Wednesday, March 31, 2010


1999 in Reverse

In recent years, there have been few games in the Champions League as thrillingly open as this morning's Bayern Munich v. Manchester United encounter. In more ways than one, the vibrant match was a mirror image of the incredible 1999 final at the Nou Camp.

An early goal for one side, the lead maintained throughout most of the game, and two late goals - one in the last minute of extra time - to turn the tables. But that is only the beginning.

With the ceaselessly incisive Arjen Robben absent, most of the home side's penetration looked likely to come through Franck Ribery on the left. But United sensibly double-teamed the Bayern go-to man for much of the evening, and although he got the drop on an aging Gary Neville once or twice, Ribery never quite forced the openings that Louis van Gaal would have been hoping for.

On the other flank, Hamit Altintop did not pose as much danger, and it was only when Philipp Lahm started to come forward with more regularity in the second half that Bayern posed a serious threat from the right.

Importantly, the charges of Martin Demichelis into midfield were less dangerous than against Fiorentina, largely because United were not being forced to double-team two wingers rather than one.

Ribery played a more important role when he began cutting inside after the break. In Jonathan Wilson's most recent Guardian blog, he looks at the phenomenon of "inside-out" wingers (concentrating, not surprisingly, on the dazzling Lionel Messi), and the shift in Ribery's play as the game wore on bore out Wilson's points aptly.

And...the deciding goal. I've always liked Ivica Olic as a player, not least because he habitually "fights to the finish". He has scored more than his fair share of crucial late goals in his career, and last night's classic piece of opportunism was characteristic.

Rewind eleven years, and what do we have?

A winger (Ryan Giggs) played on his wrong foot and therefore forced to cut inside frequently, because of a key absence (well, two, actually). United offering little on the other wing, where Jesper Blomqvist rarely broke through. Two strikers brought on late, to good effect. Enough parallels there?

United probably still have the upper hand in the tie, but if Bayern can carry their momentum through to the second leg, it could be a memorable night at Old Trafford.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


We Could Be Heroes - update #7

More Half-Time Heroics this month, with highlights including an in-depth interview with Trans-Tasman turncoat Raul Blanco, more World Cup team previews from informed bloggers, and a preview of the South Australian Super League from Goal! Weekly's redoubtable Nat Adamopoulos. Enjoy.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Pim in Retrospect

The expected has come to pass, with Pim Verbeek announcing he will relinquish the Socceroo role following the World Cup.

Of course, it's a little early to pass final judgement on his tenure with the World Cup still to come, but it's worth taking a broader look at his period in charge in the wake of the announcement. There are, after all, lessons to be learned for the future.

His stewardship of the national side is very difficult to assess, given that this is the first proper qualifying campaign Australia has ever faced. Virgin territory all around, and some doubt as to whether the Socceroos' limp performance at the 2007 Asian Cup represented their real standing in the region, given the poor preparation, the unfamiliar conditions and some players' apparent lack of effort.

Well, an Australian side with its European elite on board has no need to fear anyone in Asia unduly, that we know by now. The question remains: could it have been done with anyone in charge, or was Verbeek's acumen partly responsible?

I tend to think in retrospect that the job (to use a favourite word of Verbeek's) was an arduous one but perhaps not an overly difficult one, if that makes sense. The rigours of travel, unusual conditions (not to mention food) and personnel changes had their effect, but the comparative weakness of the opposition gave the Socceroos a major helping hand, as did a hefty slice of luck along the way.

Verbeek's first game in charge raised plenty of hopes; here was a coach prepared to stick two genuine strikers up front, and to allow the fullbacks to roam. It didn't last, of course. After scraping a dour draw in China, the Socceroos only ever played with the attacking intent they had shown against Qatar...against Qatar again.

Fortune continued to smile on Verbeek's charges: following that missed penalty in Kunming, there was Iraq's abysmal finishing in Brisbane, the unexpected late goal in Manama, the painfully one-sided 0-0 draw in Yokohama. And in the midst of it all...the 2011 Asian Cup qualifying campaign.

