Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Kossie's Final Step, Part 2

Shane Davis's dissection of the coaching career of Sydney FC's manager continues, with a look at his record in finals football:

As John Kosmina walks away from another finals series without a championship after Sydney's minor semi-final loss to Queensland, it extends a far more concerning streak in finals football.

Kossie's full record as a coach in competitive knockout matches can be found here. At home, the form has been mediocre, winning two games (four if you count penalty shoot-out victories) but drawing too many and not quite scoring enough. Away from home, however, it's plainly disastrous. The loss in Brisbane this month was Kosmina's eighth in as many away finals games in charge of Brisbane, Adelaide and Sydney, in which his teams have conceded a whopping 3.375 goals a game and have a scoring rate of just 0.375.

There have been several constant factors shown by Kosmina and his players in finals football, particularly away from home; poor disclipine, poor composure, an easily caught square defence, a revelment in a self-destructive backs-to-the-wall mentality, arrogance and denial. Come the pressures of knockout football, an improved and potentially progressive coach takes a habitual turn for the regressive worse, failing to simply concentrate on playing football or rectifying his team's weaknesses.

The poor results began in April 2002 with a 2-0 loss away to South Melbourne while in charge of the Brisbane Strikers, although that result was perhaps somewhat harsh. The problems really began appearing two seasons later when Kosmina had returned to Adelaide. Up 3-0 from the home leg against a normally offensively-weak Brisbane, his side came extraordinarily close to throwing away their lead in the return leg by conceding four goals - three in the second half - but sneaked through with an away goal, not to mention a significant amount of luck provided by referee Matthew Breeze and Brisbane's poor finishing.

Adelaide completely lost their shape following Brisbane's first goal just before half-time, even after Carl Veart's vital second half away goal. Retreating as if they only had half a team left (they were only down to ten for the last ten minutes after Elias Demourtzidis made foolish use of his elbow), the South Australians put themselves under a near suicidal amount of pressure. "It was shit. Print that," said Kosmina on his team's performance.

After progressing to the preliminary final in Perth, United were outclassed 5-0 by the Glory with the likes of Damian Mori, Bobby Despotovski, Tom Pondeljak and Wayne Srhoj expertly piercing through and capitalising on a static and panicky defence, while Ross Aloisi was very fortunate not to receive a straight red card for an altercation with Mori. Not for the first or last time, Kosmina had seen a deficit blown out when his team were put under the pump by aggresive, sharp, cohesive and penetrative attacking from the opposition.

It has happened a further two times against A-League opposition. Defeated 4-0 in the semi-finals of the May 2005 qualifiers for the Club World Championship later that year, United again had gaps exposed in their defence by an adroit Central Coast, and subsequently struggled for composure with goalkeeper Daniel Beltrame in particular losing the plot and the faith of his defenders for the two final goals.

Then the humiliating loss to Melbourne in last season's grand perhaps best outlined in a single match so much of what was wrong with Kossie's approach to finals away from home. There was the poor, dull-witted and over-reliant offside play, resulting in four (arguably five) of the six goals conceded and as many additional clear-cut chances for the Victory, who caught United embarrassingly square all across the backline (not just the much discussed area of fill-in left-back Greg Owens in the first half). There was the loss of composure and discipline, and severely so; a frustrated Ross Aloisi picked up two yellow cards inside 34 minutes (both for inexcusable, red-card worthy challenges), Michael Valkanis vented his frustration at a linesman in the most vocally irate way possible, while Kosmina laughed in the post-match press conference after Veart said that "three blind mice could have done better" in reference to the officials.

With Kosmina setting an increasingly volatile example to his team after calling preliminary final referee Breeze a "f--king cheat" a week earlier and, following his subsequent sideline ban for the grand final, making the now laughable boast that Adelaide were so well drilled he could coach them from a coffee shop, it was clear that the whole affair boiled over in the most self-destructive and shameful of manners. "We have been on an emotional rollercoaster ride for some time now and circumstances of the game may havegot the better of some of us," admitted Kosmina dayslater.

When the finals results away from home in the last few seasons haven't been disastrous, it's been undone by Kosmina's apparent strategy for home legs. As premiers, he curiously opted to play the home leg of the 2005-2006 major semi-final first and the second leg away. More bewildering still was his team's second half effort in the home leg in which Adelaide seemed to stop playing and were content to take the 2-2 half-time scoreline to Sydney. Ultimately, it probably cost them, with the 2-1 away loss generally not a bad away leg result in itself.

The situation repeated itself in 2006-2007 when Adelaide lost 2-1 in Melbourne after a cagey 0-0 draw at Hindmarsh Stadium, and now Sydney's 2-0 loss in Queensland in tough circumstances after another cagey 0-0 home draw in the first leg. Kosmina bemoaned his luck in all three of those away legs, but while things do tend to go against you more away from home, it's hard to be sympathetic when home advantage hasbeen somewhat forfeited. Three months after the 2006-2007 grand final loss, Kosmina said: "I've had a lot of time to reflect - I don't want to dwell on the past but in retrospect there were situations I didn't deal with in the best way. I've learned that sometimes my behaviour was questionable and that can reflect on others."

There wasn't much sign of a positive influence come the next finals series Kosmina was involved in. There was the petulance of both captain Tony Popovic (on the awarding of Queensland's penalty) and Mark Milligan (on being substituted) as well as the row between team-mates Adam Biddle and Clint Bolton. Again, there was post-match arrogance and denial when Kosmina and Popovic smugly asserted that even with an extra man, Queensland supposedly couldn't create much and only got their second goal with the award of an "under-sixes penalty". This was in a game that would've surely ended in another finals blowout for Kosmina had the Roar not been badly let down (as usual) by their composure in front of goal and with Sydney struggling throughout. Indeed, ominously, it appeared not much had been learned taking in mind Sydney's apparent strategy for the tie in general.

Early days yet for Kossie at Sydney, but where to from here? It may become clearer in the next year or two whether or not Kosmina can ever conquer the finals series. Will the move to Sydney bring about another step in the right direction as a coach, or will he take a step backwards without the home-town and stable environment of Adelaide?

Shane Davis

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Who's Afraid? - brief update #13 (World Cup Edition)

Kevin Rudd's announcement that Australia would be mounting a serious bid for the 2018 World Cup has generated a considerable amount of talk over the past couple of days. Whether it's a wise use of taxpayer money is yet to be seen (I still think our chances are very small, although a last-minute switch of venue for 2014 could change that significantly). But the other football codes, and their supporters, have certainly had plenty to say.

Reading the letters page in today's Australian was something of an eye-opener. Those who don't follow or appreciate football are perfectly entitled to criticise the government for this use of their money, of course, but the sheer parochialism and ignorance of many football refusers is sometimes breathtaking.

One particular correspondent, from Melbourne, lambasted the bid vigorously from all sides; after a reference to Ray Gatt's cautiously pessimistic piece of the day before, there were the worries about "certain Balkan countries meeting" on the field (this has almost never happened in the World Cup), concerns about "local soccer fans going on the rampage" (they might even feel inclined to throw another plastic bottle or two, but never mind, the Counter-Terrorist Unit is at the ready), and lastly there is a dismissive prediction that a game between Poland and Mexico would be played "in front of a couple of thousand people".

Err...I'm sorry? At the World Cup?

