Monday, January 29, 2007


Setting it Up

Both A-League semi-final ties are set up nicely for the second leg...and they're very hard to call.

Sydney FC produced perhaps their best performance of the season in the first half at Aussie Stadium, Terry McFlynn man-marking Nick Carle out of the game cleanly and cleverly, and Alex Brosque and Steve Corica providing the enterprise and invention in attack.

The second half from Butcher's side was predictably disappointing, as the home team ran out of puff towards the close for the umpteenth time this season. McFlynn's departure with a groin strain was significant: Mark Milligan, as Nick Carle hinted afterwards, did not quite have the Newcastle playmaker's measure. Still, it needed a tremendous individual goal from Milton Rodriguez to put the visitors on the scoresheet, and keep them in the reckoning.

So who's the favourite now? Probably Sydney, by a whisker. Newcastle have failed to keep a clean sheet against the champions so far this season, and if Sydney can find the net again on Friday, Newcastle will have their work cut out. Having said that, extra time is surely a very strong possibility.

Difficult, too, to pick a favourite in the other semi-final. Ernie Merrick would probably be happy to have left Hindmarsh with a draw (and his team selection indicated that he harboured few genuine attacking ambitions in the match), but Melbourne's record at Telstra Dome of late has not been good. An early away goal for Adelaide, and they will probably get through, in my opinion.

Adelaide suffered from a lack of penetration down the left at Hindmarsh, with Bobby Petta succumbing to injury and Jason Spagnuolo not quite match-fit. With an extra week to recover, Spagnuolo may still play a key role in the return leg. Travis Dodd, on the opposite flank, had a superb game; it was a pity that some of his lead-up play was not rewarded with finishing of similar quality.

Time to put my head on the block.

Every time I've picked against Sydney they have proved me wrong, so in the interests of a Sydney FC win, I'll pick Newcastle in the minor semi. And I'll stick to my guns and predict a grand final at Hindmarsh, probably after a score draw in Melbourne.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


Adelaide v. Melbourne: A Preview

It’s fitting, in many ways, to have the major semi-final contested between the two teams who gave us the finest match of the season. We can surely expect some more excellent football over the course of this tie.

Adelaide would have to be heavy favourites for the first leg. Following a late win over the champions and a comfortable cruise into second place against the Mariners, John Kosmina’s men will be full of confidence. On the other hand, Melbourne have lost the final two games of the regular season, the second in quite ignominious fashion, and the team shape has been altered considerably.

A couple of fellow tragics have commented to me that they were surprised to see Ernie Merrick making so many changes in the run-up to the finals, given that the season was a short one, and tiredness would not be a significant factor. It’s worth remembering, though, that Melbourne completed a very long pre-season schedule, which included an invitational tournament in Queensland, and several warm-up matches.

With Daniel Piorkowski out for the season, Melbourne’s chief problem is the left side of defence. Travis Dodd is in good form, and is surely likely to cause the premiers some concern on the right wing. Alessandro’s defensive capacities are doubtful, and Adrian Caceres is far more effective in the final third; the choice should probably fall on the trusty jack-of-all-trades Steve Pantelidis.

On the other side of defence, Simon Storey will surely reclaim the right-back spot from Vince Lia, whose deficiencies were brutally exploited by the Newcastle attack.

Otherwise, it should be a familiar Melbourne line-up.

Adelaide face something of a dilemma in attack, with Carl Veart returning. Diego Walsh has been lively and influential, and Kosmina will surely be tempted to start him in the attacking midfield role, perhaps pairing Veart, rather than Fernando Rech, with Nathan Burns in attack. Burns’ partnership with his flatmate Bruce Djite up front looked highly promising last week, however; is it possible that Kosmina will pull an even bigger surprise, and start Djite?

It should be a beauty. I’m tipping 2-0 to the home side this afternoon.

Saturday, January 27, 2007


Platini in Power

Big news on the international front overnight, with Michel Platini ending Lennart Johansson's 16-year reign as president of UEFA. Bonne chance in your new position, M. Platini.

First and foremost, it's good to have one of the finest players in history occupying a position of genuine administrative significance. Although Platini apparently sees himself as more of a leader and ideas man than a nuts-and-bolts administrator, he won plenty of admiration as the chargé d'affaires for the 1998 World Cup.

The main plank of Platini's election platform was his plan to limit the number of teams per country in the UEFA Champions' League to three. Although this could be seen as merely a ploy to gain the votes of the "smaller" European nations, who will obviously benefit from such a move, the plan is a commendable one. The absurdly-named Champions' League, for all the entertainment it provides, has become a closed shop in many respects; this year's final sixteen features no less than ten clubs from just three countries. Gabriel Hanot would have had a coronary.

Johansson, of course, was the architect of the expansion of the old European Cup. Its gigantic spawn, the Champions' League, is now a precious cash cow not just for the big clubs involved, but UEFA as well; if Platini is able to put his limit-of-three plan into action, there will surely be a shortfall in UEFA revenue...which will have to be made up somehow.

