Sunday, December 30, 2007

 

Tragic Hiatus

TFT will be on extended leave during January; I'm off on a (completely non-football-related) trip to the U.S., Canada and the West Indies, and won't be back until late January (just in time for the A-League finals, our first World Cup qualifier, and the beginning of the NSW Premier League).

A very happy New Year 2008 to all.

The continuing tragedy will resume in late Jan./early Feb.

Friday, December 28, 2007

 

Law 12 and How to Misinterpret It - another update

So once again, a straightforward long ball over the top, combined with the pace of Alex Brosque, has resulted in Sydney FC gaining a man advantage for the majority of a crucial fixture. And in both cases, the numerical imbalance had a decisive effect.

Danny Vukovic did probably deserve his red card last week, but I'll risk excommunication from my Covite friends by suggesting that Robert Cornthwaite should not, in fact, have been red-carded in tonight's game.

Daniel Beltrame may have admitted at half-time that the decision was fair, given that Cornthwaite was "the last man", but as I've mentioned before, that's only half the story.

Here are those relevant words again. A player is to be dismissed if he:

…denies an obvious goal-scoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player’s goal by an offence punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick…

The intent of the law was surely to punish players who cynically upended attackers either on the point of striking for goal, or ready to rush through the last line with a subsequent clear, direct path to the goal.

In the current case, the long ball that released Brosque saw him moving at an angle to the goal, with some work to do before he gained control of the ball and shot. Whether this constitutes "an obvious goalscoring opportunity" is open to debate, in my view.

And "moving towards the player's goal"? Again, debatable.

Combined with the minimal contact from Cornthwaite (although he should certainly have avoided making any contact), things were sufficiently unclear to make a yellow card the appropriate punishment, in my view. But it's surprising how often all debate is quashed the moment the "last man" idea comes into play. It is not the only factor in the decision.

What to make of tonight's game otherwise? For the second successive week, Sydney have started off in very indifferent fashion, before being given the run of the park by managers who have panicked after going a man down, leaving a forlorn lone ranger up front and withdrawing the midfield to within a few yards of the back four. A sure way to fill your opponents with immediate confidence.

And confident they looked for the rest of the match, Brendon Santalab having his best game for Sydney FC, Steve Corica looking as good as he has for months, and Alex Brosque unlucky not to score twice. Adam Biddle needs to work on his composure in front of goal, but I think he's shown enough this season to suggest that he's a good prospect.

Adelaide deserve some sympathy, given their dreadful injury problems, but ultimately they haven't shown as much fight as they did in the A-League's first two seasons, and it may well end up costing them a place in the final four.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

 

A-League: The 2007 Awards

It’s been an up-and-down year for Australian football, and the same could be said of our national competition; the enjoyable 2006/07 edition of the league has been followed by a fairly grim third season, punctuated by a few enthralling games…such as the recent Central Coast v. Sydney FC epic.

So then, the gongs:

Player of 2007

So many of Melbourne’s 2006/07 luminaries faded badly in 2007/08; Archie Thompson and Danny Allsopp were no longer the most feared striking partnership in the country (although Thompson’s form has been better than some have suggested); Kevin Muscat has been in and out with injury and suspension, Adrian Caceres has been peripheral, and perhaps Michael Theoklitos is the one Melbourne player who has maintained his superb form.

Nathan Burns, though occasionally devastating, has been sadly prone to injury, and Adelaide’s other potential candidate, Travis Dodd, has blown somewhat hot and cold. Alex Brosque has been very impressive for Sydney FC this season, but he was not quite as influential in the final weeks of 2006/07 (which was not entirely his own fault, to be fair).

The winner is a player who has not only carried his team to a large extent this season, but who played a crucial role in the final weeks of last season as well; his two late goals against Perth in January gained his side a vital point in the run-up to the finals.

This season, he has shown an uncanny ability to score the important goals, using his pace, guile and positional instincts to superb effect. Along the way, he’s found the time to punch innocent linesmen in the balls and make himself decidedly unpopular with opposition sides.

He is, of course, Joel Griffiths.

Disappointment of 2007

This is an easy one.

It seemed the ultimate marquee signing: a former European Golden Boot winner, with experience throughout Europe and a profile to match.

The clear warning signs (a period of inactivity, criticisms about his weight) were not heeded.

He has gone on to become the competition’s ultimate flop (much more so than his compatriot at Sydney FC, who did at least contribute a good deal before injury made a mockery of his season); slow, blunt in front of goal, and evidently resented by his coach.

The history of Mario Jardel’s A-League sojourn should be a lesson to any other club presidents who are thinking of signing players on reputation alone.