Monday, February 25, 2008


Up Before the Beek

SBS's Sunday afternoon World Game show doesn't often provide much to stir the interest, given that the views expressed are becoming comically predictable. But once or twice there is a segment genuinely worth watching, and yesterday's interview with Pim Verbeek was definitely one such.

Affably fielding the Dorothy Dix-style questions lobbed at him by Messrs. Murray and Foster, he resisted the implicit invitation to take another swipe at the local game (I get the impression that the reaction to his earlier comments may have chastened him slightly); instead, he offered some worthwhile observations on the A-League, the role of a national manager, the Dutch "style", and the difficulties of Asia.

His gentle allusion to the one-footedness of some local players will have brought a smile to the face of my Well-Informed Covite friend, who often bemoans the fact that some otherwise impressive A-Leaguers possess so little power in their weaker feet. Of course, one-footedness is not necessarily an impediment to a top-level career (just ask David Beckham, or Ferenc Puskas for that matter), but it does hamper a player's tactical flexibility to some extent.

As to his observation that "the game is more open here", it's one that I've also heard from others who understand the game well. The gap between defence and midfield in this year's A-League was often so large that building the play up from the back became problematic at best...hence, I feel, the tendency of some teams to search for the heads of the strikers more that was perhaps advisable.

But the most interesting part of the interview, for me at least, was Verbeek's discussion of the difficulties of the Asian qualifying path. His account of the unusual parabolas performed by the ball at altitude will sound familiar to anyone who has seen footage of the two Mexican World Cups, and it was comforting to hear that he had already designed a strategy of sorts to accommodate it.

As for the big question...did he feel he had a role beyond the Socceroos?

The answer was essentially no, and I'm glad that it was. We already have a technical director (who is keeping something of a low profile at the moment), and Verbeek has been hired with a specific aim in mind - getting us to South Africa. He will be working mainly with those who have made their mark in European football already, and his main aim in keeping in touch with the youth teams will be the identification of future national team "prospects".

Again, he will be judged ultimately by his results...but my gut feeling is still that we've gotten ourselves the right man for the gig.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


Sorry End

Congratulations to Gary van Egmond and the Newcastle Jets.

On the balance of play they were the better side this evening, although it's probably fair to say that both teams were playing well below their best.

Spare a thought, if you will, for Tony Vidmar. An outstanding servant of Australian football, who played superbly throughout the two legs of the crucial Uruguay tie in 2005, missed the World Cup itself through a tragic mischance, and turned in a fine performance for the first hour of tonight's game, ended his career on the ultimate low note. He deserves plenty of sympathetic hugs and pats on the back tonight.

It looked as if Newcastle just might pay for their failure to capitalise on their complete dominance of the opening half-hour. Although they controlled the midfield unchallenged and managed to open the Mariners up on their left flank, young Song Jin-Hyung, despite his excellence in tight spaces, was unable to deliver a telling final ball. It was surprising, too, that van Egmond continued to put his faith in Song's dead-ball prowess, when his delivery from set-pieces was ordinary throughout the first half.

The Mariners were a sorry sight in that opening period; Mile Jedinak for once failed to take command in the midfield, and the forwards were starved of service from the flanks as well, with the two wide men, Kwasnik and Owens, plainly out of form.

Yet the pendulum gradually began to swing, the Mariners started to latch on to some juicy second balls around the Jets' eighteen-yard area, and one got the feeling that all Newcastle's smart, pleasing interplay in midfield would be to no avail.

In the end, ironically, the Mariners conceded in just the way the Jets have often looked likely to: by trying to dribble around an attacker at the back in order to maintain the momentum. This time, it ended in disaster. A fine finish by Mark Bridge, though, partly making up for his otherwise disappointing season.

The introduction of Tom Pondeljak and Andre Gumprecht had its inevitable effect, but as against Queensland in the preliminary final, Jade North and Andrew Durante proved impressively resolute in the face of the many balls in to the strikers. Durante, for my money, was Newcastle's man of the match.

And the embarrassing chaos at the close? Above all, it was an apt comment on the general standard of refereeing this season, which has been nothing short of abysmal. Mark Shield, in fairness, had done fairly well up to that point (although, like his colleagues this season, he was too lenient on some of the early challenges). It was a clear penalty, and the Mariners had a just grievance. But perhaps it was karma for Newcastle, after the ludicrous penalty awarded against them in the final minutes of the preliminary final.

It was a sorry end to the season in some ways, but perhaps a fitting one; overall, this has not been a season to cherish from an on-field point of view, although the growth of the league in other respects has been wonderful to see.

Here's to a much more entertaining fourth instalment of the competition.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


Grand Final Preview: Coming of Age

A double preview of tomorrow's Grand Final from TFT; some quick thoughts from me, followed by Shane Davis's usual sharp-eyed analysis.

It's certainly heartening to see two teams that have built up their supporter bases so impressively over the last couple of years contesting the final. And although it seems callous to deprive the Mariners of a home showpiece, the FFA have probably made the correct choice of venue; the atmosphere at the Christmas classic was tremendous (you could even call it "electric" if you wanted a punch in the mouth), but a turnout of 17,000 doesn't sound too impressive in the papers.

I'm reliably informed by Mariners fans that there were plenty who wanted to get tickets to the 2005/06 Grand Final but couldn't; given the growth of the supporter base on the Central Coast since then, and the similar upsurge in interest in the Hunter, I don't think the stadium will look half-empty tomorrow, as some have feared.

And from the football point of view?

Central Coast v. Newcastle matches tend to have a delicious edge to them, and the smart money must be on plenty of heavy challenges and a great deal of, as it is delicately termed, "feeling". It's unlikely to be an open game, in my view.

But there will no doubt be plenty to engage the neutral spectator, with many of the most impressive players of the season - Joel Griffiths, Mile Jedinak, John Aloisi, Ante Covic - on show. Aloisi in particular, who is not likely to stay with the Mariners, will be keen to sign off on a good note.

And now for a more detailed preview of tomorrow's events:

History will be made on Sunday, whoever comes out on top between the Central Coast and Newcastle. The result will mark just the third time (since national league competition began in 1977) that a regional team will be crowned champions of Australia and will bring about the second championship-winning regional club after the Wollongong Wolves. Both clubs have already set respective milestones - the Jets have become the first team from the Hunter to reach a NSL/A-League grand final while the Mariners are only the second regional club to win a national premiership (after Wollongong in 1988).

The manner in which the Central Coast head into their second grand final is of particular interest. Following their 3-0 second leg and 3-2 aggregate win over Newcastle in the major semi-final, coach Lawrie McKinna said (admittedly rather light-heartedly): "Reading the papers today you wouldn't have known we were playing tonight, so thanks very much to the journalists for not giving us much of a wrap. We like having our backs against the walls."

After the stirring, against-the-odds (come the final round) capture of the premiership a few weeks earlier, even the relatively new John Aloisi had caught on, saying that "I think the boys were actually quite confident today because there wasn't the pressure on us in other weeks. Now we're the underdogs, everyone has been writing us off for the past two weeks because of our results. In one of the papers today they said we were heroic failures, and so the boys were pumped up for that. This is a situation we like to be in."

The underdog mentality has served the Mariners well, not just in this season's major semi-final or in the premiership race, but over the course of their history. Their march to the grand final in 2005-2006 - a season in which they were probably the best team to watch, along with Queensland - came in spite of a crippling injury toll, tough scheduling and a couple of hugely demoralising, somewhat unfortunate mid-season home defeats to Sydney and Adelaide that easily could've derailed the Central Coast's season. They then managed to put themselves in contention for a top four and even top two finish going into the last five games in 2006-2007, after a difficult start and scheduling, before faltering as continuing injury woes and the nonsensical forced departure of Damian Mori took their toll.

