A-League 2013/14: Round Nineteen Review

Melbourne Victory vs Western Sydney Wanderers (3-1 Victory win – played 14th January 2013)

This match was played a month prior to its originally scheduled timing, and came at a time of mutual inconvenience for both clubs. The Victory were missing several key younger players due to their commitments to the U/22 Socceroos, whilst the Wanderers were backing up only three days after their second Derby match against Sydney FC, and the conditions were marred by Melbourne going through a terrible heat wave. Throw in the controversy following on from the previous Victory versus Wanderers game with fan issues bringing about a suspended sanction from the FFA, the match was certainly going to be one for partisans and neutrals to keep an eye on.

The first half was a stalemate thanks to the heat and heavily amended line-ups, with the Victory having a better time of it than the visitors. Andrew Nabbout gave the Wanderers backs plenty to worry about before being badly concussed in an accidental high kick from Dean Heffernan. The Wanderers left back was arguably the best player for the visitors, and he had a solid chance to put the red and black up one goal at the thirty four minute mark.  The home team finished off the half better however, and with the likes of Barbarouses, Finkler, Broxham and Coe all standing up for Kevin Muscat. However it took the advent of the second half for the match to come alive, with the Victory pressing hard. A possible penalty call that might have gone against Heffernan in Troisi’s favour didn’t come, yet shortly thereafter the Wanderers went a goal down thanks to some wonderful play between Mahazi, Barbarouses and Thompson. Mahazi was almost able to get another goal set up for the home team within a few minutes, however Covic made sure of the save off Troisi. However Barbarouses doubled the lead in the 62 minute, and he was making a well credentialed claim as a man of the match candidate. The Wanderers seemed to have no coherent structure in their attack and their usually strong defence was troubled time and time again by the Victory’s forwards. Perhaps the benching of Juric, Ono amd Hersi didn’t help the starting Wanderers XI, but when they were brought on later in the second half not much changed in terms of who was the better side. Muscat was getting the best out of his cobbled together team and young backs Brown and Murnane were good value. There was a glimmer of hope for the visitors in the dying minutes of extra time when Hersi and Juric combined to finally claw a goal back, yet almost immediately afterwards there was a neatly taken goal scored by Wanderers’ nemesis Guy Finkler, leaving the final score at 3-1. It had been a vindication of Kevin Muscat’s team and tactics, whilst for Tony Popovic his steely resolve to continually adapt his team to the conditions and long term goals for the Wanderers must have been tested by such a loss.

Adelaide United vs Central Coast Mariners (2-0 Adelaide win)

The Reds have become everyone’s smoky for a title win this season thanks to their recent surge of excellent form and picking up points again and again, and this match was prima facie evidence for such an opinion. The Mariners were pummeled in their last visit to Coopers Stadium however with the return of prodigal son Bernie Ibini and the addition of some quality new signings such as Eddy Bosnar and Kim Seung-Yung they should’ve had cause for confidence in reversing the previous encounter’s result Instead the first half was another masterpiece of Gombau’s structures and personnel doing what they needed to do. Marcelo Carrusca dominated his opposite numbers and in the early phases of play made Liam Reddy hesitate, then had some opportunities to create goals from corners fail to come to pass. Ibini gave the visitors a glimpse into what might be when his shot on Galekovic’s net went sailing high, and this error was compounded in the 33rd minute by the Mariners when they failed to clear a ball in the Mariners’ box, giving it back to Carrusca who scored a wonderful goal from distance. The killer punch came just before the first half was brought to a close, when as a result of a counterattacking move Carrusca again controlled the ball with elegance and drive, getting off a pass to Ferreira who scored with great aplomb.

The second half was again dominated by the home team, and sadly for the Mariners there was little to enthuse about in terms of those who started the game or those who were subbed into the match by Phil Moss. Matt Simon had a chance that went near the goal off his head, however nought came from that. One of the most depressing aspects of the performance from the Mariners was the absence of quality from two key figures in previous seasons, i.e. Ibini and Duke. Their defence also gave too much open space and when Awer Mabil scooted clean away from the Central Coast defence to score in the 76th minute it should’ve been 3-0. Unfortunately yet another bad call from a linesman distorted the result, and when this A-League season is complete there must be a review of the officiating standards. When the final whistle blew it was the Reds who had grabbed all the opportunities with both hands, whereas the Central Coast Mariners looked distinctly in a form slump.

Sydney FC vs Perth Glory (2-1 Sydney FC win)

One week after their public meltdown, and with a multitude of questions being thrown around about what was going to happen to Frank Farina and the players, or if the active support at Sydney FC would re-engage with their club, the Sky Blues got the best present they could ask for in the circumstances, i.e. an innocuous Perth Glory on the road. The tone was set early in the piece when the Glory’s defence in the centre of the pitch crumbled due to some usual ADP creativeness, laying the ball off to Despotovic who obliged with a goal. For all their vaunted experience Gallas and Thwaite were made to look ineffectual by the home team. To their credit the visitors pushed back and for long sections of the first half put pressure on the Sky Blues. Yet any possible hope for goals were not necessarily derived from enterprising play by the Perth midfield and forwards. Instead it was a combination of set pieces such as corners and indirect free kicks that gave the visitors some reason to believe they could equalise. Twice Perth took curving corner kicks that put the home net in peril, but these were more due to the bad positioning and reactions of Sydney FC goalie Janjetovic than accurate attempts on goal. The impact of new recruit Sasa Ognenovski was very important for Sydney FC as he got through considerable defensive work with no major dramas.