Coach of 2007

John Kosmina, despite his mistakes in last year’s Grand Final, is a serious candidate for this one, given the recent revival at Sydney FC (achieved despite the continued absence of Juninho). Lawrie McKinna has erased the memory of the Mariners’ dismal end to the 2006/07 season with an impressive run to the top of the table in "Version 3". Frank Farina seems to have finally made the Roar into the contenders they have always threatened to become.

But the award goes to the Hunter again. Taking his team to within a penalty shoot-out of the Grand Final in 2006/07, Newcastle’s boss has risen above the losses of Nick Carle, Paul Okon, Vaughan Coveny and Milton Rodriguez to craft a young team that does not offer as much entertainment as his 2006/07 side, but has managed to remain in the competition’s top four in 2007/08. He has confirmed his status as perhaps the most promising young coach in the country.

Congratulations, Gary van Egmond.

Team of 2007

Melbourne have collapsed. Central Coast have hugged their top spot on the table, but have not often thrilled. Adelaide and Sydney have been mercurial.

But the men from banana country have really stepped up a notch this season, offering plenty of youthful talent alongside the wise older heads at the back. They should make the A-League final four this term, and they have, on the whole, played the most positive football in the competition.

Well done to the Queensland Roar.

Worst Match

Sydney FC now have the distinction of having played in the worst match of 2005/06 (the 1-0 win over Queensland in Round 12), the worst match of 2006/07 (1-0 over the departed Knights in Round 5), and now the worst match of 2007/08 (thus far) as well; the Round 3 encounter between Perth and Sydney, with both teams missing key players to international duty, was aptly described by one Sydney FC fan as a game he would rather scratch his eyes out than watch again.

Best Match

The pre-Christmas goalfest at Gosford may have provided the best overall spectacle, but from an objective footballing point of view, the best match was probably the absorbing 2006/07 Preliminary Final between Adelaide and Newcastle. Already described at length here.

May the competition flourish, on and off the pitch, in 2008.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

 

Calypso Capers

As our new Dutch coach prepares for the challenges of a gruelling World Cup qualifying campaign, another Dutch national coach of similar vintage has been sampling the unique joys of working in Jack Warner’s Caribbean realm.

Incurable World Cup buffs, such as yours truly, will remember Wim Rijsbergen as the sturdy, blond central defender in the famous Dutch side of 1974. It was Rijsbergen, one of the unsung heroes of that side, who regularly made the saving tackle when the exuberant Oranje had left themselves vulnerable to a quick counter (he was also their man of the match, by some distance, in the final against West Germany).

Rijsbergen is now, like many Dutchmen of his era, a well-travelled coach, with a CV that includes stints in Chile, Mexico and Saudi Arabia. Last year, he became the manager of Trinidad and Tobago, the nation whose football despot is FIFA’s chief headkicker. You may remember that this lovable rogue, when not getting involved in ticketing scams, has recently been accused by his nation’s players of fibbing outrageously about the revenues accruing from T&T’s first World Cup appearance.

As a result of that contretemps, the players in question were blacklisted from the national team, and Rijsbergen has since claimed that, during that awkward period, his own salary was not paid for three months.

Despite fielding a scratch squad, the Dutchman managed to guide T&T to second place at the Caribbean Cup earlier this year, which was considered a reasonable achievement. Although the CONCACAF Gold Cup was less successful for the Trinidadians, it was generally considered that Rijsbergen had done a reasonable job in often intolerably difficult circumstances (see here, for instance).

Now Rijsbergen has been suspended from his job as national coach. Sacked, you say? No, erm, “suspended”.

Rather a novelty. Why has the T&T football federation (whose officials barely scratch their ears without Jack Warner’s prior approval) taken this unusual step? Could it possibly be that, given the likely necessity of coming to an expensive settlement with the “blacklisted” players, they are trying to avoid paying out the remainder of Rijsbergen’s contract?

The whole episode, including the alleged bout of fisticuffs that prompted Rijsbergen's exit, is mysterious enough to warrant plenty of questions. It deserves wider attention, too, given that it again concerns the dealings of the enormously influential Warner (now, apparently, known colloquially and aptly in his home country as “Jackula”).

This is the man, folks, who probably wields more power in the football world that anyone bar Sepp Blatter, and who may one day, God help us, sit where his close ally Blatter now sits.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

 

The Greatest

It was, quite simply, the greatest night of football I've ever witnessed. No adjectives can do tonight's Central Coast v. Sydney game proper justice.

Not, please note, the best football I've ever seen (not by a long way). But the best overall experience, without a doubt.

All the elements were there:

Great goals

Mile Jedinak's thumping opener (with a bit of help from Robbie Middleby). John Aloisi's classic striker's finish for the Mariners' second. Adam Biddle's fine run and deft angled strike. Brendan Santalab's fulminating volley, which was in the net before most of us had realised he'd even hit it. Enough to please any connoisseur of solo goals.

