2014/2015 Round Four Preview: 31st October- 3rd November

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Friday 31st October: Melbourne City vs Adelaide United (AAMI Park)

Whilst the wheels have not fallen off the Sheik Mansour-owned Melbourne City just yet, they looked wobbly last week and are in danger of coming loose from the axle if John van t’Schip can’t get more value from his players. Of course much of the attention will be on David Villa up front, especially considering he has had his ten game guest player stint reduced to four. However the Spanish superstar’s final match should not be about him for City to win and put things back on track. Solid performers Duff and Mooy need to lift, but more importantly the likes of Kisnorbo, Ramsay, Partaalu, Hoffman and Germano need to deliver. aside from Partaalu the others were part of the old Heart squad and so far they are showing the same up and down form that consigned City’s previous entity to the bottom of the table in 2013/14. It may be helpful if David Williams returns and brings with him the goal scoring boots he had last season as well, but it’s the midfield and back where City need to do better.

As for the Reds their lot is a far happier one, thanks to some quality performances on the pitch since the 2014/15 season began, and the stability of the squad in terms of delivering effective football based on Gombau’s technical direction. Bruce Djite makes a welcome return from injury, however it is the Latino/Iberian quartet of Carrusca, Isais, Cirio and Sanchez that forms a vital engine for Adelaide’s progression. It’s also good to see how well Awer Mabil and Tarek Elrich, one a relative youngster, the other a season veteran, are playing. This is a quality squad playing away from home and they’re deserving of favouritism.

Final Verdict: There will be plenty of people to see Villa say farewell to the A-League, and again on paper City look decent. However the Reds are a boss machine right now and I can’t see them losing. My Prediction: 1-3 Adelaide United.

Saturday 1st November: Perth Glory vs Newcastle United (nib Stadium)

These two teams conceded six goals inn total against their opposition last round which indicates they both may have defensive issues, yet in all honesty it’s not as ugly as the raw stats predict. In fact Perth have a nil balance on their for and against record as it stands after three rounds, and Newcastle’s shocking effort last round against the Phoenix has warped what was a reasonable start to the season. Perhaps the biggest disparity is that the Glory have discovered a goal scorer in Andy Keogh, whilst for the Jets no one has really put their hand up to replace Fulham’s Adam Taggart in 2014/15.

Another issue that will be sure to bedevil the Jets is they are still on the road and not yet to come home to Hunter International Stadium, whereas the Glory are back from a jaunt cross the Nullabor to Adelaide, and are at home. There may be some tired legs in the purple and white thanks to their extra-time win midweek over Melbourne Victory in the FFA Cup, however there should be no excuses in a side brimming with youth and experience. The combination of Maclaren and perhaps de Silva from the younger ranks with Garcia, Nicholls, Hersi and Keogh should be a winning one. As for Newcastle this is the ideal opportunity for someone like David Carney or Marcos Flores to remind fans and neutrals alike why they were once icons of the A-League is seasons past.

Final Verdict: Perth should do the job on a struggling Jets, who are nowhere near as blessed when it comes to potential and talent both in front of their own goal nor the opposition’s. My Prediction: 2-0 Perth Glory

Sunday 2nd November: Sydney FC vs Central Coast Mariners (Allianz Stadium)

A tantalizing clash between two clubs that have plenty of history, plus the added piquancy of the relationship between FC coach Graham Arnold, the Mariners and their coach Phil Moss, this will be a match that could finally establish the home team as a favourite for title honours this season. With a near full squad and at home Arnold must feel very confident of snaring all three points, even though the Mariners will be no push overs. The defensive effort against the Roar has probably silenced many who saw chinks in Sydney FC’s backs, whereas the undoubted quality of the likes of Janko, Ibini, Gameiro, Brosque, Antonis and possibly Smeltz means that Sydney can go all out. as for the visitors, their squad is not exactly equal in terms of depth or on paper quality. However as shown in past seasons any game involving Central Coast is not one resolved at a desk; they will give all, and in the likes of Montgomery, Duke, Bosnar, Roux, Caceres and Simon they too have some players to be reckoned with.

