Saturday, February 28, 2009


A Night of Ironies

Congratulations Melbourne Victory, A-League champions 2008/09, and the first team to lift the toilet seat twice.

Did they deserve to win this evening's game? It's hard to say, given the imbalance that was created so early on, but over the course of the season they have been perhaps the most consistent side.

The first of the intriguing points in a night rich in ironies was that Adelaide, who have displayed such an inferiority complex against Melbourne this season, held out so stoutly with ten men. Yet there was a reason for this: with their numerical deficit, Adelaide's men dropped deep, deep behind the half-way line, and Melbourne, whose basic modus operandi (despite Ernie Merrick's protestations to the contrary) remains counter-attack, were surprisingly stifled.

Their old problem, lack of width, was starkly apparent in the first half. Matthew Kemp, now granted the chance to appear in a grand final, got forward down the left occasionally, but his delivery into the box was terrible. And there was no Fred to peel off to the right and penetrate on that side, as there was in 2006/07. It didn't help that Billy Celeski's delivery from set-pieces was so mediocre, either.

Merrick made the undoubtedly correct change, with Evan Berger replacing Nick Ward (why was he starting, given his dismal form?) while Kemp moved over to the right. Yet Adelaide had clearly gained heart from their successful stonewalling act in the first period, and crafted two good chances in quick succession after the restart. When Daniel Mullen, up from the back, went on his inspired right-wing run shortly after the break, it looked as if the tide had turned.

The next irony: just when Adelaide appeared to have the hosts seriously rattled, came the goal. Eugene Galekovic, who had a superb season, must take some of the blame for the goal, but not too much, given that he was badly unsighted by Jonas Salley and Carlos Hernandez. And Tom Pondeljak, veteran of plenty of grand finals yet often a bit-part player therein, was the archetypal unlikely scorer.

After Danny Allsopp's dismissal, the game degenerated into warfare. Aurelio Vidmar was perhaps regretting the fact that his only attacking option from the bench was the hapless Paul Agostino, rather than the latterly in-form Robbie Younis. There's surely a story to be told there...perhaps yet more politics in the mysterious world of Adelaide United.

So then: the officiating.

Anyone who has been following the league closely this term would know that Srebre Delovski has been far and away the most impressive and consistent referee, as Tony Tannous has hinted in his excellent match commentary. Yet the league's top brass, with cuckoo-clock predictability, gave the whistle in the season's most important match to Matthew Breeze, despite his patent, amply-proven inadequacy, especially in finals matches. One could say they got what they deserved.

The red card given to Cristiano was simply ludicrous. One wonders whether Breeze or his assistant have ever played the game, given that a bit of elbow thrust is absolutely normal when going up for a header (as any park footballer would know). Allsopp? It was hard to tell from the footage available on Fox, but the contact looked fairly trivial. Certainly not as serious as Jade North's headbutt of Iain Fyfe, right in front of Breeze's eyes, in the minor semi-final of 2006/07. North was, of course, not sanctioned.

In the event, the game opened up nicely in the second period, but Breeze subsequently lost control again, and a bad-tempered conclusion was the result. Can we please have a decent referee for next year's competition showpiece?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Back at the Coalface

It's that time of year again...the most exciting club football competition in town is set to resume!

The town in question being Sydney, of course, and the competition the NSW Premier League, again sponsored by TeleChoice.

I feel that the mandarins of "new football", and their media friends, are just starting to realise the ongoing significance of the state competitions for the growth of Australian football. Especially with the likes of Shannon Cole, and now Fabian Barbiero, going from state league to Socceroos in one year (begging the obvious question, why had no-one given them a chance in the national league before?). Today's article from Mike Cockerill is a straw in the wind in this regard, although Cockerill is far more cognizant of state league happenings than some others in the Australian football media (particularly those of British extraction).

