Tuesday, February 03, 2009
The Finals - First Leg
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.