Edgeworth, Cevaps and the FFA Cup

So, how good is the FFA Cup?

Admittedly when it comes to the Wanderers, there will always be that caveat added by all and sundry regarding our first venture in this most recent iteration of a national football knock out cup competition. That shock loss to Adelaide City back in 2014 was arguably a presage of what became our ‘tempus horribilis’, although barely two months later the Wanderers were ACL champions. Since that 1-0 loss away any coverage of  the FFA Cup, most particularly when it comes to the context of any NPL level club upsetting a more fancied A-League opponent, will at some time or another include that result.

Our 2015 campaign was marginally better, thanks to a good win against Brisbane at Penrith, followed by a 0-2 away win over Mitch Nichols’ home club, the Palm Beach Sharks. The quarter final loss to Perth Glory was controversial, with one specific omen of the coming season, vis-a-vis the failure of then marquee Federico Piovaccari to slot home one of the required penalty shots. However to have progressed to the final eight was a marked improvement on our first foray into the FFA Cup, and one that has been matched in the 2016 edition.

Now before I get into the guts of this blog entry on the Round of 16 match between the Edgeworth Eagles and the Wanderers, let me take a diversion and make some personal observations on how I perceive the FFA Cup. In a nutshell, this is possibly the best addition to the domestic football environment since at least the entry of the Wanderers, with a strong argument for the FFA Cup being a partial redress of the errors and omissions made when the A-League was established. The fact that lower tier football clubs across Australia, many with a proud and long history (including perhaps NSL participation) can now play in a cup where they may beat the more fancied A-League clubs has re-engaged many fans of the code with its history and its community. It has also given the so-called ‘new dawners’ a chance to look at the clubs that were crucial to the history of the sport in this country pre-2004. Of course there are still fierce rivalries and some degree of suspicion or anger felt by some, left over from the split between ‘old soccer’ and ‘new football’. Having said that there are many A-League fans who revel in the opportunity to watch NPL teams compete either against their latter day clubs, or against each other. I have seen in person how vibrant and enjoyable the NPL experience of the FFA Cup can be, such as when I watched Sydney United take on South Hobart FC last year. Played at Edensor Park, this match saw the 58 year old Croatian based club take on the 106 year old Tasmanian visitors, with the result only going to SU58FC after a 3-3 regular time scoreline and a 3-1 penalty shoot out.

This FFA Cup tournament we have already seen two A-League clubs dumped out of the tournament by NPL teams, with last season’s premiers and Grand Final winners Adelaide United stunned by Redlands United 2-1 at home in Brisbane, and the Central Coast Mariners losing with the exact same scoreline against the Victorian NPL club Green Gully. Here’s just a tiny sample of the reaction to the Redlands’ victory on Twitter:

redvadl-twitter-search

This video shows how important such a result can be for the lower tier club, not just in terms of the on field reaction, but also for the community of fans and members who often put in the hard yards without anywhere near the support and glory that the A-League clubs can provide:

Watching the match from home I was unashamedly barracking for Redlands, though to be honest I have no knowledge of their club’s history, current playing roster or position in their local NPL competition. To cheer on an underdog in such a match, sensing how important football history and community is, recognising the value of the more recent football culture as vivified by the Lowy era FFA in engaging with soccer as it was and still is in Australia, well this is where I believe the FFA Cup delivers in spades.

Focusing again on the Wanderers, this current FFA Cup tournament has mirrored (so far) our last. Entering the mix in the Round of 32, the club took on our perennial bête noire, the Wellington Phoenix, at a cold, wet and miserable Campbelltown International Sports Ground. To be honest the initial performance of the team was underwhelming, and the 0-2 scoreline after 31 minutes seemed to indicate the Wanderers were going to lose again in a pre-season match against the Kiwis. Thankfully the balance was more than redressed by match’s end, thanks to two goals by exciting young striker Lachlan Scott, and a long range pearler from Mitch ‘Butters’ Nichols. Thankfully we had evaded an early exit from the FFA Cup, and possibly even more importantly, we had booked a rendezvous with Northern NSW Football’s Edgeworth Eagles.

Taking yet another diversion (I know, get to the point Manfred!) Wanderers fans generally love heading up the M1/F3 to Newy and watching our team play the locals. This has meant, until last Tuesday week’s match, a rendezvous with the Newcastle Jets. There are a host of good memories for a host of us, such as the final regular season round match in our debut season, with the 3-0 win over the Jets confirming our first piece of silverware. Then there is the Round Five game at Hunter Stadium last season, when Mitch Nichols won it for us near the death with a 86 minute goal. I would also argue that there is a healthy modicum of respect for the Jets and for the football culture in the Hunter given by many Wanderers’ fans, and vice versa from the Newcastle folk.