So then, a quick rundown of the players to watch in the NSWPL this year:

Tolgay Ozbey (Sydney Olympic)

After a disastrous 2008 with the underperforming Marconi side, Ozbey has enjoyed a remarkably prolific pre-season with Olympic, under his erstwhile coach Aytek Genc (now back in the state league after leaving his Blacktown post for Sydney FC in 2007). The quick, elusive attacker is at his best with a true target man beside him, and Olympic's Paul Wither should prove a much more congenial partner than Tallan Martin, with whom he never clicked at Marconi.

After his goalscoring feats with Blacktown in 2006 and 2007, many were bewildered that Ozbey did not immediately make the step up to the A-League successfully. But a spell at Newcastle was fruitless, and the move to Marconi proved a failure. This season, expect plenty of goals from the 22-year-old.

Ibrahim Haydar (Bankstown City)

A hit with Sydney FC's youth team this A-League season (he even scored in the grand final in Adelaide), the tall, powerful right-back should make a big impression in the state league this term. As far back as the 2007 NSWPL grand final, Haydar made an important contribution to Bankstown's second-half revival as a substitute, even though his team went down in the end.

He now has a national youth league trophy to his name, to which he made a fine contribution, and looks to be improving all the time. He has been used mainly as a substitute for Bankstown until recently, but a regular first-team berth is almost certain in 2009.

Mike Katz (Sutherland Sharks)

Watching him play for Sutherland last season, it was hard to believe how long Mike Katz had been around, because he seemed to approach every game with the enthusiasm and energy of an 18-year-old. In fact, he will be 29 this year, but he was an absolutely vital component in Sutherland's Premiership success in 2008, providing abundant pace and width on the right in combination with the crafty, experienced Jim Bakis.

He is apparently not interested in an A-League contract (although he spent some time in the NSL), but he remains one of the most watchable players in the local league. With Sutherland looking much diminished this season (Brendan Gan, Pedj Bojic and Shane Lyons have all moved on), Katz may provide some much-needed spark at Seymour Shaw.

Tayfun Buyukkopru (Penrith-Nepean)

A member of the all-conquering Marconi youth team of 2007, Buyukkopru didn't quite hit the heights with an ordinary Penrith side in 2008, but showed enough to indicate that he is a young midfielder of considerable promise. Possessing a good touch and some of the footballing intelligence which separates the wheat from the chaff at this level, the youngster has the potential to step up to the next level in 2009, I feel.

It will be interesting to see how Paul Okon fares in his new role as manager of the Sydney Tigers (the re-branded APIA-Leichhardt). He has some fine players at his disposal and the team has been impressive in pre-season, but they could well suffer from the lack of a true target man, now that Robert Younis has moved on to the A-League. Franco Parisi, currently operating at the point, is one of the most gifted players in the competition, technically superb although often over-elaborate. But a target man he most definitely isn't.

Olympic look good for the title, in my view, although Bankstown, Sydney United (with Ante Milicic now as player/manager) and newcomers Bonnyrigg should all provide stiff opposition. Last season's grand finalists, Sutherland and a "reborn" Wollongong, may fire again, but the omens are not good - a traumatic off-season in the latter case, several departures (as well as a coaching change) in the former.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Preliminary Review

So it is a repeat of 2006/07, after all. And this time, Adelaide won without recourse to penalties - their first win in A-League finals history. Not that it was a clear-cut victory; but for Queensland's profligacy in the final third, especially in the second half, Adelaide could have conceded not one but several goals.

Frank Farina, I feel, made a strategical error by not going for the jugular from the outset. With Queensland on a high and Adelaide surely still lacking some of their earlier self-belief, it was very strange that Queensland's defence sat so far back when in possession early on, leaving themselves few options for a constructive pass. As a result, Adelaide took the initiative after an inconclusive first ten minutes, and even returned to their slick possession game of the middle rounds at times. The midfield looked much improved by the presence of Fabian Barbiero and especially Jonas Salley, whose substitution in the second half was utterly inexplicable.

Queensland's midfield, by comparison, was impotent in the first period. My recent encomium of Matt McKay was bound to curse him: he had an awful first half by his standards, with Massimo Murdocca not doing much better. On the wings, Michael Zullo lost his intriguing battle with Daniel Mullen on points despite slipping past him once or twice, while Isaka Cernak was prone to telegraphing his intentions throughout. Both the wide men managed to tee up Mitch Nichols for a shot before the break, but the blond three-quarter man had an absolute nightmare evening in front of goal.

