Monday, March 31, 2008

 

Cheek to Cheek

What can you say about a goal like this?

OK, the nutmeg was pure luck, as was the less-than-ideal positioning of the goalkeeper. But for a player to even consider such a stunning party trick requires an enviable degree of confidence and cheek...the sort of confidence that comes with a superb, remarkably prolific season, such as Cristiano Ronaldo has had.

Not that Ronaldo's contribution to the game ended there; he provided a classic, perfect winger's cross for Carlos Tevez's goal, and then twice played provider for Wayne Rooney with a couple of beautiful, nonchalant final passes.

If there's a better player in world football at the moment, I'd be interested to see him in action.

It will be fascinating to see whether a weakened Roma can deal with him in the upcoming Champions League quarter-final tie. Last year, of course, United's conquerors AC Milan dealt with the Portuguese winger most efficiently, Massimo Oddo holding him up cleverly to allow Gennaro Gattuso to apply one of his trademark crunching tackles.

Roma's fullbacks, Cicinho and Max Tonetto, don't mind getting forward, but they will surely be mindful of the difficulties experienced by Christian Panucci in the 7-1 drubbing the Rome club experienced at Manchester United's hands last season.

And if Ronaldo was in bullish mood then, his confidence levels will be at their peak for the Champions League clash.

The best barometer of Ronaldo's current mood is surely the expression on his face at the end of the above-linked clip...a mischievous grin spreading from ear to ear, or, perhaps more appropriately, from cheek to cheek.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

 

A Lucky Point

Although the penalty decision that might have sent the Socceroos home a defeated side was dreadful, conceding a soft, straightforward goal at that point always looked likely, as the Socceroos tired to a man.

In short, Pim Verbeek and his men dodged a bullet. Ultimately, the result is an acceptable and even a good one - but there must be some questions over Verbeek's tactics and substitutions (or lack thereof).

To start with the positives: Australia looked very comfortable in the opening half-hour, holding onto the ball neatly in midfield and at the back. Yet there was clearly going to be very little penetration, with David Carney and Luke Wilkshire rarely getting forward to good effect and Jason Culina, the supposed playmaker, preferring to drop deep and play square balls.

And Mark Bresciano as striker? It was very strange. After the early injury to Archie Thompson, Mark Bridge was the obvious man to take his place. Yet it was Brett Holman, a second striker, who filled the breach. Thus giving the Socceroos no options out wide, no-one to hold the ball up at the point, and no-one to break through the midfield.

Perhaps it was a canny strategy in the sapping conditions, but it gave the Chinese the chance to take the initiative...a chance which they strangely spurned.

Instead, the Chinese were putting their faith in a simple tactic which worked surprisingly often - the long ball into the wide channels, in between the outside members of the back three and the wing-backs, to connect with a diagonal run from one of the forwards. Michael Beauchamp had particular trouble early on against Zhu Ting, while even the slower Han Peng occasionally got the drop on the Australian backline.

The defensive instincts of both Carney and Wilkshire are not perfect, and Verbeek was somewhat lucky that Beauchamp improved as the game progressed, and that Jade North did a superb job on the other side.

In the second half, the Socceroos became distinctly ragged, and they were frankly crying out for a substitution. Bresciano was the first to tire (as against Qatar), but even Vince Grella and Carl Valeri were looking vulnerable as the half wore on. Verbeek's decision to leave his starting line-up, plus Holman, to gasp to the finish line was questionable at best.

Vladimir Petrovic, by contrast, introduced Qu Bo up front in the final minutes...and the experienced striker, full of legs, caused the Australian back three no end of trouble. Again, the penalty decision was incorrect, but it wouldn't have been a surprise had the Chinese nicked a goal at the close.

A final comment on the refereeing: appalling. Sun Jihai should undoubtedly have seen red for that horrific tackle on Luke Wilkshire; that he did not even receive a yellow was simply a disgrace.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

 

Below the Radar

The injury news keeps getting worse for Pim Verbeek this week, with Bruce Djite apparently now out of contention for the China game as well.

Nevertheless, I think that Verbeek has not done himself any favours with the squad he has chosen, which contains a few real head-scratchers (Adam Griffiths and Nikolai Topor-Stanley), and is light-on in certain areas.

Once again, despite the overt belittling of the A-League, it's the European second tier who have been passed over when they perhaps should have been utilised. For Nick Carle to be left out of the squad for such a match, where creativity is clearly going to be at a premium and a fresh threat in the final half-hour will be essential, is a triumph of strangulated reasoning (bedding in at a new club, wouldn't fit in with the prevailing system, etc.) over common sense.

And there's another character, barely mentioned until recently, who would have been an ideal choice for a Socceroo squad bereft of good options on the right: Richard Garcia, in excellent form with promotion-chasing Hull City in the English Championship.

These players might cop some flak at their clubs for taking part in a far-flung midweek international on a friendly date, but should we really be pussyfooting around in the case of a World Cup qualifier?

James Troisi should perhaps have been taken as well, but he did disappear from view somewhat after his bright beginning against Singapore. We are not short of left-sided options, so I can understand Verbeek's reasoning there.

It will be a difficult, difficult assignment with so many absentees - enforced or otherwise. The team I would pick, from the remaining troops:

Schwarzer; Wilkshire, North, Neill, Carney; Grella, Valeri; Culina, Bresciano, Kewell; Bridge.

The team I suspect Verbeek will go with:

Schwarzer; Wilkshire, Neill, Beauchamp, Carney; Grella, Culina; Bresciano, Holman, Kewell; Thompson.

Monday, March 24, 2008

 

2004 Vintage

Oh, it's a crisis, I tells ya.