The second half began with more pressure form Perth however it was the lamentable defensive work of their central mids and backs that gave returning young star Terry Antonis the opportunity to double Sydney’s lead. Giving the tyro way too much space and time to set himself up for the shot, when he took it the ball curved elegantly past Vukovic into the visitor’s net. It was simply woeful defending and demonstrated the gap between the two teams. To give some indication of where the visitors were at, when they were able to score a goal and claw back some ground within two minutes Rostyn Griffths did not so much as head the ball into the net as deflect it off a common or garden free kick. The deficit could’ve been increased again on the 75 minute mark if Desptovic had done more in front of goal when the space was wide open, however Vukovic (who is arguably the only Glory player who would sit comfortably in any of the top four teams rosters) kept out the sprayed shot. Burns took a punt of a long distance shot that went awfully close yet the scoreline would not shift for the remainder of the game. At the death there was a red card issued to Aaron Calver for Sydney FC yet that had no impact on the result. It had been a relatively ugly game and whilst the home team won there couldn’t take major comfort from their performance on the pitch, plus the crowd numbers were way down on what they could’ve been. As for Perth Glory, five matches without a win and all the chickens of their early and pre-season mistakes are coming home to roost.

Wellington Phoenix vs Melbourne Heart (0-5 Melbourne Heart win)

Not that long ago a meeting between these two clubs would’ve been considered a sack race, with either of their coaches up for the chop on the back of a loss. Since then (and of course the attendant changes in the Heart’s line-up) there have been some remarkable turns in their respective fortunes, with both the Heart and Phoenix looking to redeem themselves with a second half of the season resurgence. However it would’ve been outlandish to even dream that either club would be at this stage of the comp with their recent records, or indeed for the goal-fest that marked out this match would be arguably the Hearts’ best ever effort in the A-League. The markers were there early for the visitors when Dutch marquee Engelaar benefited from a bounce-back via a Dugandzic shot on goal. The imposing Heart midfielder’s scoring shot was all power and accuracy, hitting the net before All White/Phoenix goalie Glen Moss had a chance to hit the ground. However good that goal was the next which came close to the twentieth minute mark from Heart ace David Williams was all brains and placement. The manner in which he picked out the unfortunate Moss moving too far forward off his line, and then using a dipping lob kick with some power to take the scorer up 0-2 in favour of the visitors was remarkable. Whilst there was some ill-discipline creeping into their performance, overall the Heart were whacking Wellington around as if they were the league leaders, not its cellar dwellers. The key three foreign players for Wellington, Hernandez, Cunningham and Huysegems were missing the form and touch which has been the imprimatur of their teams’ rise up the ladder in recent weeks, and as the two squads went into the sheds at half time it looked like it was no contest.

The second half was more of the same with the Heart doing untold damage to the home team’s defence. Within a brief ten minutes from the restart first Williams scored, followed by Wielaart. Merrick responded to the disastrous score with several changes, bringing on Ridenton and Boyd however it was tantamount to shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. A desperate Vince Lia stopped Engelaar from scoring however it earned him a yellow, and even then the visitors were unfinished. In the 63rd minute Williams completed his hat trick with a great curling volley. The game was virtually over at this point, and whilst there were some possible opportunities for both teams the score stayed the same. It was a major debacle for the Phoenix, whereas for the Heart their effort was simply sublime. Whatever John van t’Schip has brought to the squad since his appointment is close to miraculous, and all this was achieved with their recent playmaking star Harry Kewell.

Brisbane Roar vs Newcastle United (0-1 Newcastle United win)

There is an inexplicable hoodoo held over the Roar by the Jets and yet again Brisbane felt the sting of defeat at the hands of Clayton Zane’s squad in this Round 19 meeting. The match itself was filled with plenty of chances for both teams, yet it all came down to a slightly controversial penalty call on Shane Stefanutto (possibly paying for his sins from previous games). The first half had numerous chances with Berisha missing a gold plated chance to grab the lead in the 16th minute, however his attempt at a header failed to connect. Taggart had a similarly great opportunity in the 25th minute however his effort went across the face of a furious Theo’s goal, barely missing the bottom corner. There were more potential openings for either team to take the lead in the first half, with Berisha scaring Birighitti, however in general the high intensity of the Jets defence kept the home team at bay. Zadkovich was lucky to escape a card from the guest Japanese referee, however not long after the restart for the second half Jaliens didn’t fare so well.

The Roar were also on the receiving end of a ref’s foul call when Stefanutto was picked up for impeding Brillante in the box. Stefanutto had form before this match and his lack of pace has to be a concern for Mulvey. The ensuing penalty was clinically finished off by Taggart, and Stefanutto’s continued ill-discipline led to him picking up a yellow. The lead could’ve been increased by the normally accurate Taggart in the 62nd minute. The changes were rung by both Zane and Mulvey over the next ten or so minutes and Roar sub Henrique almost tied things up with a shot that hit the woodwork on the 80th minute. From thereon it was all hands to the pumps as the Roar tried to rescue the game and the Jets to complete the win. The visitors did so, thus making for the completion of the Jets’ stranglehold over the Roar this season plus reducing Brisbane lead over the chasing pack on the A-League ladder to four points.

Best Game: Wellington Phoenix versus Melbourne Heart was the best game, even though it was a whitewash. The manner in which the Heart destroyed the home team was something to behld.