All that said, going into a grand final as premiers and major semi-final winners, I wonder how detrimental the flipside to the underdog mentality is for the Mariners, with other past events in mind. Away to a nine-man Melbourne in round 11 last season, McKinna's men seized up in extraordinary fashion, slowing down their passing and looking indecisive after an aggresive start had put them 3-2 up when Melbourne had 11 players. More embarrassing still was that they gave up a goal and two points, effectively losing 1-0 in the 45 minutes they had two men extra.

The other occasion when the Central Coast found themselves a man or men up relatively early was in an eerily similar game this season, also against Melbourne in Round 11. The Victory were down to 10 men after 22 minutes, but again were by far the better side and took the lead. The home crowd and an assertive Matt Simon helped wake the Mariners up, and they scored two late goals to win the game, but it was becoming ever clearer how much McKinna's team mentally struggled when finding themselves in a significantly ascendant situation.

Further evidence came a month later in the dramatic 5-4 loss to Sydney. Down a man after 16 minutes but 2-0 up, the Mariners suddenly had another passive period and only reawakened when the scoreline was inevitably brought back to 2-2 just after half-time.

The relative difficulty experienced against the sub-standard New Zealand Knights was also telling. Amazingly the Mariners lost at home to the Kiwis in 2005-2006 (New Zealand's only win for the season) while the 1-0 home win later that season and the three results in 2006-2007 (dire 1-0 and 2-0 wins away, 0-0 at home) were real struggles for the Central Coast. Now the Mariners go into their second grand final in a strong position with a week off, and having come off a resounding 3-0 victory over their grand final opponents two weeks earlier.

Perhaps, however, I'm misreading the situation at present. Perhaps last week's comments from Craig Foster (narrow-minded as ever), as well as Newcastle's Jade North at the start of the finals - doing enough misrepresenting to put his pre-2008 Socceroo call-ups to shame - will again stir an underdog mentality.

And perhaps much will depend on who has the lead on Sunday and when. Neither the Mariners, for much of this season and unlike their often commanding 2005-2006 form, or the Jets in recent weeks have looked remotely convincing when leading with a sizeable chunk of the game still to go.

Or perhaps one side will now make the step up to being comfortable and at their best while in an ascendant position. With both teams being so evenly matched (equal points, a tied home-and-away aggregate score after the regulation 180 minutes and five goals each in the five match-ups this season, if you want a statistical comparison), the tipping point will probably be who can best hold their nerve and be the most assertive throughout. As the A-League's two regional teams stand on the brink of an historic national championship, the grand final could serve as a decisive test of which promising region can first truly come of age.

Shane Davis

Friday, February 22, 2008


Kossie's Final Step, Part 1

Long-time denizens of the Australian football blogosphere will know that Shane Davis's site has become inactive of late. But never fear, the man himself is still around, and still as astute an observer of Australian and world football as ever.

He will soon be launching a new football-related site, but in the meantime he has kindly offered his services to TFT; below, in the first of a couple of in-depth articles, he dissects the managerial career of John Kosmina, whose Sydney FC side lost fairly ignominiously to Houston Dynamo yesterday.

In the aftermath of Adelaide's devastating 6-0 Grand Final loss in 2007 and his subsequent resignation as coach, John Kosmina commented that "for me, a big part of life is about learning from your mistakes - and I've learned a lot from mine." There was indeed much to learn and rectify, but Kosmina had shown over time an ability to steadily improve throughout his national league coaching career.

Even by the (then weak) club's standards, his first national league head coaching stint with the Newcastle Breakers was poor, at least in hindsight. The side finished between last and 11th (in a 14 team league) in three seasons before Kosmina's tenure ended in 1998, but went on to narrowly miss out on a top six finals placing in their two following (and final) seasons under Lee Sterrey, despite the squad being arguably weaker with the likes of Troy Halpin and Clayton Zane having departed.

Kosmina moved on to the Brisbane Strikers in 1998-1999, where things improved somewhat. The Queenslanders were regular middle-table finishers, but couldn't quite make the finals until 2001-2002. Things looked to be on the up going into 2002-2003, so a 10th place finish (out of 13 teams) was a considerable disappointment, and Kosmina left in the off-season. Again, a side he departed improved the season afterwards, making the finals after losing many of its best players in Fernando Rech, Jon McKain, Richard Alagich, Stephen Laybutt and Anthony Roche (leading scorer with 12 goals in 21 appearances in 2002-2003), as well as Shane Stefanutto halfway through 2003-2004.

Then the move back home in 2003 to take charge of new boys Adelaide United. Kosmina's coaching record ever since has improved markedly. Third place in the NSL's final season (although, below the top two of Perth Glory and Parramatta Power, it was probably the weakest the league had been for many years), premiers in the A-League's inaugural season, runners-up and grand finalists in 2006-2007 and then third with Sydney FC after taking over with the club struggling mid-season.

While it has helped that Kosmina has been one of the few A-League coaches to date to have had the benefit of recent NSL coaching experience and the first-hand familiarity and knowledge of the local scene it brings, he has undoubtedly developed into a better coach since going to Adelaide, for mine. Perhaps it is still too early to take too much from his Sydney tenure to date (Messrs. Littbarski, Butcher and Culina enjoyed relatively successful starts, to varying degrees), but I thought that Adelaide were the best wing-playing outfit, and their structure as a whole was impressive, in the first two seasons of a league that has often struggled for cohesive team structures and constructive play out wide.

And unlike his first two coaching stints, Adelaide then took a turn for the worse following Kosmina's departure with arguably a stronger and more vibrant squad this season. To me, it seemed that back in his home town and with his club's off-field situation for once being healthy, the move allowed Kosmina to settle, and what can be an astute footballing mind to concentrate on producing one of the better assembled, prepared and functioning outfits in the national league, as well as generally a more versatile outfit than his previous teams.

That is, as always, until the finals came around. More to come.

Shane Davis


Expansive Thoughts - brief update

Well, it appears that it's happening.

I'm still a little concerned that the FFA may be over-reaching itself with the introduction of a youth league as well, but two new sides will certainly add an exciting edge to the next A-League season.

Frank Farina has sounded a cautious note, outlining most of the major concerns that exist. One of these is the possible dilution of the talent available, which may become more of an issue as the younger, crowd-pulling A-League stars gradually head overseas for more substantial pay-packets.

On the flipside, there are plenty of younger players knocking at the door; at last Saturday's Johnny Warren Cup final I had a revealing chat with the parent of a fringe A-Leaguer, who complained with some vehemence that the league was not large enough to accommodate the many youngsters around who were keen for professional experience. He even went so far as to compare the situation unfavourably to the final days of the NSL, which seems a little unfair, given the professionalism (or lack thereof) of the erstwhile competition at that point in time.

There is some good news, too, in the article linked above:

...any admission would likely see the overly long pre-season cut shorter to allow for a 27-round regular-season prior to the finals series....

Eminently sensible.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Dynamo Data

A redoubtable Houston Dynamo fan named Marty, who runs an informative blog dedicated to his MLS side, has kindly offered to provide some information on the Houston team, which faces Sydney FC in their opening encounter in this week's Pan-Pacific Championships in Hawaii.