A depleted and rather obtusely-selected squad, plus a poor performance in a largely meaningless friendly, have given Les the perfect cue for another doom-laden rumination on the decline in Australia's football fortunes since SBS was priced out of the action.

So let's deal with a couple of the issues raised in the piece:

1. A replacement for Hiddink

The pity is that the danger was not sensed at the time by the FFA which, following the departure of Guus Hiddink, took the view that a pedigree replacement was not immediately necessary.

They would surely also have taken a view that a "pedigree" replacement would have left them barely solvent (if at all), given the astronomical salary of Hiddink, the funds that were poured into preparations for the World Cup, and the upcoming drain of the Asian adventure.

The appointment of Arnold was a cost-cutting measure more than anything else. In that respect, it achieved its goal, with the fringe benefit that it was Arnold, rather than the FFA, who attracted the lion's share of the blame for Australia's mediocre showing in the Asian Cup.

Had Pim Verbeek been appointed in July 2006, as opposed to December 2007, there may have been time for the new national coach to fashion and build a team, via the platform of the 2007 Asian Cup, with an eye on the long-term future rather than with a shot-gun reliance on the past.

In the first place, I doubt whether the name Pim Verbeek would have even come into the reckoning in July 2006. The name on most fans' lips was Johan Neeskens, Hiddink's faithful factotum, who had never occupied a senior national team job before and who had spent most of the previous ten years as an assistant.

(It's strange, too, that so many Australian fans get so dewy-eyed about "National Anthem" Neeskens, considering that he quite cynically tried to involve the FFA in a bidding war with Barcelona after the World Cup. But I digress.)

The real question is whether there would have been a genuine opportunity to build a "new" side. Given the absurdly transient playing roster than Graham Arnold was forced to endure during his year in charge, the answer is probably no.

2. The current stocks

Expecting a team to rebuild itself with organic precision following a spate of retirements is unreasonable and unrealistic. It was hardly surprising that the World Cup consituted a suitable climax to the international careers of so many of the older brigade, and that they were not willing to drag themselves through the far more laborious process of qualifying through Asia.

Thus, more departures than normal. To be expected.

And not every cohort that comes through will replenish the stocks perfectly. The relevant "generation" here is surely the 2004 Olyroos, who would now be considered roughly at their peak. They haven't quite hit the heights, on the whole.

Even so, there is some good news. Luke Wilkshire and Carl Valeri are by now regulars, Jade North (who has improved enormously this A-League season) is coming into contention, and of course Nick Carle is forever on the periphery of the national team setup. Brett Holman, another of the Class of 2004, has flopped for the Socceroos of late, but he's shown flashes of good form in the past.

Les remarks:

The question has to be asked: as the bulk of the last generation of players departs, what is the quality level of the new stock?

The answer: not very high, and the plodding performance in the friendly against Singapore was proof.

Misleading. The new troops on show against Singapore were, by and large, the current Olyroos. They cannot and should not be expected to be of full international standard as yet, and the likes of Mark Bridge, Nikolai Topor-Stanley, James Holland et al. are not.

Add to that the absence of the likes of Stuart Musialik and Joel Griffiths (still something of a mystery there), and you have a further reason why the Singapore result is not all that disquieting.

Nevertheless, Les's predictable conclusion is:

The remaining players are not in the same league as the 2006 crop or at least not yet, and part of the reason is that they play in the A-League.

So what about the slightly older ones who have left to play in Europe, some of whom are still being pointedly ignored?

More on that tomorrow.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

 

Friendly Fire - update #5

If last night's tedious match in Singapore had any value at all, it was surely to underline the fact that Pim Verbeek was, by and large, right to suggest that the A-League troops are not quite up to negotiating the "Asia shift" on their own.

In fact, the game showed up many of the deficiencies of the A-League as a whole quite nicely, to wit:

- A dismal lack of width. After two good early forays by James Troisi on the left, hardly any of the Australian moves ended with a player getting in behind the defence. With Harry Kewell playing infield and Adam Griffiths not getting forward all that often, there was no similar option on the right, and Troisi seemed to lose some confidence as the first half wore on, eventually disappearing from view.

Given that the Singaporeans were massed in the centre, surely the wide avenues needed to be used more effectively.

- A lack of movement (diagonal movement in particular) up front. The initial strike pairing was a little unbalanced in any case, with Archie Thompson and Mark Bridge both preferring to play facing the goal, but the midfielders frequently had few options for a genuinely penetrating through-ball.

- One touch too many in midfield. As we have so often seen in the A-League this season, the players tended to receive the ball and then look for an option, rather than assess the situation before the ball arrived. Our midfield play was somewhat stale as a result (not helped by the dreadful pitch, it's true).

- An inability (or an unwillingness) to switch the play effectively. Passing the ball around the U at the back under no pressure is all very well, but moving the play crisply across the field further up the park is something that has not been much in evidence this A-League season.

Against all that, it's worth remembering that the players were out of season, in unfamiliar conditions, on a woeful surface. Yet they could have been expected to create more than just a couple of half-chances in 90 minues against a largely inferior side.

Individual performances? Mile Jedinak has done his chances of future call-ups no harm at all with last night's performance. Michael Beauchamp, despite some good moments, looked very sluggish at times against the speedy Indra, who also posed Australia problems the last time the sides met. Australia's issues in central defence are a long way from being resolved.

James Holland moved around a fair bit, had some neat touches, but ultimately contributed surprisingly little. Nathan Burns, when he arrived, did somewhat better than against Changchun, when he was eclipsed in the centre of the park by the experienced Gabriel Melkam, but he still looks some way off his best form. His final passes went astray more often than not.