Brilliant saves

Although Matthew Trott was painfully slow off his line for most of the evening, he pulled off two memorable saves to keep the Mariners in with a shot towards the close; a full-stretch tip-over from Ufuk Talay's sumptuous free-kick, followed by a superb point-blank stop from a Steve Corica shot.

Talking points

Although most referees would surely have sent Danny Vukovic off, there is still that nagging doubt as to whether the handling was intentional. The Mariners fans certainly experienced such doubts, and Matthew Breeze was subject to all sorts of abuse from the western stand (where I was sitting) throughout. God knows what the reaction from Bay 16 was like.

Then there were the two penalties, another red card, a yellow which might have been a red...it was heady stuff.

The deus ex machina

It always adds spice to the story when a substitute enters the game and effects a vital breakthrough. And tonight it happened, not once, not twice, not three times...but four times. Matt Simon's surging run won the penalty that put the Mariners back into the lead at 3-2; the other outfield subs, Biddle, Santalab and Adam Kwasnik, all subsequently scored.

Unlikely heroes

Incredibly, four of Sydney's five scorers were yet to register their first goal this season. One can think of few less obvious heroes than the peripheral Terry McFlynn, Santalab the eternal substitute, or the frail-looking Biddle. Yet the night's honours belonged to them.

Hero-to-villain

Again, not one but two instances of this: Iain Fyfe heading Sydney's opener before clumsily allowing Matt Simon through on goal to win the Mariners' spot kick, followed by Adam Kwasnik sliding home the equaliser at 4-4 before his fatal handball in the final minute of injury time.

Crowd participation

The Mariners' best-ever crowd were hanging on every pass, and the level of support for the home side was outstanding. The Cove, too, were in magnificent voice, coming fully to life after the dismissal of Danny Vukovic, when it became clear that a major comeback was on the cards. By the end, the exchanges between Bay 16 and the mass of sky blue in the south-eastern corner of the stadium made for a truly spine-tingling experience. 17,000 sounded like 45,000.

Two work colleagues of mine made their way up to Bluetongue tonight for their first ever A-League experience.

They will be back.

Friday, December 21, 2007

 

Another Tragic Christmas

It's that time of year again. Time flies when you're blogging.

And the stockings of the footballing great and good need to be filled:

For Pim Verbeek: a standover man to deal with recalcitrant Euro club coaches.

For Frank Lowy: a small booklet entitled How not to Alienate Football Fans: a brief guide.

For John Kosmina: a fullback.

For Aurelio Vidmar: injury insurance.

For Fabio Capello: a very, very good interpreter.

For Raymond Domenech: a book of choice Italian jokes.

For Italian football in general: a year without a football-related death.

For the Trinidadian national team: the money they're owed by Jack Warner.

For Sepp Blatter: a dartboard with Jerome Valcke's face emblazoned across it.

Merry Xmas to all from TFT.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

 

Expansive Thoughts, Part 2

There are certainly advantages to be gained by expanding the existing A-League competition...but what are the immediate concerns?

1. Can we afford it?

With the new youth and women's leagues starting soon, a new national coach on a substantial salary, a broad development plan to implement, and a logistically difficult World Cup qualifying path to underwrite, it's hard to see how the FFA would be able to give any new club(s) in the A-League the sort of financial support that has been required in the past, start-up capital notwithstanding.

Added to this is the concern that the money for each club from the Fox broadcasting deal would be diluted, unless the terms of the deal could be re-negotiated quickly. Then there's the matter of how the gate takings at each club would be affected, with two new and presumably less glamorous teams around (with no past rivalry to add spice to the occasion).

And on the subject of a potential drop-off in attendances...

2. The hopeless end of the season

At the moment, all eight of the A-League clubs are in with a mathematical chance of making the four-team finals series. Thanks to the small size of the competition and the much-maligned salary cap, things are fairly even. But with a ten-team competition, and only four in the finals, the writing would be on the wall for certain teams far earlier in the season...and attendances would probably plummet (especially if one of the no-hopers was one of the new clubs, whose constituency would necessarily be somewhat more fickle).

One hesitates to mention the word "relegation", which seems to be taboo in Australian football circles at the moment, but should the A-League expand much further, without an increase in the number of "finalists", some sort of promotion/relegation system just might need to be introduced.