In my opinion, and within that context, there were plenty of WSW fans who schlepped up to Magic Park last Tuesday week who were both looking forward to bringing back some red and black love to the Hunter, and engaging with the smaller, yet vigorous, passionate supporters of the Eagles. Perhaps I’m drawing a far too long bow, but even the complimentary nature of the two clubs’ colours validates this willingness for the A-League club to engage with their NPL competitor. Throw in the (arguably unconscious) hope that the local club would benefit financially from a solid turn out of the Wanderers fans, and the attention given to them and NPL football in Newcastle, then the rendezvous at Broadmeadow for away fans such as I was most attractive.

I made my journey up to Newcastle with these thoughts in mind, accompanied by two boon companions from my Wanderers’ fraternity. One was my mate Mick, who was the poor bastard lumbered with driving duties. Mick has been a great mate of recent years, and provided one the guts of one of the best episodes of my ‘One on Wanderers’ podcast. The second member of our trio was renowned Socceroo supporter Pablo Bateson, who has seen more air miles following the green and gold than possibly anyone else in this country. We three set off early on the day, endeavouring to make it a real long term sojourn up north. As done by thousands of traveling fans over decades and decades, we were looking to enjoy some of the local delights pre-match (i.e. have a drink and feed in Hamilton), meet some of the locals (in this case catch up with the legendary ‘Nobody From Newcastle‘ Todd Blackwell, and then make our way to the game. It was a most convivial afternoon, fueled by plenty of football talk, some beverages at the Kent Hotel, and even a catch up with those friends of the Western Sydney Wanderers, the Public Order and Riot Squad from the NSW Police:

andrewmick

From there it was a reasonable easy and short drive to Magic Park, the home ground for the Broadmeadow Magic. Competitors to the Edgeworth Eagles in the local Northern NSW NPL, this very attractive if small venue was allocated the FFA Cup match for the night.

The atmosphere on arriving at the venue was wonderful, thanks in no small part to the number of local fans who were there for a night to barrack for the ‘minnows’ versus the Wanderers. Whilst the Eagles faithful were out in force, including plenty of kids, there were other Hunter football devotees in evidence, some sporting Jets colours, others partisans for Magic, Adamstown, Hamilton Olympic etc. The volunteers were selling raffle tickets and Eagles merchandise, the stand on the eastern side of the ground chockers, the beers and barbecued meats flying out of the tents dotted around the perimeter of the ground.

Mick, Pablo and myself made sure to touch base with several fellow Wanderers fans who had made the trip up, chatting about the day, the match, our lads, the oppo…basically engaging in the usual chit-chat and socialisiation one does before a game. However the immediacy of the community environment for this FFA match was dare I say more fun, more carnival like. Yes, it was a serious game with a definitive expectation that the Wanderers should win. However standing around on the western hill, taking in the sights and sounds of perhaps an intimation of what football has been like for decades in this country, where the dogged band of committed soccer lovers get behind their local club and bugger the bigger, more fashionable rivals; it was pure FFA Cup goodness.

The match itself was a fairly hard fought one, with the Eagles being unwilling to concede early goals. They were unable to break the shackles of their own deep defending except for a brief foray here and there when the Wanderers lost their (dominant) possession due to an errant pass. Some of the Eagles tackles were exactly what one would expect; hard with little respect for the far more well paid professional Wanderers player they flew at. There was a particularly brutal challenge put in on Dimas which the Spaniard was not happy with. This however gave cause for much chiacking and derision from the Eagles faithful. I’ll happily admit it was both infuriating to see such practices from the ‘home’ team, but great to see their supporters giving our ‘stars’ a real old rev up.

As the game progressed the goals began to flow, with ex-Jet Scott Neville snaring the first and the third, with the latter coming after the half time break. Brendan Hamill grabbed a goal between those two, giving the plentiful of Wanderers fans something to cheer for. An old acquaintance of the Wanderers, ex-Mariner Daniel McBreen was the go to man for the Eagles when it came to responding, and he had already provided some entertaining resistance earlier in the match when he gave one of the Wanderers fans a bit of handbags after a contretemp near the RBB. However his more important contribution was scoring a well taken goal after Wanderers’ new Uruguayan import Bruno Pinatares, giving Edgeworth a small sniff of a comeback. Their supporters were keen to vocally do what they could, fueled by pride, piss and cevaps, however two late goals from Brendan Santalab killed off the match. The 1-5 win for the Wanderers was certainly a fair result.