Platini is unlikely to be in favour of the recent 24-team Euro proposal. Sepp Blatter, understandably, is dead against it, and Platini is very much Blatter's man. Given the history of the 24-team World Cup and all the mathematical awkwardness associated with it, not to mention the need to ease the burden on the top players in any case, the proposal deserves to be shot down.

One small lingering worry about Platini: he is quite likely to adopt the sort of football-is-above-the-law rhetoric favoured by his FIFA patron. In an interview with World Soccer magazine in December, he gave a strong indication of his distaste at being shackled by the outside world:

"I do not want our regulations dictated by judges in some tribunal or law court - like the Bosman ruling or the way the Charleroi case is being decided. We need to regulate football, and by "we" I mean UEFA, FIFA, the national associations, the clubs, the players, the presidents, eveybody."

Platini may just find that the world doesn't quite work like that.

Friday, January 26, 2007


Sydney v. Newcastle: A Preview

For the second year in succession, the Newcastle Jets feature in the minor semi-final. However, this is a very different Newcastle side from the one that surrendered limply to the Mariners in 2005/06.

They go into the tie on the back of a 4-0 thrashing of the premiers, in which Mark Bridge and Nick Carle were magnificent, and Tim Brown proved an able replacement for Paul Kohler in midfield.

Gary van Egmond is unlikely to change his formation. As for his personnel, it’s possible that Andrew Durante will be restored to defence, but given Paul Okon’s confident display against Melbourne, it would be hard to drop the club captain. Restore Jade North to the right, then? Difficult to justify, with Steve Eagleton in such excellent form.

A dilemma for van Egmond, but not a particularly unpleasant one.

Sydney FC, on the other hand, have perhaps their key midfielder suspended, and Alvin Ceccoli still on the treatment table.

Terry Butcher’s unexpected switch to 3-5-2 against Queensland did the trick in the end, but Sydney were often badly exposed on the left side of defence, particularly in the first half. With Newcastle, unlike Queensland, fielding a true right-winger in Joel Griffiths, it’s hard to see Butcher repeating the experiment.

This leaves Nikolai Topor-Stanley on the left of a back four to face Griffiths, and a difficult assignment it is for a player as essentially one-paced as “the Hyphen”. Robbie Middleby will have to work hard to limit the upfield excursions of the quick Eagleton, who often provides such vital support to Griffiths.

As for Sydney’s midfield, will Terry McFlynn, buoyed by the faith the club has shown in him, be asked to hold the fort on his own in the centre? A fine tackler he may be, but his passing game often disappoints, and rapid turnover of possession is not advisable against a side as fluent as Newcastle.

A more likely scenario, in my view, is the addition of Mark Milligan to the midfield alongside McFlynn. A second body in central midfield would allow McFlynn to dog the steps of Nick Carle again, as he did so effectively in the previous game between the two sides. Iain Fyfe had an outstanding game in central defence against Queensland, and he is likely to stay there, with Ruben Zadkovich continuing in his newfound role of right-back.

This would leave room for only one striker, of course. That is, unless Butcher were to take the unprecedented step of dropping either Carney or Corica, both of whom have been regulars since returning to the starting eleven against Adelaide in Round 13.

Brosque alone up front again? It’s not a particularly edifying prospect, but given that such a formation proved ultimately successful against Newcastle on New Year’s Day, I think it might end up being Butcher’s choice.

The pitch is likely to be uneven once more, thanks to some egg-ball exertions yesterday evening, but it's hard to see this favouring Sydney as it arguably did at Energy Australia Stadium a month ago.

It will be an intriguing contest. I’m picking a 1-1 draw.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Cliché Central – another update

Some more trite favourites to add to the list.

“consolation goal”

Of course, when you’re 3-0 down with ten minutes to play and you manage to get one into the back of the net, it could be described as consolation. Unfortunately, it never gets described as anything else.

Words such as “encouragement”, “relief”, “pride”, “respectability” and “dignity” are all equally applicable to getting on the scoresheet in a long-lost match. But all we ever get is consolation.

“gilt-edged chance”

Far too prosaic, these days, to merely talk about “an excellent chance”, “an easy chance”, or “a chance that should have been taken”. Far more appropriate, apparently, to reach straight for a metaphor that has been done to death.

One of the problems with this phrase is that it tends to obviate any discussion of why the chance may have been missed. On a player’s weaker foot? At a slightly difficult height (such as Reinaldo’s 69th-minute free header against Sydney on Saturday)? Or was the player caught in two minds, with another option available?

I’m still waiting for some witty caller to refer to a platinum-edged chance one of these days.

“that just about sums up X’s night…”

Simon Hill has proved himself an excellent caller over the last few years, but he does tend to rely a little heavily on the comment above. It can refer to teams or individual players, although it tends to be applied more commonly to the former.