Final Verdict: The week’s break for the visitors won’t be that beneficial, and the Mariners have hardly set the world on fire with their form before the enforced lay-off. Sydney FC look the goods for another win. My Prediction: 3-1 Sydney FC

Monday 3rd November: Melbourne Victory vs Wellington Phoenix (AAMI Park)

Arguably the match of the round, it is nicely set up thanks to the preceding weeks’ form from both the home team and the visitors, plus perhaps more importantly the after effects of the Victory’s loss against Perth in their midweek FFA Cup match against Perth Glory. The suspensions to Leijer and Giorgevski will undoubtedly unsettle the Victory, and Delpierre, Berisha and perhaps Thompson could all be in doubt due to injury. Up front this shouldn’t be too big a problem for Muscat as he can still call upon Finkler, Barbarouses and Tunisian international Ben Khalfallah to deliver goals, However at the back there may be some concerns, especially considering in each A-League game played this season Victory have conceded at least one goal, and arguably if there is a squad with plenty of goals in them that they are yet to meet so far in 2014/15 it’s Wellington.

The Phoenix will undoubtedly find their cross-Tasman journey a challenge however they are certainly up for it thanks especially to the front trio of Brockie, McGlinchey and Burns. Burns is probably the pick of the three and some in the media are already talking up his chances for a return to the Socceroos. Bonavecia is going to cause headaches for the Victory midfield, but the question is how well can Wellington’s backs contain a possibly undermanned Victory? Ernie Merrick is a cagey coach with a wealth of experience if not of funds for his squad, and he will give his protege and friend Kevin Muscat plenty to think about.

Final Prediction: this match will be determined by fitness issues for either Berisha and/or Delpierre. If one of those two  can play then the momentum may well be with Melbourne. If neither plays then watch out for a possible upset in favour of Wellington. My Prediction: 2-1 Melbourne Victory

2014/2015 Round Three Review: 24th-26th October

Brisbane Roar vs Sydney FC (0-2 Sydney FC win)

If there were any doubts about the capacity of Graham Arnold’s squad, or expressions of optimism in favour of Mike Mulvey’s 2013/14 Grand Final winners, this match dispelled them. For the first time in 9 fixtures away at Suncorp Sydney FC have come away with all three points, with their two goal scorers each putting in efforts that would be nominees for goals of any a-league season, let alone this third round of the current one. Janko’s goal in the first half was partly made possible by Roar goal keeper Jamie Young stuffing up his clearance and position in the box, however the imperious manner in which the Austrian buried his shot from closer to the half way line than the Roar’s goal was indicative of how strong the visitors were in attack. In fact aside from Janko’s wonder goal and that scored in the second half by Dimitrijevic, there were ample opportunities for the likes of Brisque, Ibini, Gameiro and Antonis to add to the tally. Aside from a scare in the latter stages of the first half from last season’s hero Petratos, the outlook for the Roar was gloomy from kick off to full time. Thomas Broich was impeded by a soft tissue injury from the warm up, and with no Berisha, no Franjic, trouble with Liam Miller’s attitude, Young being no replacement for the injured Theo, still no sign of Sarota and McKay suspended…well, last season’s champions are in a world of shit with no clear path to get out of it. as much as I dislike the import of saying this, Sydney FC are one of the favourites to win the current A-League season if they can sustain their form, and the mixture of Arnold as coach and some excellent buys pre-season will have their opponents nervous in upcoming rounds.

Melbourne Victory vs Melbourne City (5-2 Melbourne Victory win)

Emerging from behind the shadows of last week’s amazing Sydney derby, it could be argued that the two Melburnian clubs put on an even bigger and brighter show thanks to the hype over David Villa, the new schism in Bleak City between the clubs (one with a desire to be partially owned by the fans, the other part of Sheik Mansour’s petrodollar-funded international football conglomerate), the success of Victory and their new acquisition Besart Berisha in the opening rounds of the current A-League season, and reconcilaition between the Victory and their largest active supporter segment, the North Terrace. With over 43,700 spectators the Melbourne derby at Etihad slightly edged out the Sydney derby for bums on seats, but where the real difference was lay with the goals; an incredibly seven in total were scored, with City going up over Victory twice to be caught on each occasion and then surpassed in a second half rout.