Although the Socceroos punctiliously avoided the "direct route" last night, even when Bruce Djite entered the frame, it seemed the sort of game where such a tactic, used judiciously, might have been effective. Yes, Thompson and Bridge were unlikely to get anywhere in the air against the likes of Baihakki Khaizan in defence early on, but later on it was surely worth a try at times.

All in all, a dreary game, but perhaps not a wasted one, from a lessons-to-be-learned point of view.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

 

Split Personalities - update

Danny Vukovic's exclusion from the Olyroos has led to another instance of the "cap me or I'll join another country" sales pitch, by the opportunistic agent of Liverpool's Dean Bouzanis.

Unfortunately, the majority of those making comments on the story linked above, and on other football forums, have failed to see Mr. Palapanis's comments for what they are - a blatantly cynical attempt to use the "defection" card to force Bouzanis into Olyroo reckoning. Instead, the typical reaction has been more infantile anti-Arnold ranting.

International football might not pay the rent, but a place in the national team (at any age level) has its uses, and not just in terms of allowing the player in question to perform on the world stage. "Under 23 international" sounds a lot better than "Under 19 international" to potential club employers.

Having seen Bouzanis in action a few times during Sydney FC's preparation for last year's Asian Champions League, I can attest to his quality. He's a splendid prospect, without doubt. The Mark Bosnich comparisons, too, are apt, given that Bouzanis makes up for his less-than-imposing physical frame with his prodigious shot-stopping ability.

But the fact that he has already turned out for the Greek youth team, only to (apparently) expect a call-up to the Olyroos as a matter of course, is a fair indication of how he (or rather his agent) views international football. With this in mind, there are certainly reasons why a national team manager might prefer to give others a try in his stead, especially given that Bouzanis is still only 17.

It's worth mentioning, too, that although Bouzanis is indeed on the books of one of the world's most prestigious clubs, he does not appear to be in the first-team reckoning as yet (not that this would cut much ice with Pim Verbeek, apparently). Tando Velaphi has at least performed in the professional arena, and he has generally looked the part as well.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

 

China Crisis?

There's plenty of doom and gloom in Australian football circles concerning the upcoming qualifier against China in Kunming.

I'm not sure if all of it, or even most of it, is justified. For one thing, a loss, let alone a draw, in this game would not exactly be a disaster. A setback, for sure. But given that this will be the last game in this round of qualifiers on a friendly date (entailing the late arrival of so many of the Europe-based first eleven), and given that China is probably our most dangerous opponent in the group, Pim Verbeek and his players should be able to accept an untoward result with some degree of sang-froid.

Scott McIntyre of SBS makes the reasonable point that a warm-up match in Singapore is not exactly perfect preparation from an acclimatisation perspective, but it's worth keeping in mind that very few, if any, of the players currently in camp will be starting against China. The arrival of Harry Kewell in particular seems to have given a somewhat false impression of the importance of the Singapore game.

And the cards are not stacked against us in Kunming quite as badly as all that. Although the Chinese, ensconced in camp, will have had time to adjust to the altitude of Kunming, not many of them will be long accustomed to it; the vast majority of teams in the China Super League are based in cities close to sea-level.

China's form leading up to the game, too, has been average. Not surprising in a way, considering that the Chinese league has been in abeyance since November. On the other side of the ledger, there are the injury concerns over Josh Kennedy, Brett Emerton and Tim Cahill, perhaps our three best performers against Qatar.

As the Euroroos are bound to tire in the second half, it would probably be advisable to repeat the Qatar strategy of an all-out assault in the opening ten minutes. This would probably allow Verbeek's men to slow the pace and catch their breath at times in the first half without being pressured unduly in the back third (this has certainly been the experience in Asia thus far).

Whether our backline, now without the precious experience of Craig Moore, can survive an assault by a better-prepared Chinese team in the second half might just depend on the quality of the Chinese finishing. If the game in Guangzhou is anything to go by, we may just be able to hold on.

Monday, March 17, 2008

 

The Upside-Down NSWPL

The current NSW Premier League table makes bizarre viewing for those who have followed the competition closely over the last few years; easily the three most successful teams of recent times, Blacktown City, Bankstown City and Marconi, occupy the bottom three places on the ladder after four rounds.

It's certainly a rarity, and underlines the fact that this year's competition will be very open.

All three have suffered heavy defeats at the hands of Manly United, the team which went on an inspired late-season run in 2007 and missed out on a Grand Final place by a hair's breadth. Coach Phil Moss, a close friend of Graham Arnold, deserves great credit for the continuing progress of his Manly side, to which some craft up front has been added this season with the arrival of Dusan Mihajlovic.

The Sutherland Sharks, too, have continued their excellent form from the pre-season, with their imposing striker Brad Boardman banging in the goals. Sydney United are the other team in the leading group; Luka Glavas is back with the Edensor Park club, and apparently looking much happier than he ever did in the A-League.

Watching the Sutherland v. Manly game from last week, I was struck by how quick and physically uncompromising both sides were, especially by state league standards. They will both be difficult to beat this season.

So wherein lies the reason for the collapse of the big three? To an extent, it's probably the old issue of the general transience of NSWPL playing squads. Blacktown have lost almost their entire 2007 first team (the departure of coach Aytek Genc was a key catalyst here), while Marconi have assembled a strong squad, but with many new faces...including the star recruit, Tolgay Ozbey, who is still recovering from injury. It may take a little time for the new troops to gell.

Bankstown, on the other hand, appear to have been let down by poor discipline; in two separate games this season, they have had two players sent off. Importantly, too, the promising Robbie Mileski suffered an injury early on.

All three sides will surely recover some ground as the season progresses, and it should make for a tight race for the finals. Come on down, Sydney football lovers...