However what was a far more significant result was it was yet another instalment of what makes the FFA Cup such a worthy and enjoyable addition to the football environment in Australia. Two clubs with many disparate attributes were brought together, and alongside that meeting came the chance for people like myself to engage with a community and a history of the sport that sometimes we forget. In the A-League era it is all to easy to be hyped about big derbies between say the Wanderers and the Smurfs, or the two Melbourne clubs. A lot of attention this impending season is already being given to the advent of Tim Cahill as the league’s biggest name since del Piero. Many people in the huge amorphous pool of football fans in Australia see problems, division, challenges that no one can easily solve.

Yet on a chilly night in Broadmeadow, all of that was put aside by those who came to watch this FFA Cup match, and we all came away better for the experience.

Thanks Edgeworth!

 

P.S. The cevap rolls were good, but where was the avjar?

How To Beat Al Hilal (Or a Keyboard Warrior’s Manifesto for Popa)

Tomorrow morning in the wee small hours thousands of devoted Western Sydney Wanderers will aggregate together in Parramatta, or perhaps at Club Marconi in Bossley Park, or at Blacktown Workers, or even just stumble out of bed and put the TV onto FoxSports, and every one will have that one hope; bring home the Champions’ League trophy. No doubt many of them, plus non-Wanderer viewers, will have ideas as to how Popovic’s squad can achieve what so many thought was impossible and create a new glorious page in football’s history down under. So, to fulfill that obligation of being a rabid armchair expert, here are my thoughts on how to beat Al Hilal.

1. Self-Belief

If there is one match winning quality that had been demonstrated time and time again by the Wanderers, not just in the 2014 AFC Champions’ League, it has been a well adjusted sense of self-belief. I’m not talking the mind games and braggart behaviour coming through from the likes of Al Hilal’s coach Laurentiu Reghecampf who, when at a pre-match press conference said “No, I promise you we won’t lose tomorrow. I’m going to see to that and I hope that [Western] Sydney will stay a small team.” (source). It’s the kind of confidence and self-belief that club leaders such as captain Nikolai Topor-Stanley (“It’s a massive, massive game, we’re under no illusions about that but we’re really excited to be 90 minutes away from being champions.”) and coach Tony Popovic have kept talking about:

“They’re here because they deserve to be here,” he said of his men.”They’re motivated enough, they’re not here for a holiday, they’re here to win the final.” (source)

Tony Popovic: mastermind of the ascent of the Western Sydney Wanderers

Perhaps the mentality that is most indicative of where the Wanderers are and hopefully need to be at when it comes to beating Al Hilal is that spoken of by heroic goalkeeper Ante Covic:

“There’s going to be 65-odd thousand Hilal supporters and they’re going to make it as intimidating as possible and try and wear us down in that aspect,” said Covic, who was impressive in the 1-0 first leg win in Sydney. “But we’re not going to fall under that kind of pressure. We know that they’re going to be confident, they’re playing at home and they’re rubbing it in our faces how daunting it’s going to be in front of their fans and how we’ve seen nothing yet. We’re not going to fall for those traps. We just know that we’re going to be in for a good, hard, solid game against a quality opposition.” (source)

Make no mistake; the players, coaching staff and administrators have known for sometime that this entire AFC Champions’ League campaign has been one of extraordinary challenge, but also one that they deserve to be part of and where their victories have been well won. There has been none of the arrogance and dare I say sense of entitlement that has oozed from clubs that have boasted about their chances before being beaten by the Wanderers (hello Guangzhou Evergrande), nor as there been a self-pity or contemplation of the imbalance between club resources. Instead Popovic and the rest of the squad have turned up to every match with the innate self-belief that comes not from ego, but from achievement on the pitch and solidarity within all involved in the mission to hand.

2. Acknowledge but don’t fear the Al Hilal’s Home Turf

There has been talk again and again and again from the fans of Al Hilal, the media, the coach, the owners…everyone involved with the Saudi powerhouse, about the imposing quantity and quality of support that last week’s losers will bring on board when at home in Riyadh this week. I don’t think anyone is under any illusion that these kinds of statements are just nervous dog whistles; Al Hilal will have a packed King Fahd Stadium awaiting the Wanderers and almost 99.9% of the 65,000 spectators will be backing the home team. Then there is the much talked about heat, the potential for any shenanigans from the locals, and the distance involved in traveling to Riyadh for the Wanderers.