Statistically in many departments there was little to split the two teams, however truth be told City are held together at the moment by the likes of their Spanish superstar David Villa, who will be leaving for New York City after the next round, ex-Wanderer Aaron Mooy and some momentary flashes of quality from Damian Duff. Perhaps what is most telling about their performance was their two goals were scored by defenders who were able to make good on crosses from Mooy. Victory on the other hand found the net at least three times as a result of concise and well-constructed passing, putting forwards into scoring positions time and time again. Admittedly the first goal from Victory, scored by Archie Thompson had a sniff of offside about it. However when one looks at the quality of Barbarouses’ service to Archie and Berisha, or indeed Berisha’s second half goal that came almost from the kick-off, well City were out of it by then.

There’s no doubt that Victory are a red hot favourite for finals series honours already this season, whereas for City they have major problems. Paartalu has not been a success in the midfield, Koren (their Slovenian marquee) is out injured for several weeks yet, and the likes of Ramsay and Kisnorbo are the same defenders who struggled last season for the Heart. Obviously the injection of funds into the reborn club will take some time to work its magic, and they will take points of many teams. However with their first loss and not being able to put away either Sydney FC or Newcastle after dominating these preceding challenges in past rounds, well life without David Villa is going to be harder.

Wellington Phoenix vs Newcastle United (4-1 Wellington Phoenix win)

If ever a game demonstrated that dominating possession doesn’t mean you will always win this is the one, with the Jets owning over 60% of the time on the ball, yet being put to the sword by a Wellington Phoenix side that is looking better and better each week. Whilst the game was book-ended by some lovely heading work from Newcastle’s favourite son Joel Griffiths, including a goal in the 90th minute, it was his ex-team mate Nathan Burns with two goals, ex-Mariner McGlinchey with one and another ex-Newcastle player Andrew Durante who put Phil Stubbins team down to their second loss of the season. Ernie Merrick has got arguably one of the top three attacking packs at the front of his team thanks to Burns, Brockie and McGlinchey, and with Dutch import Bonavecia and Spanish tourist-turned back Albert Riera there is a spine to the Phoenix that adds steel to the rapier-like attack. It must be said that for the home team the lack of international commitments for the All Whites for their Kiwi players has helped them. Conversely for Newcastle being on the road for a third week in a row, combined with shallow stocks on the ownership front and some less than acceptable performances both in front of their own goal or the opponent’s means that their struggles have the whiff of inevitability about them. Plus there is no light at the end of the tunnel. If there was a club already looking to have a bottom two position locked up for 2014/15 it’s the Jets, whereas for the Phoenix, they have plenty to look forward to.

Adelaide United vs Perth Glory (2-0 Adelaide United win)

Perth have been a pacesetter for the first few rounds of the current a-League season, however when they came up against an Adelaide squad that should’ve been weakened by both their mid-week commitments in the FFA Cup and the absence of key forward Bruce Djite it was the visitors who looked decidedly second rate. The Reds are certainly one of the form teams of the competition so far and what is perhaps most important for them is that they are now winning games without Djite, and improving upon the possession obsessive style of tikki-takka reputedly brought in by Josep Gombau. Carrusca was the go-to man for much of the brains on the pitch for the home team and his coordinating with Cirio and Isais was always a worry for the Glory backs. It must be said that Perth should have equalised before half time when almost without reason Andy Keogh butchered a certain goal. His effort was matched later in the second half by U-21 Socceroo Awer Mabil, but for the Reds’ young star this was not a disaster, as he had already gone a long way to securing all three points thanks to an earlier, well-taken goal in the 68th minute. The visitors were very ill-disciplined after giving away two goals, and the incident involving Jamie Maclaren should have been dealt with more sternly by Kris Griffith-Jones (whose red card stayed in his pocket after Maclaren stomped on Isais, which was a markedly more cautious approach than his sendo ff given to Saba last week). It’s not the end of the road for Glory, however there must be some worry about the lack of purpose from Hersi in his (missed) tackle on Goodwin. For Adelaide they are like Sydney and Melbourne Victory; already spoken of as lay down misere’s for a top four finish.

Best Team of the Round: It’s very hard to split the four victorious teams of this round as each did something rather special. However considering that two of the clubs let in goals (i.e. Phoenix and Victory) the distinction must be between the Reds and Sydney FC, and I would put them slightly ahead of Adelaide insofar as they made last season’s champions look very ordinary indeed.

Worst Team of the Round: Another loss from the Roar this week puts them at the bottom of the heap, though it must be said that the Jets were also less than satisfactory in their efforts. Unlike previous rounds where the Wanderers played and Roar actually had a good sniff at winning, this time without the Wanderers to again compare against and with no goals whatsoever to take some comfort from, the dubious honour of worst team  in round three goes to Brisbane.