Saturday, March 15, 2008

 

Drawn and Quartered

The European Champions' League is down to the pointy end, with the quarter-final draw throwing up some interesting encounters.

As was the case in 2007, the top Premiership clubs have thrived in the competition, while the gap between the haves and the have-nots in England has been demonstrated by the UEFA Cup fortunes of the second-tier Premiership clubs, who have recently been indulging in that favourite British pastime of losing penalty shootouts.

The Manchester United v. Roma tie, of course, has a particular edge given the 7-1 thrashing handed out to the Italians at Old Trafford last season. Although everyone seems to be writing the Italians off, I think they have a fair chance this time; Manchester United were less than impressive in their second leg against Lyon, with Wayne Rooney and Anderson somewhat out of form. It's a pity, too, that we've now seen the last of the electric Karim Benzema in this year's competition.

Arsenal v. Liverpool will be a fascinating encounter. When Wenger's Arsenal are on form, they are fantastic to watch, but Liverpool is just the sort of pragmatic side that might be able to stop them in their tracks. And Fernando Torres showed in the second leg against Inter that he only needs the slightest of chances to punish a side that presses without reward.

Schalke are unlikely to trouble Barcelona, even taking into account Lionel Messi's injury, but the surprising Fenerbahce should provide more than token resistance against a Chelsea side who are not quite the force they were, despite their excellent recent run in the Premiership.

Who to pick at this stage, then? Oddly enough, although their star has appeared to be on the wane of late, I'm inclined to go with Barca. The fact that they may effectively lose the La Liga race to Real Madrid before long could give them added incentive to repeat their 2006 success, and they can avoid the two sides I believe would be their most troublesome opponents - Liverpool and Chelsea - until the final.

Friday, March 14, 2008

 

The Front Foot

The learned Pippinu does not post all that often on his blog, but his lengthy, well-considered pieces are always worth a read. Yesterday, he made some just and insightful observations on Adelaide's somewhat ugly victory over the Pohang Steelers. In complementary vein, here are some musings on Wednesday's other Asian Champions League encounter with an Australian flavour - Melbourne Victory's impressive victory over Chunnam.

Overall, it was an excellent team performance from Merrick's men. Although they gave some signs of being out of season - a few heavy first touches, a drop-off in energy levels in the second half, and one horrible pass-to-the-opposition from Archie Thompson - they were the better side in almost every department. Matthew Kemp showed how well he can play when used in his ideal position, and Billy Celeski gave every indication that he has been a worthwhile acquisition.

But it was Melbourne's overall strategy that made the best impression.

It seems ever clearer that the optimal way for Australian teams (both club and national) to approach matches in Asia is to take the initiative early. The Socceroos emphatically did this against Qatar in February; Sydney FC harassed last year's eventual ACL champions from the off in their home game last year, racing to an early two-goal lead.

The Asian Cup, too, was an interesting case in point. The languid nature of Australia's start against Oman immediately filled the Gulf side with confidence, while the Socceroos' opening thrusts in the quarter-final against Japan, a side which should have been full of confidence, served to put the pre-tournament favourites on the back foot for much of the first half.

It's becoming generally accepted (now that the initial triumphalism of our Asia move has worn off) that many of the better Asian nations are technically our equals or better; by pressing far up the pitch and imposing ourselves physically early in the piece, however, we have usually been able to dictate the game.

Melbourne Victory provided another example on Wednesday night. There was plenty to like about their first-half performance, including their excellent movement off the ball (a facet of their play that Tony Tannous has already commented on), but what struck me particularly was that they made sure to pressure the Koreans in defence immediately, with the result that the visiting side stood off Ernie Merrick's men for much of the half.

The Chunnam Dragons didn't breathe much fire in that first period at all. It didn't help that they started with the elusive Sandro Hiroshi on the bench, leaving one of Asia's less dazzling Brazilian expats to thrash around alone up front while Melbourne took over the midfield. They were constantly caught narrow in defence as well, allowing Melbourne to get in behind the back four dangerously often.

And, of course, there were plenty of panicky long balls from the away side's defence as these confident, physically imposing Australians descended on them.

It was only in the second half (until Roddy Vargas's goal) that Chunnam appeared to come into their own, but a lot of credit for this has to go to the Melbourne side for the way they approached the game. Their willingness to go onto the front foot from the outset ensured them not just five or ten minutes, but a full 45 minutes of dominance...a phenomenon we have seen in Asia several times now.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

 

Expansive Thoughts - another update

I should preface this afternoon's ramble by offering my congratulations to Melbourne Victory and Adelaide United for recording impressive first-up wins in this year's Asian Champions League. I haven't seen the games yet, but might post a review of sorts in the next couple of days.

And so to the topic at hand: the cancellation of the planned A-League expansion for 2008/09.

Although the decision has been decried in many quarters, I feel the FFA have actually made the correct call. The introduction of the youth league, with all the costs involved, would have made it difficult for the national federation to give the start-up clubs the sort of financial and logistical support they may have required initially.

The question does arise, though: would the FFA have been able to prop up the ailing Northern Thunder bid, or fast-track the nebulous Wollongong one, if the youth league wasn't on the agenda? It's a point I've raised before, and it now seems more relevant than ever.

Mike Cockerill made a solid argument for pushing ahead with the expansion despite the collapse of the Northern Thunder bid, but I think he underestimates the awkwardness of a 9-team league, particularly in combination with the new youth league. The scheduling could become messy and disjointed.

The move to ten should definitely happen in 2009/10, however. There are key markets to enter, and the desire for greater variety in the league will be at a high pitch by then.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

 

Youth Group

Although hardly any of them are likely to feature in the China qualifier, it's good to see that Pim Verbeek has picked a young, ambitious squad for the friendly in Singapore on March 22.