The following will, I realise, be mainly of interest to Sydney FC fans, but I hope that others will find the brief excursion into the world of the MLS and its development salutary as well. My questions to Marty are in italics, his answers in bold.

1. How would you describe Houston Dynamo's style of play? Would you consider it typical of American football as a whole?

Dynamo, who almost always play in coach Dominic Kinnear's preferred 4-4-2, are led in no small measure by an attacking, mobile midfield, with attacks coming from the wing coupled with a solid defensive presence in the back. The team set an MLS record last year for most consecutive minutes without giving up a goal (726 minutes), which could only have been accomplished by a stout team approach on defense (coupled with some luck in all truthfulness, as all such streaks are!).

MLS teams in general are known for a physical style of play, often at the expense both of creativity on the attack and ball skills, and Dynamo is certainly no exception to that. Defenders establish their presence physically and contest almost all balls, often drawing fouls near the midline, though much fewer at the back. It's an intense approach, but it fits Dynamo's personnel, though it does bring concomitant injury problems and the occasional yellow card accumulations over the course of a long season.

2. Brian Ching is obviously a key player for Dynamo, is there anyone else we should watch out for?

Being in preseason, Dynamo's roster might be in some flux as the coaches give bubble players their shots at making the team. But one player in particular to watch out for is attacking midfielder Dwayne De Rosario. The three-time Canadian player of the year scored the winning goal at MLS Cup off a snap header (rare for him, as he almost always scores with his feet). For his effort, he was named Man of the Match, becoming the first player to earn that honor in two separate MLS Cup Finals. He is a flowing, attacking player, who at times can seem silent, then emerges out of nowhere to create an opening or fire home a winner.

Also in midfield, Ricardo Clark, a US national team regular, is a force at holding mid. Speedy, strong and a real presence. In defense, center back Eddie Robinson will be the player you might just love to hate. Tough and ranging around the field, Eddie will always push the envelope between physical play and true fouls, but rarely if ever hurts the team. Aside from keeper Pat Onstad, if you had to choose one player most responsible for last season's scoreless streak, it would be Robinson. On the wings, look for speed on the right from Brian Mullan (coming off offseason surgery though, so perhaps not so speedy) and Stuart Holden and Brad Davis on the left.

3. How exactly does the draft system work in U.S. football, and how has it affected Houston Dynamo specifically?

The draft system in MLS includes college players and those just out of high school, to the best of my understanding (though I might be in error here). Player development is a polyglot of emerging team academies, independent club squads and overseas scouting. Dynamo have no significant players that have come up in the last two years, though almost all had college experience at some point before they were called up into MLS. For theirpart, Dynamo rely less on overseas scouting (with the exception, it seems, of Scotland as head coach Dom Kinnear has family there and top assistant John Spencer is Scottish), and more on finding unsung domestic players.

Almost all Dynamo players are either American or Canadian, with a few (Holden, keeper Tony Caig) with Scottish roots.

4. Houston Dynamo is only two and a half years old as a club (Sydney FC is not much older); has there been time to develop a specific culture/identity, either on or off the field?

Dynamo's onfield identity was forged during the franchise's time as the San Jose Earthquakes, and is described above, flowing midfield on the attack with a tenacious defense in the back. Off the field, the team has really woken up the soccer community in Houston. Dynamo's fan base is primarily a mix of urban Hispanics and suburban whites (though as an urban white guy myself, I kind of straddle both, I guess!). Winning draws all types, and all Dynamo have done since they've been here is win (two championships in two years), so many of us are wondering how the culture of the club will change over time since, clearly, they won't win every year!

But one thing seems true at least, Dynamo have drawn beyond their wildest dreams here. Their last three home games (last October and November) were sellouts (30,000+). The supporters' groups are large and growing (judging from comments on their web sites). The city's once-nascent soccer community is coming into full flower as more and more rec fields are being built and Dynamo are in advanced stages to build a downtown, urban home stadium. Almost none of that was predicted in any serious way when they arrived two years ago. They are clearly more successful in winning over the city's hearts and minds than many (including myself) could have predicted.

5. Do you think the Pan-Pacs will be useful for spreading the Dynamo "brand", or are they just good preparation for the 2008 MLS season?

Both. First and foremost, the games are preseason matches and will be seen as what they are, meaningless international friendlies. But on the other hand, the team has developed a culture of success and will be out to win. This is especially true with Brian Ching. The man, along with De Rosario, has become the face of the organization. Playing in his home of Hawaii is a big, big deal to him, and thus has become a big, big deal to the organization. Winning at this tournament will further cement the team's status as the preeminent squad in MLS at this time and give hope for the season. That being said, the perspective is the same, preparation for a long year. Dynamo will be in no less than four tournaments (two in CONCACAF alone as the region transitions from a Champions Cup tournament to a Champions League, both of which Dynamo will play in) in addition to MLS this year. So while winning would have its benefits, playing well and developing the team is the larger goal.

Monday, February 18, 2008


Preliminary Review

If the quality of the football didn't quite match that of last year's preliminary final, the excitement level certainly did. Congratulations to Gary van Egmond and the Jets, who deserve their success and their place in the Asian Champions' League.

Although Newcastle dominated the possession towards the beginning of last night's game, it was Queensland, with their pace and effectiveness on the break, who procured the best chances. A pity that, as so often happens with Frank Farina's side, their moves lacked the finishing touch. Marcinho's incredible miss in the opening minutes would prove a harbinger of things to come.

I felt that Newcastle were able to dominate possession (particularly in the centre) during the opening exchanges largely because of the isolation of Michael Zullo and Robbie Kruse on the flanks, something which has been a feature of Queensland's play at times. Once Kruse in particular started to move infield, the chances began to flow...but Zullo lacked the composure to capitalise.

One could argue that Queensland were unlucky to concede the opener, given the temporary absence of Sasa Ognenovski (easily Queensland's player of the season, incidentally) and the consequent shifting of Zullo to a left-back role, where Mark Bridge predictably got the better of him in the lead-up to Matt Thompson's strike. But shortly afterwards they should really have conceded again, when Joel Griffiths inexplicably shot at goal when a simple square ball across to Thompson would have resulted in a tap-in.

In the second half, the Newcastle of last week's major semi came out of the closet: timid, passive and unenterprising, they allowed Queensland the run of the country. Yet the men in orange were tiring, Tahj Minniecon didn't have quite the impact that he did against Sydney, and it looked like van Egmond's men were going to hold out. They came close to scoring again, too, with Troy Hearfield (not Joel Griffiths) marginally offside in that late, controversial incident.

Then, thanks to Peter Green, the game turned into high farce.

To give one nonsense penalty may be regarded as a misfortune, to give two seems like carelessness. To give no fewer than three surely indicates that the official in question should not be permitted to oversee a match of this importance again...but, as we know from Matthew Breeze's career, the A-League doesn't quite work like that.

It appeared that the tumbles of Simon Lynch and Song Jin-Hyung were awarded penalties for artistic merit. And then Michael Zullo gave a demonstration of how to win a penalty, A-League style: flash your high boot in an opponent's face, and then run straight into him.

Still, Tarek Elrich's goal provided not just legitimacy but a fine moment to finish a game in which the spectators definitely got their money's worth.

Can Newcastle go on and win it now?