Best Goal: All three of David Williams goals deserve consideration and each one could get the nod. Perhaps his astute lob shot over Moss narrowly wins, but ask me another day and I’d choose one of the others.

Best Team: Melbourne Heart deserve this accolade as they simply tore down everything that the Phoenix put in front of them in such a way that not only confirmed their increased chances of rescuing the 2013/14 season, it also did much to validate the belief the players and club and even the fans have had in each other.

Worst Team: Perth and the Wanderers could nominally fight for this (lack of) distinction however in all fairness the Wanderers loss to the Victory happened in very difficult conditions. Glory looked like they had no real ability to truly test Sydney FC, who are going through all manner of ugliness off pitch and hardly playing pretty football on it. The lack of penetration in repeated attacks and the woeful manner in which the Glory failed to stop Antonis scoring was indicative of a club that has lost its way big time.

A-League 2013/14 Season: Round Twenty One Preview

Thursday 27th February 2014: Adelaide United vs Wellington Phoenix (Hindmarsh Stadium)

Another fascinating game looms for two teams still on the up and up, with the Nix traveling to Adelaide with a nice win under their belt last week over the Mariners.  The Reds must feel a bit miffed they could’t collect at least a draw after their epic match with the Victory last round, and I’m sure that they will play the same type of football against the Phoenix, with clever movement of the ball and hopefully for their sake better deefnce. The key players for the visitors are of course their Costa Rican pair of Hernandez and Cunningham and the Belgian Huysegems. Having said that it will be intriguing to see if someone like Brockie or Lia can do more. The absence of Reira, Fenton, Ifill and Bertos have not done any damage to their recent run of form and it will be intriguing to see if they can match the home team defensively. Adelaide have plenty of options thanks to Djite, Jeronimo, Ferreira and Cirio, but there will be some doubts over their ability to be as creative without Carrusca. Galekovic can’t aford another brain snap like he had last round against Melbourne Victory and Boogard and Malik need to find their defensive mojo again. This will be another important game for not just these two teams but perhaps another six in the race to the finals, and it is very hard to see how any prediction I make can come through, as the two teams are that close.

My Prediction: 1-2 Wellington Phoenix win

Friday 28th February 2014: Brisbane Roar vs Perth Glory (Suncorp Stadium)

One club is finding the going a little tough after two losses on the trot, and only one point earned out of a potential nine. The other is in an even worse state of play, having only grabbed one point out of a possible fifteen since mid January 2014. Therefore it should be a no brainer that the former club (the Brisbane Roar), playing at home and still on top of the current season’s ladder will have no dramas in despatching the latter (the woe-begone Perth Glory). Yet nothing can be taken in this competition, where surprises can still be sprung even in the most unlikely circumstances. There is no doubt that the Roar hold some significant advantages most importantly in terms of personnel and arguably also in coaching staff and club ethos. Broich and Berisha are still the deadliest and most effective overseas pair of players to currently grace any A-League club’s roster. There is also plenty to be positive about regarding Franjic, Brattan and Petratos. However there are niggling doubts over the capacity of Shane Stefanutto and Michael Theo that must be of concern for Mike Mulvey. There is also possibly the natural potential hazard of complacency that comes into view when you near the end of the season having topped the table for almost all the season.

However for all their possible chinks in the impressive armour the Roar are still a far more cohesive and stronger unit than a Perth Glory team that seems to have lost the plot almost as badly as Sydney had only two rounds ago. The baleful influence of internal divisions built up through the residual influence of the Edwards clan and their clashes with Jacob Burns has overshadowed much of the build up for the visitors. Throw in William Gallas also supposedly having a few words in the shed whilst grossly under-performing as their marquee, a general inability of the existing squad to demonstrate penetrating attack or a solid defence, and plenty of questions over who is staying and who is going in the coming months, well the Glory have become a purple basket case. It is very hard to see a way forward for them in this match or indeed for the remainder of the current season, and so even though football can spring surprises this shouldn’t be one.

My Prediction: 3-0 Brisbane Roar win

Saturday 1st March 2014: Central Coast Mariners vs Sydney FC (Blue Tongue Stadium)

If ever a club was on the brink of having their season or indeed perhaps their entire basis go to shit, and then find they are in fact on the path to success, it would have to be Sydney FC. Only three rounds ago the on-field performance of their players and the off-field dramas of their club was so crap that the only people who could smile were the opposition fans. Now, they have had two wins on the trot, have finally found a short term recruit who has drastically improved their capabilities where they really needed it, had an injured tyro come back to a great return and finally, come up against a tired and possibly bereft Central Coast Mariners who may have finally reached the end of their tether in this A-League season.

To compound the problems for the Mariners, who have already lost so many of their key performers from last season and found the going very tough in recent weeks, they have had to return home and face the Sky Blues after an arduous trio away to South Korea where they lost midweek to FC Seoul in an ACL qualifier. The attack seems to be lead now by the talented Bernie Ibini, which in itself is not a bad thing. However it’s the lack of support he has in other quality forwards that must be troubling Phil Moss. Mitch Duke is not in the form he was last season and without Flores to create opportunities for the strikers to exploit the Mariners seem to be relatively toothless. Back in defence the problems with Siep, Rose and Hutchinson are not going away, and whilst Bosnar has shown some promise he can’t resurrect from the midfield either the go-forward of those ahead of him or make more resilient those behind him.