It would be possible to expand the finals series, of course (perhaps not to the ridiculous degree that the NRL has done), but that creates additional fixtures within a tight schedule. Which leads us to:

3. Length of the season

Almost everyone is agreed that the A-League season, ideally, should be longer. But there are many constraints on the league as it is, chiefly the necessity to fit in with Foxtel's scheduling plans, and competition with the rugby codes for available grounds. Wisely, the FFA have decided to schedule breaks for international windows next season as well, which further limits the number of weeks available for matches; a 27-game season would be a tight fit indeed, as things currently stand.

4. Dilution of the talent

A fairly minor concern in my view, this seems to be uppermost in the minds of some fans. Yes, if the players were spread around more clubs, the overall quality of the football might drop...slightly. But there are surely enough decent players to make the league a sufficiently attractive prospect still.

My conclusion at the end of all this? Expansion is certainly desirable, but perhaps not in 2008/09. I would rather the clubs (where necessary) hammer out better lease deals for their grounds, and consolidate their supporter bases, while the money gradually flows into the FFA's coffers from the World Cup qualifier gate takings; with the interest generated from the final stages of qualifying for South Africa 2010 (fingers crossed), the competition would probably be ripe for expansion in 2009/10.

Monday, December 17, 2007

 

Expansive Thoughts, Part 1

Lots of talk in the media lately about expanding the A-League, with Mike Cockerill flagging the possibility of two newcomers from Queensland in 2008/09, Pim Verbeek articulating the need for an enlarged competition, and Ben Buckley hosing down the flames somewhat.

Certainly the issue has come into sharper focus with the realisation that the A-League troops are going to play a crucial role in qualification for the 2010 World Cup. With the youth league supposedly kicking off next season (by no means a definite, as I've heard from a couple of insiders) it's hard to see how the FFA will be able to cope with an expanded A-League as well. In the priority stakes, they appear to have leaned towards the youth competition.

What are the pros and cons of expansion, then? In this instalment, the positives. I'm working on the assumption throughout that two new teams would be added, so as to avoid the awkwardness of a bye.

1. Staking out the market

In the Gold Coast area, there's already talk of gazumping the AFL by rushing in an A-League franchise. The NRL have, of course, gotten there first with the introduction of the Titans this year, and next year they will (if all goes according to plan) be playing out of the spanking new stadium at Robina, which is also intended as the home venue for the mooted A-League team. Venue sharing is a constant pain for the A-League teams, and Con Constantine has publicly grumbled recently about Newcastle's onerous lease agreement. But the financial model for the Gold Coast bid has apparently impressed the FFA enough for this not to be a major concern.

There are other areas ripe for football annexation. Not least the Illawarra, which is now without an NRL side of its own (since the St. George/Illawarra merger), and mostly indifferent to the AFL. The region has a proud football history to boot, and Wollongong boys among the Socceroo ranks, such as Scott Chipperfield and Luke Wilkshire, could add lustre to a future Wollongong A-League side.

2. Variety

It must be said, the fans do not (as some predicted) seem to find it tedious having only seven teams to compete against. But an extra couple would certainly add a sense of novelty, which could draw the fans in. New terrace insults for the newcomers, new nicknames, new lore to be developed...it's all part of the package.

3. Opportunities for the youngsters

A youth league is all very well, but it's at senior professional level that young players are really tested, and an enlarged competition would surely allow more young players to experience the real pressures of professional football.

4. Games

Here is the key. 21 games is, of course, not nearly enough for a national league of any substance, and if the competition is to be kept to three "rounds", the addition of two new faces brings the number of games to a more respectable 27. There's still the question of how a longer season would fit into the calendar, but that's for Part 2.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

 

Blunders for the Boss

At last night's press conference following the Sydney v. Perth game, I asked John Kosmina whether he felt "his younger players" had succumbed to nerves to some extent with the new national team boss in the stands. When he gave a tentative negative and challenged me to name names, I brought up the uncharacteristic defensive errors of Mark Milligan in the first half. Yes, Mark had an off-game, he replied (in effect). It happens. The idea that stage fright might have had an effect was deftly brushed aside, and no mention was made of the other obvious candidate, Alex Brosque.

In both the games that Pim Verbeek has attended so far, certain players who have been widely tipped to gain a place in what amounts to an A-League all-stars side for February 6 have faltered.

Although John Aloisi - everyone's choice for the frontman role against Qatar - scored a good goal against Adelaide on Friday night, his finishing was frankly dismal at other times. He did, of course, regularly manage to get into scoring positions, which counts for a great deal, but this was not the predatory Aloisi of the last couple of months. It was somewhat amusing, in fact, to hear Simon Hill and Robbie Slater continually talk up Aloisi as he missed chance after chance.

If Graham Arnold can manage to get a few words in Verbeek's ear, Kristian Sarkies will surely be one of the players the Dutchman will be keeping an eye on. And Sarkies, too, had quite a poor game against the Mariners, offering little penetration throughout.

