2014/2015 Round Seven Preview: November 21st – 23rd

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Melbourne Victory vs Brisbane Roar (21st November 2014, Etihad Stadium)

The Battle of Berisha’s Clubs kicks off the seventh road of the 2014/15 season, and there is plenty to consider for partisans of either club as well as neutrals. The Roar bounced back from their terrible run of form to thump the Jets last Friday 0-4, and there is some degree of renewed hope available now for their supporters. Matt McKay returns to duty for the visitors after his Socceroos hit-out against Japan, and Henriques was in blistering form with his hat-trick in Newcastle. Mitigating against this is the continuing absence of Michael Theo in goal; other more learned and famous pundits have seen his injury-related MIA status just as problematic for Mulvey as is the leaving of Berisha and Franjic.

As for the home team, their form has been very good all season with the depth of Muscat’s squad continuing to get the results when some important players have been out due to injury or national duties. Last week’s game against Sydney FC was not their best but they did more than enough with a weakened starting XI to get a draw away from home. Bolstered by the return of Milligan, Barbarouses and Pain, the focus will undoubtedly be on Besart Berisha. No doubt he will want to perform as well as he can against his ex-team mates, and there is a fluidity and strength to the home team’s attack that all clubs would love to have. It could be at the back where Victory could have issues, with Delpierre and Geria not part of the game squad. Having said that Victory are in a rich seam of form and the lift they should get from a home crowd will undoubtedly influence their effort at Etihad.

Final Verdict: The Roar’s form is nominally on the return however the win in Newcastle against a turgid Jets team to me is a bit of a red herring. The Victory with their squad depth and quality, fun of good form and playing at home should be too strong. My Prediction: 3-1 Melbourne Victory.

Perth Glory vs Wellington Phoenix (Friday 21st November 2014, nib Stadium)

Many have been sceptical about the possibility of the Glory doing well this season, so it is with some chewing of humble pie that the naysayers are now considering Perth at the top of the table and playing very decent football. Whilst Kenny Lowe’s side is not the most flamboyant or attractive side tactically and stylistically, they have that most important feature, wins and the attendant points. Their defeat of the Wanderers last Saturday was efficient and featured a very sweet dead ball goal from Scott Jamieson and some notable saves from Danny Vukovic. Andy Keogh, Youssouf Hersi, Mitch Nichols and Jamie Maclaren have formed a good combination of youth and experience, local and imported talent. Throw in Marinkovic’s spot kick skills and the aforementioned Vukovic in goal there are plenty of positives around Perth.

Wellington will have to make their longest away trip of the season so far and they will be welcoming back several of their international and injured players, with McGlinchey and Brockie the key returnees. Their last minute loss last week when understrength against Adelaide was a disappointing result, however there is still plenty of potential with Merrick’s squad. Louis Fenton’s dislocated collar bone means there is a gap in the Phoenix’s structure but they will still be a challenge for the table topping Glory.

Final Verdict: Perth are on a roll and at home, and will be favoured to pick up the win. The all-round strength of the Glory gives them another leg up over a Nix who are very attractive in attack but not as cohesive in defensive. My Prediction: 2-1 Perth Glory

Western Sydney Wanderers vs Newcastle United (Saturday 22nd November, Pirtek Stadium)

The Wanderers have to play their third game in seven days and their second at home in four days, and hopefully they will continue the improvement indicated in their match against the Mariners. The combination of their newer recruits such as Adeleke, Rukavytsya, Castelen and Saba with longer serving Wanderers such as Covic, Poljak, Juric, La Rocca and Bridge showed some stuttering promise in their first match at Wanderland this season, and crucially they will have Nikolai Topor-Stanley returning from Socceroos duties. Tony Popovic is working hard to manage his squad with a very burdensome schedule whilst they adapt to an alternate style and it has not been that successful so far. It won;t be a season-ending match if the Wanderers lose but there will be almost no expectation of a top four finish if no win comes.

Newcastle are on the downward curve and there seems little to redeem their trajectory. Their 0-4 loss at home last Friday was one of the worst results for any club in recent A-League history, and what is most disappointing is there is no tactical or stylistic imagination. In almost every game this season they have been unable to maintain pressure on their opponents for lengthy time periods, keep their opponents out and obviously score a win. As much as they are in a better position pn the table than the Wanderers it is very hard to see where their improvement can come from.

Final Verdict: The Wanderers should be favourites to win, and they do have some real quality. If they can get over the physical demands of their crowded schedule and improve their cohesiveness then they should take care of the visiting Jets. My Prediction: 2-0 Western Sydney Wanderers win.

Melbourne City vs Sydney FC (Saturday 22nd November 2014, AAMI Park)

Sydney travel to Melbourne to meet City again, after previously playing back at Allianz in round one of the current season. The biggest problem that the away side has is the season ending anterior cruciate tear for their high scoring forward Corey Gameiro, and whilst they are not critically damaged up front there is still reason for concern. Mark Janko, Alex Brosque and Shane Smeltz are still an intimidating set of forwards, however its at the back and midfield that is the real strength of Sydney FC. The difference between this iteration and the past two seasons’ teams is remarkable.

