28 June 2006

Ward Finally Sold to QPR

Perth Glory are set to receive a six-figure sum for the sale of 21-year-old Nick Ward to English Championship team Queens Park Rangers.

Ward has already trialled in England with Leicester in recent months, suggesting his desire to make a name for himself in the UK rather than grind out another season in the West with a coachless and directionless team. Ward was disappointed that he wasn't selected as one of the six members of Guus Hiddink's shadow trial squad for the World Cup, a situation that may have influenced his decision to relocate in Europe.

To make up for the loss of Ward, the FFA will hope that Stan Lazaridis opts for Perth rather than Adelaide when Lazaridis decides which of the A-League clubs he prefers to join to end his playing career. If he does join Perth, it mightn't be crazy to throw Lazaridis' name into the hat when it comes time to draw out the name of the club's new coach.

Former Ajax Amsterdam and Barcelona assistant Gerard van der Lem is the latest coach indicating his willingness to take on the role, a much higher profile individual in the context of world football than many of the local coaches who have also put their names forward (Eddie Krncevic, Branko Culina, David Mitchell, Gary Phillips, Jean Paul de Marigny, etc).

27 June 2006

Ultra-Late Penalty Ends Australia's Cup Run

The defeat was just about the cruelest imaginable for Australia this morning, as Fabio Grosso earned his side a dubious 95th minute penalty for Francesco Totti to tuck into the top left corner of Mark Schwarzer's net. There was no come from behind draw this time, with the final whistle blown directly after the winning goal. The 1-0 result puts Italy in the quarter-final against Ukraine, a team Australia would have fancied its chances against. Australia were literally seconds away from taking the match to extra-time, when their superior fitness, man advantage after the sending off of Marco Materazzi, and tactical maneuvers courtesy of Guus Hiddink might have come into play in a more striking fashion than they did in regulation time and produced a better result.

Harry Kewell did not make the lineup nor did he suit up for an appearance off the bench. It emerged later that over the past few days Kewell has been suffering from gout in his left foot, an extraordinary new addition to his plethora of awfully-timed injuries. Australia missed Kewell's incisive attacking skills as they failed time and again to create a clean break through Italy's defence.

In midfield, Australia ruled supreme for large periods of the match, especially after the direct sending off of Materrazi (another dubious decision from the referee, who otherwise performed admirably). Scott Chipperfield had yet another remarkable game, lunging in the box to stop Italian strikes on goal and roaming forward from defence in bids to counter attack switfly. Lucas Neill was the unfortunate victim of the penalty decision, the only negative against his name in the entire tournament. Let's hope history remembers his heroic displays rather than his slightly misjudged early slide to block Grosso's path to goal. With Kewell sidelined, Australia needed a big match from Marco Bresciano or Tim Cahill, but unfortunately didn't get it. Neither was able to escape the focused man marking of Italy in crucial sections of the pitch. Bresciano's quick plunge towards goal brought about the reckless Materazzi challenge that led to the Italian's red card, but no similar chances fell his way again. John Aloisi looked dangerous when he came on in the 80th minute, attempting a spectacular overhead kick that would have graced cover stories in a 100 years time had he made contact and scored. Hiddink seemed to hold back from making any further substitutions and tactical re-arrangements until extra-time, a period that never arrived thanks to the referee's eager whistle blowing.

Ultimately, this match may leave a positive legacy for the game in Australia. Perhaps it was better to play well and lose controversially to a force in world football than capitulate meakly or fail to score over the course of 120 minutes and lose on penalty kicks. The result was in many ways expected, yet the way it occured was a tragedy not to be forgotten. Painful losses have only made the Australian team tougher in the past, leaving a bitter taste our players have been desperate to wash away in the sweet joy of victory. How refreshing it was to hear 34-year-old Mark Schwarzer declare himself prepared to fight on for the next 2010 World Cup in South Africa. There has been ample talk of players, including Schwarzer, retiring after this campaign. Hopefully his determination to make up for the heart-breaking loss to Italy speaks for many of the others as well.

23 June 2006

Wobbly Performance Gets Australia Through

Australia were sloppy at times, panic stricken near the death and at the mercy of one of the worst refereeing performances in the history of the World Cup, but have snuck through to the second round thanks to a comeback 2-2 draw against Croatia.

