The del Piero Dilemma (Or How An Azzurri Legend Hijacked A Club…But Not The A-League)

Okay, the title of this blog post may be a bit provocative, and of course I’m biased in my view due to my club allegiances. However, in the immediate and indeed long term wash-up over the ending of Alessandro del Piero’s playing career at Sydney FC there are some serious questions to be asked about the true value of his involvement in the sport in Australia, as well as his worth to the club he played for. Was ADP the greatest thing since sliced focaccia to hit Sydney FC, the A-League or indeed the entire sport of football in Australia in recent years? Was he value for money when it came to the expenditure made by Sydney FC’s owner, particularly in light of the definitive lack of success the club had on the pitch during his tenure as their marquee? Has del Piero been as noble in his crusade for football in Australia as some would have us believe, or has his stint down under been a clever marketing ploy by a professional footballer who wanted to maximise his income and brand? What will be his legacy at Sydney FC or indeed for the sport as a whole in this country? Bottom line; was del Piero worth all the dosh, hype and attention?

Taking the playing for his club view first, I don’t think that anyone could find fault with the argument that del Piero added plenty of quality to Sydney FC, particularly in his first season in 2012/13. However his individual achievements and ability to do very well as a mature overseas marquee for the Sky Blues could not counterbalance certain salient problems with his club. As I and many others have argued before Sydney FC’s dysfunctional structures in terms of recruitment policies, coaching attitudes, club culture and a player group that has far too many passengers for the money spent on them meant that for much of his time at the club del Piero was a bit like the boy of legend with his finger in the dyke. Whilst his set piece work was of the highest quality, and his ability to encourage and arguably serve as a leader for his fellow players at SFC will be well thought of by many, there have to be doubts as to whether he was more than just a band aid solution; a tiring fulcrum that a faulty machine tried to lever off. Whether it was his coaches or himself, or perhaps a combination of both as well as the influence of his team mates, with ADP in the Sydney FC line up they became far too focused on his role and work. There were times when it brought major dividends (as recently as the Round 25 game of the current season between Sydney and Wellington). However these matches and the synchronicity of a magisterial ADP combining with effective football from his team mates were far too infrequent. For every match where he bamboozled defenders such as the opening match of the 2013/14 season against the Jets whilst the likes of Abbas, Carle, Garcia and Petkovic backed him up, there were games like the second SFC versus Wanderers derby of 2013/14. In that match he was kept far too quiet for his club’s needs by a much younger opposition player (the Wanderers’ Daniel Alessi) and then when subbed not only did his departure indicate a degree of disharmony within the squad and coaching staff, things went off the boil on the pitch quickly as well, ending in yet another derby loss for the Sky Blues. Admittedly there were times when del Piero’s absence had his fellow Sydney FC players rise to the occasion (as they did in the third derby of 2013/14 against the Wanderers), but on the balance he could neither carry the burden of a stuttering squad for as long as or as well as needed, nor could his team mates match his mercurial brilliance with enough frequency. To put it bluntly, Sydney FC could never escape the problems of effectively being a one man team in the ADP years.

Another issue for Sydney FC in terms of its playing structures and achievements during del Piero’s tenure was the diversion of philosophical and tactical energy away from establishing an attractive and successful system into keeping del Piero on the pitch in some role, whilst at the same time coaching problems festered and leeched away support. If one was to look at opposition clubs that achieved more success over the last two seasons it would be fair to say that not allowed their style of play nor their squad’s playing philosophy to become a servant to one man. Coaches such as Tony Popovic, Kevin Muscat, Mike Mulvey, Graham Arnold, Ange Postecoglou, Phil Moss and Josep Gombau were not afraid of putting their best and/or most iconic players into a tactical and/or cultural framework that served long term visions. Shinji Ono and Thomas Broich are two examples of international players with far less cachet as imported ‘stars’ than del Piero who were coached as part of a team, instead of being allowed to form an identity or a diversion apart from the team’s energies, its focus. Both Arnold and Moss never had anyone approaching del Piero’s skill or fame in their Central Coast line ups these last two seasons, and I would argue they achieved more than del Piero’s Sydney FC not in spite of such a disparity of talent but because of it. Even lower placed clubs with less success than Sydney FC, such as Melbourne Heart or Wellington Phoenix seemed to do better with their major players (i.e. Orlando Engelaar and Carlos Hernandez respectively) integrating into club’s playing culture. No one saw stories about Ono, Heskey or Broich being touted as a potential replacement for their respective coaches as del Piero was for Frank Farina.

From my perspective (and of course I am only a layman with an affirmed prejudice against Sydney FC) del Piero’s most significant role for his club seems to have been less about adding to his club’s achievements on the field, and more about serving as a brand or marketing tool for Traktavenko’s investment. It could also be argued he has been far more important for the FFA in the same context than his technical ability on the pitch encouraging or leading domestic A-League players to improve their standards accordingly. Whether we’re talking the amount of ADP related merchandise sold on behalf of Sydney FC, the links back to Italy for the club and the FFA through broadcast deals or tours of del Piero’s homeland, or the FFA’s use of the Italian legend in their advertising, del Piero the footballer seemed to take a back seat to del Piero the sales tool.