Melbourne City would feel a little aggrieved in letting last week’s match against Central Coast slip away from them, however since David Villa has left there has been an improvement in their ability to find outlets and goals across the team. Aaron Mooy is back from his short sojourn in Japan with the Socceroos however there are still some significant absences. Murdocca, Germano and Slovenian marquee Koren are not fit and not part of the squad. John van t’Schip may still be looking for answers to all the issues facing City, but he must feel better now than after the derby against Victory.

Final Verdict: FC have a lot of reasons to be considered the likely winner and maintain their unbeaten record this season. City will challenge but should not be able to match the intensity and capability of their fellow Melburnian club. My Prediction: 0-2 Sydney FC win.

Central Coast Mariners vs Adelaide United

Yes, the Mariners have been able to snare two draws away from home in the last rounds, however truth be told they were playing two teams who have been finding it hard this season so far to score goals in large quantities and regularly, and to some extent the Mariners were able to get out of jail against both Melbourne City and the Wanderers. They are almost at full strength and with the likes of Rose, Duke and Hutchinson there is a core of players on Phil Moss’ books that know what should be done particularly back at home at Gosford. They will also welcome the return of Storm Roux who has been an important part of their backs, now that his absence due to international duties with the All whites are over for now.

The Reds come to Gosford without Bruce Djite, however all over the park there are options for goals as well as plenty of potential to dull the home team’s attack. Carrusca and Cirio will no doubt form a huge part of Gombau’s offensive plans, whilst at the back Elrich is doing quite well. Awer Mabil is growing in stature and is another positive part of the Adelaide squad. Assuming that the Barca-inspired passing and possession game can break down the Mariners then look for more than one or two goals from the visitors.

Final Verdict: The Reds are a class above their hosts and one of the top four teams going around this season so far. My Prediction: 0-2 Adelaide United win

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)

A-League 2013/14: Round Seventeen Review

Melbourne Heart vs Sydney FC (2-1 Heart win)

Just when you thought an A-League match this season would run to script, out comes Heart super-sub David Williams and the expectations of pundits and Sydney FC fans alike are blown to bits. With the Heart in full season revival mode thanks to the combination of their rare unbeaten streak of two games coming into this match, alongside the plans for the club to be purchased bu a consortium including Manchester City and the Melbourne Storm, there was plenty of warranted optimism in their supporter groups. Sydney FC also had reason to think they would be able to complete another win this season against a a Melbourne team to follow on from the previous round’s demolition of the Victory. The opening stanza of the first thirty minutes was a willing and free-flowing affair, with Behich for Heart being set up for a golden chance on the visitor’s goal by Kewell, however he spurned this opportunity. For the Sky Blues the most recent Serb recruit brought into the squad by Frank Farina, Milos Dimitrijevic took a long range shot that struck the Heart cross bar with quite some weight behind it. However the most damaging shot taken by any player in the first half hour of the game came when Heart marquee Orlando Engelaar went in with a clumsy studs up tackle on Sydney FC’s young midfielder Hagi Gligor, and as a result he was marched with a straight red by the referee. Within six minutes a centred pass from Abbas was badly fumbled by Andrew Redmayne (who I firmly believe is the least competent first choice goalie in the A-League at this time), and the ball was pounced on by Sky Blue striker Corey Gamiero who made no mistake in putting the ball in the back of the net. Before the half ended the referee appeared to put another hurdle in front of the home team, missing a blatant hand ball in the SFC box from Alessandro del Piero, and in the process failing to award the Heart a legitimate penalty.

Thus with the first half done and dusted and the Heart down 0-1 on the scoreboard and reduced to ten men on the pitch, there was every expectation that the visitors would complete the job of a clean sweep of victories over John van t’Schip’s squad in 2013/14. However the ‘new and improved’ Heart were able to snaffle a goal back thanks to Germano capitalising on a woeful error from Janjetovic, and from this 52nd minute goal onward the visitors looked lethargic, aimless and simply non-competitive. The home team did their best to increase their goal tally, however nought came of their efforts until the fresh legs of David Williams were introduced from the 69th minute, subbing for the tireless Iain Ramsay. A draw still seemed the logical result however, but football can sometimes defy logic. Thanks to Williams’ magical efforts to bypass a floundering Sydney FC defence in the 87th minute the Heart pulled off one of their best wins of the season (admittedly that’s a small pool to choose from). With plenty to cheer about the local fans must feel elated that their club has begun to revive on and off field passion, and always in the background is the Manchester City lead consortium ownership, ready to swing into effect from the season’s end. Meanwhile the Sky Blues have fumbled into more failure and no one in their right mind sees them escaping from the vicious circle of bad results, disaffected fans, badly performing and unmotivated players and band-aid solutions implemented by a wayward coaching staff.