Best Goal of the Road: Janko’s goal for Sydney was freakish, and in the spirit of the long distance lob goal from Orlando Engelaar last season for the then Heart. However for me it was Dimitrijevic’s second half stunner in the same match that is the better of the two. Both had some fortune in them (the former came from the opposition goalie literally giving the ball to the lumbering Austrian, Dimitrijevic was aided by a fortuitous rebound off the ref). However the Serbian import scored with more structural support from his team mates, and his awareness was no less than Janko’s

Note: As the Western Sydney Wanderers vs Central Coast Mariners game was postponed their match report will be included in the entry for the closest regular round

On The Cusp Of Greatness (or Fortress Wanderland Claims Another Asian Giant)

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration, even though I am as biased as all hell, to say that the 1-0 win over Al Hilal on Saturday night was probably one of the top two or three moments not just for the Wanderers, but for Australian club football since at least the foundation of the A-League, if not in the entire history of domestic football in this country. Don’t get me wrong; it was hardly the most beautiful of games. It wasn’t a display of Joga Bonita, with flurries of goals, incisive incursions from fleet-footed strikers, creative midfielders using repeated pin-point passes to split the opposition defence, dazzling their markers with sublime skill and vision. Some more envious and less successful fans from the eastern side of Sydney may have called the Wanderers “jammy c-nts”. I’m sure Al Hilal fans will have left Wanderland wondering how they couldn’t score, and there have been stories like Seb Hassett’s in the Sydney Morning Herald that talked about luck and the Wanderers being outplayed. There’s also been the likes of Damien Lovelock who in the most recent ‘Top of the League’ podcast was disdainful and dismissive of the Wanderers’ playing style.

Having said all that if even the most vexatious and unsympathetic viewers of the Wanderers efforts in first leg of the AFC Champions’ League could, nay should, cede anything  when reviewing what transpired last Saturday night (and indeed beforehand) it is that in their campaign for Asian glory the relative new boys of the A-League have demonstrated a determination and self-belief that are the true hallmarks of great achievements in football. Arguably more importantly they are the qualities that gel admirably with the wider Australian community and culture, beyond the ‘sheilas, wogs and pooftas’ world of Australian soccer. They are attributes that mix well with the narrative of the underdog battling against a far wealthier and arguably more skillful opponent, taking the game right up to them and beating them not just on the score line but also in the stands. Saturday night’s win sits quite nicely alongside other Australian sporting episodes of a similar ilk, such as the successful 1974 and 2006 World Cup qualification final matches for the Socceroos, or perhaps in other athletic endeavours the Olympic gold medals for Jon Sieben and Duncan Armstrong at the 1984 and 1988 Summer Olympics, or the 1997 grand final win for the Newcastle Knights in the ARL premiership. Perhaps it could be seen as a parallel to Steve Waugh’s century against the English in the 2002/2003 Ashes test played at the SCG. I’m sure there are plenty of similar stories both from Australia’s sporting history and beyond that similarly rely upon elements such as grit, such as passion, such as an unwillingness to concede even when battered and arguably bettered. From a personal and prejudiced perspective the achievements of the Wanderers in the Asian Champions’ League including the pinnacle of last Saturday’s home win puts them into the same echelon of come from behind, battling against the odds victories such as the one I saw back in 1983, when Australia II came up trumps in the America’s Cup after being three races down in a best of seven regatta. It’s possibly in the same realm as Steve Bradbury’s short track speed skating gold medal in the Salt Lke City Winter Olympics of 2002, though I don’t believe the likes of Hiroshima Sanfrecce, Guangzhou Evergrande, FC Seoul or so far Al Hilal have fallen down as badly as Bradbury’s opponents did.

I know; the hyperbole is pretty full-on so I will try and inject a modicum of reality. There is no way I cannot ignore the speed and quality of the Saudi team’s players when they took on my beloved Wanderers at Parramatta. From the get-go there was plenty to trouble the home team, with Daniel Mullen and Anthony Golec particularly under the pump. There was a hunkered down, weather the storm feel to the Wanderers’ playing style and tactics that was ugly at times, worrisome at others. It was very easy to lapse into waves of angst with each Al Hilal attack in those first forty-five minutes, dreading the almost certain goal that never actually came. Thankfully the home crowd was in full voice (in fact I would suggest the RBB and other stands were in Spinal Tap parlance turned up to 11), and the manner in which the usual medley of chants and singing maintained spirits was vital. The reputation of the supporters at Wanderland being the twelfth man for the team was well and truly earned that night.