The opposite is true of Sydney FC, who are finding some of their incoherent structures jelling around the key figure of Sasa Ognenovski. The tall and imposing central defender has made a hell of a difference to a back four who leaked goals and seemed to have no idea as to how to play possession football on the counter. By taking the pressure of this aspect of their structure it has freed up the key figure of del Piero, plus allowed the returning Terry Antonis to be more positive. Gamiero and Desptovic are arguably a step up from those Mariners in the same striker roles, and even Janjetovic has indicated he is a better option than Reddy. Yet for all this positivity about Sydney FC and the difficulties faced by the Mariners, no one can really write off the home team until after the game. Plus Sydney FC has a habit of imploding in the most unlikely of circumstances. They are right to be favourites for many but don’t be surprised if they fail.

My Prediction: 1-1 Draw

Saturday 1st March 2014: Melbourne Heart vs Melbourne Victory (AAMI Park)

Earlier derbies in Melbourne this season have been arguably innocuous and unhappy affairs for both clubs, and for their respective supporters as well as neutrals. The lack of goals in the first match and the overwhelming superiority of the Victory over a dysfunctional Heart in the second meant that neither match was one that will be remembered for that long. This match could however be a real classic for the ages. On one side there is a resurgent Melbourne Heart, playing great football and with no losses in six matches, and 16 points taken from a possible 18. On the other is a Melbourne Victory who took it right up to Guangzhou Evergrande in a mid-week ACL match, who played possibly the best match of the season last week against Adelaide (and won) and have third place to reclaim.

Victory will undoubtedly be fatigued from their Chinese Asian Champion’s League sojourn and as a result could be vulnerable to a rampant David Williams. There is plenty of capability in their forwards and the addition of Gui Finkler to their squad for this match will be a massive help. Throw in Thompson, Nabbout, Barbarouses, Rogic and Troisi there is every reason to believe that the Victory have an advantage in attack. However defensively they still haven;t got all their kinks ironed out. Coe had some major issues exposed in his ACL performance and Traore and Geria haven’t been all they need to be this season. Mark Milligan’s involvement will be crucial, particularly if he has to to try and blunt the midfield work of Engelaar and Kewell.

These two last named Heart midfielders are going to be major threats to the Victory and will have a considerable impact on the match if they can produce the combination of stylish play making and solid central defence that has marked out the Heart’s last few games. However there is plenty for the Victory to ponder with other players in their cross-town rival’s line up. Iain Ramsey and Matt Dugandzic have given the opposition plenty of trouble in recent weeks and Patrick Kisnorbo has changed from sinner to saint defensively. Finally the confidence and energy that is within the club that weren’t there during John Aloisi’s regime are possibly the most powerful agents in the Heart’s favour coming into this match. This could be a game we will be talking about for years.

My Prediction: 2-1 Melbourne Heart win

Sunday 2nd March: Western Sydney Wanderers vs Newcastle United (Pirtek Stadium)

Another key game for the sorting out of the jigsaw that is the run in to this season’s finals series, there is arguably plenty to worry the home team even though on paper they are favourites to knock the Jets’ top six aspirations on the head. The performance of the Wanderers in their home game against Ulsan Hyundai on Wednesday night was marked by one minute of genius followed by 89 minutes of not really adequate, and they need to be improving like other clubs who are in their neighbourhood on the current A-League table, not losing quality. Missing injured striker Tomi Juric is a concern for Popa and the home fans, although Brendon Santalab has shown he can really do the job when needed. The once mythic strength of the Wanderers defence however was exposed on Wednesday night by the Koreans and Clayton Zane will be stupid if he doesn’t try and emulate their tactics even if he doesn’t have the players to do the exact same thing. Even the normally excellent Jerome Polenz had a game to forget, and with some errors creeping into Nikolai Topor-Stanley’s game and Adam d’Apuzzo and Marj Bridge not doing on the left flank what they did last season, the potential for an upset is there.

The Jets can also point to the quality of Taggart, Hoole, Brillante and Virgili, who have all become a bit more effective in recent weeks (perhaps as a result of van Egmond no longer being the coach). The win over Brisbane must have reinvigorated the club and the squad, and having drawn with the Wanderers at home only a few rounds ago the Jets know they are not going to be massive underdogs. Throw in the fact that they really are fighting for their season now, and there must be some tired legs at Wanderland, a result contrary to the home fans expectations may just happen.

However, in Popa we trust and this is after all my club. Plus Shinji is due a big game.

My Prediction: 2-0 Western Sydney Wanderers win

A-League 2013/14 Season: Round Twenty Preview

Friday 21st February: Central Coast Mariners vs Wellington Phoenix (Bluetongue Stadium)

With last round seeing both teams losing, and for the Pheonix shipping way too many goals, this will be a real make-or-break match for both clubs’ season. The Mariners will have an advantage in playing at home and nominally should be less scarred by their defeat against the Reds in Adelaide, however with no points from three games, a long ACL campaign ahead and the squad drastically changed from that which began their title defence back in October 2013, this is a huge game for Phil Moss and his players. The Phoenix are also going to need  a win to keep their hopes of a top six position alive, and one would think that the likes of Huysegems, Cunningham and Hernandez will have more success avoiding the close attention of a Mariners defence that includes the likes of Roux and Seip. Mitchell Duke needs to reassert himself as a key part of the home team’s attack and if all the positive word regarding Kim Seung-Yung is correct then the Mariners may bring something new to their faltering campaign. Having said that if the game is to be decided by any one element surely the footballing nous of Ernie Merrick will be the tipping factor. The Phoenix coach has possibly got himself into consideration as the A-League’s coach of the season and if Wellington do get into the finals he would be a deserved recipient.