What should have been a formality turned into a nail-biting run to the finish, and despite the best efforts of Verbeek (and certain others) to blame it all on the A-League, his judgement was shown to be suspect on many occasions. The triple-digit shirt numbers on display against Kuwait in Canberra (and subsequently) told their own story, despite the laughable attempts by the FFA - inexplicably accepted without question by a compliant media - to claim that such shirt allocations were necessary. Verbeek evinced an undisguised contempt for the local competition from the outset, and his lack of tact in regard to the A-League was breathtaking at times.

He has even attracted some misplaced criticism for missing the A-League final last weekend, but he deserves far more criticism for systematically denigrating the local game in the eyes of the fans. Those praising the Dutchman for his "straight talking" were often blind to the slyly self-serving nature of his remarks.

On the plus side: he, like only Rale Rasic and Guus Hiddink before him, has overseen Australian qualification for the World Cup, and that is worthy of considerable credit despite all the above strictures. Whether he can provide the fans with a World Cup performance to be proud of is yet to be seen.

In finding a replacement, the FFA are bound to make Dutch nationality a sine qua non, but I'd like to make an alternative suggestion: how about Gabriel Calderon, the Argentinian whose Oman side made monkeys of the full-strength Socceroos in Bangkok in 2007? He has considerable experience in Asia, has tasted success at international level (guiding Saudi Arabia to the 2006 World Cup), and is currently at a loose end as far as I know, having left Saudi club Al-Ittihad in January. Worth a passing thought?

Saturday, March 20, 2010


Goal Fever

It was a night of many firsts: the first A-League grand final to go to extra time, the first in which both teams have scored, the first won by the away side (ignoring the "neutral territory" 2008 showpiece), and, last but not least, the first penalty Kevin Muscat has missed in a very long time.

Congratulations to Sydney FC, and especially to Vitezslav Lavicka. A double in his first season, after four years of mediocre football and mediocre coaches, is all the fans and the club board could have asked for. To win the grand final without your two most experienced players is an especially laudable achievement.

As finals go, it was a pretty good one: the thrilling second half largely made up for the awkward first period and the exercise in mutual exhaustion that constituted extra time. Penalties remain a rotten way of deciding such games, and few would disagree that the two teams deserved the status of joint champions in many ways. But Sydney's players kept their cool from twelve yards, and deserved their success in the shootout.

One has to feel a little sorry for Mitchell Langerak, who had a fine game, making three excellent saves during the match. Sadly, he showed some inexperience in the shootout, committing himself a little too early and thus making matters simpler for Hayden Foxe and Karol Kisel. His save from Shannon Cole was spectacular, but should not really have counted, given that he was well off his line before the ball was kicked.

It was a game in which the sides appeared very evenly matched...until they conceded. Both teams suffered from a serious case of goal fever when their opponents scored; Melbourne had begun the second half brightly, but fell apart at the back after being caught with a sucker-punch after a disallowed goal at the other end. Twice in the succeeding minutes, Sydney really should have gone further ahead, and it was only Chris Payne's horrific choke that kept the hosts in the match.

On Sydney's goal, incidentally: some might consider it poor sportsmanship to restart play so quickly after a disallowed goal, when some members of the opposition are still in a state of celebration. I tend to think that if the invalidation of the goal is signalled clearly and immediately (and it was in this case), the "conceding" side has every right to play on. A similar situation occurred in the notorious 1998 World Cup second round match between England and Argentina, when a Sol Campbell goal was ruled out, and Argentina rushed into attack while some England players were still crowded around the corner flag.

Sydney showed that they could suffer from goal fever as well. They looked composed, organised and full of confidence following Mark Bridge's header, but as soon as Adrian Leijer stole ahead of the Sydney defence to equalise, all was suddenly chaos. You could only describe Lavicka's side as limping to the end of normal time, and it was a tribute to their sense of purpose (and perhaps a sign of Carlos Hernandez's palpable tiredness as well) that they matched their opponents thereafter.

A good end, then, to a season in which the news has often been bad. The A-League is still alive and kicking, even if the problems appear to be multiplying.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Stuck in the Mud

And so the FFA's dream final has come to pass, for the first time in the A-League's history. And it is to be hoped that the pitch at Etihad Stadium will be in a better condition than SFS turf was last night; the shocking surface left both teams stuck in the mud to some extent, but Sydney FC ultimately adapted better.