My personal experience of the game was a little different than usual insofar as I was in the western stand, directly opposite my usual lair of Bay 65, and my hopes of mixing with numerous kameraden at the Bavarian Bier Cafe pre-kick-off had been scuppered by a dose of lurgi. The spectacle and sound coming from a sizable contingent of away fans was impressive and generally speaking good natured from my point of view. I must say that before the RBB found its voice the Al Hilal support was easily a match for most of the A-League non-Wanderers supporters I have seen both at Wanderland or away (excluding the Cove at Allianz Stadium for a derby). They did seem to lose their way a little with Mexican waves and energetic flag waving, instead of the more creative chanting and call and response work from the RBB. However even if a good percentage of the Saudi support were either flown in by the clubs’ royal backers or were young men (and some women) culled from the local Saudi student community, there was a loud enough welter of chanting, singing and old fashioned barracking to keep Al Hilal’s players aware of the importance of their efforts on the pitch.

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I think it would be a disservice to those who played in the red and black last Saturday to consign their first half performance down to the simplistic stylings of ‘if in doubt, hoof it out’. Yet there was a degree of desperation and dare I say a bit of the park football feel to the structures and systems of the Wanderers in the first 45 minutes plus injury time. Passes went astray more often they should have, however the basic reason for this was that Al Hilal played a high and energetic press. Perhaps due to nerves, perhaps due to the lack of time, the Wanderers were slow to release their attack to such an extent they had no real open play shots on goal, and defensively there was a lot of scrambling, mostly on the wings. Al Dossary and Al Shamrani certainly asked a few interesting questions, though it has to be said that for the most part Mullen, Topor-Stanley, Hamill and Golec had the right answers In fact, for all the talk of how hard pressed the Wanderers were Ante Covic was barely called upon to make any meaningful saves.

The second half saw more of the same for the first 15 minutes or so, with Al Hilal owning the ball and pressing frequently, however their attempts to pierce the Wanderers’ defence was usually beaten back or sent askew through some mistakes from the visitors. It’s a hoary old argument, about possession and shots on goal determining who is the better side in a football match, and on strict numbers alone yes the Saudi team was more successful that the Wanderers. However having watched the game both live and on TV for all the possession, for all the shots Al Hilal on reflection were not as imposing as the statistics suggest. There were occasions even in the first half where Bridge or Haliti looked to be on the verge of cracking the visitor’s defence, and so when Tomi Juric came on in the 58th minute it could be argued that home coach Tony Popovic injected the right player at the right time.

From thereon the match pendulum swung sharply back towards the Wanderers, and the proof of the wisdom in the substitution of Santalab for Tomi came in the 64th minute. Golec’s left wing cross into the box was a pearler, curling in with the best placement for it to be met by Juric. His rampaging run and thrust out foot connected sweetly, sending the ball between the Al Hilal goalie’s legs and into the net. It was without doubt against the run of play, yet as the Wanderers have shown in the past they can and will hit teams on the counter. Golec’s cross was not entirely dissimilar to the ball he helped put into the back of Guangzhou Evergrande’s net in the home leg of the quarter finals, so for Al Hilal to concede on a play that had been profitable for the Wanderers in a previous match indicates that they were not entirely aware of the quality of their opposition.

A second goal from Juric was cruelly denied by the woodwork in the 72nd minute, and this wasn’t the last testing of the Al Hilal defences. The substitution of Matteo Poljak by Matthew Spiranovic was a welcome one for the home club and fans, especially considering Spira’s long break due to injury before this match. Slotting into the unfamiliar territory of the midfield he could’ve scored an unlikely goal when he was positioned sweetly for a shot near the Al Hilal goal’s left post, only for his reactive shot to be stopped by their goalie Al Sdairy. However the Al Hila goal keeper’s efforts were dwarfed before the end of the match, when home goal keeper Ante Covic kept out a couple of efforts from Al Hilal. In fact whilst Tomi Juric won the game for the Wanderers because of his goal, it was Ante Covic who secured the victory thanks to his usually high standards in front of the net. It’s possible to see Covic and his work on the pitch as the perfect metaphor for the entire Wanderers’ experience during this AFC Champions’ League; indomitable, fiercely protective of the goal with a defensive skill far beyond an accurate reckoning by those who come up against him, and most importantly unwilling to cede anything to any opposition no matter their previous track record in the competition or the dollar value of their squads.