Apart from Fabian Barbiero's thunderous strike, Adelaide might have had one or two more in the first half but for a couple of over-hasty offside calls (it was not a good night for the linesmen in general). After the break, however, their control of the game dissipated.

It was largely Queensland's defenders who made the difference, pushing forward much more freely and confidently than before. After a couple of half-chances for the home side on the break, the Roar took over completely, and their dominance was exacerbated by the departure of Salley (more politics?). But with Queensland pitifully unable to trouble Eugene Galekovic from the edge of the area and largely toothless from set-pieces, it never looked like being their night.

Can Adelaide, then, put their embarrassing semi-final aggregate loss behind them and pull off a shock at the Telstra Dome? Although they looked a more balanced team tonight, I doubt they will be able to break their Melbourne hoodoo. The defence still looks a shade too ponderous to counter the swift movement of Messrs. Thompson, Allsopp and Hernandez, and cleaving to a lone striker - as we saw once again tonight - means that chances will be at a relative premium.

Melbourne by 2-0, in my opinion.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


The Video Refusers - update, Part 2

To continue my list of suggestions for the introduction of video technology in football:

3. In or out?

Because penalties are such crucial events in a game, I feel that referees should be provided with every assistance possible to determine whether a penalty decision should be given or not. However, in the case of mere "interpretation" of fouls, as I stated in Part 1, constant reference to replays would be cumbersome and not even particularly helpful. But in the simple determination of whether the initial contact was made inside or outside the area, there is every reason to go to the video.

A genuinely hard-to-judge case of this type would only occur about once in every three hours of football, on average, so the delay would not be especially irksome. Crowds and TV viewers are used to quite considerable delays at free kicks and penalties in any event. There is always the danger that referees would rely on the replay for an in-or-out call even when their naked eye should be more than sufficient (as cricket umpires have done recently with run-outs), but with some common sense from all parties, I don't think this would be an insuperable difficulty.

4. Did it cross the line?

Ah yes...the famous "1966" problem.

This is a difficult case, because open play can often continue quite normally after such a disputed goal (it's even possible for the "defending" team to score on the break within seconds). So how to use the video replay wisely in this case?

To my mind, the only way it could be fairly introduced is if a natural break in play (the ball crossing the goal-line, or, more commonly, the goalkeeper gathering the ball) occurs immediately after the maybe-goal, at which time the replay could be consulted. I say "fairly" although many will clamour that this is unfair, in that some goal-line decisions would then be reviewed while others would be ignored.

But this brings me back to my cardinal, basic point: the idea is not to make the decision-making process perfect, but to make it better...or rather, to make it as good as it can be without introducing excessive delays to the game. And to the objection that such use of video evidence would only be available to those at the top end of the football tree, and that it is therefore "discriminatory" in some sense, my reply is the same as it always was: how many fourth officials do you see in suburban AA4 games?

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Madness All Round

Hands up everyone who saw this coming. Mine will stay by my sides.

The general level of professionalism among A-League coaches in their relations with the media has declined sharply this season. There have been John Kosmina's snipes, Gary van Egmond's curious scapegoating of individual players, and now a simply astonishing outburst by Aurelio Vidmar.

It's worth remembering that, despite all Vidmar's successes this season, he is still inexperienced as a senior coach, and the sort of behind-the-scenes muttering and undermining that is de rigueur at most clubs may have caught him somewhat unawares. But that's little excuse for some of his comments. Call your club's home city a "pissant town" in some parts of Europe and you would be lucky to escape physical harm, let alone the sack.

One wonders how much the "politics" he refers to influenced his selection for last night's game. In the event, it was an unbalanced, dispirited-looking Adelaide side, which badly missed the pugnacious Fabian Barbiero in midfield early on. Carlos Hernandez, as Andy Harper mentioned, was allowed far too much space in which to operate, and he responded with a sterling performance, setting up three goals and working his own way onto the scoresheet with a calmly-taken strike.