My Prediction: 1-1 draw

Saturday 22nd February: Newcastle United vs Sydney FC (Hunter Stadium)

Two clubs that have possibly given their fans less reason to celebrate than any other this season meet in what could be a season-ending match for one, and definitely a coach-sacking result for the other if either loses. The Hets are a different proposition at home and have had some fairly good work on the pitch by their younger stars (such ass Taggart, Goodwin and Holle) unraveled by poor defence. They scored a remarkable if fortunate win over the Roar last week up at Suncopr, and that will have given Zane’s players cause to believe they are in with a chance. However if there has been one team this season that has made the Jets look consistently bad it has been Sydney FC. The two trips taken down the M1 to Allianz Stadium saw Newcastle play like busted arses and Sky Blue marquee Alessandro del Piero made them look foolish. As always the level of defensive work from Jaliens, Pepper, Zadkovich and Caravella is critical; they cannot afford to do what the Glory did last week in hanging off players like Antonis, or giving Despotovic or ADP too much freedom near the box.

Having said that the form of Sydney FC is so up and down it could be a bride’s panties on her honeymoon, and whilst they won last round over a semi-functional Glory it was hardly a convincing win. The continual fucking around behind the scenes must still have an effect on their mindset, and whilst most of the better players in his squad are back on duty, how can Frank Farina coach positively with no affirmation of his security coming from the board, nor indeed a clamour of support from players and fans alike. I don’t believe that Farina will be given the flick if Sydney FC lose, yet he is not going to immediately resurrect the club’s fortunes without a huge win in this match.

My Prediction: 1-1 draw

Saturday 22nd February: Melbourne Victory vs Adelaide United (AAMI Park)

In another match up of two teams that possibly have more reason to be passionate about disliking the opposition than any other, the scene is well set for what could be a classic game. Both the Victory and Reds have good recent form coming into the match, with neither team dropping all three points since the beginning of the month. Both sitting in a cluster of three teams in third, there is every reason to expect that neither club would be happy with a draw. Their stocks in terms of key players are both good, with Muscat able to call upon stalwarts like Thompson, Traore, Milligan, Barbarouses, Pain and Troisi, with the added advantage of an improving Tom Rogic. Gombau on the other hand has Ferriera, Carrusca, Isaias, Cirio, Elrich and Malik in his side, and Bruce Djite (the man who I believe has really helped coalesce an attractive squad into a winning one) is also on deck.

The question of who will win this match could well be decided on whether the same defence that not that long ago leaked 10 goals against Wellington and Sydney FC can stay solid against arguably the second best attack in the A-League. Contreras has already demonstrated to Victory fans and neutrals alike he is out of condition and generally the weakest link in the home team’s defence, whilst Coe’s goal keeping has been barely adequate. The demands that were placed on melbourne with their ACL qualifier last weekend showed they won;t fold like a pack of cards, yet Gombau’s Reds are one of the form teams and they have adjusted to his structures and he to the players’ in ways that Muscat still possibly hasn’t. A win for either team will be a big step towards a top four finish.

My Prediction: 2-2 draw

Saturday 22nd February: Perth Glory vs Western Sydney Wanderers (nib Stadium)

Perth are a team that has simply not been able to keep up with its rivals this season, with only a few moments of success to divert their fans attention away from some rather bad form. Having said that even with only two points taken from an available fifteen in their recent history, being at home will certainly be a boost for them. They will also be playing with an almost full squad so that will stand them in good stead, particularly if Sernas and Smeltz can provide more vim and accuracy when on teh attack. However for all the potential positive aspects of Kenny Lowe’s team, they will be facing the Wanderers who are fully rested and even with Polenz, Ono and Covic out look man-for-man a better team.

The main concern for Tony Popovic and Wanderers fans will be whether or not the somewhat indifferent form of key forwards Bridge, Juric and Santalab can be improved upon enough to see them repeat the bashing they gave Perth a few rounds ago back at Wanderland. There could also be some concern over the form of left back Adam d’Apuzzo who has been possibly the least capable player in the 2012/13 plate holders this season. Harrold and Sidnei give the Glory mobility down the wings but their defence is not exactly rock solid (and prone to discipline problems as demonstrated in recent weeks by Michael Thwaite and Jacob Burns). Gallas is still to convince me that he is much more than a tourist rather than a marquee, and the pace that Hersi particularly brings to the visitors will trouble the home team. It’s very hard to see how the Glory can win this match.

My Prediction: 0-2 Wanderers win

Sunday 23rd February: Melbourne Heart vs Brisbane Roar (AAMI Park)

Only a month or so ago the Heart were looking like the most incompetent and ill-favoured football team to have ever graced a match since Michael Palin’s club Barnstoneworth United was featured in his comedy series ‘Ripping Yarns’. Their midget Maltese striker Michael Mifsud was getting 100 offsides to the goal, Kisnorbo was keener on diving into the legs of his opponents than stopping the ball, Redmayne was gifting goals to the opposition and Harry Kewell was spending more time on the driving range at his local golf club than kicking a ball in anger. However the once-were-dud Heart have reaped a spectacular thirteen points out of fifteen since Round Fourteen, and their win over the Phoenix last round was simply pawnage in action.