So the famous victory at Wanderland was secured and yet again a record chapter was written anew in the history of football in Australia. Popvic’s coaching systems and tactics again blunted an Asian rival with a many-fold advantage in resources against the Wanderers. The home crowd of over 20,000 was a new benchmark for the club and the ground, and most importantly for the sport as a whole in Australia the Wanderers are now focusing the nation’s attention in a way that hasn’t been seen in football since the 2005 World Cup qualifier won by the Socceroos over Uruguay. Supporters from other clubs are starting to grudgingly respect not just what happens on the field but also the cultural and community value of the Wanderers. Immediately before the match there were headlines like Sydney Wanderers Have Done What No Pollie has Done and since the victory even that paragon of the arch-conservative, anti-soccer Anglo-Saxon Rugger Bugger world, Alan Jones has tried to get on the bandwagon. It has been a moment in football’s history in Australia that some would consider a mad fantasy based on the preceding elements. A perfect storm of support, of determination, of sporting prowess and perhaps most importantly integration into the Australian popular psyche celebrated by a once disdainful media; this is the narrative, the record, the fairy tale that has been the Western Sydney Wanderers and their AFC Champions’ League campaign.

Here’s hoping that by 7.00 am Sunday 2nd November Parramatta time the red and black and all faithful to the vision they have expanded upon for football in Australia get their just rewards, and finish off the job.

Come on you Wanderers!

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Wandering Into Asia: The AFC Champions’ League Saga Out West

This evening the Wanderers play Saudi and AFC powerhouse Al-Hilal FC in the first league of the finals of the 2014 AFC Champions’ League, and I don’t consider it to be an exaggeration for me to call it the biggest club football match played in football in this country since at least the beginning of the A-League, if not since the sport actually kicked off here. Please understand I mean this as no disrespect to other clubs who have made forays either in continental or international tournaments, such as Adealide’s run to the same stage of the 2008 championship and their subsequent travel to the 2008 FIFA Club World Cup. Nor is this a sleight on the South Melbourne Hellas team that went to the 2000 edition of the CWC. Both those efforts deserve respect and the trailblazing effort through such clubs need to be remembered.

However the reason that I consider tonight’s match to be so significant is for the first time in this country we are seeing an unfolding story of international club football create a dialogue and a public consciousness about the sport and the Wanderers that has never been matched before. For all the wonder and excellence that led to the experiences of the Reds and Hellas and preceding years they were dare I say under the shadow of either a stumbling and fumbling football administration, connected with all the old prejudices and problems of ‘old Soccer’, whilst the latter was at a time when the A-League and football in general was still emerging from the periphery. Hellas did very well to get to the 2000 CWC however this was in the days of Soccer Australia and the NSL, where a significant but still small band of welded on fans and participants had to battle for every achievement, every dollar, every skerrick of public recognition. Unfortunately as the old world of football not long thereafter came crumbling down, as revealed and hastened through the Crawford Report, the basic structures of the sport in those days meant that any club (let alone Hellas) could never really propagate football’s identity, extending the lustre of the CWC participation beyond the club’s own record books. As for Adelaide, as much as they did achieve wonders in 2008 they were doing so in a smaller, less football conscious market domestically (both in terms of their home city and Australia as a whole), during a period when the A-League was still in its infancy (and soon lost much of its starting impetus thanks to the elusive hunt by the FFA for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosting rights), and when truth be told the public in general and the local clubs specifically failed to really recognise or understand the AFC Champions League’s importance.

