackMiron.cjb.net giving chairman John Ribot plenty to think about over the coming weeks.

Best of Round Sixteen:

Player: Kristian Sarkies (pictured) - benched far too often this season and out to prove his manager wrong

U-20 Player: Kristian Sarkies

Coach: Lawrie McKinna - regardless of the hot weather, demolishing Money's Jets with his relentless pass-and-move attacking tactics

Match: Melbourne Victory vs Perth Glory

Referee: Mark Shield

Goal: Archie Thompson - Qu's chip was fantastic and Brockie's volley quite brilliant, but both were clearer chances than Archie's, which required a bit of work off the right thigh before a left-footed smash into the bottom corner

4-4-2 Team of the Week:

Shengqing Qu - Archie Thompson
Damien Brown - Kristian Sarkies - Andre Gumprecht - Rich Kitzbichler
David Tarka - Jamie Harnwell - John Tambouras - Darren Bazeley
Danny Vukovic

Subs: Michael Valkanis, John Hutchinson, Vaughan Coveny, Glen Moss