Some other options: “pretty typical of X’s performance tonight”, “in keeping with X’s performance tonight”, “indicative of X’s form tonight”, “a fair reflection of how X has/have played overall…”

“last throw of the dice”

Team down 2-1. Striker on for a defender. The phrase above appears with monotonous regularity.

I refer you to my previous comments about managers as gamblers. An interesting concept, and often not far wide of the mark, in my view…

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Sydney FC – The Balance Sheet, Part 2

Some more musings on the contrasts between Sydney’s first season and their second.

Average Crowds (regular season):

2005/06: 16,669
2006/07: 14,999

That’s right, down by an average of about 1,700 per game.

Terry Butcher’s “drab, defensive and cautious” style, then?

Well…there were some other factors.

Dwight Yorke was the face of the A-League in Season 1, without question. His glinting smile was to be seen accompanying any number of newspaper stories and colour supplement puff pieces, and he was featured prominently in Sydney FC publicity.

When he departed, the champions lost their major drawcard.

Then there was the World Cup Factor.

After reaching a lull towards the middle of the season, Sydney FC’s crowds in Season 1 were boosted in the weeks surrounding the unforgettable 16th of November. The mid-season game against Perth, immediately following the triumph at Homebush, attracted a crowd of over 16,000, who witnessed a dismal 0-0 draw.

In the same round, a year later to the day, a crucial top-of-the-table encounter attracted 2,000 fewer patrons.

The dire football Sydney FC produced early in Season 2 had its effect on attendances, no doubt. But to pretend that this was the only factor – as some have done – is disingenuous.

Longest run of consecutive games in NSW:

2005/06: 5
2006/07: 9

And that’s not all. The sequence of nine games within easy reach of Parklea this season was followed by a game in Melbourne, an hour’s flight away, and then…three more games in NSW.

And, not surprisingly, Sydney’s nine-game unbeaten run occurred during that period.

Defensive firmness, and the return to fitness of certain key players, certainly contributed to that impressive series of results. But would Butcher’s men have achieved the same with the rigours of travel thrown in?

The five-game NSW-only sequence in 2005/06 produced a similar unbeaten run (three wins and two draws, for the record). The three NSW clubs are obviously going to encounter these travel-free periods from time to time, but Sydney’s extraordinary “home run” through October and November was something of a one-off…and a considerable blessing.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


Sydney FC – The Balance Sheet, Part 1

Now that my nerves have subsided and I can look forward to at least one more trip to Aussie Stadium this season, it’s perhaps a good time to make some comparisons between Sydney FC’s 2005/06 performance and the current team’s efforts, over the 21 games of the regular season.


Major personnel differences:

Yorke, Packer in 2005/06 but not 2006/07
Brosque, Topor-Stanley in 2006/07 but not 2005/06

There are some other in-and-out discrepancies one could mention (involving Zadkovich, Brockie, Bingley, Timpano, the unlamented Alex Salazar and the short-term specials Kazu and Carbone), but the major changes were as above.

There is no doubt that Yorke was a great loss, and not just in a marketing sense. Although he certainly slacked off in the immediate aftermath of his country’s World Cup qualification, for much of the season he was the most assured Sydney FC player.

Even in his sole appearance under Terry Butcher, we could see why he was so valuable. No-one in the league was as good at holding the ball up despite the close attention of a number of defenders, and in the second half on August 28, he gave a commanding display in midfield.

Andrew Packer tended to escape notice in Sydney FC’s opening season, but he was one of Littbarski’s most consistent, reliable performers, and in the grand final his contribution was outstanding – he was easily Sydney’s best on field.

Alex Brosque, after an uncertain start, has ultimately added a very useful option up front for the club; it’s worth remembering that all of the strikers at Littbarski’s disposal were on the “elderly” side, and not blessed with much pace. After deploying him in an unsuitable lone striker role for so many games, Butcher seems to have finally found a niche for Brosque, who has shown a steady improvement through the season.

Nikolai Topor-Stanley attracted plenty of praise for his early performances, but it quickly became clear that his passing was, at times, desperately poor. Last night, in his first appearance in sky blue for some time, the old problem resurfaced.

As, however, did his unquestionable strength in the air, which he used to good effect many times, particularly against Reinaldo.

2005/06 Goals For: 35, Goals Against: 28
2006/07 Goals For: 29, Goals Against: 19

The simple conclusion – already commented on by many – is that Sydney are stronger defensively this season, but weaker in attack.

The truth is slightly more complicated than that, however.

In the early part of this season, Sydney were conceding a fair few; in the first nine games, Clint Bolton was beaten thirteen times. The golden period for Sydney FC defensively was its nine-game unbeaten run towards the end; in one particular sequence of eight games, from rounds 13 to 20, Butcher’s men conceded only three goals.

Why have I chosen this sequence, in particular?

Because, significantly, it coincided with Mark Milligan’s run in central defence. My opinion on Milligan’s optimal use has not changed.

More comparisons, odious or otherwise, in Part 2...

Saturday, January 20, 2007


Come in Number Three...

Hearty congratulations to Gary van Egmond, and to the Newcastle Jets for becoming the third team to make the A-League finals.