What has been truly exciting and ground-breaking is that the Wanderers have made it to this stage of the AFC Champions’ League in conjunction with the outstanding growth of popularity for the club and the sport in Australia, joined with a wider and more nuanced appreciation of what this means for the club, the west of Sydney, the sport and even the country as reflected in both mainstream and peripheral media. Only last week a derby was played between Sydney FC and the Western Sydney Wanderers in front of over 41,000 fans which was the largest crowd for any regular season game for any football code at Allianz Stadium since it opened. The Wanderers have over 18,000 members who each in one way or another, to differing degrees of appreciation, been engaged with a competition that has struggled for a hold on the Australian sports-loving populace. There have been stories such as this from the local media (Seb Hassett SMH article) and mainstream TV news media have been focusing on the Wanderers in ways not usually seen before:

Then there has been the attention focused on this match from outside the Wanderers’ supporter base or mainstream media. Ranging from an explosion of Saudi-based social media followers (where Al Hilal’s rival supporters have attached themselves to the Wanderers), through the events of previous qualifiers (such as the controversial events surrounding the games played between the Wanderers and Marcello Lippi’s Guangzhou Evergrande), and even with the arguments over where the first leg match should have been played (with many latecomers and neutrals upset that the club and core fan base have preferred to play at Wanderland). These kinds of events, of stories are more often the framework or issues which feature in non-football codes in this country, or are the norm when people look at the UEFA Champions League or the Copa Libertadores. There has been disquiet over the schedule clash between the Wanderers versus Al Hilal fxiture against the Melbourne derby in the A-League. There has even been pseudo-sociological assessments of the Wanderers and their achievements from fans of opposition clubs .

Now I’m coming at this with some degree of bias, and I’ve not got the academic credentials to back all these assertions up with nuanced research. However as someone who has been following the sport of football in Australia for well nigh on forty years, I can remember no other moment in the history of club football that has placed the sport on such a huge pedestal. I know there have been exhibition matches such as those played between Victory and Liverpool, and I have already referred to Adelaide FC and South Melbourne Hellas. However there is a fundamental groundswell shift in this saga of the Wanderers in their hunt for AFC Champions’ League glory that has a broader appeal, a more significant potential impact. It’s partly as a result of the matches themselves and the manner in which they were won or lost (e.g. the first match against Ulsan Hyundai with flares and a 1-3 drubbing, the 2-0 win over Hiroshima Sanfrecce with its attendant farewell to several key foundation Wanderers players after their loss to Brisbane in the 2013/14 A-League Grand Final, the 1-2 loss to Guangzhou Evergrande that saw the Wanderers progress to the semis on away goals). There is also the manner in which several of the club’s “squaddies” have performed, like Shannon Cole, Labinot Haliti and Jason Trifiro. Dare I say it the blue-collar determination to win against bigger, more famous, wealthier Asian clubs ties in with the Australian mythos of the battler, the underdog, the working man hero. Taking on the best of the overseas world and beating them is very much part of the Australian ego, and the Wanderers tilt at AFC Champions League glory is very much in harmony with this.

Now I am about to leave for the game and I know that this will not be an easy task for the Wanderers. In fcat this will be the stiffest challenge ever faced by the club, beyond those previous matches played both in the A-League or against other Asian clubs. Expectations are high as are the demands. However the significance of what has transpired so far and the possibilities of what lies ahead make tonight’s match one of those defining moments not just in the club’s history, but I would argue for the sport of of football in Australia as a whole, and perhaps even for the folk of this area, this city, this country.

2014/2015 Round Three Preview: 24th-26th October

Friday 24th October: Brisbane Roar vs Sydney FC( Suncorp Stadium)

Another quality Friday night match looms with the win-less 2013/14 champions up against a traveling Sydney FC who have had a fairly torrid week since last Saturday’s derby kicked off. Brisbane have not looked that bad in their losses against Adelaide and Perth, however there must be some questions being asked now as to how Mulvey can get results without the pairing of Broich and Berisha, plus the absence of one of the most underrated goalies in the A-League in Michael Theo. Defensively there is a degree of staleness about the home team, and it is yet to be seen if either Kurtishi or Henrique can step up and score the goals needed on a regular basis. It will also be intriguing to see how well Demi Petratos plays against his old club, especially as he put Sydney FC to the sword last season.

For the visitors tired legs will be of a concern and for all their celebration for the win over the Wanderers they still have issues at the back and did not seal the win until after Saba’s controversial red card. Additionally Graham Arnold does not have the psychological motivation for his players that they had last Saturday. The return of Ognenovski will be useful however he is value is not necessarily in his playing capacity, but more as a motivator and organiser. There is plenty of strike power up front and Alex Brosque and Corey Gameiro are in excellent form. Goalkeeper Vedran Janjetovic is not the safest of hands so if Broich and his associated forwards can exploit any weaknesses at the back they could reap the benefit of his limited capabilities.