Then to Sydney, and a player who features in nearly everyone's A-League eleven: Mark Milligan. So, a trivial turnover in the back third, followed by a maladroit attempt at a tackle, and then a badly-judged vertical short pass to a closely-covered Terry McFlynn only a minute later...both indiscretions costing a goal. Two of the worst mistakes that Milligan has made this season.

Alex Brosque, at the other end, must surely be pushing for a place in the squad for Qatar after a prolific, effective A-League season. Last night, the finishing touch that has served him so well of late deserted him; three good chances were squandered, although one could say, as with Aloisi, that at least he was there to make them.

Milligan can at least console himself with the thought that he wasn't the only defender to make a costly error in possession, with the habitually over-elaborate Hayden Foxe gifting Sydney FC a consolation goal in typical fashion.

Billy Celeski couldn't have scored his hat-trick at a better time, though.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

 

Frail Fox

A sad change has come over Robbie Kruse.

The lively, clever fox of the middle rounds cut an absolutely pitiful figure last night against the Phoenix (ironically, the very opponents against whom he played so superbly little over a month ago). Pushed off the ball far too easily throughout, by Karl Dodd in particular, and woefully indecisive in possession, he certainly gave credence to the theory that he is a little lightweight for the professional game as yet. It was an act of mercy for Frank Farina to pull him off shortly after the hour.

What is Farina to do to restore Kruse's confidence, which looks to be at a very low ebb at present? In my view, he could do worse than to switch Kruse over to the left, onto his better foot, and allow Marcinho to patrol the opposite flank. Although Marcinho does appear to prefer cutting inside and letting fly from the edge of the box, his shooting at goal has been so poor this season that it doesn't seem much of a loss. Rather, by occupying a right-sided role and tucking inside when appropriate (as Kruse has been loath to do), Marcinho could provide some much-needed support for Reinaldo while allowing Mr. Perpetual Motion himself, Hyuk-Su Seo, to do the touchline work. A better overall shape for Queensland, I would think.

As for the Phoenix, they were unlucky not to win a game which they dominated from the twenty-minute mark, playing some very good football at times. Shane Smeltz has been one of the best strikers in the league this season, offering not only a muscular presence in the final third and a good finish, but some fine close control as well (witness the way he turned deftly away from two defenders in the 31st minute before slipping a neat through-ball in to the forward line).

There's certainly a good foundation for the Wellington club to build on, even if this season has ultimately been somewhat disappointing in the on-field department. Another quality midfielder to complement the inventive Felipe would have to be at the top of Ricki Herbert's shopping list for 2008/09; for all the efforts of the likes of Michael Ferrante, Vince Lia and Ross Aloisi, they don't quite cut the mustard.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

 

Missing the Point - brief update

A small postscript to my previous musings about the possibility of setting out one's team without a central striker.

In the December edition of World Soccer, which I received in the mail yesterday, there's an analysis of the tactical schemes adopted by Arsenal's esteemed manager Arsène Wenger over the years, from his early days in France, through his time in Japan, to his many memorable Arsenal sides.

His first season as head coach was at Nancy, the modest French club which is, in fact, punching significantly above its weight in Ligue 1 this season. Wenger's basic team line-up for that 1984/85 campaign is listed as 4-4-2, but it's 4-4-2 with a twist, as the accompanying text explains:

In midfield, two workhorses supported two attack-minded players; Ivorian François Zahoui, who roamed wide and through the middle, and Uruguay's Ruben Umpierrez, both playmaker and top scorer. Up front, the small, lively Robert Jacques and Fabrice Picot were essentially wingers; the main goalscoring threat came from deep.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

 

All Right on the Left

What a pleasure to see Harry Kewell put in a genuinely influential performance in Liverpool's crucial Champions League encounter with Marseille this morning. Proof, once again, that the oft-repeated assertion that Kewell constantly fails to produce in the big games is a myth.

It does help, though, when he's deployed effectively; this morning, joy of joys, he occupied his ideal left-wing role. Fittingly, his two "assists", even if that description flatters his hopeful punt into the middle for Dirk Kuyt's goal, came from a position on the left flank.

Does Kewell, now 29 and as susceptible to injuries as ever, still have a role to play in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup? I think so. His quality, on the fleeting occasions when it shines through, is undeniable; at his best, there is no current Australian player as influential as Kewell.

But the lessons of his past failures and successes in an Australian shirt must be learned.

In the 2001 home playoff against Uruguay: anonymous in a central role, finally pushed out to the left with the arrival of Paul Agostino, and the Socceroos find their second wind. Kewell subsequently plays a crucial role in winning the penalty that sees Frank Farina's men take a 1-0 lead to Montevideo. Where Farina, incredibly, sacrifices him in a nebulous "roving" role once more...with predictable results.