They have certainly deserved it, given their performances throughout the season. Arguably the best side in the competition to watch, they brushed the premiers aside last night in an energetic display, aided by some woeful Melbourne defending.

I felt that van Egmond was taking something of a risk in restoring Paul Okon to central defence in such a crucial game, given his propensity for sudden brain-fades at times this season. Jade North, too, continues to look somewhat uncomfortable in the middle; Archie Thompson made a monkey of him in the first half, after he’d given the ball away. Luckily for van Egmond, Thomspon could only hit the outside of the post.

Yet despite their obvious deficiencies in defence (to which one can add Ante Covic’s often dreadful positioning), Newcastle can be devastating in attack – especially when Nick Carle gets into the groove.

Carle attracts plenty of breathless plaudits, but the hard truth is that he does not always “turn it on”. On difficult surfaces (v. Sydney in Round 18) or in stifling conditions (v. Perth in Round 20) he can struggle. Yet he has looked a re-invigorated player this season, after being deployed wastefully on the wing for much of last season by Richard Money.

Mark Bridge has been one of the season’s great success stories. When I’ve harked back to his indifferent recent spell at Sydney Olympic, my Well-Informed Covite friend (who always keeps me on my toes) has reminded me that Bridge did in fact score a fair few goals for Olympic, and that he had perhaps not the most congenial strike partner in Nick Bosevski, who had an abysmal state league season.

At Newcastle, Bridge has developed into a fine opportunist, a striker of both poise and power. His finish for the first goal last night was far more difficult than it looked, with Roddy Vargas still snapping at his heels and Michael Theoklitos advancing. The fact that Bridge made it look so easy says much about his progress this season.

So, can Newcastle go all the way? Much will depend on other Round 21 results, I feel. If Newcastle can indeed beat the odds and sneak into second place, they would be favourites for the title, in my view. But should they be forced to play off with a side other than the one they have recently humiliated, things won’t be so easy. For the record, I rate them as capable of beating either Sydney or Queensland over two legs…but not Adelaide.

On the matter of the other Round 21 fixtures, Gary van Egmond has become the latest of many to criticize the staggering of the final round of matches. He (and the others) certainly have a point.

Surely the A-League can strike some sort of compromise with Foxtel on this matter. It is absolutely standard practice to have final round games commencing at the same time; even the World Cup, which lives and dies by its TV revenue, follows the accepted procedure.

The whole question of fixtures is one for Matt Carroll to have a very close look at before next season. The demands of Foxtel (and of the other football codes, on shared grounds) are pressing, but surely there can be some improvement on the messy, unbalanced fixture list many clubs were forced to deal with this term.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


The Crunch, Part 2

So much for Queensland’s issues. Now:

Sydney FC

The limitations of Terry Butcher’s conservative 4-2-3-1 formation have been glaringly apparent in recent weeks.

For a start, Alex Brosque is completely unsuited to a lone striker role. Playing with back to goal is inimical to him, and without the strength to hold the ball up in the face of powerful defenders, he is often forced to drift wide in search of meaningful action.

With David Carney still on the wrong wing and Steve Corica’s age starting to show, Sydney FC have been toothless in the final third. Ufuk Talay, too, has drifted out of form, failing to produce the sort of incisive passes which caused so much damage during Sydney’s impressive mid-season run.

Now, with two regular first-teamers suspended against Queensland, Butcher must find the courage to take some risks.

It’s time for a second striker. Queensland’s defence is eminently fallible, especially with Ognenovski only just returned to the first eleven and McCloughan suspended. With Petrovski still struggling for fitness, the choice should probably fall on David Zdrilic; Brosque would then be given the opportunity to fulfil a supporting role, in which he has looked quite effective at times.

The loss of Mark Milligan for the Suncorp game is a crushing blow, but the suspension to Terry McFlynn may just be a blessing in disguise.

Matt McKay’s absence is likely to draw much of the sting out of Queensland’s midfield. Although most Sydney FC fans have (with good reason, I feel) doubted the ability of Ufuk Talay to play alone in defensive midfield, given his mediocre tackling ability, this is surely the time to try it. A second body up front would also help to relieve Steve Corica of some of his creative responsibilities, allowing him to contribute in a defensive capacity.

A small point to add: there have been some grumbles about the lackadaisical approach to training supposedly adopted by Butcher, and in the last couple of games Sydney have indeed run out of puff in the final half-hour (as, in fact, they have on many occasions this season). Whatever his tactical eccentricities, Littbarski certainly had his men fitter.

If Newcastle prevail against the premiers on Friday, Sydney FC cannot afford to be underdone at Suncorp.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Stories from Stateside, Part 2

In his latest dispatch from the States, World Soccer’s American scribe Paul Gardner has welcomed the Beckham Rule. Not so much on the grounds of increased exposure, but because, he believes, an influx of foreign stars will give the quality of the league a fillip. He cites the recent MLS Cup final between eventual champions Houston Dynamo and the New England Revolution, which he describes as a lousy, vapid and boring game.