And why, after his sturdy performances at the point of the attack towards the end of the regular season, was Robert Younis not even included in Adelaide's squad for the Melbourne tie? Cristiano battled hard last night as always, but he simply didn't have enough support to make a significant impact...while, at the other end, Melbourne took advantage of the gaps in Adelaide's defence (particularly as a result of the full-backs getting marooned upfield) in characteristically incisive fashion.

If Adelaide are in disarray, Queensland are looking ominously effective, and plenty of pundits have written the Reds off in next week's preliminary final already. It might be closer than expected; it's worth remembering the 2006/07 series, when Adelaide were denied a home grand final in heartbreaking fashion but recovered to sneak past Newcastle on penalties. But has Vidmar made his position at Adelaide untenable? It certainly appears that way.

Vidmar is not the only one to have been attacked by a fit of madness, however. The FFA, in one of their silliest decisions to date, have declared that next season's 10-team competition will feature a six-team finals series.

Even beyond the inherent absurdity of more than half the teams in a competition making it to the finals series, there is the additional objection that next season would be the perfect opportunity to install the nicely balanced five-team finals system, used (for instance) in the NSW Premier League, rather than the awkward two-leg playoffs necessary when there is an even number of finalists.

I'm hoping that wiser counsels will prevail on this one (the fans will no doubt have plenty to say).

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Massive Matt

Prior to the announcement of the squad for Australia's "A-League only" Asian Cup qualifier against Indonesia, I suggested on one of my usual football forum haunts that if I were in Pim Verbeek's shoes, Matt McKay would be the very first name on my list.

The 26-year-old Queenslander is, quite simply, the most complete player in the competition. Possessing a good first touch, an exemplary range of passing, consistently intelligent off-the-ball movement, an indomitable fighting spirit and a useful (if not entirely reliable) delivery from set-pieces, he would be an asset to any team...and Frank Farina must be thanking his lucky stars that McKay turns out for the team in orange.

Most of the plaudits after last night's win over the Mariners went (understandably) to Mitch Nichols and Michael Zullo, who both had rousing games. But once again, McKay was centrally involved in the game's decisive moments as well.

For the first goal, he followed his crisp pass to Sergio van Dijk with the sort of cutting off-the-ball run into the area that we see so seldom in the A-League. Sure enough, the Dutchman's shot was parried, and McKay's pace and determination saw him emerge with the ball despite the attentions of both Danny Vukovic and two Central Coast defenders. A quick, smart ball back into the area, a half-clearance, and Massimo Murdocca's piledriver was deflected in by Nichols.

Then, the second goal. After securing the turnover with a headed interception, McKay occupied the vacant inside-left channel in typically shrewd fashion, and was rewarded with a peach of a pass from Nichols, to put him through on goal. Although his finishing is perhaps the weakest part of his game, he remained calm and slotted the ball neatly past Vukovic to seal the tie.

Some people still refer to the "Mass and Matt" nexus in the Queensland midfield as if the two were interchangeable. But there are important differences between the two players: Murdocca prefers to run with the ball, and often runs into cul-de-sacs; he is also, I feel, only really capable of playing at one tempo - that of all-out attack. McKay's passing is far better, and although he is perhaps not as dangerous as Murdocca when running at his man, he makes up for this with his ability to occasionally slow down the play when necessary (as we saw in the first leg of the semi-final, after Queensland had gone down to ten). I mean this, incidentally, with no disrespect to Murdocca, a player any A-League manager would be glad to be able to call on.

It is a shame that McKay (like Nick Carle) was, to some extent, a victim of the NSL/A-League hiatus, which perhaps put a dampener on his hopes of a European stint. In my view, he is easily capable of making the move, but at his age, he is unlikely to do it. The upside of this, of course, is his continued presence in the A-League.