Interesting, too, to see that Joel Griffiths has (reportedly) been omitted due to some belittling comments he made following the victory over Qatar. Verbeek has already shown, during his stewardship of the Korean side, that he is likely to give short shrift to disruptive elements within the squad.

Two players that I'm particularly pleased to see in the selection are Mile Jedinak and Nikita Rukavystya.

Long-time readers will know of my admiration for Jedinak, who has been a commanding figure for the Mariners in midfield this season. In Asian competition, he will probably be forced to tone down his hard-tackling style somewhat, given the more strict refereeing, and theatrical reactions to fouls, that predominate. But he is certainly a future national team contender now...even if his ideal position may just turn out to be central defence rather than central midfield.

Rukavystya is still quite raw, but there are few more exciting young players to watch in the A-League. At his best, he has led the Perth line with tremendous energy and brio, and shown some finishing ability, even if this aspect of his game needs a little work. Of our younger striking personnel, Bruce Djite possesses pace and power, and Nathan Burns skill and vision; Rukavystya, by contrast, seems to have a more intangible quality: that enviable self-confidence and willingness to run at the defence that so many young players lack.

The Singapore game will be well worth watching.

Monday, March 10, 2008

 

What Sydney Wants

Interesting that Les Murray's latest despairing piece about the culture at Sydney FC has been presented to the world on the same day that the club's mild-mannered CEO, George Perry, has departed.

In Les's rant from 50,000 feet, there are plenty of opportunities for some of his typically nauseating Real Madrid references. Never mind the fact that the galacticos policy he refers to was only made possible by the extortionate sale of Real's former training complex to the city council, or that the whole "Zidanes y Pavones" policy of Florentino Pérez ended in both financial and footballing disaster. Señor Murray's Real Madrid worship has never been constrained by such trifling things as facts.

And the simple, plain fact that the salary cap constitutes a considerable constraint on the quality of the football in the A-League is one that the SBS brains trust has stubbornly refused to acknowledge.

But I digress. Is the thrust of Les's argument, that Sydney punters are being turned off by the style of football on show, valid?

In part, it probably is. There has been little to enthuse the fans in the football produced by the club in any of the three A-League seasons so far; significantly, the team has produced its best performances against non-A-League opposition - that is, against sides that have been prepared to let them play a bit, as it were.

On the matter of Juninho v. Aloisi...well, it's a tough one. I yield to no-one in my admiration for Juninho, both as a footballer and as a person, but his injury problems are clearly not of the short-term variety. Any Australian club who signed him now, especially given the sort of unpunished fouling that has been a feature of the appallingly-refereed third season of the A-League, would be taking a considerable risk, in my view.

Yes, it's hard to see who will be providing the creativity (not to mention the width) for Sydney FC next season. Yes, John Kosmina's tactics during his time at the helm haven't been all that adventurous. But the reasons for the general Sydney FC turn-off go deeper than that...and this brings us to the departure of Perry.

Ever since the end of the first season, and the Lowy takeover, it has been clear that Sydney City was in the process of exhumation. With the appointment of Andrew Kemeny to the chairmanship, that process neared completion, and it will be interesting to see if Perry's replacement has any links with the old Hakoah club as well. The odds on it must be fairly short.

But the majority of the fans, one would imagine, don't mind about the Hakoah echoes if the club is being run well (which it isn't), and the team is successful. So where's the problem?

Firstly, the relationship with the fans. The Walter Bugno era may have been marked by certain excesses, but the close relationship that developed between the Cove and the management of the club (the former CEO, Tim Parker, was instrumental here as well) was central to the enviable atmosphere generated at the SFS in the A-League's first season.

Since then, there has been a far greater distance between the two, and this has had its inevitable effect in the crowd participation and the resultant atmosphere.

Secondly, there's the matter of geography. Sydney is vast, and yet the club that supposedly represents the whole metropolis caters unmistakably to the eastern suburbs and the inner north and west. There have been few genuine attempts to market the club further afield, especially in the Lowy era.

Back to Les. He states (or rather assumes):

What Sydney FC's numerous, but tyrannically fickle and demanding fans want is not just big names, or even results. They are too proud for that. They want to roll up to the SFS knowing their team is the elite of the elite, and that it doesn't just chase results but plays with the kind of poise and swagger that is the model for the rest.

"Too proud"? "The elite of the elite"? Oh dear.

Of course Sydney fans would like a team that is both successful and attractive (although I have a strong suspicion that the former, for all the posturing, is ultimately more important than the latter from a pure bums-on-seats point of view).

But they would also like to feel that the club genuinely caters to them, and is prepared to listen to fans' concerns (as the Melbourne Victory management have been, for instance, over the past couple of years). And that it does not merely exist to feed the nostalgia of a man who should not be involved with the running of the club in the first place, given his position as FFA chairman.

Friday, March 07, 2008

 

Heffalumps and Rabbits, Part 2

More musings on the meetings of teams a class apart, this time focusing on the Argentina v. South Korea game from the 1986 World Cup.

Let me say initially that, having seen quite a few of their games now, I have rather mixed feelings about the Argentinian World Champions of 1986 (and not just because of the “Hand of God” goal). Although it was very fitting for the finest player of his generation to lift the trophy, his albiceleste colleagues were not, in all honesty, a world-class side.

Their defence was often all at sea, their finishing left much to be desired, and, most importantly, many of the most impressive teams in that event (Brazil, France, Denmark, Spain etc.) were conveniently, sometimes fortuitously, knocked out by other sides along the way.