It will be extremely tight. For the record, I'm picking extra time and penalties in the final...with perhaps the Mariners just holding the edge in the nerves department.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


How the West Won't Be Won

Five years ago, you'd never have believed it.

The AFL attempting to expand its market in Sydney, not so much to wrest the market from rugby league (which is well-established anyway), but to forestall the continuing growth of football. When even hardened egg-ball columnists such as Roy Masters and Greg Baum can frankly admit that football is now a serious player in the scramble for market share, and was a serious factor in the mooted AFL expansion, you know the sporting landscape has changed.

And this only three years into the A-League. The architects of the post-Crawford domestic competition can afford a little chortle of satisfaction.

Of course, plans to expand the A-League in Queensland next year will have made the AFL sit up and take notice, given that, with the Titans now established and the new "Gold Coast Galaxy" looking promising, the lucrative Gold Coast market might just become a virtually closed shop.

So, the counterattack: staking out the ground in Western Sydney before the A-League has a chance to. And in my opinion, it's a blunder.

Driving through Western Sydney, one is always struck by the vast areas of parkland set aside for competitive sport. But they tend to be arranged into rectangles, not ovals.

Western Sydney simply isn't AFL country. As far as I can see, the Swans (like Sydney FC to a much lesser extent) have relied on the more affluent areas of Sydney and the desire for novelty and separate identity that often goes along with affluence; it's difficult to see the same attitudes prevailing west of Parramatta.

A Western Sydney A-League team is also a little more problematic than some have made out, given the club allegiances (Marconi, Sydney United etc.) that already exist in that part of the world. Having said that, the crowds that Penrith-Nepean United attracted in the NSW Premier League last season, not to mention the excellent turnout at CUA Stadium for the final, would suggest that Penrith - with its proximity to the football-friendly Blue Mountains - would be a worthwhile candidate for A-League expansion. CUA Stadium is not too far away from being an adequate A-League venue.

As for the likelihood of the AFL move working, I'll leave the last word to a former AFL great:

Skilton said he didn't believe the competition needed more than 16 sides and said the game's development in NSW had not progressed far enough to split the supporter base.

"They want to expand the game so they can get more publicity. But I don't think we have the depth.

"How many NSW kids are in our side, let alone how many Sydney kids?"

Friday, February 15, 2008


Sydney FC: Season Review, Part 3

Rounds 13-18

For a little while after the disappointing draw in Melbourne, Sydney FC's season looked headed for a dreary finale. Sydney were a little lucky to scrape a draw the following week in Wellington; although they pulled themselves up by the bootstraps in the second half and put the Wellington goal under constant pressure, they found the Kiwi 'keeper Glen Moss in tremendous form. It eventually took a slick piece of opportunism from Michael Bridges in the box to draw the foul which gave Sydney their penalty and equalizing goal; at that stage - there would be cause to remember this - John Kosmina's side were down to ten men, after Tony Popovic had foolishly gotten himself sent off.

A dull home draw against Queensland the following week, with Bridges' form dipping all the time and Juninho still unable to start, saw spirits drop among the fans. Despite the bright beginning to the Kosmina era, it looked to be a case of same old, same old.

Then the drama began.

First there was the last-minute winner against Newcastle, again following a Sydney send-off. An interesting theme that ran through Sydney's season was how well they showed their mettle whenever a numerical imbalance ensued on the field; with ten against eleven, they picked off Newcastle and scrambled a draw against Wellington, and with eleven against ten...well, read on.

An important sidelight of Sydney's well-crafted winner against the Jets was the crucial role played in the goal by the returning Terry McFlynn. The Irish midfielder, after a blunt beginning to the season, was to enjoy his best run of form in his three years at the club towards the end of the 2007/08 campaign.

It was back down to earth again with the home loss to Perth, in which Mark Milligan and Alex Brosque had horror games (perhaps due to stage fright, with Pim Verbeek in the stands) and James Downey's late, penalty-winning surge showed up Sydney's lack of pace in defence.

Then this. There's little to be said about that extraordinary, surreal evening that hasn't been said already, but the confidence gained by some of the goalscorers that night - notably Adam Biddle, Brendan Santalab and Terry McFlynn - was vital in the context of Sydney's season. Biddle had been thrown directly into the fray in Round 1, and faltered badly; now, after a few promising substitute appearances, he was starting to gain confidence. Santalab was to score one of the goals of the season the following week, and McFlynn was fast becoming a bulwark in midfield.

Even an early Adelaide goal couldn't dent Sydney's spirits after Christmas; once again, Alex Brosque used his pace to connect with a long ball out of defence, and once again an opposition player was sent off as a direct result. Sydney proved as effective in 11 v. 10 situations as they had with 10 v. 11, and went on to win 3-1; a place in the top two was suddenly within reach.

And, in the end, they came mighty close. More on that anon.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


The 39th Step

The English Premiership's plan to stage an extra round at a variety of overseas venues has been roundly condemned by every man and his blog, if you'll pardon the expression. Michel Platini has dismissed it outright (and hence one can take it as read that Sepp Blatter feels the same way). Most of the potential "hosts" have expressed different levels of disapproval, including Mohammed bin Hammam and, most recently, Frank Lowy (note the embarrassing error in the story's header; News Ltd. careless with football stories? Surely not).

The SBS brains trust have been apoplectic, with Phil Micallef slamming the plan in no uncertain terms, and Les Murray using it as a peg for a virulent rant about the poverty of English football (see the "Stoppage Time" video on the World Game site).

Apart from the obvious logistical problems, the most pertinent objection to the proposal is surely that it would exacerbate the European fixture crush, while adding to the players' travel burden as well. Yes, the players are paid exorbitantly by the Premiership clubs for their services these days, but the rigours of gruelling club seasons have their inevitable effect come the summer international tournaments, which are fast becoming exercises in energy-saving smash-and-grab in their latter stages.

The line about "sullying the integrity of the local leagues" I find less convincing, given that it would only be one or two games (to start with, anyway). But there's no denying that the plan could be harmful to the game at large, if it came to fruition.

Not surprisingly, the most clear-headed analysis has come from World Soccer magazine. Gavin Hamilton, rightly in my view, raises the possibility that the proposal may just be an ambit claim of sorts:

Call me a cynic, but I wonder whether the 39th matchday plan could be just a bargaining counter for the Premier League, whose long-term aim is to get the principle of playing games overseas accepted.

The 39th matchday idea has been so universally condemned that I can envisage a scenario whereby the Premier League drop such the proposal (responding to public opinion, of course) but use the debate to force home the principle of playing games overseas, maybe as part of the regular season.

And just by coincidence, I've recently been reading about the early history of the game in Europe, and have come across an instance of two English clubs playing a match against each other in foreign climes (Austria, to be exact) in...1905.

Nothing new under the sun.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Sydney FC: Season Review, Part 2

And so to the second stage. Exit Branko, enter the man whom the cynics were suggesting was always going to take over at Sydney FC at some point, following the Lowy "coup".

Rounds 7-12 (the changeover)

Coming off the back of two wins, the former unconvincing, the latter rather more so, great things were expected of Branko Culina's men in the home game against Melbourne. Covites with long memories could point to the stirring Round 7 win over Adelaide in the first A-League season, which also followed two unexpected victories after a slow start.

It was not to be. And little blame attached to Culina; instead, the game turned on a dreadful challenge by Steve Corica - always one of Sydney's most effective and incisive players - in the 24th minute. Down to ten men, and although Sydney fought back well in the second half and even regained the initiative to some extent, a well-worked Melbourne goal saw them crash to a third home defeat.