There were no architects of the result, no supremos in the Australian team, just a committed group of players who kept grinding away at the twice-taken lead of the Croatian outfit. Craig Moore and Lucas Neill were again large at the back, the senior partner rounding out his solid evening with an late goal-saving clearance from inside the six yard box. Harry Kewell found his shooting boots at last, scoring the late equaliser to send us through. Guus Hiddink erred in starting Zeljko Kalac in goals, the big man spilling a cross before making a horrible misjudgement to let in the second Croatian goal. Hiddink made up for his and Kalac's mistakes with a perfect choice of substitutes. On came John Aloisi, whose presence around the box lifted pressure from a fading Mark Viduka. The introduction of Marco Bresciano fixed one of our biggest problems on the night, the delivery of set-pieces. Bresciano's silky corners and crossing wrecked havoc, dramatically improving the likelihood of Australia grabbing a goal. Joshua Kennedy made an impact too. All of a sudden, high balls sent into the box from deep in defence became the norm. For a long while the ploy didn't work, as Croatia dealt with the flighted attacks effortlessly. Then suddenly, Kewell snuck in behind Kennedy's tall frame to receive Aloisi's headed flick on, taking a fabulous touch to create a volley that he dutifully hammered into the far corner.

The defensive might of Italy awaits in the second round. Following its impressive attacking performances in the World Cup, Australia has every reason to enter the match full of confidence. It will be important for Hiddink to tone down the premature celebrations of the players and re-focus their energies on the latter stages. The world's top teams treat the group stages as a mere formality on the march to the knockout phase, a mentality we ought to embrace if we wish to capitalise on the talents of this golden generation and progress further.

20 June 2006

Kewell Cleared

Switched on the TV at just the right moment, hearing notice that Harry Kewell has been cleared from the after match incident against Brazil and may play in Australia's crunch match against Croatia.

Great news, but will Hiddink play him?

Signings Struck, Bidders Denied

In case you weren't aware, David Carney has re-signed with Sydney FC for at least another year. Sydney now have a full complement of twenty players ready for next season, although they are entitled to add one more given that Dwight Yorke is a marquee. With such a strong squad assembled, and at quite a premium when you consider the huge salaries of David Zdrilic and Ufuk Talay, it seems they might not bother.

Surprise, surprise, fellow Grand Finalists the Central Coast Mariners are the next closest to sorting out their playing staff for the commencement of the second A-League season. If it turns out that stability proves one of the keys to a successful campaign, both teams have made good progress for 2006-07 already. Adelaide, the Minor Premiers, have made far more changes than either Sydney or the Mariners, but many of the players who have departed saw very little action last season. Most importantly, the Reds will be searching for a top striker to replace Shengqinq Qu. It would be astonishing if they manage to sign primary target, John Aloisi. It has been all quiet regarding Paul Agostino, lately, which has me wondering what Adelaide secondary options are?

At the other end of the scale, the New Zealand Knights still require five new signings if they intend to start the season with a full squad. On paper, the team they have brought together looks more competitive than last year's abominable outfit. They ought to slide some strikers into the picture soon, since the notion of Sean Devine prowling singlehandedly across A-League backlines next season is preposterous. Hopefully there's room under the salary cap for at least a couple of decent forwards, otherwise the Knights will be staring down the barrel of another fruitless A-League odyssey.

The transfer market has to come to halt during the World Cup, but in a couple of weeks the European market will open and the tournament will be over. No doubt, transfer activity will heat up and the majority of A-League clubs will come complete their squads soon after.

I guess the other big news over the past few days has been the non-announcement of Perth Glory's new owner. Citing a lack of satisfactory ownership bids, the FFA has decided to continue overseeing the club until a suitable buyer can be found. Apparently the only consortium interested in purchasing the club is unwelcome. Now all the FFA has to do is ... well, anything really, to suggest that their involvement in the club is more than cosmetic. Like New Zealand, Perth require five new players but unlike the Knights have made made no new signings for several weeks. Furthermore, their only significant acquisition since last year is Leo Bertos, a New Zealand international who still has a lot to prove at the domestic level. If the FFA fail in their bid to attract Stan Lazaridis to Perth, which seems quite likely at this point, it will raise a few concerns surrounding the extent of their efforts to help Perth remain competitive. Perhaps signing Lazaridis shouldn't even be the top priority, which surely has to involve the hopeless lack of form of Simon Colosimo last year. Signing a new coach who can improve Colosimo's attitude and help bring him back to the level of Australia's elite defensive midfielders would be a good next step for Glory and the FFA.

19 June 2006

Draw Needed After Two Goal Loss

Australia were unlucky to concede twice and fail in their numerous efforts to score in overnight's loss against Brazil. In managing to press the World Champions for the bulk of the match, Australia seemed to have done enough to earn a draw or even snatch an unlikely victory.

Time and again the Brazilian defense was penetrated, but Kewell, Bresciano, Culina and Viduka were unable to provide a final killer blow to put the ball in the net. In contrast, Brazil capitalised on the space given to Ronaldinho for one instant, as he supplied a straight ball for Ronaldo to hold and attract defenders before laying off to Adriano for the finish.