In the 2005 tie, against the same opposition: ineffective on the right flank in the first leg in Montevideo, when his increasing tiredness (among other factors) led to Australia losing the initiative completely in the final half-hour. Yet when he came on as a substitute in Sydney, on the left, he caused the Uruguayans no end of problems.

Kewell did not, in fact, get many chances to shine this morning, seeing that Liverpool sat back completely after their second goal. Yet there was a moment to bring a smile to any Australian supporter in the 20th minute.

For once, Steven Gerrard managed to get the ball out to Kewell on the left. Faced by the Marseille right-back Laurent Bonnart, Kewell toyed with him for a moment before gliding effortlessly past him to the by-line, and delivering a deft cross to the head of Kuyt.

Vintage Harry.

Monday, December 10, 2007

 

Big Blue Man

Following hard upon the news of Ante Milicic's departure for Malaysia, Mark Rudan's move to the Japanese second division, to link up again with Pierre Littbarski, is a loss for the local game.

Littbarski may not have always given Rudan the game time he deserved during the 2005/06 A-League season, but I'm sure the German coach realised that it was essentially Rudan, not Dwight Yorke, who was the driving force behind Sydney's eventual success.

Although he has had his ups and downs since then, particularly from a disciplinary point of view, he remains one of the best defenders in the league; physically imposing, superb in the air, and always on the lookout for a purposeful run upfield (such as the one which resulted in Sydney's late winning goal against Newcastle on Friday).

Rudan was every inch a Cove favourite; their "big blue man" was readily forgiven his rash moments from last season, including the infamous assault on a prone Alessandro. No doubt, he will be given the warmest of sendoffs (no pun intended) on Saturday.

A Croatian friend introduced me to Rudan at a state league game earlier this year, just prior to Sydney FC's Asian Champions League campaign. He chatted warmly with the two of us about the game in question (a rather disappointing Olympic v. Sydney United encounter), the differing tactical approaches of Terry Butcher and Branko Culina, and football in general. He is certainly a keen student of the game as well as a very fine player, and this trait, along with his unquestionable leadership quality, would make him an excellent coach, in my view.

His decision to look after his bank balance in Japan is understandable, and a reflection of the fact that the A-League is still a relatively weak competitor in the Asian market. But he will be missed.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

 

Verbeek: Reactions

Ever since the news came through that Pim Verbeek was our new man in charge, the assorted pundits have been churning out opinion pieces by the bucketload. Most of them predictably knee-jerk, ill-informed and misleading.

The "I would've gone for Troussier" line is fast becoming the best fashion statement in town. One wonders why, if his CV looks so impressive and his Asian experience such a good match, he was never mentioned in the media as a possible candidate until the FFA actually started talking to him. It couldn't be because our experts aren't quite as expert as they like to pretend, could it?

Robbie Slater has been the worst culprit on this occasion. His backing of his old mate Arnie is becoming even more cringeworthy than the impassioned apologiae of Mike Cockerill:

If you are going to go for Pim Verbeek, you might as well have kept Graham Arnold...

At least Arnold, working with Baan, has an intimate knowledge of the A-League players...

What's the difference between Graham Arnold and Pim Verbeek. One penalty kick on the record of the Asian Cup...

Arnold has a massive knowledge of the A-League...

D'you think you could repeat it just once more, Robbie? We didn't quite get it.

Slater is of the opinion that Verbeek's Korea were very uninspiring at the Asian Cup (at least, I suppose, he watched enough of our rivals to form an opinion. Craig Foster, it seems, didn't even bother). Plenty of observers would agree with him. But, like just about everyone else, Slater neglects to mention the injury problems that beset the Korean side prior to the tournament, which left Verbeek with a squad of almost entirely home-based players to utilise.

Hey, that's exactly what we'll be...wait, that might be a point in his favour. Better not mention it.

Slater, too, assumes that we will have to use A-League players in the "majority" of the games. Erm, well, there are only two games on friendly dates, the others will now apparently fall in the Euro off-season (just when temperatures in the Gulf become intolerable, coincidentally enough). Slater's not the only one confused about dates, though:

Both fall on FIFA friendly dates, meaning European clubs are not obligated to release their players until three days before each duel...

Well, two days, actually, Dave.

Verbeek is also burdened with the expectation of leaving a substantial legacy for Australian football, in this rather pretentious piece. Erm, Les...I thought that was Rob Baan's job? And were such expectations ever placed on a certain Mr. Hiddink?

Pim Verbeek is clearly going to have a tough job winning over the media and fans, who overwhelmingly see him as a poor man's Hiddink, or an honest man's Advocaat. Everyone's lining up to damn him with faint praise.