Bobby Robson, prior to his England side’s meeting with the eventual champions, commented that “…without Maradona, Argentina would have no chance of winning the World Cup”. It’s hard not to agree.

In their first game from the tournament, however, Argentina were indeed made to look very good by their opposition: South Korea, back in the World Cup after an absence of 32 years. Faced with one of the tournament favourites in their TV-era debut, the Koreans adopted rather craven tactics.

In his History of the World Cup, Brian Glanville puts most of the blame for Korea’s defeat on their goalkeeper Oh Yeon-Kyo, but this is unfair. Although slow off his line initially, Oh grew in confidence during the match, made two good saves in the second half, and ultimately did somewhat better than his opposite number, Nery Pumpido.

Rather, it was the general game-plan of the Koreans that allowed Argentina to dominate.

They completely allowed Argentina to dictate the pace of the game, right from the outset; Maradona’s men built attacks from the back in their own andante rhythm, and the Koreans put them under little pressure on the ball. Or rather, they saved all their attentions for Maradona, who was fouled clumsily several times in the opening half.

And when Korea came up with the ball, lofted balls to the strikers were the order of the day. It was a curious strategy, given that physical prowess was not exactly a feature of the Korean side; although they did indeed latch on to a couple of useful second balls around the area in the first period, once forcing Pumpido into a smart save, their tactics ultimately allowed Argentina to remain comfortably in control.

2-0 was the score at half-time, and it might have been more. Another writer who mentions the game in passing is the Australian historian and World Cup fanatic J. Neville Turner, who commented that South Korea “would be hard pressed to make the English Fourth Division”. That was certainly the impression one would have gotten from their first-half performance.

Another goal was added early in the second half, and the Argentinians, not surprisingly, relaxed somewhat. It was then that the Koreans suddenly appeared to remember that they had a weapon of their own to counter the subtle build-ups of their South American opponents: speed.

Abandoning the useless punts upfield, the Koreans finally began moving off the ball, and outrunning their opponents, as they could surely have done from the beginning. Especially notable was the willing substitute Byun Byung-Joo's utter dominance of the one-paced Oscar Garre on Argentina’s left.

It became clear, too, that the Koreans had skills of their own, which had largely been hidden in the first half.

From the hour mark onwards, Korea were totally in control, and for all Argentina’s three-goal advantage, they looked dreadfully shaky against these quick, suddenly confident unknowns. Maradona completely disappeared from view. Choi Soon-Ho was left all alone in the box on 69 minutes, but blazed wide; Pumpido was forced into a save from close range a minute later, in a move during which Korea should have been awarded a penalty. Then, on 72 minutes, came the goal. Have a look.

video

Would you believe that the team in red, passing snappily, darting past their opposite numbers in midfield, and finishing beautifully, were the newbie no-hopers…and that the team sticking all their men in the penalty-box and essentially giving up the ghost were the world champions-to-be?

As the shrewd, deadpan Italian commentator remarks: “Argentina seem completely out of the game.”

Indeed they did, once the Koreans started playing to their strengths.

Argentina pulled themselves together in the final quarter-hour, but had to rely on some unseemly time-wasting (and some more clever foul-drawing by Maradona) to take the wind out of the Koreans’ sails.

What might have happened had the Koreans elected to use their pace and neat skills from the outset…as their team of 2002 did, in fact?


Thursday, March 06, 2008

 

Department of Youth - update #4, Part 2

The more one looks at the new youth league setup, the more it seems geared towards 16-18-year-olds rather than the higher end of the age range. Rob Baan's additional comments, reported here, certainly suggest as much.

In fairness, the title of the linked piece gives something of a false impression, given that Baan's actual comment was:

"It's not all about winning – it's about developing players."

Personally I would suggest that if players of close to professional standard aren't approaching a game with a competitive mentality by the time they are 20 (rather than 16), then there's something wrong.

The technical development aspect of the new competition is made quite explicit in the following extract:

The FFA will hold meetings with the youth league coaches about style of play they'd like to see in the lead up to the league kick off.

It will be interesting to see whether the FFA will be prepared to encroach on the autonomy of the clubs in this regard. I've suggested in the past that trying to impose a specific "style" on a particular group of players may be counter-productive, although some general guidelines would probably not hurt.

But would it be frowned upon, for instance, for a coach to take elaborate steps to take a brilliant playmaker on an opposition side "out of the game"? Such an approach would probably run contrary to the aims of the youth league, but said playmaker would certainly experience such treatment in the senior game.

In any case, there is sure to be a fine line between a laissez-faire developmental attitude and the desire for results if the coaches come to see a youth league gig as a ladder to further advancement.

But enough fussing, it's time for me to take the devil's advocate hat off and wish the new competition every success. It's a very bold move, given the distances and expenses involved, and it deserves all the support it can get - not least from the fans of the clubs concerned.

 

Who's Afraid? - brief update #14

Although, mercifully, it did not go out under the banner of an established media organization, this rabid, infantile tirade is worth a read (if only for a laugh).

Mr. Main, in his first paragraph, gives his profession as journalism. Never has there been a better demonstration that no qualifications are actually required for that particular profession.

One thing that can be ignored in isolation, but is creeping into the AFL v. football discourse generally, is the arrogant and dishonest assertion that AFL is Australia's "indigenous" game. "Football", a fractured animal for much of the 19th century, subsequently splintered into the separate codes we now know and love. AFL is merely a local variant, and describing it as "indigenous" implies the sort of special rights due to our indigenous population (to whom, I might add, the misappropriation of the term could be considered an insult).

As for this:

Australia’s indigenous code, whether the others like it or not, reigns supreme here and always has been able to fight off challenges.

Could someone please inform Mr. Main that Australia extends beyond the Murray river?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

 

Department of Youth - update #4, Part 1

Ladies and gentlemen, the youth league has landed.