A final thought, in the light of last night's game: as Queensland deservedly reach their second successive preliminary final under Frank Farina, it's sobering to remember the constant vitriol that was directed at him during (and just after) his stint with the national team. He should never coach in Australia again, we heard. He's an unstable, tactically inept nobody. He's never prepared to give young players a go (how ironic that sounds now!). After Pierre Littbarski's departure from Sydney FC, Walter Bugno announced to the fans at an awards night that our new coach "would not be Frank Farina". He was greeted with an enormous cheer.

How things have changed.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Pim Geluk

In one of his engaging diary entries from the 2006 World Cup, Planet World Cup columnist Paul Marcuccitti invoked the term "Guus Geluk" ("Lucky Guus") to describe those mad final minutes of the unforgettable game against Japan in Kaiserslautern.

Last night, another game against Japan, another very lucky Dutch coach.

Pim Verbeek has certainly been favoured by the gods throughout this World Cup campaign. Shao Jiayi's missed penalty in Kunming, the Uzbeks' numerous fluffed chances in Tashkent, and, of course, Mark Bresciano's late and entirely undeserved winner against Bahrain. Now, a horribly insipid performance against Japan has been rewarded with a draw, despite the fact that a cool Japanese head in the attacking third would have probably ensured a 3-0 result. It was wretched to watch, and although Verbeek has the usual excuses of limited preparation time and a key injury (Brett Emerton), as well as the satisfaction of an away draw against the main group rivals, the general Socceroo effort - particularly in the second half - was lamentable.

Tim Cahill as a lone striker, when both Josh Kennedy and Scott McDonald were available? It defied sense. Not once did Cahill manage to hold the ball up effectively in the entire 90 minutes, yet this is no reflection on the Everton man: he was simply being used in a position to which he is fundamentally unsuited.

And although Australia took the field with no fewer than three defensive midfielders in a Christmas tree-style formation, Japan were barely stifled in this area. Vince Grella was chasing shadows throughout, Jason Culina barely got involved at all, and although Carl Valeri was diligent in tracking back to support Scott Chipperfield on the left, his main other contribution appeared to be knocking the ball forward to no-one. However, it didn't help the three anchormen that Brett Holman and Mark Bresciano (where has his first touch gone?) were so ineffectual in front of them.

Verbeek can, of course, thank the back five for the point. Lucas Neill and especially Craig Moore were outstanding, an overworked Luke Wilkshire had one of his best games for Australia at right-back, and even Chipperfield, shaky at times, made some good contributions. Mark Schwarzer's excellent save from Yasuhito Endo seemed to revive him after a hesitant opening period, and he controlled his area with aplomb thereafter.

Perhaps I protest too much. After all, I have recently made reference to the fact that the Asian qualification route is bound to be less entertaining than most fans would expect. But I feel that from our first team, Socceroo fans are entitled to expect a little more than the non-football we saw in the second half last night. For a period of about twenty minutes around the hour mark, almost every time Australia received the ball, it was passed straight back to a man in blue.

Preparation time was truncated, the rigours of travel are not to be underestimated, and the result was good (and, incidentally, we will not always have to endure the awkwardness of a qualifier on a friendly date). But next time, let's at least have an attempt to play some football. Japan may be one of the best sides in Asia, but we should not have to play come-and-get-me against them.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


The Video Refusers - update, Part 1

Les Murray has been a long-time opponent of the introduction of video technology in football, to assist the referees. His latest salvo on the World Game website refers to the recent dismissal of Chelsea's Frank Lampard in a crunch Premier League match, and a subsequent article from the British press. The recent sacking of Luiz Felipe Scolari has added further spice to the whole situation, incidentally.

Although Les makes his case with typical vehement clarity, I feel that he and the British scribe are both missing the point. There is a case for video assistance for referees...but not in situations like the Lampard/Alonso incident.

In some 50-50 challenges, it is almost impossible to determine fault, let alone intention, even with the benefit of replays from several different angles. One man's "got the ball" is another man's "following through dangerously"...see, for instance, Danny Tiatto's challenge with Dylan McAllister which earned him his second yellow card on Friday evening. Tiatto did indeed get to the ball first, but was he able to avoid cannoning into the Mariners man subsequently? Very hard to judge, although justice was unquestionably served, given that Tiatto's earlier over-the-ball challenge on Andre Gumprecht was a clear red.