Alessandro del Piero and Shinji Ono launching FFA’s Summer of Football 2013/14

Now far be it from me to criticise either Sydney FC nor the FFA for wanting to make as much out of such an iconic and important player to promote their respective business interests in football in Australia. However assuming the $8 million value of his contract is correct how much was del Piero’s value worth in terms of media exposure compared to such expenditure? Also how much value was wrought from the success of the Western Sydney Wanderers as a club in 2012/13, compared to del Piero’s impact when it came to promoting the A-League and football? After all, whilst del Piero sold plenty of shirts and was featured in heaps of ads, Sydney FC were unable to get more than 60% of the same membership numbers that the Wanderers achieved for 2013/14. The Wanderers have had a real presence in Asian football due to their success in the ACL and their signing of the far cheaper Shinji Ono, whilst del Piero and Sydney FC have barely scratched the surface of engaging with the most important regional market for football and for the A-League.

At this point I must say that I don’t believe the more cynical perspectives of del Piero’s presence in the A-League; that he has been more an advertising cypher, a constant diver who made Sydney FC’s obvious deficiencies even more stark through his performances on the pitch. There has been a remarkable growth in the focus on football and the A-League in this country since 2012/13 which he has in no small part contributed to. There will be thousands of people who have gone to games with del Piero playing, or to off-pitch events that he has attended and they will hopefully feel more attachment to the game and the A-League than if del Piero had not come to Australia. Yet I am not going to adopt a Pollyanna vision that some media pundits may take when they look back on the ADP experience.

Perhaps my ambivalence towards del Piero can be best discussed in the context of the Round 24 match between Adelaide United and Sydney FC at Coopers Stadium on March 21st 2014. At this game the local fans came out in their thousands to see del Piero and show their appreciation for his playing in front of a sizable expat Italian community. Whilst all this affection for the visiting marquee was visually and possible emotionally exciting, the actual game saw Sydney FC utterly outclassed by Gombau’s Reds, with a far less famous or expensive player for the home team (Carrusca) bossing the visitors. As for the hero of the local Juventus fans, he was subbed at the 65th minute. In my opinion it is hardly the best result for all concerned that del Piero engaged far more effectively with people who may be more fixated with a European icon and his club than their local team, and that team played some of the most attractive and efficient football in 2013/14 (especially in contrast to Sydney FC).

ADP at Coopers Stadium for the match against Adelaide, Round 24, 21/3/14

Regarding del Piero’s legacy, I am of the view that his will be far more fleeting and less substantive than others may believe. His tenure as Sydney FC’s marquee would no doubt have resonated far more if his celebrity and individual quality has been accompanied by wider club achievements in the A-League. I also am of the opinion that because his presence in the Sky Blues seemed to affirm the ‘bling’ aspect of their culture whilst reinforcing popular attitudes regarding their cargo cult attitude when it comes to recruiting stars, del Piero’s legacy is going to be less than his boosters would hope. How much money and goodwill has been pissed away by Traktavenko, Barlow, Pignata and Farina through the conduit of del Piero’s celebrity and marquee status contrasted with the grassroots community achievements secured by the Wanderers? Or the small budget, highly motivated squads at the Mariners? Or the Roar and Victory’s approach to creating squads with more uniform standards of achievement and skill?

In light of this I fear that unless something is recruited by Sydney FC along similarly expensive and individually illustrious lines there will be a significant falling off in appeal for the club, and perhaps by association the sport in Australia. Thankfully the continued success of the Wanderers, the major investment by Manchester City’s consortium in the Heart, and major international tournaments for the Socceroos such as Brazil 2014 and the AFC Cup in early 2015 will keep people focused on our sport. However for me the bottom line is that del Piero has been a missed opportunity, reminiscent of those days when a huge European club would come to Australia and play the national team for a few exhibition matches, then return home with as much money as they could gather from their excursion in their bank account. Surely the way forward for the A-League and for our sport to grow is not through enlisting temporary excitement through legends of the game such as ADP, but building successful clubs and domestic cultures built around Australian players who both learn from more accomplished foreign team mates whilst teaching their junior squad members.

A-League 2013/14: Round Twenty Review

(As promised here is the first of several hideously overdue reviews of this season’s A-League rounds)

Central Coast Mariners Vs Wellington Phoenix (1-4 Wellington Phoenix win)

The Wellington Phoenix arrived in Gosford on the back of a disastrous result at home against the Heart, and with the home team boosted by the arrival of new Korean import Kim Seung-Yong, the return of the prodigal Bernie Ibini, and Eddie Bosnar injected into the starting XI, all expectation was that the visitors would struggle for the points. Ibini’s well taken goal in the first half must have further emphasized the improbability of a win for Kiwis, however whatever Ernie Merrick said to his charges at the half time break must’ve been like a shot of peptides to an Essendon footballer. The first riposte from he Phoenix came via Kenny Cunningham, who profited from a deflected pass that arrived in the right place for a driving shot past Liam Reddy. Then, to the frustration of Mike Sterjovski the Mariners’ revisited their penalty taking problems from last season when he failed to slot the ball into Moss’s net a scant 3 minutes later. The heroics of the All-White’s keeper was surpassed in the 63rd minute when Hernandez shot the ball into the Mariner’s net, it’s swerving curving flight path rocketing past a helpless and hopeless Reddy to be buried into he top right hand corner. The role of the Costa Rican in the revival of Phoenix’s fortunes at this stage of the 2013/14 season cannot be under-estimated. Then, to add further unhappiness on the local fans, the third key foreign player for the Phoenix, Belgian Stein Huysegems, was able to tap the ball into the net. More pain was to come to with only ten minutes of regulation time to go, when Huysegems had all the space in the world to deliver a cross for Jeremy Brockie to score the fourth and final Wellington goal. There is no doubt that this resurgence from the Phoenix in this phase of the 2013/14 season was remarkable, yet to bury last year’s grad final winners in the style that they did in this match was stunning. As for the Mariners, there current iteration as a squad is still to demonstrate their collective worthiness contrasted with those teams coached by Graham Arnold.

