Sunday, May 17, 2009


The Halfway Point

The NSW Premier League's regular season is now at its halfway point, and Sydney United are still well out in front, despite a setback on Friday night.

Behind them is a chasing pack of three, with no other teams within coo-ee of the leaders at present. So then, a look at the top four in this season's competition, and a preview of what the back end of the season might hold.

Sydney United

It has been quite some time since any team has started the competition in such dominant form. Ante Milicic's side has combined experience and guile with a tremendous fighting spirit, and has reaped the consequent rewards. Even in this weekend's 3-2 loss to Manly United, the team rallied impressively in the second half to pull the score back to 2-2, before Manly's breakaway winner.

More significant than the loss, however, is the fact that Milicic - who has been a true talisman this season - is now off to Europe with the Young Socceroos for a few weeks. Whether United can maintain their momentum without him is debatable; other players, such as Glen Trifiro and a rejuvenated David Zdrilic, have been in good form, but the Manly game was a timely reminder that Milicic's mere presence on the park is sufficient to inspire the team in adversity. The player-coach picked up a nasty-looking injury towards the end of the game as well, which may bode ill for the leaders.

Vedran Janjetovic has been excellent in goal, and Luka Glavas and Elsid Barkhousir have troubled opposition defences throughout, despite some profligate tendencies. If United have a weakness it is probably in the centre of defence, where unnecessary fouls are more common than Milicic would probably want.

Manly United

The continued success of the side from the northern beaches is a real tribute to coach Phil Moss's acumen and motivational powers, given that it remains essentially a journeyman side. Even in the recent absence of Robbie Cattanach, there is plenty of penetration in attack (the youngster Joe Gibbs looks a fine prospect), and the addition of two wise old heads at the back in Spencer Prior and ex-Socceroo Matthew Bingley has kept Manly solid (if a tad slow) at the back.

Joey Schirripa, who narrowly missed out on a Sydney FC contract last season (Shannon Cole got the nod), remains one of the most dangerous free-kick specialists in the league, and Brad Swancott has enjoyed a good run of form in goal, putting in a brilliant performance in a tight early-season battle against Marconi.

If he is in the market for an A-League gig, it can't be long before Phil Moss gets a call.

Marconi Stallions

To their great credit, Marconi have looked far afield in recruiting for the 2009 season, and the result has been quality and entertainment aplenty. Ali Abbas, one of the asylum seekers from the Iraqi Olympic side, has provided fine touches and vision in midfield, although his coach Lee Sterrey has openly admitted that he has not quite adapted to the physicality of the Australian game as yet.

Even more exciting than Abbas, in my view, are the two Ivorian imports, Ousmane Kader Toure and Vamana Diarra. The former is a lively right-winger who is full of tricks and enthusiasm, although like Sydney FC's Kofi Danning, he can be over-elaborate at times. Diarra is a central midfielder with neat skills and an excellent strategic sense; I was particularly impressed with his performance against the West Sydney Berries at Lidcombe Oval, in a game which Marconi thoroughly dominated.

Elsewhere, midfielder/striker Alex Canak has been tireless and adroit, one of the players of the season so far, while Nahuel Arrarte continues to perform the midfield general duties with calm aplomb. It's hard to see Marconi dropping out of the top four any time soon.

Sutherland Sharks

Premiers last season, they looked set for a less-than-stellar 2009 after a stuttering start and the loss of their key man Brad Boardman to a short-term injury. But they have rallied and put together a string of wins, including a recent 4-1 thrashing of Sydney Olympic which might have been 7-1.

The Sharks have continued to play with impressive width; Mike Katz and Jim Bakis on the right are surely the most dangerous wide combination in the competition. In the centre, Neil Jablonski has been combative and clever, and young Matt Hall (who came into his own in Boardman's absence) has impressed many up front, showing that his stunning solo goal against Sydney FC in a trial game last year was no fluke.

Although not as tight defensively as the rest of the leading pack (the loss of Pedj Bojic has been felt keenly), Sutherland appear to have improved this aspect of their play in recent weeks.

The Others

Anyone who has followed Sydney Olympic's fortunes this season (and for several seasons past, in fact) will understand very well why it was the Greeks who invented the twin literary genres of tragedy and comedy. Aytek Genc's reign came to an early and unsavoury end, and new coach Nick Theodorakopoulos, switching to a back three, started off with three wins...followed by three straight losses! Life is never dull at Belmore.

Bankstown have stayed on the edge of the top five, but haven't quite looked as crisp as they did in 2007, although Lebanese international Hussein Salameh has been a good addition. Newcomers Bonnyrigg haven't quite made the impact that was expected of them, although agile winger Freddie Graham has troubled many opponents.

The defending champions' season has been, thus far, an unmitigated disaster. Problems with their home ground have not helped, and their dreadful off-season difficulties, although ostensibly solved, have left their mark. It is to be hoped that they can live to fight another season in the NSWPL: the proud history of football in the Illawarra merits a presence in the league.

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