Thus with current ladder leaders Brisbane Roar traveling down to Melbourne there must be some cause for concern in their squad and for coach Mike Mulvey. Brisbane are almost at full strength and their performances over the last two rounds have not been bad per se, yet they can’t take the Heart too easily. Broich and Berisha are going to be the main keys for the visitors; if they fire then the Heart could struggle. On the other hand the likes of Williams, Engelaar, Ramsay, Dugandzic and Behich are playing better than they ever had, and John van t’Schip has certainly improved their work on the pitch. The absence of Kewell could be problematic, yet the Heart went away to Wellington last week without him and smashed the Phoenix comprehensively. This should be a very entertaining match for neutrals, and one to create some stress and nervousness in the two clubs’ respective supporters.

My Prediction: 1-1 draw

A-League 2013/14: Round Eighteen Review

Western Sydney Wanderers vs Brisbane Roar (1-1 Draw)

This meeting between the first and second placed clubs on the current A-League ladder was certainly one that lived up to all the hype, with the accompanying solid crowd numbers at Wanderland and plenty of television coverage reinforcing the importance of the match. Last season the Roar had been the Wanderers’ bunny, losing all four of their games, yet in 2013/14 the Brisbane team under Mike Mulvey has rarely looked troubled, and gave the sophomore WSW their first three goal defeat in Round Seven. The home team has also had some indifferent results in previous weeks, with only four points earned from twelve available from four rounds. So whilst there was plenty of positives to be drawn upon by the Wanderers in playing at home in front of the always passionate RBB they were certainly not all-consuming favourites.

The Wanderers opened brightly and with a starting line up that was close to their best XI it was surprising that they were unable to convert some excellent work from stalwarts Hersi and Ono before the first ten minutes of the match were up. The visitors were under no compunction to parallel the missed opportunities from the Wanderers, and when Broich made progress down the left flank of the home team and fed the ball to Besart Berisha, it seemed almost inevitable that Ante Covic would not be able to deflect or stop the Albanians shot. The resulting goal was quality, but also seemed to act as a catalyst for the visitors. They went into a deep defensive formation that found most of their energies focused on the likes of Stefanutto, Brown and Brattan launching some nasty hacking challenges on a rampant Youssouf Hersi. Whilst referee Kris Griffith-Jones could find a yellow card for Spiranovic’s clumsy studs up challenge that failed to connect, none of the trips or professional fouls committed by the Roar were similarly censured. Alongside the Dutch winger Ono, Mooy, Spiranovic and Santalab all went close to put the Wanderers back on equal terms in the first half yet none of their efforts could find the net.

The second half saw more of the same, with the Roar sitting back deep and the Wanderers pressing for an equaliser. Mooy, Hersi, Ono, Bridge, Santalab and Polenz all created opportunities yet either through bad luck, good defence or a slight misdirection the ball refused to go into the visitor’s net. In the 69th minute Polenz killed the best chance for the Roar to increase their lead when Henrique was on goal, then with time running out Aaron Mooy demonstrated his value yet again to the Wanderers faithful, and to his new paymasters at Melbourne Heart for next season, putting in a cross to Labinot Haliti on the 84th minute, which was smartly tucked into the Roar’s goal. Even with the draw a favoured result with so little time to go the Roar came back to life, yet neither side could find a winner. It had been a classic match and some (well, those who are more foolhardy than me) would predict this may have been a portend of the upcoming 2013/14 Grand Final.

Central Coast Mariners vs Melbourne Victory (1-3 Melbourne Victory win)

Some maxims in the A-League’s brief history deserve plenty of respect. For example, Brisbane will struggle against the Jets, or the Victory and the Reds will always have an added edge of barely suppressed anger. However one that is losing its lustre this season is that the Mariners are always able to churn out good players and defend well at home, and for primie facie evidence for this argument one needs to look no further than this match against the Victory. In a result that demonstrated how inconsistent almost all teams are in 2013/14, the Mariners started with a frenetic energy that seemed to end up with the appropriate result thanks to Bernie Ibini scoring in the 10th minute. Nathan Coe’s fumble/parry fell nicely at the returning Mariner’s feet and he took the shot with the requisite ease. However in what were ominous portents for the home team Tom Rogic was showing plenty of class both before and after the first goal, and he almost helped set up Archie Thompson for an equaliser before the first 30 minutes were up. Yellow cards were coming thick and fast and whilst none was awarded due to a Mariner’s foul just before half time, Gui Finkler’s excellent distance shot from the dead ball position created the opportunity for James Troisi to score off the rebound, leveling both teams up at one goal apiece.

The second half was barely underway when the Victory struck again, thanks to some excellent work from Traore (who has been rather quiet of late) who centred his pass into the Mariners’ box, where Thompson met it and elegantly angled the ball into Reddy’s net. There may have been just cause for an off-side call however the goal stood. Not long thereafter Eddy Bosnar backed up his first half free kick rocket that almost scored with another attempt on Coe’s goal, however it failed to penetrate the goalie’s defences. The same couldn’t be said in the 61st minute of Reddy’s handling of a Troisi shot, and when the Victory midfielder took his chance to bring up his brace of goals the visitors were up 1-3 and looking far better than shown in recent weeks. Ex-Mariner wunderkind Rogic was arguably most indicative of the differences between the two teams, as he has become part of a formidable and relatively stable Victory team, whereas the Mariners have had so many changes in staff and players it must be almost impossible for Phil Moss to create a cohesive structure. This win for Kevin Muscat’s team has certainly dulled some of the blades that were poised to go into his back if the Victory had lost again, and returned them to definite top 2 contention. For the home team perhaps we are seeing an end to the great results wrought by a club that continually has been able to reinvent itself.