With the injuries piling up, there followed a quite horrendous performance against Perth. Thanks to some commendable fighting spirit and a schoolboy error from Anthony Danze, Sydney managed to snatch a late equalizer in a game they should have lost embarrassingly. A foundering David Zdrilic was bizarrely employed at right-back, and it was becoming clearer than ever that Sydney's off-season recruitment had been not only poor, but inappropriate.

With another home loss to Adelaide in Round 10, Culina's time was up. There was good reason to feel sorry for him, given that he had been forced to tinker with his first team constantly, but one felt that ultimately he was being punished for his transfer dealings prior to the season rather than any lack of tactical acumen during it.

In an unfortunate side-effect, assistant coach Aytek Genc was removed as well. He must have been wishing he'd stayed at Blacktown City, where he had achieved tremendous success and was almost universally respected.

John Kosmina arrived at the same time as ex-Leeds striker Michael Bridges, and predictably the team lifted. The Round 10 game against the eventual premiers, the Central Coast, was an enjoyable one; Bridges offered shrewdness and a sure touch up front, and more importantly he looked positive and eager from day one. Alex Brosque revelled in the extra space afforded him by the presence of Bridges, and scored two fine goals.

The Englishman scored the winner himself against Newcastle the following week. The results were starting to come, and the performance at Energy Australia was a much improved one, but the cracks were still clearly visible.

They started to reappear in earnest in the boring 0-0 draw against a flaccid Melbourne at Telstra Dome. This time Bridges was anonymous, and the absence of Juninho, whose shoulder troubles had flared up again, robbed the side of creativity. The Brazilian did come on after 70 minutes, and immediately posed Melbourne problems, but Kosmina was clearly unconvinced that "the little feller" could get through 90 minutes at that point...and he may well have been right.

Nevertheless, there were positives: Tony Popovic was finally looking like a former Socceroo rather than a shaky, ponderous state-leaguer, and Clint Bolton was looking the part in goal once more.

The second half of the season was to provide drama aplenty.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


Sydney FC: Season Review, Part 1

If the second season of the A-League was an emotional rollercoaster for Sydney FC fans, the third was akin to primal scream therapy.

Two coaches, a constantly changing first eleven, off-field dramas, a period of ecstasy over Christmas and the New Year, and finally a miserable repeat of last season's limp finale.

The story, then:

Rounds 1-6

Much was expected of Branko Culina's side following the Asian Champions' League. What some of the triumphalists failed to acknowledge was that, for most of their ACL campaign, Sydney FC were treated with exaggerated respect; not least in the final game, where eventual champions Urawa Reds were content to sit back and absorb the pressure, in the interests of gaining the one precious point they needed to advance.

In the pre-season, it was clear just how poorly Sydney could play when deprived of its key men. And in the first round of the competition proper, we saw how a team that matched Sydney physically (as the Asian sides had not) could prove a tough nut to crack.

Marquee man Juninho was bludgeoned out of the game by Mile Jedinak, the Mariners snatched an early goal and hung on to their lead grimly. Despite their second half dominance, and the fact that they were regularly gifted possession by the blunt Central Coast defence, Sydney were unable to break down a scrapping side...something which would become rather a feature of the Culina "era".

The second game, against Adelaide, was actually one of the best matches of the season. It seemed that Juninho was getting into his stride; his pass to Alex Brosque for Sydney's second goal was an absolute gem. But a fairly innocuous challenge from Angelo Costanzo caused the Brazilian's pre-existing shoulder troubles to recrudesce...and Sydney's troubles really began.

Without their main creative outlet, and with international call-ups playing havoc with team stability, Sydney laboured to a dreadful draw with Perth and lost feebly to Wellington at home. Squad depth was becoming a problem, with many players struggling with injury and the off-season recruits not looking particularly impressive. Two points from four games, and Branko Culina was under considerable pressure already.

Then came the mini-revival. The football in Round 5's win over Queensland was not at all pretty, but the win was vital. In the next game, against Newcastle, Sydney started playing some good football once again; it was hardly coincidental that Juninho made his return in the Round 6 encounter. With Alex Brosque in fine form, Juninho back on the park and several other players making their way back to full fitness, it looked like the corner had been turned.

But for a moment of foolishness from Steve Corica and some questionable refereeing, it might just have happened. Tune in next time.

Saturday, February 09, 2008


Déjà Vu

So Sydney FC are out of the finals series at the first hurdle once again...and there were plenty of echoes of last season's debacle in Newcastle last night.

There was the first-half sendoff; unlike Alex Brosque a year ago, who was simply foolish, Robbie Middleby found himself the sacrificial lamb after Sydney had collectively taken far too long to realise that a dangerous counter-attack was in progress. He misjudged his 50-50 with Matt McKay, was unable to pull out of the challenge in time (although sticking his foot out was a little unwise), and went off under the often infuriating "last-man" rule. In truth, Sydney could have few complaints.

There were the relentless long balls in search of Alex Brosque, left alone at the point of the attack as he was by Terry Butcher for the latter part of last season. A tactic that was successful against the Central Coast and Adelaide proved fruitless this time, thanks largely to the aerial prowess of Sasa Ognenovski.

There was the poor use of the bench by the manager; Santalab and Biddle certainly needed to be introduced, but removing Sydney's main goalscorer, out of form though he may have been, to make way for the former was inexplicable. And Biddle simply arrived too late.

There was the absence of a key player, although it was in a different area this time. Last year, you may recall, the absence of Sydney's midfield terrier, Terry McFlynn, enabled Newcastle to boss that sector of the park completely; this time, no Juninho meant little wit in a creative sense, with Steve Corica lacking support and Ruben Zadkovich working hard but wasting the final ball.

There was the flattering result. Newcastle could easily have won by five or six in the minor semi second-leg of 2006/07, and Queensland should really have put a seal on the match in the first half last night; with Robbie Kruse constantly getting in behind the defence on Queensland's right and Sydney giving away possession in midfield monotonously, there should have been many more goals for the team in orange. But Kruse's cutbacks were largely off-beam, and Queensland's composure in the box left much to be desired.

And lastly, there was the spat at the end. This time it was two players rather than the captain and the manager, but the frustration at such an inept performance, and such a miserable end to an emotional season, had its inevitable effect in the unseemly row between Clint Bolton and Adam Biddle.

Having said all that: congratulations to Queensland for making it through to the preliminary final. They weren't at their best, but ultimately they did better than Sydney FC in every department. And Frank Farina deserves credit for his influential substitution of Tahj Minniecon for a tiring, ineffective Zullo.

Over the next week or so I'll be penning a review of Sydney FC's season as I did last year, by stages of the season rather than by player this time (I'll need some help for the period I missed).

Thursday, February 07, 2008


Hanging by a Cable

The fact that last night's historic game was only available for viewing on Pay TV seems to have generated some heated discussion in football circles. An article appeared in today's Australian confirming that, under the terms of the renegotiated Fox deal for A-League and Socceroo broadcast rights, national team matches won't be on the anti-siphoning list again until 2013 at the earliest.

Some Socceroo fans are bound to be upset by this. In my view, it's simply a necessary state of affairs...and Stephen Conroy's complaint about the "slap in the face" for football fans is slightly disingenuous.