Perth Glory vs Melbourne Victory (1-1 Draw)

A crucial game particularly for the Victory and their besieged coach Kevin Muscat, this draw between two clubs who recently have been average to poor created some stability for both of their campaigns. However truth be told neither coach would be that happy with the result. The visitors stuck with their 4-2-2-2 structure and for the first time in three rounds showed some degree of composure and control from the midfield. Gui Finkler was certainly part of this revival and Archie Thompson also had an influence, however it was Celtic loan player Tom Rogic who was the most notable contributor to the Victory’s improved form in the first half. He had an excellent shot on goal deflected off the cross bar on the 33rd minute mark, and whilst he was denied taking the Victory in front his team mates made sure of grabbing the lead when Finkler converted a penalty won by Thompson.

It was a different story after the half time break thanks to a wonderful distance strike on the Victory’s goal from new Glory import Sernas. The Lithuanian striker shot with almost his first touch in the A-League and it only came after some ridiculous officiating argy-bargy. After finally being allowed on the pitch Sernas collected a sweetly timed pass from Jack Clisby and with a sweeping right boot fired the ball past a diving Nathan Coe. The balance of the play for the remainder of the match was reasonably even, with both the Glory (through McGarry) and the Victory (Nabbout) getting gold plated opportunities to increase their score. Andrew Nabbout was the most wasteful as his one-on-one with Vukovic was comically sprayed to the goalie’s right side, bending away so much it looked to be aimed at the corner post. The end result was undoubtedly fair and appropriate, and whilst the rot had been stopped by Muscat’s team Kenny Lowe must be wondering how he can get his squad winning matches.

Wellington Phoenix vs Adelaide United (2-1 Phoenix win)

Two teams that seem to have discovered how to march remorselessly  up the ladder since New Year are the Phoenix and the Reds, and in a sterling performance from the home team (playing at Auckland’s Mount Smart Stadium) the aspirations of Ernie Merrick’s squad to rise yet further were fulfilled with a dominant 2-1 win. The opening goal came from a penalty awarded against the Reds by referee Peter Green, with key play maker Carlos Hernandez being shirt-fronted by Reds defender Daniel Bowles. For me it looked a soft spot kick however the ref’s word was final and the goal was scored with all due proficiency by the Costa Rican. The foreign legion at the Phoenix almost added a second goal, thanks to Stein Huysegems playing pinball with the Reds’ woodwork in the 32nd minute, with two attempts on goal hitting the goal frame. Huysegems is rapidly become as important to the Phoenix as Berisha is to the Roar, and for him to not score when presented with such an opportunity is a rare miss from him since Wellington began its excellent form run. It may have been a problem if no other goals were added, however thanks to the second Costa Rican in Merrick’s charge, i.e. the nimble Kenny Cunningham. In the 43rd minute he latched onto a delightful Hernandez through-ball and with some careful ball control he brought the ball into the Reds’ box, then completed the effort with a sweet shot that angled into the net past Galekovic. It was a first half dominated by the Phoenix and for the first time in many a round Adelaide looked outplayed.

The second half was a more pedestrian affair, though there were more opportunities for goals from the home team. Brockie had two chances and neither came to fruition, which must be troubling from one of last season’s gun strikers. There were moments of ill-discipline from both teams as well however nothing that warranted a red. Gombau ended up emptying his entire bench by the game’s end, including the promising forward Awer Mabil. It was the youngster who gave the Reds some respectability for their efforts with a goal at the death, thanks in no small part to the work of Neumann. Yet when all is said and done Adelaide were never in this contest. As it stands the team that every club should be worried about playing aside from the Roar is Wellington; they have a major run of form on the go now and with such promising impetus driving them up the table it may be they will be the surprise packet of the finals.

Newcastle United vs Western Sydney Wanderers (2-2 Draw)

The troubled Jets must have felt they were playing away from home when they came onto the pitch at Hunter Stadium, thanks to another great effort from the RBB and other traveling Wanderers fans, and from the kick-off there was an inordinate amount of pressure placed on them by the visitors. Their response was two-fold, in so far as in their own half they resorted to some clumsy and nasty challenges on the rampant Wanderers, whilst in the opposition’s half they struck a surprising blow thanks to an Adam Taggart special which arrowed into Covic’s net from a considerable distance outside the box. This certainly gave the locals a big boost yet the likes of Ono, Mooy and Hersi kept creating opportunities, which led to more hacking and frequent free kicks. In the end the Jets had no one to blame but themselves for giving Aaron Mooy a chance to put the ball in the back of the net from a dead ball situation. His third free outside the box in the first half sailed into Birighitti’s net with power and poise, illustrating that the young CDM was arguably in the form of his career at the Wanderers.

The second half was mostly dominated by the Wanderers who kept pressing again and again at the Jets goal without the resulting reward of scoring, until in a melee of arms and legs Michael Beauchamp scrambled the ball into the home team’s goal. It may have been illegitimate in the eyes of most home and some neutral fans however the ref gave the scoring effort legitimacy and that was arguably a fair indication of which team was really trying to win the game. The return of hometown hero Joel Griffiths fired up the Jets and with both teams emptying their benches it looked as if the visitors would take all three points. However in a fiery and mad mix of the last few minutes of reglar and extra time Taggart put the ball into the Wanderers goal after some pinball action that was not adequately defused by the Wanderers defence. Then when full time was called during a nasty one-on-one moment between Covic and Taggart Joel Griffiths decided to make his displeasure known to the referee Ben Williams in such a manner he was red carded. It was a fairly disgraceful effort from a man who has form and he deserved to be disciplined as such. As for the two teams, a draw was certainly not the result the Wanderers wanted or deserved, whilst for Clayton Zane his team must thank Taggart for escaping yet another loss. Of the two teams only one really looked like it should’ve won, yet as always the game of football didn’t go to plan.