However recent Wanderers’ experiences have shown that they are capable of dealing with similar circumstances and coming through with flying colours. The away leg to Guangzhou Evergrande was without doubt the hardest faced by any Australian football team since the away leg  of the World Cup qualifiers against Uruguay played by the Socceroos in Montevideo in 2001. In fact, whilst there was some nastiness involving the Socceroos when they arrived in Montevideo in 2001 the level of bastardry and the difficulty of the task at hand for the Wanderers when they went to Guangzhou was many times worse. From phone calls in the middle of the night through to staged bus accidents, and of course the huge disparity in terms of resources and fans available for the home side against the Wanderers, that Guangzhou Evergrande semi was exactly what was needed to give the Australian hope for Champions’ League glory an insight into away intimidation. And the players themselves know this:

“I always go back to that game against Guangzhou Evergrande and about how that was fantastic preparation for this,” he said. “We went through tough times on that trip. Mentally that’s not easy to take. We came through strong… and we can take that experience into this game.” (Brendon Santalab)

So having been through an arguably less pleasant experience than the one they are currently enduring, plus with a solid pre-season 10 day training camp run in Dubai, it can be confidently said that there are no fears within the squad when it comes to running out against the vociferous and fierce opposition of Al Hilal’s home support in a very warm Riyadh, thousands of kilometres away from Wanderland. This group of players, staff and even the fourteen Wanderers fans traveling to watch the final leg are not going to buckle easily where others wouldn’t even be willing or able to go.

3. Don’t Chase The Game Unless Necessary

The Wanderers have got results away from home in the AFC Champions’ League through replicating the same dogged and highly structured defence that has won them games at home not just in this tournament, but also in the A-League. Last week’s first leg was a typical example of what the Wanderers do so well, insofar as they usually deny the opposition clear chances on goal from open play and dead ball situations alike and thus keeping a clean sheet, Whilst they are known to concede they usually can score to balance the result. For example, with their 3-1 loss to Hiroshima Sanfrecce, their 2-1 loss to Guangzhou Evergrande and their 0-0 draw to FC Seoul the Wanderers have either built upon or set the stage for the needed result from back home (such as the respective 2-0, 1-0 and 2-0 wins in order against the same teams at Wanderland), and it is this ability to deter the opposition’s attack from overwhelming the Wanderers with goals that will be needed again for this final match against Al Hilal.

Wanderers V Hilal 2 Preview

The impregnanble defence of Ante Covic in front of the Wanderers goal against Al Hilal

Defensively the Wanderers are extremely good, and of course so much of this is built upon the two key players Nikolai Topor Stanley and Ante Covic. Having said that Mullen, Golec and Hamill have each made their presence felt, and in front of them Iaccopo La Rocca and recently Matteo Poljak have also helped keep down the oppositions’ chances for goals through the midfield. There is the possibility that Matthew Spiranovic may return for some game time however if last week’s match is any guide it won’t be too early and it may well be in a central midfielder’s role. However it will be Topor Stanley and Covic who will need to be at their best, and I would suggest they would do well to adjust slightly the emphasis on ball clearances from the back third of the field. The ‘if in doubt hoof it out’ system did the job at Wanderland however I would like to think that in Riyadh there will be more controlled disposal of dangerous balls.

As for the contrary aspect of attack, there is no need (unless they go down 2 early goals) for the Wanderers to chase the game. If they can stay compact and ride out the inevitable pressure from Al Hial they can hopefully do again what was achieved last week via Tomi Juric’s goal. Counter-punches are a frequent route for Wanderers success and with hopefully Labinot Haliti, Brendan Santalab and Tomi Juric all possible goal raiders there is every reason to believe that at least one goal can come to the red and black. If that happens then the task for Al Hilal becomes even more onerous.

4. Harness Vitor’s Frustration and Use It Intelligently

He has been portrayed as a genius and as a villain and yet he only has two full starst with the Wanderers in any competitive match so far. Vitor Saba has had a sizable impact off the bench thanks to his work during the 1-0 win over Guangzhou, and whilst he had only a few minutes on the pitch at Wanderland against Al Hilal last Saturday his class was obvious. Now there are stories like this coming out of the Wanderers’ camp:

Vitor Saba is unhappy starting games from the bench but is prepared to sacrifice minutes on the field if it means Western Sydney Wanderers return to Australia with the Asian Champions League trophy.

The Brazilian playmaker is not satisfied with a role as a substitute, having moved to Australia with the hope of playing regular football. Saba has started just one game in the Asian Champions League campaign and watched the bulk of the first leg of the final against Al-Hilal from the bench before entering as an 83rd-minute substitute.