I’m not sure he will be proved right. The A-League’s experience with marquee signings has been decidedly equivocal, and the previous spells in the MLS of foreign luminaries such as Lothar Matthäus and Luis Hernández – a star for Mexico at the 1998 World Cup – have been largely disappointing.

David Beckham’s lack of first-team action at Madrid, his disputes over image rights, and his wife’s desire to mingle with the Hollywood crowd have surely been the salient factors behind his decision to cross the Atlantic in August. He will generate interest, for sure; but in the long term, will it be worth it?

Gavin Hamilton, WS's editor, has poured some cold water on his colleague's enthusiasm, suggesting (not without reason) that the LA Galaxy's relative lack of "brand" could militate against the generation of sufficient income to cover the significant, erm, expenses of Beckham's stay in the US.

Two other small points about the MLS which are relevant to the A-League:

- After ten years of existence, only now is the MLS putting a youth system into place at club level. The clubs have refrained from venturing into youth development in the past partly because of the bizarre draft system, which ensures that clubs would not be able to hold on to young players they have developed. But there is a financial angle as well, and the fact that, as mentioned in Part 1, younger players are receiving only subsistence wages should give Australia’s youth league blatherers something of a reality check.

- The MLS has yet to put in place any promotion/relegation system, and is not likely to do so in the foreseeable future. Although I believe that such a system can be workable in Australia, and may even be a necessity once the league expands, there are serious obstacles.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Short-Term Memory Loss - brief update

Well, well. The short-term Topor-Stanley deal has been blocked by the FFA after all.

Not good news for Sydney FC, but from a consistency point of view, the FFA have made the right decision.

They should, however, seriously consider scrapping this extremely subjective like-for-like rule for the 2007/08 season.


The Crunch, Part 1

So it has come to this, as Ned Kelly said. Four A-League teams still have a chance of clinching second place going into the final round, although Newcastle’s chances of doing so are remote.

Apart from the New Zealand v. Perth dead rubber, all of the games have some significance. But the real crunch game is:

Queensland Roar v. Sydney FC

The two sides come into the game in contrasting form; Queensland have defeated the top two away from home in Rounds 19 and 20, while Sydney FC have lost their way, stumbling to 1-0 losses against New Zealand and Adelaide. So, a preview of what we can and/or should expect from both teams. First:


Although the Roar’s achievement in clawing their way back into the top four has to be saluted, the truth is that they were outplayed for long periods against both Adelaide and Melbourne. Damian Mori, belatedly returning to form, has been crucial to their impressive run.

I feel that Frank Farina has yet to find a truly effective combination. Spase Dilevski continues to drift here, there and everywhere, and Dario Vidosic, in and out of touch, has been similarly maltreated. Andrew Packer continues to be employed, bizarrely, on the left side of defence. Of the strikers, Mori is the only ever-present.

At least Farina has had the sense to make Hyuk-Su Seo a fixture in the holding midfield role, where he has gone about his business quietly and most efficiently. The suspension to Matt McKay, a driving force in midfield all season, will hurt, but the recovered Massimo Murdocca should slot relatively neatly into McKay’s shoes against Sydney FC.

Josh McCloughan is also suspended for the final regular season game. It will be a tough choice for Farina between Remo Buess and Stuart McLaren in central defence; given the deficiencies Buess has occasionally shown in the role, I would plump for McLaren. But I suspect Farina might go the other way.

As for the goalkeeping position, despite Tando Velaphi’s outstanding debut effort against Melbourne, Liam Reddy must surely return. For one thing, Reddy was magnificent against Sydney in the Round 14 game.

With Mark Milligan out for Sydney, there is a need for pace in the Queensland attack; Mark Rudan and Jacob Timpano will be able to deal with strength and height, but Alen Marcina’s efforts for New Zealand at Aussie Stadium showed quite clearly where Sydney’s deficiencies in defence lay.

For that reason, Farina might be best advised to bite the bullet and play Vidosic as a supporting striker. Although Reinaldo too possesses considerable pace, his main attribute is his physical power, and he is likely to be matched in that department.

In the next instalment, my suggestions for Sydney FC’s embattled manager.

Monday, January 15, 2007


Stay Tuned...

An in-depth (ahem!) preview of the final A-League round to come later in the week when I can get my thoughts together, but for now I'll limit myself to the following brief piece on the recent Beckham circus.


Stories from Stateside, Part 1

David Beckham’s recent, sensational decision to join the Los Angeles Galaxy at the end of the current European season has shifted much attention in the football world towards the United States. In the last few days we’ve heard that Edgar Davids, the out-of-favour Spurs midfielder, is being courted by another MLS club, FC Dallas.

All thanks to the passing of the Designated Player Rule, now known as the Beckham Rule, in the US.

It might be salutary to take a closer look at the changes occurring in US football, and at the structure of the MLS itself, which has many parallels with the fledgling A-League.