Final Verdict: It will be intriguing to see if the Roar come at Sydney FC fast and hard from the kick-off, as it could lead to a few goals from either or both sides. Sydney FC are arguably in a better place as a team however the Roar at home will be hard to beat for any club backing up. My Prediction: 1-1

Saturday 25th October: Melbourne Victory vs Melbourne City (Etihad Stadium)

Another big Melbourne derby with possibly 45,000 fans attending thus bringing it back onto a par with the Sydney derby (which has become the bigger event in the last season or so). Victory will come in with every reason to believe they can win thanks to a barely changed line-up from their first two rounds. Defensively solid at the back and of course filled with power up front the likes of Berisha, Barbarouses, Funkler and Thompson will ask plenty of questions of a City team that might be a little down at the moment. For all the talk of the money invested in Melbourne City and the quality of their acquisitions they have not been able to put away both teams they have played so far this season, even after dominating both Sydney FC and Newcastle for long periods of their respective games. Having to rely on David Villa to get them draws has worked so far, but with the mid-week news he will be leaving and may not come back after next week’s round it will be a real challenge for someone else to step into his shoes. Mooy and Duff have been very good and David Williams showed he has a similar desire to score goals as per last season. Yet when you peel away the major signings the core of the old Melbourne Heart is still there, and you have to ponder how they can knock off the Victory if Villa doesn’t dominate.

Final Verdict: The jury is still out on City, whereas Victory already look like a championship favourite. Technically a home game the action in the stands could be passionate, and expect Victory to get the bulk of the support. My Prediction: 2-0 Victory

Sunday 26th October: Wellington Phoenix vs Newcastle United (Westpac Stadium)

In a match that might be seen as a potential cellar dweller battle, there is reason to believe this could be a good game for neutrals and partisans alike, with the Phoenix already looking to escape their tag of also rans. The biggest problem for the visitors is that the Jets have not shown a capability to maximise either on their good play or on their opponents bad play by scoring goals. Montano, Steele and Neumann should be slotting the ball into the opposition’s net if the Jets are to challenge for honours in 2014/15. There is a stolid ‘park the bus’ feel about them that doesn’t engender much excitement, but it must be said in their first two matches this season they did look better than half decent. If Flores can fire Newcastle will be in there at the death in this round.

As for the home team Wellington already look a better team than last season and their win away from home against the Mariners last round must serve as a boost. McGlinchey, Burns and Brockie are forming an imposing front three and Dutch import Roly Bonavecia is living up to his unheralded potential. As always coach Ernie Merrick will be craftily directing his player’s tactics and style, and if their defence holds back a limited challenge from the visitors then the Phoenix will be more than half way there for a win.

Final Verdict: Playing at home with a settled squad and some good form already registered in this season Phoenix will be favourites. The Jets will battle hard however all three points should go to Wellington: My Prediction: 2-0 Wellington Phoenix.

Sunday 26th October: Adelaide United vs Perth Glory (Coopers Stadium)

Another intriguing match up between an Adelaide team that plays with plenty of style, high ball retention and a couple of serious goal threats up against a Perth Glory squad that has a solid mix of youth and experience, plus perhaps has finally discovered self-belief and team harmony. At home the Reds will be a tough proposition and if the Glory’s backs can’t contain Bruce Djite and/or Cirio the visitors will be assailed by many shots on goal. To their advantage however in Danny Vukovic they have one of the league’s best goalies, and when you combine the upfront quality of Hersi, Keogh, Nicholls and Maclaren well it one be one way traffic for Gombau’s team. The differences in style and tactics will be most intriguing, and the result may potentially come down to an error here or there. Adelaide may be feeling the after effects of their hard won victory on Tuesday against Sydney FC in the FFA Cup quarter finals, but I am unsure if Glory are the kind of club that has the physical or fitness supremacy to take advantage of a flagging Reds.

Final Verdict: A hell of an evenly matched game with a cigarette paper’s thickness between them. My Predcition: 1-1 Draw

(Western Sydney Wanderers vs Central Coast Mariners has been put back until Wednesday 19th November due to the first leg of the AFC Champions’ League Final)