Brisbane Roar Vs Central Coast Mariners ( 2-1 Brisbane Roar win)

Every time these two major clubs of recent A-League history meet there is a quality and closeness to their matches that is hard to find in other pairings, and yet again the Roar and Mariners demonstrated what marks them out as great teams. However there was a major difference between the two squads in terms of their cohesion and stability, with the Roar putting many familiar faces on the Suncorp pitche from their ‘Roarcelona’ days, including Berisha, Broich, North, Theo and Stefanutto. The Mariners were forced to rely on a team made up of many new faces mixed with a couple of stalwarts, and Phil Moss as coach is still to resolutely imprint his style on his squad and then connect it to consistent success. The first half was defined by a Berisha miss and a Theo mistake that led to a penalty for the visitors. Veteran ex-Socceroo Mile Sterjovski slotted home the spot kick and that gave the visitors a lead they may not have deserved from the general run of play.

The second half saw a reinvigorated Roar take up the challenge of reversing their deficit in goals, and when it came to pressing the offensive assault the (arguably) greatest foreign player to join an A-League club was to the fore. Broich was the fulcrum for much of the Roar’s counterattack and ably backed up by the likes of Berisha, Petratos and Brattan the visitors were besieged from the restart. Such constant pressure finally came to fruition with substitute Henrique picking up an equaliser in the 66th minute, off the back of Broch and Berisha. The flood waves of Roar attacks continued unabated for the remainder of the game, yet there was reason for the Mariners to believe they had a draw in the bag when at the death it was that man again, Besart Bersiha, snaffling up the chance to put the home team up with another finely taken goal. Just as last season the Wanderers found ways to win games they arguably shouldn’t have, this season Mulvey’s team has continually escaped from draws or defeats with wins that defy time and logic. There was a scare deep in extra time for the home team when Ibini put the ball past Theo however his shot skidded off the woodwork and didn’t go in, leaving the visitors bereft of luck and the points.

Best Game: No one game really lit up the sky for fans and neutrals alike, however the last minute goals scored in Heart vs Sydney FC, Jets vs Wanderers and Roar vs Mariners all deserve recognition for taking results into a direction that wouldn’t have been obvious mere minutes before full time.

Best Goal: David Williams’ effort for the Heart nudges out Taggart’s long distance rocket for the Jets, and Sernas’ first touch goal for the Glory.

Best Team: Wellington Phoenix deserve this accolade for being so dominant over a Reds team that has had a run of good form in recent weeks. However a nod of approval must be given to the Heart for fighting back against a send off and a hapless Sydney FC to get all three points. The Roar again figure prominently as the quality team of the round.

Worst Team: Sydney FC. One man up and with a goal to the good their second half effort at AAMI Park was woeful. No one can have any faith or reliance on Farina and his team to either be consistent nor play good football. To fall so spectacularly down from last round’s heights demonstrates Sydney FC are on a downward curve.

2013/14 – The Season So Far (Brisbane Roar/Wellington Phoenix/Central Coast Mariners)

After some delay here is my third survey of how I see three more of the A-League clubs after fourteen rounds of the 2013/14 A-League season. This series will be completed by a full examination of the Wanderers in a future entry. (Please note I have excluded from the statistics below the results and goals from Round Fifteen matches)

Brisbane Roar (10 wins/0 draws/4 losses/+15 goal difference goal difference/30 points)

In a season that for some revisits the earlier regime of Ange Postecoglu at ‘Roarcelona’, Mike Mulvey has taken the Brisbane Roar into arguably unassailable territory. A club that in 2012/13 had problems internally with coaching changes, a tired roster and arguably motivational issues has turned things around spectacularly in 2013/14. As part of that rejuvenation and climb back into league dominance there have been some familiar faces (e.g Thomas Broich, Besart Berisha, Mike Theo, Jade North, Luke Brattan, Shane Stefanutto, Jack Hingert, Ivan Franjic), some exciting new ones (Kwame Yeboah, Dimi Petratos) and one returning stalwart (Matthew McKay). However it is not so much the personnel that has excelled this season, more the manner in which Mulvey has grafted a new soul and determination into a squad that on paper does not drastically different from that which didn’t live up to last season’s expectations.

The most significant individual efforts that have led to the success of the Roar in 2013/14 have come from the likes of Broich, who is still possibly the best marquee to have ever graced any A-League club, Berisha (who has missed several games due to injury but has scored more often than note when available) and McKay (returning after some years in Asian football wilderness and finding his form again to make his post-season trip to the World Cup in Brazil I think a certainty). Having said that for me the best player in this team is Ivan Franjic, who has become not just a key part of the defensive structures at the Roar, he has also formed a deadly goal scorer. If Ange Postecoglu doesn’t follow up with his selection of Franjic for the Socceroo’s Costa Rica friendly late last year with an invite for Ivan to attend Brazil 2014 it will be a major boil over in national team selection news.