Since I've made my support for limited video assistance clear on several occasions on this blog, perhaps I should spell out the circumstances in which I think recourse to replays would be ideal. Les is right to assert that football's rhythm is less congenial to stoppages than that of tennis, cricket, American football and rugby, but there are some instances in which a stoppage would not affect the flow unduly.


1. Offside goals

N.B.: not, I repeat not, offside in general. Offside goals.

Linesmen are far too keen to raise their flag in the modern game, but were they to be made aware that if they keep their flag down and a goal is scored immediately the offside call can be checked, wouldn't it encourage them to let the play continue more often than not?

The delay in checking the decision would be minimal. Think of the current situation: a goal is scored from a possible offside position, and along with the usual delay while the euphoric attacking side strolls back past the half-way line, we have the spectacle of the defending side surrounding the referee and shouting the odds. It can often be a minute or so before play is re-started.

The decision as to what constitutes "part of the same passage of play" could be a tricky one, and would have to be left to the referee's discretion. But the point here is not to make the decision-making process perfect, only to make it better, without undue hindrance to the flow of the game.

2. Penalty shoot-outs

It astonishes me that people are still so blasé about the absurd injustices that occur in penalty shootouts as a matter of course. How often do we see the goalkeeper creeping off his line to give himself an unfair advantage? At least twice in every single shootout, I would suggest.

The delay in taking kicks is always considerable anyway. If the referee were able to refer any suspicious movement to judgement by replay, and produce a yellow card if the goalie is found guilty, surely this infuriatingly common offence would disappear overnight. A second yellow, and the lucky opposing team gets to simply whack the penalty into an empty net for the remainder of the shootout. A necessary deterrent, in my view, if the penalty shootout is to retain any credibility whatsoever.

And there's (a little) more. Tune in after all the excitement in Yokohama.

Sunday, February 08, 2009


The Finals - First Leg Review

It certainly looks like both of the semi-final ties are effectively over. Melbourne rarely looked troubled against an Adelaide United who have well and truly come down from their Asian Champions League high, and the Mariners continued their steep slide against Queensland.

Immediately after receiving his deserved A-League Coach of the Year award, Aurelio Vidmar reminded us that he can still make some oddly maladroit decisions. It should have been clear to anyone with eyes that starting Paul Agostino alone up front against the Mariners simply didn't work, yet there was the veteran again, ploughing another lone furrow at Hindmarsh. And again, Adelaide looked impotent in the final third.

At the other end, Michael Valkanis's vulnerability has increased exponentially in recent years, as the opening goal showed (although Vidmar has cause to be angry with young Michael Marrone, who basically gave up on chasing Danny Allsopp to the eventual rebound). Melbourne were too crafty in defence, too effective on the break, and too powerful up front throughout. Were it not for a couple of fantastic saves from Eugene Galekovic and a surprising miss from Archie Thompson at the close, it could have been an absolute humiliation for the home side.

Over in Gosford, the Mariners' woes up front continued apace. This time, Matt Simon too was affected, while Dylan McAllister surely needs some time on the bench until he can recover his confidence, which appears shot to pieces at present. It's hard to fault Lawrie McKinna over his selection: Matt Osman did well in the problematic midfield anchor position, and Paul O'Grady deserved another shot after a fine effort in the game against Adelaide. Yet the fact that the Mariners no longer have a single attacking player in form - Adrian Caceres had one of his worst games of the season - surely decided the issue.

Ultimately it didn't matter that Tahj Minniecon showed only brief glimpses of brilliance amidst the clumsy touches, or that Sergio van Dijk was unusually quiet. A simple goal from a set-piece, a foolishly conceded penalty, and a single good chance for the home side while Queensland were down to nine men...not pleasant reading for a Mariners fan. Indeed, McKinna's team never looked like troubling a ten-man Roar, with Matt McKay adroitly bossing the show in midfield as usual.