He is eager to establish himself as a first-team player but admits it is difficult to argue against the selection policy due to the team’s performance and results in Asia. In the best interests of the team, Saba is prepared to bide his time and take his chances when they arrive.

“Of course I am not satisfied, but I respect his [coach Tony Popovic’s] decision because we are winning. I think every time that I am coming from the bench, I am coming for a purpose and my purpose is to help the team, and I think I am doing a good job. But, if you ask me if I want to sit on the bench? No, I do not want to. But now I have to think about what is most important and that’s the trophy … If I have to come five minutes, or 10 or 45, I have to be humble, stay on the bench and then come and do my best.”  (source)

Arguably somewhat volatile, I would suggest that Popa can and should keep Saba on the bench and then bring him into the match sometime in the second half to either give a tired Al Hilal more concerns in the midfield, plus relieve pressure on the Wanderers players in a similar role or out the back. Additionally, as a true no.10 he can act as a distributor for the likes of Juric, Santalab, Haliti or maybe even Mark Bridge. His eagerness to do well and his freshness, combined with the obvious talent his possesses will give Al Hilal some major food for thought.

Vitor Saba; the Wanderers midfielder who makes everyone pay attention

5. Keep The Ball Longer

One of the less impressive aspects of the Wanderers’ play in recent weeks has been their inability to retain the ball for long stretches and retain possession. In the match against Al Hilal last Saturday that issue reared its ugly head again and whilst possession for its own sake is not a match winner, denying the opposition a chance to use the ball to score goals is. In what could be very warm conditions having to chase turnovers could quickly erode the Wanderers’ fitness, vaunted as it is, and so making sure that al Hilal are not given any chance to intercept or steal loose balls particularly in the Wanderers’ half is of paramount concern.

6. When does Tomi Come On?

With injury worries over both Brendon Santalab (shoulder dislocation) and Tomi Juric (groin) the question is not will one be subbed off for the other, but when. Assuming that Santalab is able to start (and he himself has very confidence he can at least play) then I would think he would be the better option at the beginning, with Tomi to come on after him. I know that there have been several media pundits and experts who have said that Tomi needs to start, however I don’t believe he will be most effective from the get go right now. If he remains benched until at least the first half ends, or in a worse case scenario the Wanderers ship two goals without answer, then Popovic has the luxury of bringing him on with fresh legs and the ability to hopefully repeat his intimidating runs from last week. It may well be in fact that Juric will not be able to or need to score, and I would not be surprised if someone like Bridge or Haliti earns that distinctive honour. Popovic has a gun striker he can use when he believes he will have the most impact, and those who are probably going to line up won’t be that much less dangerous.

Tomi Juric: Wanderers striker and the man who gives Al Hilal nightmares

7. Shannon Cole: Mr Ubiquitous

An unsung hero of the Wanderers, Shannon Cole has been one of the best performers for the Wanderers in the Champions’ League tournament, and I expect him to start yet again as a right attacking midfielder. He was not embarrassed by his opposition last week, and in previous games has scored goals when needed. Whilst he may find himself at some stage of the game is either subbed for Spiranovic or Saba, I am certain he will be the Wanderers own ‘mini Phillip Lahm’. If defensive support is needed he should also be able to shore up his flank as well.

Shannon Cole: unsung hero for the Wanderers in ACL 2014

8. Watch for a change in style and new players from Al Hilal

Last week Al Hilal were nominally playing a style of match they were arguably unsuited to, looking to maximise speed, width and attack instead of their more traditional possession based game. Additionally their usual skipper, striker Yasser Al Qahtani is back after a suspension which meant he missed the first leg of the final in Wanderland. Thus Tony Popovic and the Wanderers on the pitch will need to be aware of actual and potential changes to the line up and style they will confront in the upcoming away leg. It will be interesting to see if Reghecampf tries to vary things a bit, as what was put on the field last Saturday night wasn’t bad. Either way there are some unknowns yet to be verified to come out of Al Hilal.

There are lots of other aspects of the match that bear some degree of examination when trying to work out how the Wanderers can win tonight. Discipline, interaction with the referee and other officials, the potential influence of one of the Wanderers’ squaddies (e.g. Jason Trifiro) or a younger player (Daniel Alessi perhaps, or Kwabena Appiah). The burden of two losses in A-League grand finals must be acknowledged and the mental or psychological ability of the players to get past those results will also go some way in determining if they can snatch the trophy in Riyadh. Finally, you are only as good as your opposition allows you to be, and in the case of al Hilal they have shown both a susceptibility of not being able to finish against the Wanderers, and letting the A-League team get one over them. The result is too hard to pick, but my heart is where it should be;

Come on you Wanderers!