Having heaped praise on those players who have plenty of longivity or experience in the Roar, much needs to be said about Yeboah and Petratos. Kwame Yeboah (who has left the club and joined Bundesliga team Borussia Monchengladbach) scored one of the goals of the season against the Mariners at Blue Tongue in Round Five, and followed up with a late goal against the Wanderers two rounds later. He is an exciting prospect and whilst questions may be legitimately asked over the earliness of his move to Germany, if he can grow further as a footballer then it will be a win-win for all relevant parties. Petratos helped execute his previous club Sydney FC in the second massacre wrought on Sydney FC by the Roar this season, scoring a hat trick in the 5-2 win. He could be a major young signing for the Roar who have a solid mix of experience and potential in their ranks.

For all the excellent results and their much deserved position as table leaders there have been some less than satisfactory games for Mulvey and his squad. Their home game against the Heart in Round Four may have ended as a cakewalk however the wooden spoon favourites did keep the Roar under the pump for at least the first half. The Wanderers also dominated their game against Brisbane after going 2 goals down, and in the most surprising fashion the Jets have knocked off Brisbane in both games played so far in 2013/14. The loss to Adelaide at home in Round Fourteen must be most troubling in that for the first time all season not only were the Roar outplayed, they also looked ragged and ill-disciplined in trying to respond to the Reds. For this to come after the demolition of Melbourne Victory in Round Thirteen, which included a sublime team goal from Matt McKay would not necessarily set off alarms. However Mike Mulvey must be careful to ensure that their current lead on the table is not squandered through similar efforts.

Prospects and Predictions: I just can’t believe that Roar won’t top the table at season’s end assuming that they stay fit with all their major players remaining available for selection. If Broich, McKay, Hingert, Berisha and Theo continue to serve as the spine of their successful structure then it would take a miracle for any club to surpass them on the ladder. The run into the semi-finals will also be of interest in that whilst they will be playing three of their last four games of the home and away part of the season at Suncorp, they will be sharing that venue with the Rugby League, and as shown by the Jets the Roar can be susceptible when ground conditions are not optimum. There is some possibility that the Round 24, 26 and 27 games against Victory, Wanderers and Mariners will put the Roar either in the box seat for a clean champion’s plate collection, or see them slip only the odd point behind one of the chasers. As for individual players I expect Franjic and McKay to go to Brazil 2014 with Broich staying around for yet another season at least with the club he has helped become one of the best ever in Australia.

Final Ladder Position Prediction: First

Wellington Phoenix (3 wins/5 draws/6 losses/-3 goal difference goal difference/14 points)

The Kiwis were last season’s wooden spoon winners, and with new coach Ernie Merrick and his ex-Melbourne Victory star player Carlos Hernandez the major acquisitions over the off-season, the possibility of a renewed vigour within the club’s fortunes was looking up. Unfortunately the perennial problem for Wellington in terms of its reliance on players who feature in the All Whites meant that at the beginning of the 2013/14 season Merrick was consistently battling absences and fatigue due to national team duties. With New Zealand having to go through a long distance final qualification process against Mexico, it was hardly surprising that the Phoenix failed to win a single game during the period leading into the match, then suffered lingering issues up to Round Eleven.

Having said that there were several indications that before their first victory in 2013/14 the Phoenix would not be as easily written off may have been done in past seasons. Their away game versus the Wanderers in Round Two showed they had plenty of capability with the likes of Ifill, Brockie, Lia and Hernandez each causing problems for last season’s A-League champions. Brockie and Ifill again gave Merrick a sniff of something positive in their Round Four loss away to the Victory. There were other losses and other draws to come for the Phoenix but for neutrals and fans alike observing somewhat dispassionately most performances from Merrick’s squad gave hope that there was a kernel of quality somewhere there.

So when in the last few rounds one of the better imports in the A-League finally stood up as he had promised (i.e. Belgian Stein Huysegems) and Merrick got plenty of mileage out of young Kiwi Tyler Boyd, it was as if the rough hewn work in progress that was Phoenix’s first half of the season got the polish it needed. The win against the Wanderers in Round Thirteen was undoubtedly their finest moment up to that stage of the season, and whilst the likes of Ifill, Fenton, and Hernandez have all suffered major injuries their gaps have been filled very nicely. Manny Muscat has been excellent as a harassing midfielder, and long term Kiwi goalie legend Glenn Moss still can perform feats of keeping skills that put some of his younger rivals at other clubs to shame.

Prospects and Predictions: Whilst the last few rounds have been incredibly positive for Wellington Phoenix and they have been able to craft some excellent performances, I still doubt their capability to get into the finals. I am unsure of their capability to surpass the ladder positions of Perth Glory and Sydney FC, though the latter of those two teams could be ripe for the picking. Ernie Merrick is a solid coach and his players now have the confidence to win more games, but has the slow start to their season shackled them to the lower reaches of the A-League? Also, can the likes of Huysegems and Hernandez stay injury free?