The MLS has been struggling financially since its inception. Teams have folded, attendances have been middling to poor, and salaries, particularly for the “roster” players, are often abysmal.

Yet recently there have been a number of changes for the better. One is the introduction of soccer-specific stadiums, a long-term goal for the league which finally seems to be bearing fruit. Another is the signing of a recent TV deal, similar to last year’s windfall agreement in Australia, which guarantees significant revenue (and exposure) in the years to come.

Then there’s the Beckham rule.

Basically, the new Beckham Rule permits the signing of what we would call marquee players. In the US, it is the league itself, rather than the individual clubs, that negotiates contracts and pays player salaries. Until now, a salary cap of approximately US$2 million has been enforced for each club, although extra money from sponsorships and the like has sometimes not been taken into account.

A set amount of money from the income of the new marquee players will still fall under the cap (unlike in Australia), with pay cuts inevitably resulting. However, the initial signs are that the league will increase its revenue significantly with Beckham’s arrival; although he is not to appear until halfway through the 2007 MLS season, LA Galaxy season tickets have been selling like hotcakes (it’s worth noting, however, that their stadium holds only 27,000). This should eventually trickle down to the players, one hopes.

More to come in Part 2.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


Short-Term Memory Loss

Watching Damian Mori score for Queensland on Friday must have been especially painful for Mariners fans, considering the circumstances under which he left the Central Coast club.

To remind readers of the situation: the Mariners intended to keep the veteran poacher on as short-term cover for another injured player, Paul O’Grady. The FFA, however, refused to sanction this, supposedly on the basis that O’Grady was a defender, while Mori was a striker.

Already they were on very shaky ground. Determining players’ positions is always somewhat subjective, and given that O’Grady has played as a Jamie Harnwell-style emergency striker in the past, one could even question the specific application of the policy in this case (let alone the general principle).

Yet Mori went to Queensland, and, despite a slow start, he has played a pivotal role in the Roar’s two impressive recent wins, which have catapulted them into finals contention.

The FFA have recently shown that their stance is perhaps not always consistent.

Sydney FC have reacquired the short-term services of Nikolai Topor-Stanley, who was originally signed as cover for the then-injured Jacob Timpano - who, like Topor-Stanley, is a central defender. This time, Topor-Stanley is covering for…Jeremy Brockie. A striker (or wide midfielder).

Memento Mori, one might say. What’s the story?

Saturday, January 13, 2007


Some Gentle Baanter

Mike Cockerill’s thoughtful piece on Rob Baan, Australia’s new technical director, has probably dispelled a few misconceptions in some quarters.

Pleasingly, Baan has confirmed that he’s not simply here to “import” a Dutch style, and he has readily admitted that the much-lauded Dutch approach is not without its problems, especially in terms of the value (or lack thereof) placed on individuality.

Inamongst the predictable motherhood statements, there are a number of comments from Baan which bode well. To wit:

“So why do Brazil produce so many fantastic players? Not because of the coaches, because they have the time to play on all surfaces, in all conditions.”

In my opinion, the importance of unorganized street football in producing players capable of pulling tricks at crucial moments cannot be underestimated. Elsewhere in the article, Baan hints at the desirability of fostering this further in Australia.

Of course, such football only tends to be truly widespread in countries with third world conditions in some areas of the big cities. Significantly, though, it still flourishes even in some affluent parts of Europe – such as France.

Baan’s comments rather put into perspective the current craze for futsal as a means of developing technical excellence, which seems largely predicated on the fact that “Brazilians do it”.

With reference to the current Dutch system:

“Already when they [players] are six years old, they have coaches, and I hate that. When kids are six years old, we have to organise there are two goals and a ball, and just let them go. Otherwise we create only certain types of players, a little bit like a robot.”

I could not agree more.

“But it should not now be that I have taken this job, then we must only be influenced by Dutch coaches. We should be influenced by many coaches, so we can learn from many countries.”

One of the great strengths of Australian football, in my view, is that it has the capacity and the willingness to absorb many different influences, while maintaining a healthy scepticism. Already, along with the vastly overstated British influence, successive waves of migration have meant that we have had a taste of other styles, mainly from continental Europe.

It’s a unique position in world football, in some ways. And worth exploiting.

Friday, January 12, 2007



Last night’s disappointing draw against a dreadful New Zealand Knights – who showed that despite their improvement against Queensland and Sydney, they have some way to go yet – has probably ended the Mariners’ title hopes this season.

The injury curse, already covered in some detail here, has hit them once again…with a vengeance. They have badly missed the creativity of Tom Pondeljak in midfield lately, not to mention the experience of Tony Vidmar at the back; however, the most serious loss has been the chronically absent Nik Mrdja.

Some rumblings emanating from Gosford have suggested that there is an element of malingering involved in Mrdja’s continued spell on the sidelines, but whatever the cause, he has been irreplaceable up front (now that Damian Mori has gone on his way).