In the event, things were much easier for Sydney than expected, largely thanks to Paul Ifill's injury and resultant anonymity, which took all of the life out of the Phoenix. In a mostly dire first half, the Wellington go-to man was painfully ineffective, and it was extraordinary that the away side didn't make more of an attempt to work the play down the other wing, where Leo Bertos was faced by the defensively suspect Sung-Hwan Byun. The result was a thoroughly sterile performance from the visitors.

In truth, Sydney FC weren't much better in the opening period, doing surprisingly little with the mountains of easy possession they were vouchsafed by their opposition, who were perhaps too keenly aware that their chief attacking threat was incapable of moving beyond second gear. As so often, Alex Brosque was the star of the evening, moving intelligently and creating openings while many of his team-mates looked unsure of themselves.

John Aloisi's injury could be considered a blessing in disguise. Chris Payne's first goal was very well-taken (he showed that he has developed the physical side of his game when shrugging off the challenge of Tony Lochhead), and although his second was, of course, a travesty, at least he had managed to get himself into prime position at the set-piece, something which could not always be said of Aloisi this term. The various conspiracy theorists might note that soon after Payne's handball, he would have been one-on-one with Liam Reddy had Peter Green not prematurely called for a foul on Brosque. The officiating was poor throughout...not for the first time in a preliminary final.

The game did liven up in the second period as both sides rediscovered their rhythm somewhat, but Wellington simply didn't have enough firepower to trouble the premiers. It was entirely fitting, too, the Sydney's two second-half goals sprung from the Bridge-Brosque partnership, displaying all the mobility and invention that they have shown at times under Vitezslav Lavicka.

There must be questions over Ricki Herbert's judgement in keeping Ifill on the field for as long as he did, and in holding back Eugene Dadi until the game was all but over. But in general terms, all the confidence and verve that characterised the Phoenix in recent weeks seemed to disappear when it mattered most.

So back to the Etihad, where Sydney didn't quite do enough the last time around. One feels that they have a better chance this time, with Melbourne tired and perhaps demoralised by their Asian Champions League exertions, and Sydney showing admirable resilience after a heartbreaking semi-final loss last week. But Ernie Merrick's side have won two home grand finals already, both of them against teams that showed a similar ability to bounce back from disappointment in an earlier playoff.

It's a very hard one to call.

Monday, March 08, 2010


And Then There Were Three

Two thrilling finals games, both going to extra time, both played out in front of bumper crowds, and both featuring lengthy periods of end-to-end action and many fine goals. After all the disappointments and blunders of season 2009/10, perhaps Ben Buckley and Archie Fraser deserved such good news.

Wellington deserve great credit for emerging triumphant from the sudden-death gang of four below the top two. They have truly been the outstanding success story of the fifth A-League season, their crowd numbers and football likewise impressive. Paul Ifill has been the league's best import since Carlos Hernandez, and although his finishing was not up to its usual standard against the Jets, you still knew that he was the man likely to make the indeed it proved. A word of congratulation, too, for Andrew Durante: one of the most habitually under-rated players in Australian football, he has certainly shown his quality this term.

The possibility of the Phoenix taking out the toilet seat is becoming a strong one, much to the potential embarrassment of both the FFA and the AFC. But overcoming Sydney FC will still be a tough ask, despite the fact that Vitezslav Lavicka's team has lost some of its cohesion with the loss of Steve Corica.

Mark Bridge didn't quite convince in the No.10 role, although his goal was superbly taken. Given that the Brosque-Bridge combination up front looked so menacing in the middle rounds, and given that John Aloisi has developed something of a penchant for dropping behind the front line, would it be an idea to play Aloisi in the hole against Wellington? He is far from a natural No.10, of course, but none of the other candidates have fitted the bill (although Karol Kisel did quite well there for a while in the final regular-season game).

Sydney can certainly have no complaints about the result, despite those two penalty claims for hand-ball; twice in the second half Melbourne were denied one-on-ones with Clint Bolton due to a flag-happy linesman. Not that these premature adjudicators will ever stop raising their flags until FIFA finally sees sense and allows access to video technology for disputed goals...but I digress.