Newcastle United vs Sydney FC (0-2 Sydney FC win)

For whatever reason this season has seen these two teams meet with the team in red and blue promising a lot before the game, and then after much huffing and puffing they end up coming off second best to the Sky Blues who have in turn never looked that competent. There is no doubt that when the Jets attack focused on Adam Taggart fires they are in the hunt, and when he fails to hit the mark the Newcastle defence and midfield must rise to the occasion otherwise it’s all over red rover. This was the case in this match which looked far more attractive in the first half passages of play than was deserved by the Hunter Stadium pitch. Both Janjetovic and Birighitti were threatened by some useful shots on goal, yet neither Sydney FC nor the home team could break the deadlock. With the older brigade under Frank Farina doing their best to subdue one of the most promising group of younger players in the A-League, it took a set piece and one of the most senior Sky Blue players to start the scoring. Ognenovski rose to meet a corner in the 60th minute and his effort at beating the Jets defence was rewarded with a worthy goal. Arguably less worthy was the penalty given by the referee to Alessandro del Piero against Taylor Regan, but if there is one thing you can count on the ex-Juventus star will never shy away from doing all he can in the box when it comes to getting a chance to shoot on goal. In this instance it was a spot kick that sailed past Birighitti, leaving the home team once more behind against Sydney FC. There was a momentary flurry involving Taggart for the home team, however once more in 2013/14 when Sydney FC and Newcastle United met the points went down the F3 to the harbour city.

Melbourne Victory vs Adelaide United (4-3 Melbourne Victory win)

There are some wonderful rivalries and big games developing a real heritage in the short history of the A-League, and the duels between the Victory and the Reds are certainly up there for passion and pride. Therefore it was entirely appropriate that this game was possibly the best of the 2013/14 season so far when it came to open goal scoring between finely matched opponents. Whilst Gombau’s squad has plenty of reason to present an argument for being the most stylistically attractive team going forward in attack, with the goal from Cirio within the first four minutes of this game serving as evidence for such a proposition, they are also one of the least convincing defensively at times. Hence the manner in which they opened up too much space in front of the box at the 14th minute allowed Gui Finkler a chance to level the scores. His shot was exquisitely executed and as it was buried into the back of Coe’s net the Brazilian had shown yet again how important he is to Muscat’s team. The first half didn’t end there when it came to goals; in the 44th minute it was that man Cirio again for the away team, assisted in his scoring by the player who I think really has gotten Gombau out of his critics’ bad book, i.e. Bruce Djite. For all the flair and style of the Latin tiki-taka possession system Djite is the much needed hard working, direct playing complement that drags the Reds into the opposition’s box.

With a 1-2 scoreline at half time the attending fans of both clubs would’ve been happy with the quality of football on display, yet the second half arguably saw a good match become unforgettable. The home team was dealt a blow with the substitution through injury to Tom Rogic, yet a scant five minutes later Finkler echoed Cirio and sunk his second goal of the match, tying things up at 2-2. With yellow cards flying everywhere and injuries piling up the next goal came from a howler committed by one of the best A-League goalkeepers going around; Galekovic scuffed a clearing kick outside the Reds box and in the resulting chase down Archie Thompson did what he loves doing, scoring a goal against Adelaide in from of a home Victory crowd. Obviously defensively the match was a bit of a lost cause, with neither the Reds nor the home team showing a water-tight back line, yet no neutral or home fan could complain when Rogic’s replacement Kosta Barbarouses first set up Finkler for a chance to score, who then assisted Troisi to then pass back to the Kiwi Victory player who tapped into the net for a 4-2 scoreline. Then, to bring the match to a frisson in the 82nd minute Cirio took advantage of a slip from the bungling Pablo Contreras to put the ball past Coe, scoring his hat trick and leaving the match open for at least 8 minutes of regular time. The scoreline didn’t change, which perhaps was unfair to the visitors, thus leaving the Reds joyless and without any points even though they had scored three goals away from home. There is no doubt this was a classic match, and both teams have much to look forward to come finals time.