The Fox deal - which, of course, would not have been remotely as lucrative had the Socceroo games been excluded - has, quite simply, kept the A-League afloat in its first three perilous years of existence. Next year's youth league, the Asian Champions' League jaunts, the women's league, Pim Verbeek's salary...none of these would have been possible but for the Foxtel cash.

And it's worrying, in fact, to speculate on what might have happened had the national team's matches been considered sufficiently important to be placed on the anti-siphoning list.

The history of free-to-air TV's engagement with football has been, with the honourable exception of SBS, a very painful one. Although the Channel 7 nightmare at the turn of the millennium was the worst episode, there have been other sorry tales.

SBS would surely have embraced the A-League and the post-Crawford Socceroos with vigour had they been able to compete with Fox on the open market, but they couldn't...and the FFA could not have survived, given the move into Asia particularly, on the sort of money the multicultural broadcaster would have been able to offer. Sadly, the resulting disappointment seems to have engendered a culture of belittling and complaining about Australian football at SBS, but that's a different issue.

The counter-argument to the pro-Foxtel economic fatalism (to which I unashamedly subscribe, I might add) generally runs that kids are no longer able to watch their national team heroes in action in the comfort of their own homes, if their families cannot afford cable TV.

It's a cogent argument up to a point. But there are always options, however inconvenient. And the 'roos aren't in action all that often, after all.

I can't afford Foxtel, but last night I sauntered down to my usual haunt, watched the game in the company of some boisterous South American friends over a couple of beers, and enjoyed myself enormously.

It is a different matter for those with children, certainly, as Hamish at Football Down Under has pointed out in the past. But our Pay TV benefactor must, unfortunately, be permitted to call the tune for a little while longer.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


Two Up

Well...Pim Verbeek pulled a surprise. Only one holding midfielder, and - joy of joys - twin strikers.

And didn't the team respond to his vote of confidence in the first half! Qatar were ripped apart on the flanks, Scott McDonald peeling off to the left to good effect on a number of occasions, thereby allowing Mark Bresciano to make those dangerous diagonal runs into the box which Jorge Fossati would remember only too well. David Carney, too, played a crucial role in Australia's penetration down the left, both overlapping and pushing up to provide the option for a quick give-and-go at times.

On the other wing, Brett Emerton (probably the man of the match) and Luke Wilkshire showed impressive positional fluidity, with the former more right-winger than right-back in the first period.

And, of course, the physical threat of Josh Kennedy up front was crucially important, particularly in terms of creating space for the other attackers. With Mark Viduka's star on the wane, Kennedy will surely be one of the key players in this qualifying campaign.

It helped Australia's cause that Qatar were so feeble in defence, their communication in particular leaving much to be desired. The goalkeeper, Mohammed Saqr, will not remember the second goal with any fondness, but there were plenty of other panicky moments.

The second half was far less impressive from an Australian point of view, but there have been several parallels in the recent Socceroo past, especially the game against China in Guangzhou. That Qatar occasionally managed to penetrate out wide, given our fullbacks' propensity to stay upfield, was not surprising; perhaps more worrisome was the fact that the elusive Khalfan Ibrahim, who positioned himself in the hole throughout, often looked like breaking through our central defence.

Verbeek's substitutions were perhaps not the ideal ones, either. Mark Bresciano, after an excellent first half, was fading noticeably in the second, and the logical introduction of Carl Valeri should maybe have been made at the expense of Bresciano rather than Tim Cahill. As for Craig Moore's departure, sentimentality is all very well, but Brett Holman as replacement, leaving Emerton to fulfil a central defensive role? Three-goal buffer or not, it was a strange move.

And now that Moore is gone, who will plug the hole in central defence? All of the recent candidates have shown themselves to be intermittently won't be an easy choice for our new supremo.

Yet one shouldn't dwell on the small negatives to emerge from the evening. Verbeek's side played fluent, positive, effective football for 45 minutes, and a campaign which offers so many pitfalls has begun comfortably.


First Step

Inamidst all the fuss surrounding tonight's game, it's worth taking a step back for a moment and savouring the novelty of the occasion: this is the very first time that we will undertake a proper, sustained World Cup qualifying campaign as part of Asia. No Oceania subgroup as in 1978 or 1982, no pointless preliminary games against pathetic opposition...this is the real thing.

All the more important, then, to start off with a confidence-building win.

Pim Verbeek has stated that he has more or less decided on 10 of the 11 starting positions for tonight's game, and it's a fair bet that the team will have a familiar look. No Mark Viduka up front, of course, and no Harry Kewell, but the other mainstays of the Hiddink/Arnold era will surely be there.

Verbeek employed a 4-3-3 of sorts with Korea at the Asian Cup, and although the prevailing view seems to be that he will again use a lone man up front, he should at least consider a front pairing, in my view. There is, as usual, a dearth of good wide players in the squad (especially given the absence of Kewell), and a narrow approach, combined with a lone striker, might produce another night of frustration.

I'd go for a Kennedy-McDonald axis. Although the latter has been less than impressive in his Socceroo outings to date, he has rarely been used appropriately (that is, in tandem with a taller, more powerful striker), and Josh Kennedy seems a potentially congenial partner for the Celtic man. Both players have been in pleasing form of late.

In midfield, there are plenty of options. The "two holding midfielders and two wide players" referred to by Branko Culina in the article linked above will probably include his son, but in truth, Jason Culina has done little in his recent Socceroo outings to justify a continued place in the first team. There are those - his father included - who feel that he has been deployed too deep, and needs to be given more licence to get forward. Perhaps so, but there are other members of the squad who have shown some bite in an attacking midfield role.

In the holding positions, it would be good to see Carl Valeri and Luke Wilkshire reprise their partnership that served Australia well during the 2004 Olyroo campaign. These two complemented each other nicely in Athens and just before.

Out wide - but tucking inside most of the time - Mark Bresciano and James Troisi would be my choices. The former has not always shown his best form in a green and gold shirt, but appears to be in decent form at present. The latter showed good penetration on the left during the Olyroos' run to Beijing, and with few other genuine left-sided players in the squad, I feel he's worth a run.

Tim Cahill? A substitute early in the second half. Verbeek needs to keep some of his powder dry, and Cahill has proved so effective as a substitute in the past that it's logical to use him in such a capacity again.

Given the relative narrowness of the midfield, the fullbacks are going to need to get forward effectively and often. Brett Emerton and David Carney are the obvious choices here. And in central defence, it's hard to go past the duo of Moore and Neill.

The goalkeeping position is actually a bit of a head-scratcher. Does Ante Covic's form, and familiarity with the conditions, outweigh Mark Schwarzer's experience and class? The Middlesbrough man will be struggling with jetlag, and has not been in the best of fettle in recent weeks. It will be a difficult choice for Verbeek, but I suspect he will stick with Schwarzer.

So then, the team I would like to see:

Schwarzer; Emerton, Neill, Moore, Carney; Bresciano, Wilkshire, Valeri, Troisi; Kennedy, McDonald.

The team I think Verbeek will pick:

Schwarzer; Emerton, Neill, Moore, Carney; Wilkshire, Culina; Bresciano, Holman, Cahill; Kennedy.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Who's Afraid? - brief update #12

Just in case anyone was in any doubt about the general attitude towards football at News Limited, following the useful hints provided by Josh Massoud and Tom Zed, a certain Herald Sun scribe named Trevor Grant has clarified things. Thanks to Guido of Rank and Vile for the heads up.