Sydney FC vs Adelaide United (0-3 Adelaide win)

It is desperately unfair on the visiting Reds that after this match almost every single focus placed on the game was diverted away from their excellent form and dominant performance. Instead this was the game where the ever-fragmented, madly inconsistent Frank Farina coached Sydney FC imploded under the stress of piss-poor playing on the pitch and revolting fans in the stands. There is no doubt that the combination of seasons where the results of Sydney FC have not meant their most ardent fans’ expectations contributed, plus there is a serious disconnect between the fans and the club management. However what must seriously undermine so much of the passion and drive for the fans of the Sky Blues is that contrasted with teams like Adelaide, and of course their cross-town rivals the Wanderers, there is such a gap between football cultures it has become embarrassing. The Cyrillic Tifo calling for club owner David Traktovenko and the resultant brouhaha over Cove members being expelled from the game was symptomatic of a failure in club systems and beliefs that the players on the field could only but replicate.

When it came to the on-field action the only remotely promising moment for the home team came in the 8th minute when promising young SFC player Hagi Gligor massacred the chance to put the Sky Blues up one goal to the good, after some neat work from the left flank and Serbian striker Despotovic. Less than 8 minutes later Reds import Isaias switched the ball deep out of the visitors’ own half to the feet of Ferreira, who in taking the ball into the SFC box got it away to Bruce Djite. The home teams’ backs were utterly embarrassed by Djite who was able to avoid the tackles of three defenders and softly prod the ball past Janjetovic. The lead could have been tripled by Michael Zullo and Marcelo Carrusca however Jurman cleared the ball off the line in the former instance and the woodwork saved Sydney FC in the second. Ferreira however made no mistake in the 25th minute with his opportunity after yet another long aerial pass found him outpacing the defence, and with Sydney FC down by two goals and looking utterly hapless and hopeless it was literally game over. ADP briefly showed his own class with a well took free kick before the first half ended, but with the local fans protesting or booing no one but the few traveling Reds fans, staff and players were enjoying the game at Allianz.

The second half was an unedifying affair as off-field controversy was drawing more attention than the players on the field. The evening was summed up for the home supporters by Jeronimo’s goal in the 79th minute, which put into glaring focus the inadequacy of Sydney FC’s defence and attack, as well as Frank Farina’s structures. The final whistle couldn’t come soon enough for the home team, and whilst Adelaide had every reason to celebrate a clinical, professional performance their task was made easier by Sydney FC letting the visitors run rampant. Frank Farina and Sydney FC have become the joke of the A-League this season, and sadly for them no one knows when the final punchline will be delivered.

Newcastle United vs Wellington Phoenix (2-3 Wellington Phoenix win)

The Jets’ run of bad luck and bad results continued at the hands of one of the most improved teams in the A-League, with Clayton Zane unable to get the result he needed against the visiting Wellington Phoenix at Hunter Stadium. After a bright start from the home team with Taggart and Goodwin giving the Nix cause for concern and Hernandez and Huysegems doing the same back, it took a classy moment of Phoenix creativity in the 20th minute to break the deadlock. Costa Rican Carlos Hernandez threw the Jets defenders into confusion with some great ball control and his shot that flew into Newcastle’s net utterly flummoxed Birighitti. However the lead was short lived thanks to some equally good work from Caravella and Goodwin, with the young Jet slotting home his shot with aplomb. Both teams’ defensive efforts were finding it hard to keep up with the fluidity of attack, and whilst Hoole almost added to the Jets’ tally it was Belgian key player Stein Huysegems who delivered for the visitors before the end of the half.

The second half got off to a wonderful start for the Jets with Craig Goodwin adding to his first half goal, and his scoring effort was one of the best seen at Hunter Stadium this season. The inability of the Jets to get maximum value out of their younger players such as Goodwin, Hoole, Taggart and Brillante has been a consistent problem this season, and made even more obvious when their quality does come out on display. The next twenty odd minutes were rather fraught for both teams, with discipline issues to the fore. Ernie Merrick made a couple of substitutions and it was one of the changes, Jason Hicks who was able to get through Goodwin, Hoole and Jaliens and score a pearler in the 69th minute. Up 2-3 the visitors quelled some last minute attacks from the Jets plus mounted a couple of their own which failed to increase the lead, leaving them at the end of the match victorious. For the Jets it was a cruel result which sadly reflected the problems with their defensive structures, and for the Phoenix Ernie Merrick and particularly Hernandez and Huysegems did everything right.

Melbourne Heart vs Perth Glory (Melbourne Heart 2-1 win)

A controversial ‘home’ game for the Heart, this match was played as a community game in the Murray River region city of Albury under far from positive conditions. The amount of travel required for the visitors was arguably too much and then to make things worse a heatwave hit the area to such an extent that the game was put back two hours. Even this change failed to address the concerns of those playing and those coaching. The 38 degrees C temperature certainly impacted on the first half with scoring opportunities matched by the frequency of drinks breaks. Dugandzic, Ramsay and Behich all caused the Glory some worries and with 6 attempts on goal versus none from the visitors Melbourne Heart were the better team before the break.