Perth Glory vs Western Sydney Wanderers (0-2 Western Sydney Wanderers win)

The last game on the Saturday night was played in Perth’s nib Stadium, and once more the club that once was the pride of domestic football in this country demonstrated how dysfunctional and sad they have become, in no small part due to a fractious player group not held in check by an owner who has little grasp of what to do. The Wanderers had traveled without several of their usual key players including for the first time in their short history Ante Covic, and this gave Jerrad Tyson an opportunity to don the gloves for an A-League game since he last played for the now defunct Gold Coast United. However whilst several of Popovic’s usual starters were missing one of the regulars for the Wanderers was there to score a nice goal in the 11th minute, with Matteo Poljak shooting from outside the box and beating a diving Danny Vukovic. The Glory’s goal keeper was certainly one of the better aspects of the match for the home team, whereas almost everyone else playing under Kenny Lowe’s direction looked slow, aimless and disjointed. Kwabena Appiah was terrorizing his Glory opponent on the right flank, whilst Labinot Haliti was not much less difficult to stop on the left. However the potential for a greater lead to be established by the Wanderers didn’t come to fruition until deep into the second half, when French marquee William Gallas committed one of the most farcical errors in front of goal ever seen in Australia:

Tomi Juric made the home team pay for their errors and at 0-2 down it was as if someone told the Glory players that now they should start playing football. There had been a moment before Gallas’s cock up when Jerrad Tyson had to wrestle for a ball that almost trickled into the visitors goal, but that had been the only scare. However in a frantic last quarter of an hour the home team tried to rescue the match. Even Vukovic gave his all with a stunning attempt of a bicycle kick in the 88th minute that was not far off target. Yet even his heroics would do nothing to change the result. The Wanderers had once more demonstrated their mastery of the Glory, and with this win edged closer to the Roar. For the Glory it was yet another backward step in a series of many in 2013/14.

Melbourne Heart vs Brisbane Roar (1-0 Melbourne Heart win)

In every season there will be a game that makes you scratch your head and go ‘I didn’t expect that’. There have been a few 5-0 thumpings in 2013/14 to warrant such an expression, but this single goal victory from the Heart is just as deserving, especially considering how strong the Roar have been since week one and how dire Heart were until the replacement of John Aloisi. Much of this improvement must be put down to the influence of one player who was unavailable to Aloisi and who returned to fitness for John van t’Schip; Orlando Engelaar. The huge Dutch man-mountain was there when need in the 60th minute of this match, which until then had been a story of Heart semi-chances and the quietness of the Roar. Whilst the home coach was getting decent traction out of a squad that was stable from the previous round’s victory, Mike Mulvey had wrung some fairly ineffectual changes. This dire position for the visitors was put into more sharp relief when Engelaar connected with a lovely pass in the box from Dugandzic, toe-lobbing the ball past Theo into the Roar’s net on the hour mark. Engelar could’ve increased the lead twofold when given the opportunity for an indirect free inside the Roar box however his hard struck shot cannoned off the wall of Brisbane defenders. From that point onwards it was all about the Roar trying to find an equaliser, which was most stunningly rejected by Patrick Kisnorbo in the 91st minute. His tackle on a rampant and primed Berisha scarcely centimetres in front of Heart goalie Andrew Redmayne was sublime; sliding in to dispossess the dangerous Albanian striker with a skill that belied previous efforts from the ex-Socceroo this season. Mulvey’s team failed in their quest to salvage a draw, leaving the Heart exultant in probably their best win of the 2013/14 season, and still hopeful for a finals berth.

Best Game: Melbourne Victory vs Adelaide. Seven goals, a hat-trick, history, passion…one of the defining games of the 2013/14 A-league season

Best Goal: Gui Finkler’s first goal for Melbourne Victory was a stellar combination of composure, accuracy, calm thinking and sheer outrageous skill. If he has missed his shot the Hernandez goal for the Phoenix over the Mariners would’ve taken the distinction.

Best Team: Whilst Melbourne Heart could be considered for causing a huge upset in beating Brisbane, and the Victory have some claim because of their win over Adelaide, the best performance this round belongs to Wellington Phoneix. To come back from a goal down at Bluetongue against last year’s GF winners and post 4 goals in an away win is a huge result.

Worst Team: Perth pure and simple. To wait until the 75th minute of a game to look even remotely interested in competing against an opposition team when in front of your own fans is simply unaccpetable.

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

Friday 28th March 2014: Brisbane Roar vs Melbourne Heart (Suncorp Stadium)

With the premier’s plate race done and dusted, and the Roar deservedly receiving it after last week’s win over the victory, there is some possibility that they may not come entirely motivated to do away with the Heart. However that is a minute chance; if there is one factor in the Roar’s success story this season it has been a commitment to consistency. The usual suspects will be there, with Broich, Mackay, Berisha, Henrique, Brattan, Theo, Petratos, Franjic and Stefanutto all part of the Mulvey narrative in 2013/14. It could be that having won the plate with three rounds to go Mulvey may be more creative with his line-up, and try and get more time on the pitch for his less-frequently appearing squad members. There is also the possibility of being conservative for next week’s match against the Wanderers, and the upcoming finals series. Yet I honestly can’t see this happening.

For the visitors the emphasis will be undoubtedly on continuing their revival, minus the recent hiccups, and show off to both their own fans and the neutrals what capabilities exist within a team and club that could break out in a big way next season. The impending retirement of Harry Kewell and the return of Engelaar to the Netherlands post this season will undoubtedly create an interesting atmosphere to the game and mood among the players. Throw in the lengthy continuation of their Heart careers under the new owners provided to coach van t’Schip and striker David Williams, and this match and the coming closing rounds could be one for the Heart to also look for future adjustments. With no chance of making the finals the visitors will probably throw caution to the win and attempt to stage a surprise win to remind their fans and neutrals alike that they are not as bad as their ladder position this season indicates.