Let's hope the players, both here and overseas, ignore all the nonsense in the press and treat the new Australian boss on his merits.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

 

Seizing Up

John Kosmina talked about a "season-defining moment" after last night's Sydney v. Newcastle game, apologizing in advance for the cliché. In this case, though, it is certainly an apt one.

After Ruben Zadkovich's sendoff, Sydney were unquestionably the better side for the final half-hour despite their numerical deficit, and richly deserved the win.

In many respects the game was quite similar to the encounter with Perth last season, which also took place at a critical juncture. Sydney go a man down, the coach makes an ostensibly craven but actually canny substitution, and the team kicks on to snatch a late goal, and come away with three precious points.

Well though Sydney FC played in the final third of the match, they owe a considerable debt to their opponents, who simply froze after going a man up. Not that they had been playing all that well up to that point anyway, but after Zadkovich went, Newcastle's movement up front was limited and predictable, their passes went repeatedly astray, and three or four defenders stayed back to take care of the sole striker, Alex Brosque, most of the time. And he still got the better of them on many occasions!

Brosque is proving that he can indeed operate at the end of the supply line, despite last season's indications to the contrary. He has grown enormously as a player this season.

Newcastle cannot rely forever on Joel Griffiths for goals. Mark Bridge's form this season has been very ordinary, while Mario Jardel has, of course, been a major disappointment to all concerned. Could there have been a better reflection on the sorry Jardel saga than his dreadful miss from only a couple of yards out in the final minutes (although he was offside in any case)?

And further back, how they miss the unpredictable brilliance of Nick Carle. The fact that Gary van Egmond was forced to rely on Noel Spencer - such a cipher for the Mariners last season - as his chief supplier in the final half-hour shows just how thin Newcastle's creative resources are.

Yet Newcastle managed to overcome such deficiencies earlier in the season. Last night, they simply seized up, and paid the penalty.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

 

Plan B - update

So it's Verbeek.

Probably the best choice, under the circumstances. Philippe Troussier's credentials were certainly excellent, but presumably the Dutch connection, allied to the fact that Troussier has been out of the business for a little while, tipped the balance.

If we are to use the South Korean side at the Asian Cup as an example of the style of football favoured by Verbeek, then those hoping for a more patient, Latin style for our national team might be disappointed. The Koreans were very fit, pressed hard all over the field, and turned out in the archetypal Dutch 4-3-3.

Incidentally, this formation (along with the absence of some key attacking players) resulted in Verbeek's Korea, like Guus Hiddink's Australia at times, suffering from a certain bluntness up front, with the target man often a somewhat forlorn figure. Verbeek is very much Hiddink's protégé, so no real surprise there.

Yet they were very strong defensively (especially the young Kim Jin-Kyu); they did not concede a single goal, in fact, in their last four games - over seven and a half hours of football.

Subtlety was not exactly a feature of the side, with the honourable exception of the winger Yeom Ki-Hun. One wonders whether Nick Carle, for one, will fit in with Verbeek's philosophy.

Importantly, Verbeek, unlike Advocaat, is willing and indeed keen to base himself in Australia. It will be interesting to see what policy he will adopt on the A-League v. Euro player issue (more on that in a future blog piece), but there is no doubt that he will find the A-League clubs far more malleable than the European ones...especially with Rob Baan, whose football advice the FFA seems to trust implicitly by now, backing him.

Monday, December 03, 2007

 

Uncorinthian Spirit

Freshly relegated to the second tier of Brazilian football following a tumultuous few years, the Sao Paulo club Corinthians have reaped what they have sown.

The long saga of their relationship with the mysterious MSI group is ferociously complicated, but the American football scribe Thomas Dunmore has given a good summary of the whole sorry business on his excellent Pitch Invasion blog.

It is a telling irony that the first club to have seriously shot itself in the foot by getting involved in murky third-party ownership deals has a name redolent of a far more innocent era in sport. Not much Corinthian spirit to be perceived in the hunger for Russian oil and gas money shown by the management of the Brazilian club.

The lesson to be learned is surely that third-party ownership of players is a potential cancer of the modern game, as Michel Platini has already indicated. News of Corinthians' relegation should be pinned up prominently on noticeboards at any other club considering entering into the sordid world of go-betweens and money-laundering that constitutes third-party ownership.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

 

The Unlikely Entertainers - update

So the Shed can finally celebrate a home victory. It's been a very long time between drinks.

And perhaps the best aspect of the win is that it was achieved in some style, with three fine goals and some excellent play in the first half. Perth went off the boil in the second half with the departure of both the lightning-quick Jimmy Downey and the team's fulcrum, Simon Colosimo, but unlike in Round 8 against Sydney, the men in purple kept their heads.