It is out wide that Wellington could well do the damage against Sydney; Seb Ryall looked far from comfortable against Melbourne (not surprising given his lack of first-team action this season), and although Sung-Hwan Byun had his best game of the season going forward, he is still not entirely trustworthy at the other end. Most importantly of all, though, Wellington have patently gotten into the habit of winning...and at this stage of the season, that can be hard to break.

Set against this is Sydney's impeccable record against Wellington this season, which all the players, not to mention the two coaches, will remember. It should be a beauty.

Sunday, March 07, 2010



Hearty congratulations to the Matildas on a fine win over the powerful North Korean side in their international friendly yesterday. To give some idea of where their opponents stand in the women's game, they have been finalists in the last two Under 20 Women's World Cups, and won the inaugural Under 17 event in New Zealand in 2008.

As it happened, the Matildas were moral as well as actual victors, due to some disgraceful behaviour by the Koreans towards the end of the first half.

With the score still at 1-1 - a far-post bullet header cancelling out Sarah Walsh's superb early strike - the Australians were awarded a penalty for some pushing in the box at a free kick.

Now the call was soft, there is no doubt about that. But that in no way excuses the reaction of the North Korean team (apparently at the behest of their officials): the entire eleven marched towards the sideline, in an apparent walkoff.

The fact that they returned to the pitch after a few minutes, incidentally, suggests that the whole rigmarole was merely an elaborate piece of gamesmanship. Luckily, Katie Gill was not to be unsettled, and slotted the spot-kick away with aplomb.

Gamesmanship or not, however, the petulant display constituted an act of gross disrespect to the referee, the hosts, the fans, and the sport. A hefty fine and a temporary ban from international football would be a reasonable and appropriate reaction.

Most worryingly of all, the Matildas' coach Tom Sermanni commented at half-time that his charges were entirely used to such behaviour, and that he was glad that local fans had gotten the chance to see the sort of thing that the Matildas have to face in Asia on a regular basis.

All of which suggests that the women's game needs to be policed a little more closely by the various governing bodies. Such incidents cannot be allowed to pass without sanction.

Thursday, March 04, 2010


Trouble at the Front

The Socceroos' largely insipid performance in last night's qualifier against Indonesia was not overly surprising; after all, caution has always been Pim Verbeek's watchword, and an upset in this match would have been profoundly embarrassing (not to mention costly, in every sense of the word). And there were some consolations, not least the performance of Tommy Oar, who played with great vigour and enterprise out wide, and that of Shannon Cole, who showed a pleasing response to the big occasion.

If there was a worrying aspect of the performance, it was surely the ineffectiveness of Josh Kennedy up front. Yes, the Japanese season is yet to start, but Kennedy has performed well for the Socceroos on the back of scant game time in the past. Last night, against a far from imposing defence, he looked surprisingly uncertain in the air...despite the fact that the team's tactics in the first half were based firmly around the space just above his head.

In fairness, not all of the punts from out wide (and deep) were particularly well-directed, but Kennedy should surely have taken one of the many chances that came his way in the second half. If they were watching last night, the 2011 Asian Cup hosts must be wondering how the forward who comprehensively destroyed them in the World Cup qualifiers could be so wasteful against substantially inferior opposition.

There's little doubt that Verbeek will stick with his 4-2-3-1 in South Africa. Barring an injury, Kennedy is likely to be the 1, with Tim Cahill scooping up the second balls in his approved style. But if Kennedy cannot rediscover his aerial prowess, and continues to offer little on the deck, it's hard to see how Australia's attack will function particularly well. And, needless to say, the midfield and defence will be put under far more pressure than they were by a craven Indonesian side last night.

The news is not all bad. This was, after all, a virtual C team, and it was probably the best performance by an A-League-based side under Verbeek (which is not saying very much). Oar may have secured the coveted World Cup bolter spot, although Verbeek will no doubt be hoping for a quick European move for the talented youngster. Jason Culina, operating in an advanced role for once, offered more incisiveness than usual, especially after the break. Come South Africa, however, it is likely to be square balls and pirouettes again from the Gold Coast marquee man.

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