Final Ladder Position Prediction: Ninth

Central Coast Mariners (6 wins/5 draws/3 losses/-2 goal difference goal difference/21 points)

Another club and squad that has been very inconsistent, yet for all their own and off field changes last year’s grand final winners still are keeping up with the league leaders. Having lost club great Patrick Zwaanswijk pre-season due to retirement, and the likes of Bernie Ibini, Pedj Bojic, Mat Ryan and Tom Rogic to 2012/13 transfers, Graham Arnold must’ve been aware of the problems relating to the capability of his squad to rejuvenate for 2013/14. The key acquisition in playing staff was Marcos Flores, ex-Reds, ex-Victory Argentine player and as early as the first round match against the Wanderers at home at Blue Tongue stadium he demonstrated his value.

However there were and continue to be gaps in the Mariners’ squad that haven’t been fileld as well as hoped, and the most obvious example of this is Arnold himself. Having left to take over as the coach of J-League team Vegalta Sendai, Arnold’s departure did not help the reconstruction of the Mariners’ squad. Phil Moss has yet to stamp his vision on the playing style of Central Coast, and to be honest some of their results under his stewardship have been very ordinary. The 4-0 loss away to Adelaide in Round Ten was just such an example of faltering standards, and the Round Twelve 2-0 defeat to the Wanderers also showed that the Mariners are more vulnerable this season than those of the recent past. To add to this malaise Marcos Flores is now out for the remainder of the season and key defenders Trent Sainsbury and Marcel Seip have been having indifferent performances in an area of the game that the Mariners usually excel.

There are also queries over the value of Daniel McBreen, who is definitely not as successful at accumulating goals in 2013/14 as he was last season. Mitchell Duke has been enigmatic, and in goal both Liam Reddy and Justin Pasfield have committed some howlers. Yet through all these bumps and seemingly damaging developments to their A-League progress, there have been some important wins secured when needed.  Knocking off Adelaide, Glory (home and away) and Sydney FC has done their cause no harm and their Round Two draw with the Heart when down 2-0 also indicates how strong their determination is not to lose. Even their big loss to Adelaide wasn’t all one way traffic against the Mariners.

Prospects and Predictions: I don’t believe the Central Coast Mariners will be able to climb back into a top two position, and with Flores gone for the remainder of the season, no Arnold, no McGlinchey and McBreen particularly wayward, Moss will be relying on a lot of draws and ground out wins. We certainly won’t be seeing any six or seven goal sprees coming from the Central Coast as we saw last season.

Final Ladder Position Prediction: Fourth

The 2013/14 A-League Season Half-Time Report

The beginning of Round Fourteen sees the current A-League season effectively reach the midway point of normal competition, and for all the positives spruiked in the early rounds, there are some points of concern both on and off the pitch. Whilst no one would say that the A-League administrators, clubs, players and crowds are in the worst of times, there are several symptoms of a malaise that wasn’t so concerning last season. I’ll be writing more on some of these issues in future posts, but for now here are what I consider the highs and lows of 2013/14.

Refereeing/Officiating

If there is one single part of the A-League that has done the most damage to football as a sport this season it has to be the officiating. From bad calls on offsides, disallowed goals, bad penalties that shouldn’t have been given or spot kicks that were missed, the use of yellow and red cards, almost every game in every round has had something to make the fans flesh crawl and the coaches to yank their hair out. In recent games we’ve had multiple handballs missed (Victory vs Wanderers, Round 12), players sent off before they even get on the pitch (Glory vs Mariners), players protected whilst they arguably dive or at least manipulate the officials (del Piero winning a free against Brisbane), and this is but the tip of an iceberg. At the beginning of the season the referees lobbied for an were awarded a pay rise of 20%. Yet if there was to be a commensurate increase in the proficiency of the officials or a similar quantitative decrease in blunders then the refs should be charged by the ACCC for theft.

I’m unsure of how the FFA or anyone else associated with the A-League can help redress this problem with the A-League’s officiating. Unfortunately the referees and linesmen who are given their role in each round are coming from a relatively small group of people who may not necessarily number in sufficient quantity to allow for promotion of better officials and relegation of those who make errors. About seven or so referees seem to be cycled through repeatedly over each round with hardly any reward for excellence nor deterrent for stuffing up. Many are relatively young and inexperienced, with only someone like Strebre Delovski standing out as someone who could officiate not just in the A-League but also in other more prestigious domestic or international competitions. The plight of linesmen and lineswomen a.k.a. assistant referees is even worse. I certainly don’t agree with the thoughts of referees’ boss Ben Wilson about extra eyes helping the men and women officiating A-League games, and like many fans I understand that the human element in each game’s officiating will mean mistakes are made. I would suggest more needs to be done to get our match officials drawn from a wider base of participants (including ex-professional players where possible), plus have those currently in the A-League given more support to train and engage with more prestigious leagues. Whether these suggestions solve the problems hurting the A-League right now is anyone’s guess. However right now no one from inside the halls of FFA’s HQ seem to be saying anything public about recognising the problem and saying it will be dealt with.