It's worth pointing out that Perth Glory have now scored as many goals this season as Queensland and the Mariners, and more than any team in the competition in the last ten rounds. They have, in fairness, been involved in some of the more exciting games of a largely drab A-League season.

And the signs for the future might not be as bleak as some have suggested. Mitchell Prentice is gradually gaining confidence, Nikolai Topor-Stanley's improvement since his move across the Simpson Desert is plain to see, and in Nikita Rukavystya Perth possess a player of great promise, in my opinion. In Jimmy Downey they have the Zullo of the west, and like Michael Zullo, his delivery often leaves something to be desired, even though his pace is, well, frightening.

Rukavystya may have taken the wrong option once or twice tonight, but he has that essential striker's virtue: lack of fear. He has been pleasingly willing to run at the defence whenever he has turned out for Perth, and hopefully he has succeeded in making himself a fixture in the first eleven now. Contrast this with the hapless James Robinson, whose confidence, as Andy Harper observed, has plummeted, and whose general play on the ball remains far too elaborate.

This season is basically a write-off for the Glory, but there's plenty for the Shed to feel optimistic about in the longer term. That Dave Mitchell, like Ron Smith, has made such scant use of Nick Rizzo is puzzling to say the least, but hopefully we'll see some more of him in the run-in to the finals.

As for Melbourne...what can one say? For all Ernie Merrick's protestations to the contrary, the loss of Fred has been a calamity for his side. This season's suspensions have not helped, but there just hasn't been the creativity in midfield for Melbourne this season; Carlos Hernandez has taken too long to get used to the pace of the league, and Kaz Patafta has (arguably) not been given enough of a chance.

To make up a six-point deficit and scrape into the finals will be a tough ask indeed for Merrick's men.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

 

Missing the Point, Part 2

Another old World Cup match that I very much enjoyed watching recently was the 1978 encounter between Argentina, the hosts and eventual winners, and Poland. The latter had gained third place at the previous tournament, and were considered a serious threat in this one.

The Argentina side that triumphed in 1978, minus a young Diego Maradona, hasn't had a particularly good press over the years, probably due to a number of contentious refereeing decisions that went their way in the course of the event - not to mention their deeply suspicious 6-0 victory over Peru in the final second-stage game, which catapulted them into the final on goal difference ahead of Brazil.

Yet I've seen a few of their games now, and I like the way they played. There was plenty of good interplay, especially in the front third, and they scored some fine team goals...one of which can be seen in the clip below.

The star of the show was Mario Kempes, based in Spain at the time, who was top scorer at the event with six goals, and Argentina's most influential player.

And again: he was not really a centre-forward. He wore the No. 10 shirt, and although this was actually coincidental (since the Argentines, like the Dutch in 1974, had adopted an alphabetical rather than a tactical numbering system), he played more or less where a No. 10 does, if not quite in the manner of a typical trequartista. He liked to run at the defence.

Normally he played, more or less, as a deep supporting striker to the powerful Leopoldo Luque, who was also amongst the goals in 1978. Yet Luque was absent for the Poland game, due to an injury (and an appalling family tragedy). In his stead, Kempes operated in concert with the wingers Daniel Bertoni and René Houseman, and fellow midfielders Osvaldo Ardiles and José Valencia broke into attack with him frequently as well; the holding man in midfield was Americo Gallego. Roughly a 4-1-3-2 if you like, but, again, there was no real "point" man.

It must be said, Argentina were very, very lucky to win this match. Their defence was frankly a disaster, and it was fortunate for them that their 'keeper, Ubaldo Fillol, was in superb form; he made two outstanding reflex saves in the first half, and even saved a penalty from the Poles' midfield star, Kazimierz Deyna, after Kempes had blatantly handled on the line from Grzegorz Lato's header (an offence for which he should really have been sent off).

Things really started to click for Argentina in the second half, when Ricardo "Ricky" Villa, subsequently to join Spurs along with Ardiles, replaced Valencia. He and Kempes formed a dangerous nexus at the offensive end of midfield, either linking with Bertoni and Houseman or taking advantage of the thinning out of the Polish defence by the runs of the two wingers. Several half-chances were created thereby, and finally a goal came.

It was Ardiles, rather than Villa, who made the run forward with Kempes, both of them starting from deep. Houseman and Bertoni acted as decoys further up the pitch, drawing the Polish defence out wide; and with two players running at them through the middle, the Poles were a mess in central defence. Eventually Ardiles, after cleverly beating two men, lays off to Kempes, who equally cleverly rounds his man and slides the ball home. A lovely goal, and the similarities to the move of the Dutch against Bulgaria are telling.

Would such tactics work today? It would be interesting to see.


video

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