One-nil down but with a three goal buffer over Croatia in the group, Australia carried on with the fight to get something out of the match. Kewell spurned the best opportunity of the encounter, hoofing a snap shot over the crossbar after a Dida error presented Kewell with an open goal. It's doesn't seem Kewell's style to mull over what-ifs, but he might be forced to re-live that moment for years to come. Kewell's later long-range effort over Dida's head brought back memories of some of his fantastic goals for Leeds, but also made it perfectly clear that he lacks the speed and precision of those glory years. Bresciano almost pulled off a miraculous scissor-kick, not quite catching the sweet spot of a descending high ball and thus enabling Dida time to stretch and save. Fred's tap in to finish the match was a cruel blow for Australia, but also a natural result of Hiddink's determination to push forward and end the game once more with only one recognised defender, Lucas Neill. At some point the luck earned against Japan had to run out. The entrance of the lively Robinho for the struggling Ronaldo settled the matter, his pace and agility a stark contrast to Ronaldo's lumbering power.

The best news for Australia was the absence of suspensions for the quartet on yellow cards after the match against Japan. Moore and Cahill were dragged from the match early, probably with a view to protecting them for Croatia, while Grella somehow escaped caution after leaving some nasty gouge marks to the side of Ronaldo's shin. Aloisi barely got himself involved in the match, a testament to Brazil's defensive organisation during the crunch period of the final minutes.

With Robert Kovac suspended and hot tempers flaring in the Croatian camp, Australia must enter the match confident of securing a berth in the second round and creating another astonishing moment in Australian sports history. It won't be easy by any means. Croatia are a mercurial outfit, just as capable of punishing Australia for any laziness or mistakes at the back as they are of wilting under the pressure and missing golden opportunities. An early goal for Australia would make it incredibly tough for Croatia, who would need to score twice to advance, but we all remember the outcome after Australia created a two goal cushion against Iran in 1997.

15 June 2006

Football Frenzy Heads North

While all eyes remain locked on the World Cup, Central Coast and Melbourne will take part in their first competitive fixture for several months when they face each other in Saturday's opening match of the North Queensland Challenge Trophy.

Their two other opponents in the round robin tournament are the U-20 Young Socceroos and Chinese team, Changchun Yatai, who currently sit in second position in the Super League behind runaway leaders Shandong Luneng.

For the Mariners, Wayne O'Sullivan is out injured (ankle), but may feature in the latter stages of the tournament. Captain Noel Spencer is also suffering from a mild injury (knee) but is scheduled to take part. This will be the first big test for Central Coast since the double loss of Michael Beauchamp and Dean Heffernan, so it will be highly interesting to see how Lawrie McKinna has re-shaped the team defensively. Striker Adam Kwasnik, who still has much to prove following a less than stellar season off the bench, is coming off a hat-trick against third-tier state league opposition. If Andre Gumprecht and Tom Pondeljak are in good form, it's tough to see the Mariners getting beaten.

Melbourne welcome back Kristian Sarkies from Socceroos duty and enter the tournament full of confidence after a series of good results against Victorian state league opponents. Fred and Claudinho, the new signings from Brazil, will be out to please the Rockhampton and Townsville crowds, who will hopefully number in the several thousands for each match. Along with Fred, Adrian Caceres is the in form Victory player. In terms of player contracts, Melbourne have not remained as stable as the Mariners during the off season, but given the quality of the new signings they should be competitive and push the Mariners for the trophy. Sixteen year-old midfielders Paul Giannou (singled out by Brank Culina as a player to watch) and Bonel Obradevic from the AIS have travelled with the team.

The Young Socceroos were embarrassed by the New Zealand U-20s recently and thus don't factor as resilient opposition even though they have a good historical record against A-League teams. Goalkeeper Alex Vrteski from Perth Glory and defender Wade Oostendorp from Sydney FC are the only A-Leaguers in the regular U-20s squad, which has already qualified for the finals of the AFC Youth Championship. They will face the U-20s of China in the group stage of that tournament, perhaps explaining and justifying their place in the Challenge Trophy.

(Update (Jun-17): While Vrteski made it into the squad, Oostendorp did not. Tarek Elrich from the Newcastle United Jets is, however. David Williams (Brondby), Scott Jamieson (Bolton) and Cameron Watson (Porto) have also been selected, significantly improving the squad from that which faced New Zealand.)

I can't confess to know much about Changchun Yatai save that a few Honduran players are peppered throughout their squad, and that they don't enter the tournament with good form having lost their last two matches before the mid-season break in the CSL. You would have to think that a top flight Chinese team will provide stiff competition for the A-League clubs, but in reality Changchun are likely to rotate players, rest their stars, and concentrate on building international relations with Australian business partners, rather than aim for victories at all cost.