My Prediction: 2-1 Brisbane Roar win

Saturday 29th March 2014: Central Coast Mariners vs Western Sydney Wanderers (Bluetongue Stadium)

In the short history of the Wanderers one of the biggest and most popular rivalries is that with the Mariners, and if this game is going to follow in the tradition of the last six meetings it will be well attended by the visiting team’s fans and a close and tense battle. The home team have had an uneven preparation for this match in terms of recent results, and a long season of problematic developments in terms of squad changes, injuries and coaching changes has taken its toll on the Mariners. Yet they have had two good wins in recent weeks and are playing at Bluetongue, where they are rarely beaten. The capabilities of their defence are arguably not as good as the Wanderers, yet they have every reason to believe they can hold out the likes of Juric, Santalab and Haliti. Duke and Simon will be the most logical source of goals for the Mariners, however the man who could be a worry for the Wanderers is Sterjovski. Playing in his last home game for the Mariners this stalwart ex-Socceroo has been in some of his best domestic form ever in recent months, and there is a possibility he will be driven to greater heights due to the emotional context of the match.

Having said that the Wanderers are coming into form at just the right time, with some good wins in recent weeks in both the A-League and the AFC Championship. Hersi and Polenz are almost back to the same devastating form they wreaked on opposite clubs last season, with their right flank work against Perth an encouraging indication of this improvement. The left flank has been strengthened thanks to the absence of d’Apuzzo, and Bridge has found the back of the net in general play after what seems to be a long and dour drought in his form. Most importantly Juric is fit and should figure prominently, giving the Wanderers a capability to score goals that hasn’t always been there this season. Popovic will undoubtedly be looking at this game with a weather eye on the team’s mid-week ACL requirements, however he has already demonstrated that he can and will switch players as required for both local and international competitions, and getting wins as a result.

My Prediction: 0-1 Western Sydney Wanderers win

Saturday 29th March 2014: Melbourne Victory vs Sydney FC (AAMI Park)

The visitors are in a rather unique position insofar they have the opportunity to close out the entire season’s matches against their longest and arguably biggest rival in the A-League if they win, following on from earlier 3-2 and 5-0 defeats of the Victory. However Sydney FC are under the pump in their efforts to reach the finals thanks to a loss and a draw in their last two games plus the good form of rival clubs such as Adelaide and Newcastle. There will be plenty for the visitors to play for, and the re-signing of Sasa Ognenovski is probably the best off-field action undertaken by Sydney FC in the entire 2013/14 season. Yet their style of play is nowhere near pro-active nor creative as required to seriously threaten their opposition.

The Victory have more than enough motivation to win this match, including the obvious requirement to beat the Sky Blues. If the Wanderers falter at Bluetongue the Victory can leap frog them and return to second place on the table. Then there is the growing need for existing players to validate themselves for the future, such as Archie Thompson, Guilliame Finkler and Tom Rogic. Throw in the reshuffle of the home teams’ backs, with Contreras, Traore and Ansell returning, it will be vital they back up the immense power of the Victory’s forwards. Muscat’s team have the capability to do a lot of damage to Sydney FC if they are able to exert a more creative influence on the match, yet it is possible that with Sydney FC staying passive and relying on minor breaks or mistakes they could steal the game. Oh, and as for del Piero, his influence on the game will be far less than the hype around his coming or going from the visitors for next season.

My Prediction: 1-1 draw

Sunday 30th March 2014: Wellington Phoenix vs Adelaide United (Westpac Stadium)

The Phoenix were threatening to make a run for the finals only a few rounds ago, but since their last meeting with the Reds the impetus for such a charge has effectively died. Part of this failure to progress has been a result of injuries relating to key players such as Carlos Hernandez, however it must be said that an over-reliance on the non-Kiwi players to perform has not helped their cause. Huysegems and Cunningham have either been contained or failed to rise to recent requirements, and whilst Merrick has done a good job with the talent he has there is he can only shuffle a limited squad so far.

Josep Gombau’s Adelaide on the other hand seem to be coming right when it’s most opportune for their 2013/14 season hopes, and whilst they haven’t had all the results come their way the manner in which the team is playing and performing on the pitch gives their fans a reason to hope they may still win the grand final. The style that Gombau has instilled in his team with players such as Cirio, Ferreira, Isais, and the more direct play of Djite has formed a sizeable threat to almost every team they have met in recent weeks. The Reds defence is nominally superior to the Phoenix, and with the likes of Elrich, Malik and Boogard to anchor the more creative aspects of Adelaide play it will be a big surprise for the home team to knock off the visitors.

My Prediction: 0-2 Adelaide United win

Sunday 30th March 2014: Perth Glory vs Newcastle United (nib Stadium)

Not that long ago it appeared that Zane’s Jets were gone for all money this season thanks to indifferent form and a series of losses during the earlier part of the season that placed too big a hurdle in front of their hopes for qualifying. However thanks to a series of wins over teams above them on the table including Brisbane and Western Sydney, and last round a massacre of the Phoenix they are now sitting nicely primed for a finals berth. The undoubted qualities of Taggart and to a lesser extent Heskey are being backed up more and more often at the centre of the field thanks to great work by Caravella and Zadkovich. Whilst they don’t play the prettiest football they do have a solidity that will give their rivals for the sixth place on the end of regular season ladder cause for concern.