The Coaching Roundabout

Even before the beginning of Round Thirteen the A-League had seen four clubs change their coaches, either unwillingly or as a result of a boot up the bum of the previous seat holder. As it stands Ange Postecoglou left Melbourne Victory to become the Socceroos coach, Graham Arnold departed the Mariners to join J-League club Vegalta Sendai, Alistair Edwards lost a in-house power struggle at Perth Glory, and finally the management of Melbourne Heart eventually woke up to the disaster that was John Aloisi’s tenure. In each case assistant or interim coaches have been brought in or back, however with  casualty rate of 40% it seems as if job security as a coach in the A-League is not that easy to establish. Throw in public and rumoured rumblings over Frank Farina (Sydney FC), Gary Van Egmond (Newcastle United) and Josep Gombau (Adelaide United) only Tony Popovic and Mike Mulvey seem to have a grasp on their roles at their respective clubs.

Now has such instability hurt the development of the A-League this season, especially contrasted to last season? I believe it has. Of all fourteen coaches who have had a role in guiding the ten clubs this season I would argue only Postecoglou, Popovic, Gombau and Mulvey have demonstrated any growth in their players’ systems, style and (hopefully) success. Kevin Muscat has definitely lost some of the developmental traction his previous boss had with the Victory, whilst Popovic has been the one to implement the most serious change to his club’s system and roster and get good results. Mulvey has possibly done little more than embellish the old ‘Roarcalona’ motif of playing under their 2010/11 and 2011/12 guru Postecoglou, whereas Gombau has taken the Spanish possession leitmotif to another level (without a decent return on investment in terms of points and wins). Having said that the Adelaide experiment is focused on longer term results beyond the current season, so with that context in mind it is a little unfair to judge Gombau’s work on the results so far.

Those clubs that are in the lower half of the ladder as it stands right now are not just reflective of average performances on the park; they are also demonstrating the failings of their coaches to achieve consistency and create winning systems. There also have to be questions in some instances over how those coaches recruited and had their players prepared physically. Frank Farina has had many of his issues stemming from the combination of an ageing squad prone to injuries, thus curtailing any consistent performance from the players. Ally Edwards was undone by a combination of injury and perhaps most heinously the introduction of his sons into the Glory squad. John Aloisi had the misfortune of recruiting players who have under-delivered most egregiously (i.e. Michael Mifsud) or had any value in the first half of the season curtailed through injuries (Engelaar and Kewell). These three coaches have arguably been the most bankrupt in terms of creating success through quality coaching, and in the specific case of John Aloisi the disarray his management of the Heart engendered leaves them effectively already out of the 2013/14 race.

Crowds and Game Attendance

Generally speaking the first half of this season has been very productive in terms of numbers going to A-League games, thanks to almost every club lifting their average attendance above last season’s figures. Round One started the season with a bang, thanks to a 100,000+ total across all five games driven by the Melbourne derby between Victory and Heart. Then there was the great success from the first Sydney derby of the season, when over 40,000 fans went to Allianz Stadium to see the Wanderers beat Sydney FC in Round Three. As it stands eight of the ten A-League clubs (the Jets and Mariners being the exceptions) have exceeded their 2012/13 crowd averages, and in the case of the bigger clubs these numbers are up by around 24% (Brisbane Roar and Western Sydney Wanderers), and around 9% (Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC). There have been some flat rounds and the FFA must have some concerns over the decline in raw attendance numbers for the Mariners. Having said that there should be every reasonable expectation that by the end of 2013/14 we will see the largest numbers of attendees at A-League games across a single season in the competition’s short history.

Media

The introduction of new free-to-air options in TV and radio has undoubtedly helped the A-League’s profile rise through 2013/14, with SBS now showing the Friday night games on their second and HD channels. Additionally ABC radio now broadcasts all games live on their digital network plus depending upon circumstances local and regional AM/FM channels. Having said that the main engine for the A-League’s coverage in the audio/visual media has been Foxtel, who have claimed a rise of about 6% in viewer numbers over last season. However in relative terms the major difficulty faced by the A-League this season in getting eyes and ears glued to games is that the competition from a resurgent Australian cricket team and that sports coverage has blossomed exponentially. TV and radio coverage of the A-League this season has also been damaged somewhat by the lack of last season’s excitement created through the debut of the Wanderers plus the arrival of major marquees like del Piero, Heskey and Ono. Generally speaking until the A-League finds mass free-to-air coverage through commercial broadcasters such as Nine, Seven or Ten, who are then hopefully willing to devote as much production and promotional effort to the A-League as per their respective current broadcast sports such as Rugby League, AFL, Cricket and Tennis, it will continue to be a marginal sport when it comes to broadcast media coverage.

In the mainstream print media the story is far more complex, with reportage often at variance with the more general ‘op.ed.’ work of the newspaper commentators. Unfortunately with the decline  in quantity and quality of specialist sports journalists who write only on their specific sports, most of the articles that have been written that have done damage to the A-League this season have come from biased, unscrupulous News Limited writers. The dominance of News Limited papers in several major Australian cities has arguably helped contribute to a less than flattering image of the A-League and/or the clubs, particularly in Adelaide and Melbourne, and to a lesser extent in Sydney. I would argue that whilst there are some good journalists in both Fairfax and News Limited print organs, they are not of a standard seen in past years (for example I don;t believe even the best of Mike Cockerill or David Davutovic matches the work done by Tom Anderson in the 70s and 80s).