13 June 2006

Three Late Goals Sink Japan

Australia have defeated Japan 3-1 in a World Cup match marked by a dubious decision (either Mark Schwarzer's decision to come off his line in an attempt to claim a Shinsuke Nakamura chip into the box, or the referee's subsequent decision to overlook Australia's claim that Schwarzer was fouled, your choice) and a stunning late comback from Australia, with three goals scored after the 84th minute.

It is an excellent result for the Socceroos, who may well benefit from the two goal buffer at the end of the group stage. Tim Cahill's goal scoring exploits from the bench have grabbed the headlines, but it was the determination and superior physical condition of the Australian team that brought about the victorious fightback. Lucas Neill, who after the exit of Craig Moore in the 61st minute became the only true defender for Australia left on the field, was a rock after a few unstable performances of late. His positioning during several critical moments near the climax was outstanding. Vinnie Grella wasn't the efficient tackling maestro of the first qualifying match against Uruguay, but again his positioning and work rate were instrumental in dealing with the nimble and fleet-footed passing game of Japan.

At times it was hard to tell what formation Guus Hiddink was employing. Australia started in a 3-6-1, sustaining a shape that bared resemblance with the system used to great effect in the friendly against Jamaica. Except our penetration down the flanks was minimal, especially near the death when our fullbacks and midfield piping balls into the center for substitute Josh Kennedy. Luke Wilkshire started as the right wing-back, allowing Brett Emerton to play in the centre alongside Grella. Jason Culina moved out to the left wing-back position, where he has never featured for the national team, with Scott Chipperfield playing in the left-sided stopper role as he did against Uruguay in Sydney. Culina played inside for long periods, allowing Yuichi Komano unprecedented room to push up on the wing. Harry Kewell, who started on the right before migrating to a freer role, gradually benefited from the space Komano's forays opened up on the Australian left and played magnificently considering his lack of fitness. It was Kewell's ball from the centre of the park to substitute John Aloisi that led to the third goal. [Edit -- My mistake, it was Cahill.] Mark Viduka, alone up front until Kennedy's entrance for Moore, toiled very well and provided several brilliant flicks and backheels for the attacking runs of Kewell and Marco Bresciano. When a struggling Bresciano (ear infection) came off in the 53rd minute for Tim Cahill, the turning tides were set in motion. Cahill started to find space behind Kennedy as the match wound down to the last fifteen minutes, with the increasingly weary Japanese defenders failing to sight him. Too much attention was applied to Kennedy, not enough to the dimunitive attacking midfielder. Cahill popped up in the box in the 84th minute for his first scrambled strike past a bewildered legion of players in the box, then found himself with ample room on the edge of the box for a cracking shot off the post that had Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi well beaten at last.

The rest is history.

Grella, Moore, Cahill and Aloisi received yellow cards in the match, which is a slight concern for Hiddink going into the match versus Brazil. Since he will want all players available for the encounter with Croatia, especially Grella and Moore, it will be interesting to see who (and how) he commits to the task of coping with the flair of Brazil. If Wilkshire starts again, it will be he who is given the task on Ronaldinho. Kaka will occupy much of the left-sided defender's attention, while the central unit will have the unholy responsibility of shutting down Ronaldo and Adriano. Keeping Roberto Carlos and Cafu busy up the field will be paramount in Hiddink's mind. Culina kept the Dutch backline very busy all game long with his terrier-like performance in the recent World Cup warm-up game. I wonder if he might be utilised in a similar way again?

Japan, meanwhile, face Croatia, a nation they have collected some good results against in the past. It would do Australia a great service if they could take points away from Croatia, especially if we fail to draw or defeat (!) Brazil. One thing is certain, with our victory against Japan we have proved to the world that we belong on the biggest stage and that we are more than capable of dealing with the intense pressure of must-win situations. One of Hiddink's eyes may not be on the second round just yet, but I'm sure Italy and the Czech Republic are already thinking about a potential tussle with Australia in the knockout phase.

2 June 2006

Earning Ronaldinho's Respect

If Ronaldinho didn't already have the joyful admiration of every football fan in Australia he just won it with his gushing praise for Guus Hiddink and the Socceroos. Quite well known for his encyclopediac knowledge of the world game and its history, Ronaldinho seems to know a lot more about the Australian national team -- or has a much savvier approach to communication with the media -- than his Brazilian teammate, Ronaldo, who has previously denied any knowledge of our supposedly low profile players. Ronaldinho, on the other hand, actually appears to be a bit of a fan of the way Hiddink has us playing:

...both before and after our game in Munich I'll be watching Hiddink's team with interest to see how they do.

It's a scary thing when one of the best players in the world admits he's performed his diligent research in anticipation of the forthcoming shoot out with our beloved national team. But it's also nice to finally hear some respectful, even flattering, comments from the Brazilian camp.