The second half saw the match come alive thanks to a Kisnorbo goal scored from a corner. The Glory were struggling to match their opponents and this was borne out by the substitution of Sidnei for Sernas. More drinks breaks and more substitutions were taken, with Kewell leaving the field for the Heart and Rostyn Griffiths being swapped by Kenny Lowe with Nebjosa Marinkovic. The visitors then took advantage of a corner that was clumsily cleared by Andrew Redmayne after Shane Smeltz took his shot, and in the following seconds Perth’s Steve McGarry slammed the ball home. Scores could have ended all tied up however second half sub for the Heart and iconic goal scorer David Williams took advantage of a bad turn over from the Glory’s Chris Harrold, and in a welter of feet and legs in the visitors’ box Williams eventually headed the ball into the net. Having scored with only minutes to go yet again Williams had repeated the Heart’s efforts from the previous round. A commendable win under extreme circumstances, the possibility of the current season’s cellar dwellers to maybe make the finals is now being talked about seriously. Meanwhile for Perth they are staring down the barrel of dropping further down the ladder, with not much hope to see the trend being reversed.

Best Game: Whilst the Jets versus Phoenix game had plenty of good goals and was a close run affair, the quality of football in the Friday night match between the Wanderers and Roar was just that little bit better. It also had all the hallmarks of two champion teams battling out as an entree for further clashes later in the season.

Best Goal: Berisha’s goal for the Roar was class, and the manner in which Djite capitalised on a wonderful pass to get past Sydney’s defences  and score for the Reds was impressive. However the most attractive and well taken goal this round was Goodwin’s second for the Jets against the Phoenix. A brilliant one man effort that was polished off with a swerve that added a poetic flourish to his work.

Best Team: The Roar and Wanderers were both very good, and deserve to share this distinction insofar as they were so evenly matched and playing such an intense match. However the manner in which Adelaide dismantled Sydney FC and the win by Wellington over the Jets also deserve kudos.

Worst Team: Yet again Sydney FC deserve this dishonour and if anything they were even worse than last week’s loss against the Heart. Simply incompetent on almost every level.

A New Yet Old Kit: From 2014 to 1974 and Back Again

Today saw the Football Federation of Australia and their major kit partner Nike release the new Socceroo’s kit for the upcoming 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and as someone who loves seeing history respected may I say how happy I am to see this will be what the national team wears when they take the pitch against Chile on June 13th:

Mark Bresciano and Michael Zullo model the new Socceroos kit

What is most pleasant to reflect upon when looking at the new look shirt, shorts and socks is how closely it approximates the same kit worn by the first Australian team to play at the World Cup Finals, my much beloved heroes of West Germany 1974:

1974 Socceroos Team for the World Cup Finals held in West Germany (photo credit Andre Krueger)

If there is one aspect of our game here in Australia that needs consistent and deeper commitment from the FFA outside the actual management of football it is the important task of emphasizing the long and proud history of our sport in this country. It is a task that our administrators need to be challenged with again and again, especially in the broader context of Australians and their relationship with our sporting history.

When one looks at other sports played in Australia there is a continual reliance on referring back to previous heroes, previous wins, previous teams and players. For example in cricket talk about the likes of Mitchell Johnson will immediately bring thoughts among devotees of the sport and engaged journalists with past greats such as Dennis Lillee. In Rugby League the most important domestic contest (i.e. the State of Origin) is redolent with references to old greats like Wally Lewis or Benny Elias, or going back even further the long held resentment against NSW league administrators that drives Queenslanders to deeper passions. Olympic greats like Dawn Fraser or Murray Rose, AFL legends such as Ted Whitton or Ron Barassi, Rugby Union Wallabies like the Ella brothers; all of these sports and their past icons form a tradition that ends up extolling the benefits and national pride of the player and the game.

Football on the other hand has had at best a desultory relationship between its past and its present, its greats of yesteryear and its current champions. Much of this is undoubtedly due to the administrators from previous national bodies doing little in the public arena to encourage the media or Socceroo fans to engage with past players, historical details. Outside the older and more fixated football fans and pundits in Australia the vast bulk of our ability to talk about historical greats is either limited by the paucity of exposure to pre-2005 success or a cultural cringe that celebrates other countries legends ahead of our own.  It is rare to see older generations of football fans in Australia talking in glowing terms of our past, whether it be individual players, teams or even the entire sport itself, and as for the administrators that have at times needed to almost deny the past to survive political or media scrutiny. It’s far easier to talk about a Dino Zoff, a Peter Schmeichel, a Bruce Grobelaar or a Gordon Banks than a Ron Corry or Jim Fraser because so many more football fans in Australia have seen or heard about these legendary foreign goalkeepers than the men who kept goal for the Socceroos in the early 1970s. Even those ex-national team stalwarts like Frank Farina, John Kosmina, Paul Wade and David Zdrilic get more recognition due to their post-playing careers than what they actually achieved on the pitch. David Mitchell, Peter Katholos, Robbie Dunn, Marshall Soper and dozens of other long term Socceroos have been forgotten in ways that overseas footballers from the past, or local historical players in other sports have never been ignored.

So what does this new kit do for those of us who want to see our sport’s past celebrated and discussed with more vigour, promoted with the same kind of respect and appreciation that Australians seem to do so readily with our cricket, league, Olympic, AFL history? Well, just as the baggy green cap has been a constant since at least the early 1900s for all Aussie test cricketers, the green and gold shirt that is going to be worn by Tommy Rogic and Tim Cahill in Brazil is almost exactly what was worn forty years ago by Peter Wilson, Col Curran, Max Tolson and Manfred Schaefer. This is another recent and very welcome indication that the FFA is learning to appreciate where our game has come from, and trying to share it with both old and new fans alike.