For the first time in Australia's football history, we will have a nationwide youth league, and the FFA are to be commended for the initiative.

Having said that, plenty of questions remain; not only about the financial viability of the new league (coming, as it does, at the same time as the expansion of the senior competition), but about the details of the plan unveiled today by Ben Buckley and Rob Baan.

So then, herewith a few devil's advocate-style questions with regard to some of the statements contained in today's release:

...Youth Development Players will sign a Youth Development Agreement which is of amateur status...

1. Will the amateur nature of the competition prove a disincentive to some players?

Clearly the expenses of the start-up league have precluded any payments beyond the normal expenses of travel, accommodation and so forth. All well and good. But would this perhaps put some of our better 19-20-year-olds off?

Let me put it this way. Certain youngsters playing in the State Leagues - at youth or senior level - are fairly happy with their lot (to my knowledge) because they are able to hold down a job while pursuing a possible career in football. The geographically concentrated nature of the state leagues makes this feasible.

But with the travel associated with a national youth league, a full-time job might be compromised to some extent. For kids who aren't certain of their future in football, it could be an unenviable dilemma.

This would normally be less of an issue with 16-18-year-olds, of course.

2. What happens when clubs draw on the youth side for senior team replacements?

The requirement for clubs to do this is probably a reaction to the silly "injury marquee" situation which has become such a running sore. And, in many ways, it's an expedient solution to that little problem.

But if I understand the FFA's registration rules correctly, players of amateur status are not permitted to participate in the A-League. Perhaps the FFA could organize a waiver of sorts for the youth players, but the lines may become awkwardly blurred at some point (for instance, if a youth player "filling in" performs better than a player of similar age on the senior roster...).

...Each Youth Player must receive a minimum of 30 minutes game time

Four over-age players (including goalkeeper) allowed to play in Youth League Match...

3. Erm, how exactly does that work??

If there are four over-age players in the first eleven, then how do all the youth players on the team-sheet (of 15 players) get 30 minutes' game time? Four substitutions?

It would have helped if the phrase "30 minutes game time" had been clarified a little.

A-League clubs must draw replacement players from the Youth League Player Squad, except under certain circumstances.

4. Just what are these "circumstances"?

No elaboration or examples? It would be good to know.

"When combined with existing State-based competitions, players in the national youth league will play between 35-40 games each year."

5. Does this mean that the FFA is intending to enter these youth sides in the state leagues (or their respective youth competitions)?

If so, then I can hear the growls from Parklea already. The question would arise, too, of what would happen to the Newcastle and Central Coast youth sides, given the geographical make-up of the NSWPL.

If the idea is for the kids to play in existing state league teams in the A-League off-season, then fine (although there might be some registration issues there too).

Some more to come, particularly with reference to Rob Baan's rather touchy-feely comments about the philosophy of the new league. Tune in tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

 

Expansive Thoughts - brief update

Two interesting stories concerning the imminent expansion of the A-League came to light today.

First, the problems with the Northern Thunder bid, which have been the subject of rumours for quite some time now. Certainly, developments in Townsville seemed to be minimal in comparison to the rapid progress on the Gold Coast, with several players already signed by the Robina-based club, and the ever-voluble Miron Bleiberg on board as football supremo.

A 9-team league would be very awkward logistically, and I tend to think that A-League expansion should take place in groups of two. The byes were never particularly welcome in the NSL.

But wait, there might be a saviour galloping up from the Illawarra. I've always liked the idea of a Wollongong A-League side, given the long history of football in the region, and the fact that WIN Stadium could be an excellent A-League venue (with a bit of redevelopment). Yet there is an air of uncertainty about Mike Cockerill's piece, with the dreaded phrase "is believed to" repeated, and the equally unpromising "in principle" chestnut emerging. On another note, Victorian fans would not be amused to see a fourth NSW side in the national competition.

And we still don't quite know how an expanded competition would affect the Foxtel deal.

The next couple of weeks will be interesting.

Monday, March 03, 2008

 

Marquee Matters

So John Aloisi has indeed headed south for the winter.

A useful addition to Sydney FC's roster? Definitely. Worth $1.4 million? Probably not; but given Sydney FC's dismal recent record in transfer dealings (of which the Carney sale to Sheffield United represented the low point), it's not surprising that they have paid over the odds.

What, then, of Juninho? The rumour is that he will be heading to the Mariners, who will no doubt be able to pay him a substantial salary, given the loosening of the wage bill with the departures of Aloisi and Tony Vidmar. Whether Juninho will be a good fit for Lawrie McKinna's side is another matter (and his injury-prone first season would render his acquisition something of a gamble in any case).

From Sydney's point of view, the main issue will be how to fit Aloisi, fellow signing Mark Bridge and Alex Brosque into the same eleven. I doubt that John Kosmina will want to use a triple spearhead, given his generally conservative tactical set-ups, but none of the three is particularly effective in any other than a striking role; Brosque has never quite convinced on the left wing or in a deeper role, while Mark Bridge, despite his propensity to drift around the forward line, looks every inch a striker by nature: keen to run at goal whenever possible, and much more adept at scoring goals than making them.

Sydney FC's post-season transfer splurge is reminiscent, in fact, of Miron Bleiberg's bizarre strategy with Queensland prior to the 2006/07 season: in the wake of Alex Brosque's departure (and that of Jonti Richter), he signed three new strikers and no wide players. And, if you recall, Queensland still couldn't buy a goal for much of the season.

And here is the key point: Sydney's squad is still unbalanced, with no fullbacks to speak of (other than young Nick Tsattalios) and little in the way of good wide options further upfield, with Adam Biddle still quite inconsistent and Robbie Middleby now unable to beat his man all that often.