Do either of the away sides have a chance next week? If Adelaide make the necessary changes, I feel they can at least give it a decent shot. In the Mariners' case, however, I seriously doubt it.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


The Finals - First Leg

Shane Smeltz has carried off the A-League's top gong, another largely predictable Socceroo squad has been announced for next week's clash with Japan, various awful puns are being wrung out of the nationality of Sydney FC's new coach...but back in the real world, the business end of the A-League has arrived. And it should be good value.

In many ways, the finals series in prospect has echoes of the 2006/07 season. Melbourne and Adelaide battle it out for the automatic grand final spot, while in third and fourth respectively we find a team on a roll, that has produced probably the best football in the competition, and a team that appears on the slide, increasingly reliant on the "direct route". Definite shades of the A-League's second instalment.


Melbourne v. Adelaide

These two have been neck-and-neck for much of the season, but Melbourne have had the Indian sign over Aurelio Vidmar's men in their individual encounters. Adelaide have proved a hard team to break down otherwise, conceding the fewest goals in the competition by some margin. Yet some insipid recent performances have reinforced the impression that they need to offer more in an attacking sense.

It was significant, in their final match against the Central Coast, that two strikers in Cristiano and Robert Younis combined in elegant style to force home the winner, after Paul Agostino had thrashed around ineffectively on his own for so long. Vidmar has been solidly committed to his five-man midfield plan throughout the season (in the Asian Champions League as well), but the time has surely come for an extra body up front. It's hard to point to a weak link in Adelaide's midfield as such, but perhaps Vidmar should settle for Paul Reid and Fabian Barbiero as his central two, with Travis Dodd on the right and one of Cassio or Lucas Pantelis on the left. Rostyn Griffiths, an injury signing for Jason Spagnuolo, is an interesting addition to the mix.

Melbourne have stuttered at times this season, but they remain a daunting prospect, with the most settled striking pair in the country and a still inspirational captain to marshal the defence. Billy Celeski's form this season, too, has been a pleasant surprise. Perhaps the key question for Ernie Merrick is how to use his joker, Carlos Hernandez; as a substitute to spark the team in the second half, as against the Central Coast in Round 20, or as a go-to man from the start? Against Adelaide, the former might actually be more effective, as Vidmar has tended to thin out his midfield more towards the end of games, leaving space in which a fresh Hernandez could thrive.

I'll pick a cautious game at Hindmarsh...and a 1-1 draw.

Queensland Roar v. Central Coast Mariners

The favouritism that Queensland have earned in this tie could well work against them, as Lawrie McKinna's men have proved more than once that they revel in being written off. Yet there are definitely problems in Gosford, with the gap left by Mile Jedinak still providing a huge headache. Interestingly, it was Nigel Boogaard, nominally a defender, who came closest to providing the requisite grit in midfield in the Mariners' final game of the season, after Brad Porter and John Hutchinson had been found wanting defensively in the engine room. Porter looks more comfortable at right-back, while Hutchinson is always more effective going forward.

Andre Gumprecht's return to form must give McKinna some consolation for his midfield worries, while the defence still looks intermittently solid. But the goals have dried up, and Matt Simon will be under a great deal of pressure to deliver, with his striking colleagues suffering varying levels of angst in front of goal.

Queensland, by comparison, look in splendid shape: eleven goals in their last three games, few injury concerns, a striker in tremendous form, and a talisman playmaker slowly returning to full fitness. Indeed, it could just be the embarrassment of attacking riches that could cause Queensland to slip up, should Frank Farina either leave the defence dangerously undermanned (as was the case the last time the Roar played in Gosford), or fail to pick the right mix in the final third. Michael Zullo is clearly a fixture by now, but you never quite know what to expect from Tahj Minniecon on the other flank...he could be quite brilliant, or he could be a nonentity. And the same could be said for Tommy Oar, who has shown plenty of promise, but also a tendency to go missing.

Nevertheless, Queensland have to be the favourites. But again, I'll take the coward's pick of a draw in the first leg...a 2-2 slugfest to provide the patrons of Bluetongue with another match to remember.

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