Not least because Lawrie McKinna’s side has relied largely on Adam Kwasnik for goals. And the bustling young attacker has been woefully off-beam recently.

Watching Kwasnik’s progress through this season has been enormously frustrating. With his driving runs, intelligent off-the-ball movement and fine close control, he looks one of the most accomplished young forwards in Australian football. Until he gets the chance to shoot, that is.

Not only did he send an embarrassing number of shots several feet wide of goal against the Kiwis, but in at least two cases he had far better options available. On one upfield run, Kwasnik could have quite easily played in Andre Gumprecht, who had taken up a perfect position on the left as the defence backed off. And the German would have been a very good bet to score.

Instead, Kwasnik scuffed another one wide of the mark.

Genuine, dependable finishers are quite rare in Australian football. Damian Mori is still the best of the bunch, even at his advanced age. But is Kwasnik merely suffering from stage fright, in his first season as a genuine first-teamer in a genuinely professional (pace Northern Spirit) side?

In this year’s pre-season, he was scoring regularly; against Perth in the first pre-season cup game, I saw him combine smoothly and effectively with Stewart Petrie up front, and he scored a fine goal. The occasion, however, was decidedly pressure-free.

I still believe that he has much to offer, whether as a winger or a central striker. But how exactly does he get his confidence, and composure, back?

Monday, January 08, 2007


Don’t Give Up Your Day Job

With Ricki Herbert overseeing a rapid improvement in the New Zealand Knights, and Walter Smith, Scotland’s manager, apparently in line for the vacant Glasgow Rangers gig, now is perhaps a good time to examine the phenomenon of the part-time international manager.

International football itself continues to be marginalized in the post-Bosman era, and the Abdelmajid Oulmers case, if we are to believe some of the more alarmist predictions, threatens its very existence.

Does national team management really need to be a full-time position?

A national coach’s genuine “on-task” time would probably average out at only two or three months per year. The general assumption seems to be that in the meantime, he will be scouting new international hopefuls, checking on the progress of his existing roster, devouring DVDs of performances by his future international opponents, devising schedules for the training camps, etc.

Nine months’ worth of work? Hardly.

We have heard in recent days that Guus Hiddink is not entirely happy with his job in Russia, and is preparing to move elsewhere.

Maybe he is disappointed with the talent at his disposal and the facilities available to him, or perhaps he finds the climate and culture uncongenial. Perhaps the job was always intended as merely a springboard to Chelsea. But is it possible that Hiddink is simply suffering from ennui?

He managed to combine the Australian job with coaching duties at PSV most successfully. With Korea in the lead-up to the 2002 World Cup, Hiddink prevailed upon the local authorities to release the players from club duties several months out from the tournament, and he was able to work with them on virtually a day-to-day basis. They were not short of match practice, either, getting through a solid schedule of friendlies prior to the event, in which they performed so well.

In other words, it was about as close as you could get to club management.

Ricki Herbert could surely combine his international duties with the New Zealand Knights job in the longer term. The A-League, after all, is still an extremely brief league competition by world standards, and New Zealand’s opportunities for serious international matches are circumscribed by their continued presence in the ridiculous Oceania confederation.

Conflicts of interest may crop up at times, and this is perhaps the reason why the part-time phenomenon is not all that widespread in the football world. But Herbert would surely find more convergences than conflicts of interest as the coach of the A-League’s only New Zealand side.

Sunday, January 07, 2007


Knights Resurgent

How things have changed since I penned this piece.

Not only have the New Zealand Knights bagged two wins on the trot, but they are playing some good football, and seem to have recovered their confidence.

New coach Ricki Herbert certainly appears to have hit upon a good formation. Neil Emblen and Alen Marcina complement each other superbly well up front, and their contributions deserve an extended mention.

Emblen, one of the Knights' most consistent players over their two-year existence, has been the utility player par excellence, the Knights' version of Philippe Cocu. Contributing manfully in defence towards the beginning of the season, he has looked the part up front in the last couple of games; scoring an impressive goal against Queensland, he also proved surprisingly adept at holding the ball up despite the attentions of a number of defenders.

Of all the Knights' British imports, Emblen has been far and away the best.

Alen Marcina has been a revelation in his brief stint in the A-League. The 27-year-old journeyman has shown ample pace, good positioning, and a pleasing willingness to run at the defence. Tonight, he ruthlessly exploited Jacob Timpano's lack of match fitness in the first half, dealing similarly with an out-of-sorts Iain Fyfe at times.

The other palpable success story of the Knights' season has been their excellent goalkeeper, Mark Paston. The hero of the home win over Queensland in November, Paston made a number of crucial saves against Sydney FC in this evening's game, and his positioning was consistently good.

Whether the New Zealand side can, or even should, remain in the A-League beyond 2006/07 is still far from certain. But under Ricki Herbert, they are making a very good case - on the field, at least.