As for the home team, their 2013/14 A-League season can’t end soon enough. A club in crisis thanks to the serious in-fighting, a badly botched recruitment program and a series of errors in overall club direction has left almost everyone associated with the Glory looking for the off-season as the only hope for an end to their misery. The playing staff are a mish-mash of potential and long faded quality, with the likes of Gallas, Burns and Thwaite examples of the latter, and arguably Harrold, Woodcock and Edwards part of the former. Coach Kenny Lowe has partly inherited and partly created a mess that has allowed their opponents to chalk up three points even before they play. It is hard to see the Glory achieving anything between now and the final whistle in their Round 27 match other than the wooden spoon.

My Prediction: 0-2 Newcastle United win

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

Friday 21st March 2014: Adelaide United vs Sydney FC (Coopers Stadium)

Both teams had draws last week however of the two the one that possibly had a better chance of winning was the Reds, who gave the Wanderers a few nervous moments in the wet at Wanderland. Of course they do have plenty of creativity in the midfield and up front, and Carrusca will be pivotal as he has been almost all season. The question is how will the likes of Ferreira, Cirio and Djite go about getting through a passive Sydney FC who have finally found a rock at the back in the form of Sasa Ognenovski? The return of del Piero is nominally a helpful factor in the Sydney FC squad make up yet their most recent win came as a result of play that took place when he was subbed by Frank Farina.

Reds coach Gombau must be hoping that the visitors bring the same inconsistent play that has been their hallmark all season, and there is quite a bit of capacity in his squad both on and off the pitch to bring about a win. Interestingly enough the absence of Nick Carle from the Sydney FC line-up in recent weeks has not hurt the Sky Blues, yet I still don’t believe they have the overall class to beat a far more creative Reds at home.

My Prediction: 2-1 Adelaide United win

Saturday 22nd March 2014: Newcastle United vs Wellington Phoenix (Hunter Stadium)

It doesn’t seem that long ago that the Phoenix were on a rampage and looking to climb up from the cellar whilst the Jets were looking to consolidate a potential lower finals position thanks to a couple of good wins. Now however both Wellington and Newcastle look a tad off the pace in the race of the final six, and neither team seems to be ripe for either a change up in form or results. Of the two teams the Jets arguably are in a better place, insofar as they have had more recent wins of a significant nature, and with almost a full squad and at home they nominally deserve favoritism. However whilst there has been some decent work of late from the midfield and their best player all season, Adam Taggart, it is hard to say that they truly excel over the visitors.

The lack of Hernandez in the Wellington line-up is a big blow, and Ernie Merrick must be wondering who will be the creative element in his line-up. There will probably be a major focus on the work of Stein Huysegems, and if he is to really earn his wages it’s about time Jeremy Brockie did more than a cameo effort as seems to have been his modus vivendi in recent rounds. Admittedly there is plenty of positive ju-ju in the mix for the visitors when it comes to their track record at Hunter Stadium, but they seem to have dropped off the boil badly. The question is, can a faltering Jets take advantage of such a situation?

My Prediction: 1-1 Draw

Saturday 22nd March 2014: Brisbane Roar vs Melbourne Victory (Suncorp Stadium)

With the premier’s plate within one win away the Roar must be looking to grabbing it by defeating the second place Victory, although there is no guarantee that the task will be easy even with the home team’s impressive form all season. Going into the match Mike Mulvey does have a couple of problems in terms of absent players, with the most important being Besart Berisha, plus prolific back Ivan Franjic, and ex-Socceroo Jade North. However with the likes of Broich, Miller, Stefanutto, McKay and Brattan there is still so much substance to the table topping Roar.

For the Victory they will be coming in buoyed by some recent good results, including their midweek win in their ACL campaign against Yokohama, and quality efforts against Perth and Central Coast that have helped them to rise to second on the current A-League table. There is lots to like about the attack and midfield of Muscat’s squad, and any team that can leave Thompson on the bench has plenty of go-forward. Yet it’s not necessarily the front and mid section of the pitch that will win it for the vistors against the Roar. Milligan, Geria, Leijer and goalie Thomas are vital to the Victory’s hopes of causing a mild upset. If they can cope particularly with the likes of Broich and McKay, whilst Barbarouses, Rogic and Finkler can dismantle the opposition then they have an excellent chance of consolidating their current place on the ladder. It should be a great match.

My Prediction: 1-1 Draw

Sunday 23rd March 2014: Melbourne Heart vs Central Coast Mariners (AAMI Park)

The Heart’s improbable dash to a last minute berth in the finals must be almost dead now, especially in light of their draw with the Phoenix last round (with Ernie Merrick now saying that team can’t make the top six), however they will be a strong challenge to what must be a weary Mariners on the road.  Since the re-signing of John van t’Schip for more seasons at the helm and David Williams also agreeing to terms the stability of the Heart has to be a welcome place to be for squad morale, and whilst they are in an invidious position points-wise, plus seem to have lost some support at home as demonstrated by average crowds of late, they should be at least a mild favourite to topple Phil Moss’s team. All the stalwarts who have gone from hell to at least purgatory in recent weeks will feature for the Heart, including Dutch man-mountain Orlando Engelaar, possible 2014 Socceroo squad member Harry Kewell, Ramsay, Murdocca, Kisnorbo and Behich, and whilst there are numerous familiar faces in the home team they are unlike the vistors in having actually had a rest of late.