Mr. Grant's pointless, condescending rubbish does not deserve a response (let alone a proper analysis); I would suggest instead that football fans simply remember the banner under which such tripe went to print, and adjust their consumer choices accordingly.

On a more serious note, though, it's a pity that Pim Verbeek's over-analyzed comments seem to have set the Australian football community at war with itself. In reality, there's nothing either particularly new or particularly controversial about preferring European-based players, even at short notice, to locals...although Verbeek could perhaps have been a little more diplomatic.

Terry Venables acted similarly in the run-up to "that night" in Melbourne; he had led a locally-based squad to victory in a four-nation tournament early in the year, but come the crucial games against Iran, Alex Tobin and Craig Foster were the only first-team survivors.

And, with all respect to the A-League, I can't think of a contemporary Mori or Ivanovic who's been unwisely ignored this time.

Monday, February 04, 2008


Early Warning

I suspect that everyone’s pretty much Socceroo-ed and Verbeek-ed out by now, so herewith some reflections on another competition that starts soon.

The NSW Premier League begins in late February as usual, and the warm-up tournament, the Johnny Warren Cup, has been in full swing recently. The first round was washed out, but there have been plenty of opportunities to watch the new teams in action recently, with a midweek round squeezed in between the two weekend games this last week.

On Saturday at Jensen Park, two teams who have reached the NSWPL top four in the last two campaigns gave every indication that they would be there once again in 2008.

The Marconi Stallions have recruited well in the off-season; Blacktown City’s Tolgay Ozbey, one of the league’s most prolific scorers, has arrived, along with the pacy ex-Bankstown frontman Tallan Martin. These two should guarantee Marconi plenty of goals this season, especially with the tricky Stefan “Nugget” Donevski there to support them.

But it’s in midfield that Marconi look particularly good. They have retained the services of Vuko Tomasevic and his formidable left foot, and obtained perhaps the most classy midfielder in the competition in NSL veteran Nahuel Arrarte, who was influential last season for both Bankstown and Sydney Olympic.

Arrarte had a very fine game on Saturday, distributing neatly, nearly scoring with a sumptuous 25-yard free kick, and slipping Ante Deur (another arrival from Olympic) through on goal with a delightful through-ball; Deur was brought to ground in the box, a penalty and a send-off ensued, and Marconi’s opponents, Wollongong, subsequently collapsed.

Marconi looked a little less sure-footed at the back, with Luke Casserly just starting to show his age, and Wade Oostendorp demonstrating why he didn’t quite make the grade at Sydney FC. The final result, 4-0, was ultimately somewhat flattering for the Bossley Park club; defensive inattention forced their new ’keeper Cem Akili (another ex-Bankstown man) into superb saves on two occasions.

Yet there is plenty of quality in the side, and they will undoubtedly be a threat this season.

If Marconi were impressive, Bankstown City, last year’s runners-up, were imperious.

After a poor start to the Johnny Warren Cup, in which they lost to both Manly (another of last year’s top four) and Marconi, Bankstown were clearly in the mood to turn it on at home against one of the competition newcomers, the West Sydney Berries (the former Canterbury-Marrickville). And they did.

At half-time, when I had to leave, Bankstown were up 5-0. And this time, the scoreline did not flatter them.

The Macedonian-backed club has held on to the spine of its tough, organized 2007 side, and the familiarity within the team was obvious from their first-half performance on Saturday…as was the individual quality that was apparent last year.

Robbie Mileski, playing a little deeper this season, still looks a player of tremendous potential. In that frantic 45 minutes, he scored two goals and set up a third, causing the Berries insurmountable problems with his pace, adroit dribbling and precise shooting. His first goal capped off a sweeping, intricate move involving half the Bankstown team; one of the best goals I’ve seen, at any level, for some time.

If Mileski can show just a little more consistency this season, he will surely get his break in the professional game before long.

Although Bankstown have lost the aforementioned Nahuel Arrarte to Marconi (along with Martin and Akili), the experienced George Nohra is still there, and Tayfun Devrimol, a versatile operator for Blacktown last season, has joined him in the engine room. Shane Webb and Steve Liavas still patrol the flanks most effectively (both made goals with smart crosses in the first half), and the defence, marshalled forcefully by player-coach Peter Tsekenis, looks powerful and composed, although Bankstown were caught out on the flanks once or twice.

Bankstown apparently took their collective foot off the pedal in the second half, but that first 45 minutes was surely enough to suggest that they will be strong contenders in the NSWPL once more in 2008.

Sunday, February 03, 2008


Pim and the Parochials - brief update

While the Fox crew have been taking their various digs at our new boss, the SBS mantra ("foreigners good, Aussies ba-a-a-ad") has been faithfully adhered to by all concerned, and most recently by, erm, guess who.

There's little there that we haven't read before (in fact, there's little in anything Foster writes these days that we haven't heard from him umpteen times before), but there's one particularly disingenuous slant to the piece. In previewing the task that lies ahead, Foster is in awe of the struggle facing Pim and his charges. Just feel the force of the premature apologia:

Not that the assignment isn't already complex enough.

First, with a new coach, an under-prepared squad jetting in two days before the game, and a Qatar team coming off the back of three high-level friendlies and with plenty of time to acclimatise, there is already a risk over the performance and outcome.

Second, with an away match next in China, reportedly at altitude and most likely in freezing conditions, followed by games against Asian champions Iraq in June, a poor result here would put immense pressure on the team to win in unfamiliar conditions away from home.

Just where were all these excuses-in-advance when Graham Arnold was in charge, Craig? I seem to recall that when a great many of these factors faced our previous national coach, it was all about tactics and man-management.

In keeping to the SBS line, Foster has, ironically, resorted to the convenient prior excuses that have been a stock-in-trade of the parochialists for so long.

Saturday, February 02, 2008


Platini in Power - update #4

There has been plenty of praise for Michel Platini on the anniversary of his accession to the presidency of UEFA, and not without reason. He has achieved more than most pundits expected, as even his former rival has indicated.

Although much of the attention over the past year has centred on the abstruse changes to the Champions' League format, Platini's greatest achievement has surely been to reach an agreement with the G14 group of clubs, which will see them abandon all pending legal action against UEFA and FIFA (in return for some much-desired financial compensation for the "loss" of players to international duty). Sepp Blatter must have breathed a huge sigh of relief as a result, given the potentially ruinous consequences for FIFA had the Abdelmajid Oulmers case run its full course.

I should add that a certain well-known football journalist, on Platini taking the hot seat at UEFA, privately expressed the opinion that the G14 group would "run rings" around him. It hasn't happened, and although there have been plenty of rumours of disunity within the club cabal, Platini deserves great credit for his diplomatic skills in that area.

The European Nations' Cup was controversially awarded to Poland and Ukraine on Platini's watch, and it still looks a very, very risky decision; Platini is certainly aware of the problems, and has used the occasion of the UEFA congress to give the co-hosts a polite boot up the posterior. On the subject of the Nations' Cup, Platini has properly spoken out against the absurd proposal to expand the tournament. The 24-team World Cups (from 1982 to 1994) showed exactly why it's a lousy number for a knockout event; and in any case, expansion of one of the summer tournaments is the last thing the football world needs at this time.

There are some issues on which Platini remains impervious to common sense (predictably enough, these tend to be bees-in-the-bonnet shared with Sepp Blatter), but on the whole he can be proud of his first year as UEFA kingpin.

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