Friday, January 05, 2007


The Mighty Mullet

There are plenty of reasons for John Kosmina to be displeased after last night's surprise loss; Nathan Burns' erstwhile coolness and precision in front of goal now seem to have deserted him, some of Adelaide's defensive problems have resurfaced, and the talismanic Greg Owens is by no means a certainty to be fit for the crucial encounter with Sydney FC next week.

If there is a silver lining for Kosmina, it is surely that Jason Spagnuolo continues to be probably the most influential midfielder in the competition.

The "flying mullet", as he has been christened by certain Adelaide United fans, has undoubtedly been the revelation of the season.

A two-footed winger with good pace, excellent technique and sound footballing judgement, he has been at the heart of much of Adelaide's better play in 2006/07. Romario can thank Spagnuolo for saving him the ignominy of leaving the A-League without a goal, since his messy tap-in against Newcastle was the result of a sustained, incisive run from the young winger.

I first saw Spagnuolo in Adelaide's pre-season game against Sydney in Wollongong, and immediately he looked the part. Playing an important role in Adelaide's opening goal, he then provided the whipping corner that allowed Kristian Rees to head home Adelaide's winner.

And here we come to a particularly impressive aspect of Spagnuolo's play: his delivery from set-pieces.

The Socceroos patently lack a reliable taker of corners and free kicks at the moment. Mark Bresciano has never been quite precise enough, Stan Lazaridis is gone, and Josip Skoko cannot now be considered a first-teamer.

Spagnuolo's delivery from corners is not always the best (significantly, he is far more dangerous delivering inswingers from the left rather than floaters from the right), but occasionally he truly "hits the spot", and always poses danger when he does so. Although Adelaide inexplicably place so much faith in Ross Aloisi's outside-of-the-foot daisy-cutters (not one of which has looked remotely effective in months) when a free kick is awarded, Spagnuolo provides a good alternative in this department as well.

Last night, the moment that summed up Spagnuolo's form this season for me was his teeing-up of Carl Veart for a thumping shot that flew just over the bar, late in the first half. A fizzing, awkward long ball was played up from the back, but Spagnuolo managed to take the pace off it, and position it perfectly for his onrushing team-mate - all in the one touch.

A sign of a player in top form. From an Olyroo and Socceroo point of view, long may it continue.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Suspension of Logic

There have been some disparaging murmurs about the "convenient" yellow cards picked up by Adrian Leijer and Archie Thompson against the Mariners on New Year's Eve.

Personally I have no problem at all with their actions. Melbourne have earned the right to position themselves as strongly as possible for the finals series, and, most importantly, the acts through which Thompson and Leijer received their cautions were not physically dangerous.

Contrast this with Luis Figo in the 2000/01 UEFA Champions League, whose repeated (and ultimately successful) attempts to get himself booked in Real Madrid's dead rubber against Leeds United were both blatant and dangerous.

The real issue here is that the rules of the competition are flawed. Finals games, with their disproportionate significance, should not have their results influenced by events (and possibly questionable decisions) far back in the regular season. They constitute virtually a separate competition, and should be treated as such.

Surely the sensible thing to do would be to make all disciplinary records from the regular season redundant come the finals.

Only if a player attracts a red card in the final game of the regular season would I advocate a suspension - if the decision was correct (see here).

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


The Carney Conundrum - update

For the first fifteen minutes of the second half last night, Sydney FC produced easily the best football we've seen from them this season.

It was quite reminiscent of their play during the pre-season win over Perth, now a distant but fond memory for fans of the club. And there were some striking tactical similarities.

In both cases, David Carney deserted his right-wing role and shifted infield, leaving the right-back (Ruben Zadkovich in last night's game) to essentially cover the flank in its entirety. Once Carney was properly able to take part in the midfield interplay, rather than hugging the right touchline as he has been wont to do over the last couple of years, he was considerably more effective.

He faded badly as the match wore on, spraying aimless balls forward and contributing little. But for those fifteen minutes, we finally saw Carney exercise the sort of influence he did last season.

The whole episode again cast doubt on his deployment on the right wing, where he is forced to cut inside into traffic with monotonous regularity.

My Well-Informed Covite friend expressed his surprise to me last season that a player as accomplished as Carney had reached a decent professional level despite being so palpably one-footed. I'm not quite so surprised at this; there have been plenty of great players of the past who heavily favoured one foot over the other (the late Ferenc Puskas, for one), but what has lessened Carney's effectiveness even further this season is that he has shown little evidence of the pace that troubled opposition defences in 2005/06.

In this piece, dealing with that Perth game, I suggested that Carney may eventually find a central role more suitable. In that pre-season outing he was involved in both goals, and of course he was the architect of Sydney's opening goal in Newcastle, sliding that beautifully-weighted pass through to Corica on the right.

Plenty of Sydney fans, myself included, have been baying for Carney to be moved to the left wing since his return from injury. Yet Terry Butcher has resisted the move, and although Carney could surely provide better service from his "proper" side, you would have to question whether he could get past his man all that often.

It would be interesting to see him play in the centre for a full game. Until such time it's difficult to tell whether it suits him, but it must be worth a try.

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