For the Mariners the question must be how can they revive their efforts to stay in the top four with a squad that looks dangerously thin and worn, partly due to injury and partly due to ACL demands. Unlike last season when Central Coast powered along with a very stable line-up and set of results their 2013/14 season has been up and down and the drain on quality members of their squad seems impossible to stop. There is a lot to be said about the likes of Bosnar, Reddy, Seung-Yong, Ibini and Duke but the impression seems to be that they lack the support and structures that similarly pressed teams (like the Victory and Wanderers have) at this stage of the season. Their loss to Beijing Goan mid-week in the ACL will not have helped, and with Adelaide, Sydney and Newcastle all breathing down their neck for the fourth, fifth or sixth places in the finals series who is to say if they will finish even in the top five?

My Prediction: Melbourne Heart 2-1 win

Sunday 23rd March 2014: Western Sydney Wanderers vs Perth Glory (Pirtek Stadium)

The visitors are in deep shit, now in last place on the A-League ladder and missing far too many quality players to hint at being a threat to a Wanderers who will undoubtedly reflect Tony Popovic’s system and be almost unrecognizable from that which won it’s ACL game against Kawasaki Frontale mid-week. Perth Glory have a stench of internal decay and philosophical entropy throughout their club and it is well nigh impossible to see that they can arrest or change the situation between now and the end of this season. A crazy-glued mish-mash of semi-decent young talent (e.g. Edwards, Harrold, Woodcock) and wizened old men who must be close to being called hacks (Thwaite, Gallas and Burns), Kenny Lowe’s squad is without their best goal scoring options in Sidnei and Smeltz.

On the other hand the Wanderers will be coming into this match knowing that no matter who is on the pitch their coach has faith in them, plus they have done the job in the past on a Glory team in almost every match of the last two seasons (barring one draw in 2012/13). The impressive aspect of the Wanderers is that even with the demands placed on them by their ACL matches in recent weeks they have  rediscovered their defensive strength and dare I say ability to grind out results. The forward goal scoring opportunities are not being taken with as much frequency as hoped, and it’ll be no surprise if Santalab starts for Tomi Juric. Polenz and Spiranovic will slot back into the starting line up and whilst Ono may not start Hersi should, with an option for the rapidly improving Kwabena Appiah to be his sub later in the game. Unfortunately the left flank is still problematic and if Bridge and d’Apuzzo start then the Glory’s best option will be to hit that side. However Shannon Cole or Labinot Haliti may figure in Popovic’s thinking if they aren’t too fatigued from their midweek efforts.

My Prediction: Western Sydney Wanderers 2-0 win

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

Friday 14th March 2014: Sydney FC vs Brisbane Roar (Allianz Stadium)

If the anti-Farina forces at Sydney FC will be looking for an excuse to trot out their currently hibernating calls for the SFCboss to get the boot, this match should be the catalyst for such a return to form. Whilst no one can deny that based on points the home team is in a strong position, and has plenty of wins up their sleeve, their actual form on the pitch is in no way a true indication of how they can and should go forward into this game and the remaining rounds of 2013/14. Utterly inconsistent and relying on luck and catastrophic errors from their recent rivals, the Sky Blues are hardly imposing a winning style over their opponents. Admittedly there is plenty to like about the introduction of Ognenovski at the back. Perhaps there is also some hope to be drawn from their dogged approach to confound all observers, and excel when least expected or fail miserably with equal uncertainty.

So as Sydney FC come up against the table leading Roar, the faithful will no doubt be hoping that they can and will beat the visitors. Yet if one club and one squad this year has been the polar opposite of Sydney, it is Brisbane. Consistent and remorseless, Mulvey’s team has achieved an efficiency that is reminiscent of the old Roarcelona of 2010-12, and the Mariners  and Wanderers of 2012/13. The old firm of Berisha and Broich is firing on all cylinders, and Miller and Brattan have been crucial in maintaining the Roar’s consistency. There might be some issues resulting from the absence of Franjic, and defensively the return of Stefanutto as a key figure does ask questions, specifically in terms of the backs’ speed and discipline. However I can’t honestly see the home team providing a challenge to surpass even a reduced Roar defence, especially with Despotovic out. Gameiro and Antonis will possibly ask some solid questions but Brisbane should answer those comfortably.

My Prediction: 0-2 Brisbane Roar win

Saturday 15th March 2014: Western Sydney Wanderers vs Adelaide United (Pirtek Stadium)

There’s no denying that the Wanderers are currently in a slump, and the problem is not one that can be easily cured. The demands of having to play ACL games, the second season syndrome, injuries, changes in personnel and simple stuff ups have recently made last year’s premiers look very ordinary. Thus this game will be both a supreme test for the home team, and an opportunity for the visitors to prove that the Gombau doctrine of tikki-takka can take the Reds to the title. Adelaide are close to full strength and whilst they are coming off a loss against the Roar they should be very confident. Key playmaker Carrusca is on board for the Reds and the man I believe who has really helped spark Adelaide’s recent run of good form, Bruce Djite is back. Cirio and Ferreira will be troubling the home team, whilst Adelaide’s defence has toughened up recently.