One promising aspect of the A-League’s media coverage this season has been the growing depth and quality of podcasts, both commercial and independent. Personally speaking my two favourites are the ABC’s Top of the League and Fox Sports Football Australia podcasts. However these are not the only options for audio media coverage of the A-League, and it could be argued that it is through these formats, as well as other new media (including blogs such as this one), the future of the A-League’s non-TV coverage will be directed.

Playing Standards

Generally speaking it would be hard to prove the hypothesis that the overall majority of games this season have been played at a similar standard of those in 2012/13, and this must be a concern for all parties with an investment in football in Australia. The A-League has been improving gradually over the last few years, most noticeably due to the influence of coaches like Postecoglou and players like del Piero and Ono. However stagnation has set in with only Mulvey’s Roar and arguably Popovic’s Wanderers showing glimpses of how the game could be played. The strikers in almost every team have been less than satisfactory with their finishing, and in the case of two gun performers from last season (the Mariners’ Daniel McBreen and Phoenix’s Jeremy Brockie) the decline in standards has been awful. I’ve already referenced the disappointing efforts of Michael Mifsud, but you can add to this list Emile Heskey, Archie Thompson, Shane Smeltz , Mitchell Duke and Jeronimo Neumann who have been battling injury concerns. Aside from the Brisbane pair of Berisha and Yeboah the only A-League strikers who have looked the goods in more than a couple of games have been Tomi Juric for the Wanderers, Adam Taggart for the Jets, and of late Stein Huysegems for the Phoenix.

In terms of midfielders and their quality across the board things look a little better, thanks in no small part to the work of Broich, del Piero, Ono, Troisi, Miller, Hersi, Carrusca, Flores, Hernandez and Nichols. However I would argue that aside from Broich and arguably Nichols none of these leading midfielders have demonstrated week-in, week-out consistency. The elephant in the room regarding A-League midfielders is that we are not seeing enough young creative Australian midfielders who could be the next Harry Kewell or Tom Rogic. An example of this problem is Aaron Mooy, who has only shown a modicum of his promised talent this season. Players like him, the Jets’ Josh Brillante or Glory’s Daniel de Silva need to be progressing further not just for the good of their clubs and the A-League, but for the football in Australia overall.

In the back of the pitch A-League defenders and goalkeepers have been like a curate’s egg, with some stand out performers and squads, and some absolute shockers. The Roar again have the best record and the performers in this context, though I don’t rate Theo as highly as other goalkeepers in other clubs. The work of Ivan Franjic has been generally excellent, and has outpointed his nearest rival Adam Traore. In the right back position Jerome Polenz has been consistently the best performer in the A-League, whilst the return of Matthew Spiranovic to the domestic game also through the Wanderers has been a great success. Unfortunately most other clubs have had their defenders perform in fits and starts, and in some cases (most noticeably the Melbourne Heart and to a lesser extent Sydney FC) the standards have been woeful. Ante Covic, Mark Birighitti, Danny Vukovic, Vedran Janjetovic and Eugene Galekovic have all had pretty decent seasons in front of goal so far, and demonstrated that our best footballers are usually those doing glove work in front of the net.

The Fans

Overall the A-League has achieved a hell of a lot of success with their fan base this season, thanks in no small part to the ripple effect of last season’s fairytale of the Wanderers and the RBB. Memberships are up at many clubs (and in the remarkable case of the Wanderers went from just over 7,000 to 16,000, thus selling out), and targets have been met or exceeded. Having said that the two most well supported clubs in terms of members (i.e. Melbourne Victory and Western Sydney Wanderers) have had recurrent issues with their active supporters. Whilst not all these problems originate from the fans, there has been incidents and breakdowns in relations between fans and their clubs that have without doubt damaged the reputation of the A-League. The extent and nature of that credibility problem depends on who you listen to or your position within or without the supporter base, and it hasn’t been helped by some hysterically vicious opinions emanating from anti-Football writers in the mainstream press. The bottom line is that no matter how well behaved part or all of the A-League’s fan base is, there will continue to be scrutiny placed on them that borders on unethical, unreasonable and xenophobic.

My Overall Rating

If I was a teacher looking to give a report on this season, I’d think a B+ grade would be appropriate, which in some respects is a bit of a let down from last season. I would not say that the likes of David Gallop and Damien de Bohun have got cause for major concern, however it would be hard to put a positive spin on everything accomplished this season. I suspect that overall the competition has hit a plateau that needs new stimuli to help it take the next step. What they are could be anything from the impact of the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 AFC Cup, through to better refereeing, the return of an iconic Australian player like Tim Cahill to the A-League, or another foreign marquee legend being recruited. The forthcoming FFA Cup will also be a potential positive influence, and who is to say how the ACL may impact upon the A-League in the near future. These are interesting and challenging times for the A-League and its players, coaches and fans.