I can only hope that Kosmina will be able to invest in a little width for 2008/09.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

 

Making the Numbers Count - another update

I witnessed an extraordinary game of football this afternoon.

APIA-Leichhardt took an early lead against Bankstown City in this afternoon's NSWPL Round 2 fixture at Lambert Park. With Bankstown pressing hard in their usual manner, APIA began sitting back, relying on their sturdy defence (and the lack of movement from the Bankstown strikers). By half-time, APIA had held on to their lead, and looked unlikely to be breached.

Then something strange happened. Danny Slavevski, a Bankstown substitute, had given a linesman some lip towards the end of the first half; he'd already been booked, and was duly sent off when the dissent was reported. Ten minutes into the second period, Bankstown's player-coach Peter Tsekenis followed him into the tunnel, after an over-the-ball challenge on APIA's Peter Peralta.

Bankstown down to nine men, with over half an hour of the match remaining...and still a goal down. Game over, you would have thought.

Yet APIA had become so set in their defensive posture that they were simply unable to alter it, and, unbelievably, Bankstown continued to control the game following the second send-off. They had their "out-of-their-skin" players, of course, notably the energetic Shane Webb in midfield and Richard Luksic, a mountain in defence. But APIA's feebleness was something to behold; nervous in possession, and slow to switch the play and to commit numbers to attack when the high Bankstown backline was threatened, they lost the thread of the game completely.

Towards the end, it was amazing to see APIA, with eleven men, hoisting pointless long balls up from the back, and Bankstown, with nine, building through the midfield!

My Well-Informed Covite friend and I, watching from the northern stand, both thought that a Bankstown equaliser was on the cards. And sure enough, James Monie dived to head home a left-wing corner in second-half injury time.

There was a precedent in last season's A-League, and no doubt there have been others. It was, overall, a very interesting lesson in the psychology of football: the APIA players, over-committed to defence, seemed to feel terrified of the embarrassment of conceding; Bankstown, on the other hand, had absolutely nothing to lose, and played accordingly.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

 

Heffalumps and Rabbits, Part 1

My obsession with old World Cup matches has continued, and of late I've been able to download a couple of games that have featured teams of different class facing off: Brazil v. New Zealand from the 1982 tournament in Spain, and the 1986 champions Argentina playing their first game of that tournament, against South Korea.

When one watches games like this, the question always arises: what constitutes the gulf between the two sides? Of course, it rather depends on the nature of the superior side, or the "heffalump", as an irreverent sports journalist once described such teams. In a match such as the Germany v. Saudi Arabia game from the 2002 World Cup, it was in physical strength and tactical organisation that the Germans were so superior, resulting in a scoreline of 8-0. Technically, man for man, the Saudis could hold their own.

In the two aforementioned games, though, it was of course the skill on the ball, the ability to manoeuvre in tight spaces, and the standard of passing (and, up to a point, finishing) that so starkly distinguished the teams. Yet there were some interesting features thrown up by both games.

First, the encounter between Tele Santana's Brazil - surely one of the most entertaining and admirable international sides of all time - and the brave Kiwis of 1982.

For the first half-hour of this game, New Zealand more or less held their own, surprisingly enough. Yes, Brazil had the lion's share of the possession, looked far more dangerous going forward, and passed the ball more convincingly. Yet John Adshead's men worked some nice triangles in midfield as well, and once or twice posed a threat to the Brazilian goal. These rabbits had a bit of bite.

Meanwhile, at the other end, Brazil lacked the finish to their many polished moves, and the Seville crowd was actually moved to whistle the men in yellow quite noisily after another promising move fell flat.

Then suddenly the game changed dramatically.

First Zico scored from a magnificent bicycle kick, and two minutes later, following a New Zealand free kick, Brazil put together a superb breakaway move which resulted in another goal, tapped home rather more prosaically this time by Zico.

And the rest of the half was as one-sided a period of football as I've ever seen.

Brazil returned to their imperious best, passing crisply, moving off the ball with wonderful guile and inventiveness, and showing marvellous individual skill. The Kiwis barely got a touch of the ball for fifteen minutes...and the initiative continued well into the second half.

And, in my opinion, the change occurred partly because the Kiwis stopped playing to their strengths.

Of course, the Brazilians had gained huge confidence from their two goals (the spectacular opener in particular), but New Zealand helped them considerably by sitting back, and allowing them to build from the back without the physical pressure which they had applied in the opening period.

One particularly stark contrast was in the matter of the goalkicks.

Frank van Hattum, the New Zealand 'keeper, had punted plenty of long kicks down the middle in the opening half-hour (the Brazilians, by contrast, preferred to kick short to a defender), and the pressure that New Zealand applied both in the air and at the second balls meant that they often came up with the possession.

Following the two goals, almost every Kiwi goalkick, for the rest of the match, fell almost instantly to the Brazilians. And although Toninho Cerezo, Oscar and Falcao did well in the air, it was more to do with the fact that the Kiwis seemed to have given up challenging for the ball in these situations...which had been such a strength of theirs at the beginning of the match.

With no weapons of their own to match the Brazilians' skill, Adshead's men were simply overrun. They did recover somewhat in the second half, thanks mainly to the left-wing skill and guile of Steve Wooddin, but it was basically one-way traffic after the 30th minute.

That the game ended 4-0 rather than 8-0 had more to do with the Brazilians' wayward finishing (which would eventually cost them dear in a tournament they should perhaps have won); certainly, they created an enormous number of chances in the game.

Next, a look at the Argentinians of 1986, and their unheralded opponents who should have believed in themselves a little more.

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