For Popovic the best aspect of this game is all the usual stalwarts of their earlier season success should be fit, ready and available. Ono, Spiranovic, and Covic didn’t fly to China for the ACL win, whilst Polenz, Mooy and Hersi weren’t over-extended. There will be some established players looking over their shoulders after that mid-week match, with the likes of Tyson, Trifiro and Appiah possibly figuring in the line up. It has to be said that a fit, rested and hungry Tomi Juric is vital to the Wanderers, as their ability to score goals this season has been compromised by his injuries or lack of form. Santalab can provide options but he is a goal poacher, not a striker who can define a game like Juric. For the home team it would also be hoped that recent issues with the RBB will be behind everyone and that Wanderland will be the cauldron that everyone expects it to be.

My Prediction: 2-1 Western Sydney Wanderers win

Saturday 15th March 2014: Central Coast Mariners Vs Newcastle United (Bluetongue Stadium)

One of the great derbies in the A-League is the F3 match-up between the Mariners and the Jets, and this one will be very intriguing for neutrals and fans alike thanks to the precarious state and near equal performance of each club at this stage of the season. With only one point separating the two teams and the Jets in a surprising purple patch of form, the home team will be faced with a big challenge. Moss’s team have had a midweek win in their ACL campaign behind them and are arguably putting into this match their best line-up. Duke, Bosnar, Ibini and Sterjovski are all crucial to the performance of the Mariners and the last mentioned has been particularly strong. Korean import Kim Seung-Yong will hopefully do better yet again this match for the home fans, partocularly after his defensive howler in the midweek match.

However there is something compelling in the thought about the Jets coming down the road and possibly stealing all three points. There is nothing pretty or attractive about their play but in recent weeks the midfield of Zadkovich and Caravella has been doing excellent work, and Adam Taggart is possibly one of the top two or three strikers in the current A-League season. With a physical and pressing defence and a gun striker up front Clayton Zane has manufactured wins and draws when many observers would expect losses. Their efforts in knocking off in successive weeks the Roar, Wanderers and Heart show that there is still life in the Jet’s challenge for 2013/14 honours yet.

My Prediction: 1-1 draw

Saturday 15th March 2014: Perth Glory vs Melbourne Victory (nib Stadium)

The shambles that has been Perth’s season will be back home in this late night Saturday match, with the Victory coming to town and looking to possibly pass the Wanderers into second place on the ladder. For Perth the usual problems and issues that have bedeviled their campaign in 2013/14 will almost certainly be on display again, with older and relatively ineffectual players such as Gallas, Thwaite and Marinkovic forming a burden that the younger players like de Silva and Harrold being unable to get out from under. The internal squabbling and fighting, the lack of attacking options and the sheer inchoate mess that is the on-field team gives all the Perth fans reason to wonder how they can possibly hope to beat the Victory. Throw in the absence of Smeltz through injury and Vukovic leaving to join Graham Arnold in the J-League and it’s a tale of woe out west.

For Kevin Muscat’s Victory their strong performance mid-week in their ACL draw, and the return of key players such as Milligan, Rogic and Ansell should help build a compelling case for an away win. Whilst their form has been a little patchy in recent weeks the win over the Mariners last round and the sheer strength of their forward and midfield options should give Muscat cause to think his squad can dominate the home team. There are problems at the back, insofar as neither Coe nor Thomas look great in goal, and Contreras is only a few weeks away from retirement. Whilst these may be concerns against a rampant Roar, Heart or Adelaide, against the toothless Glory it should be hardly worth the worry.

My Prediction: 3-0 Melbourne Victory win

Sunday 16th March 2014: Melbourne Heart vs Wellington Phoenix (AAMI Park)

The two clubs that dominated the lower reaches of the ladder earlier this season have undergone a renaissance in recent weeks, threatening the top six and making some highly fancied opposition look rather foolish. Yet coming into this match both the Heart and the Phoenix look to have reverted a little back to their earlier ordinary form. However whilst the Phoenix have been handed some beltings (with the Heart doing the deed away from home a scant four rounds ago) the Heart have stayed far more consistent. There is no doubt that playing at home gives the Melbourne team the advantage, and right now with a line up that includes the immense Engelaar in midfield, a resurgent Harry Kewell, a solid defence that includes Kisnorbo and Behich, and players like Dugandzic, Williams, Germano, Murdocca and Ramsay there are few weak links in their line-up.

As for the visitors the import threesome of Cunningham, Hernandez and Huysegems are the make or break component of Merrick’s squad. When those three players are on song the Phoenix take a lot of beating. However in the last few rounds there have been moments when their efforts have dipped and as a consequence so has the Phoenix’s fortunes. Their defence will be strengthened thanks to the presence of Manny Muscat and whilst a older veteran Glen Moss can still pull out some classic saves. Unfortunately for their fans the likes of Lia and Hicks have not been able to sustain flashes of form shown in earlier weeks and Durante and Brockie are nowhere near as potent as they were last season. For my 2 cents I think the Heart’s rise will continue whilst the Phoenix have stalled.

My Prediction: 2-1 Melbourne Heart win