A-League Wrap 1

Guest blogger, the Reserve Keeper, runs his eye over the first 2 rounds of the A- League.

Two rounds into the 2013/2014 A-League season and the collective football community is smiling. With record opening round crowd figures of a touch over 100,000 across all games, the punters are certainly excited. There was also a record Melbourne derby crowd with over 45,000 at Etihad. The TV audience for the opening game between Sydney and Newcastle pulled an estimated average of 358,000 which is unsurprisingly also a record. FOX Sports via your favourite pay TV provider had exclusive rights to games in the past. Now SBS has rights to the Friday night games, expect more tune-ins, mainly to do with the uncanny fact that free trumps having to pay for something, every time.

The football itself has been entertaining. Sydney FC looked the goods against Newcastle Jets knocking in two goals. As expected Mr Del Piero was the player creating the most for the Sky Blues, scoring the first and setting up the second goal. In game 2 against the Roar, Sydney were systematically dismantled and looked like low-vis traffic cones. Del Piero went off injured not long into the game and things went downhill from there in a 4-0 loss.

Highlights from that game were all from the orange team: attacking in numbers; large patches of possession; finding gaps everywhere and getting forward quickly to goal. The damage could have been worse if not for a little too much samba in the step of Henrique trying to walk it in a could of times. The one bad note was the first half injury to Berisha, who was looking sharp and scored the equaliser in the 2-1 win over Wellington the week before.

Someone predicted a bottom finish for Wellington this year. After the first two rounds this looks doubtful, but they also started strong last year and collapsed. Part of Carlos Hernandez contract must state that he can only eat through a straw, because the guy looked fitter than he ever did at Victory. With half the starting lineup out with International duty, they showed spirit against the Roar and even more so against the Wanderers away. After going behind early, they fought back to earn a 1-1 draw with both keepers working hard.

There was a big and vocal crowd ‘out west’, which must be a delight to play in front of. Western Sydney really could have taken all 3 points in this game but for the previously mentioned glovework, as well as some woodwork getting in the way. The Wanderers look like goal-scorers this year with Tomi Juric looking sharp. He nabbed the equaliser in what wasn’t really a fantastic 1-1 draw away at Central Coast in round 1.

Central Coast only had four of last season’s grand finalists on the park. While the overall team is still decent, it doesn’t appear to have the spark of yesteryear. Mitchell Duke finished with a nicely taken goal in that game with plenty of assistance from new signing Marcos Flores. Flores looks comfortable in the middle for the Mariners and got on the scoresheet twice against the Heart, albeit from two penalties.

David Williams scored the first two goals in this game. One from picking up some scraps Justin Pasfield dropped and followed with a neat finish from Ramsey’s cross. While seeming to rely on the counter attack, Heart appear to be a decent squad who came to play. Old Leeds United boys with new shirts, Kewell and Kisnorbo, drive the team with pure tenacity. Golgol Mebrahtu isn’t just a cool name, he is a handy player, although he could have done better in the side’s 0-0 draw with the Victory. Despite rounding the keeper, he lacked composure to finish.

The Melbourne derby was entertaining but ended scoreless. There were six yellow cards handed out, so no love lost between the two sides. Victory’s constant pressure and snappy passing wasn’t quite enough to get by, as there was a lack of potency up front. Against Adelaide the groundsman at Coopers Stadium must have told the Victory boys that the net was new and didn’t want it to wear out, so please don’t touch it. Connor Pain and Archie Thompson must have wanted the ball on a gold platter, not a silver one when their chances came. Despite a bootload of goal-scoring chances and a quality squad, the game that should have finished 6-0 ended in a 2-2 draw, with some crazy refereeing decisions going in favour of Adelaide.

Looking at it from the Red’s perspective, this was a game they let slip. After two goes at it, new recruit Cirio found the net before Jeronimo Neumann added the second. Despite only costing $100k in fantasy football, Awer Mabil was a standout for the Reds. The football Adelaide are playing is certainly an improvement on last year and will be good to watch it go further. The week before, it took a bit of effort but they beat the Glory 3-1. Jeronimo nabbed two goals and Fabio Ferreira also got on the scoresheet. A great result considering they finished the game with nine men.

Ryo Nagai was the sole contributor to the scoreline in that game with a nicely placed header. There wasn’t much else of note in that game which Perth can take as a positive. There wasn’t a great deal happening for them against the Jets either, other than the family affair of the Edwards brothers being on the park together with dad coaching on the sidelines. While they don’t look bad, Perth just aren’t doing much at present. The Jets brigade looked sharper than the week before.

They were a few cans of WD-40 from being a well-oiled machine against Sydney. Obviously this squad is still a work in progress, with plenty of young talent on the books but no-one really putting their hand up. The high point is new boy Jacob Burns looks pretty handy and will be their strength going forward this season. Birighitti has done pretty well in goal so far, although that may be down to putting off strikers with the reflected light from his hair gel.

With the now confirmed departure of coach Ange Postecoglou from Victory to the national team coaching role, it is yet to be seen who will take over. Friday night’s Victory vs Roar game will be his farewell match and should be a cracker.

The Reserve Keeper: A-League Preview Part 2

Guest blogger, The Reserve Keeper, previews the A-League season. Enjoy!

097541-a-league-captains
Left to right: Marcos Flores (Mariners) , Alessandro Del Piero (Sydney) , Shinji Ono (Wanderers ) and Emile Heskey (Newcastle)

Adelaide United

Last season was one to forget for the reds. Despite the respectable 4th place finish, there were not enough churches in the city that could change the ill-will amongst board, coaches and players, not to mention the fans being far from impressed with a show of silence during one home game. There was a call for a change of culture, which was answered in the form of Spanish coach Josep Gombau. With ties to Spanish giant Barcelona FC, this has reportedly brought about more of a passing playing style and a feeling of reinvigoration at the club.

The loss of sometimes Socceroo Dario Vidosic to FC Sion Switzerland will leave a big hole going forward. There weren’t many attacks last year that he wasn’t a part of, nor many free kicks that he didn’t send goalward. Young Socceroo Tomi Juric is off to the Wanders and the two Iain’s have also departed – Ramsay to Heart and Fyfe to big oil country. It’s not all bad news though, with Socceroo left-back hopeful Michael Zullo in from the Netherlands on loan, Tarek Elrich in from the Wanders and two basically unknown Spaniards who will play in attacking roles.

With a change in morale, change in playing style and what shouldn’t be a wholesale change in the starting 11 from last year, the reds may surprise. Pre-season results have been decent, but can they play like Barca not just on the Playstation, but on the pitch? Hard to say. Expect strong performances in front of their home fans, not so much away.

Prediction: 5th

Central Coast Mariners:

The boys that spoiled the fairytale for the Wanderers last season were indeed a powerhouse, with the mercurial Graham Arnold pulling the strings. Having one of the most admired coaches in the country leading your team is handy, especially when it comes to nurturing young, raw talent. The thing that isn’t handy is the overseas clubs come to cherry pick your talent and you have to start again.

After losing Tom Rogic late last season to Celtic, 1st choice gloveman Mat Ryan, Bernie Ibini and Oliver Bozanic also headed for the international departures lounge. Pedj Bojic has gone down the F3 to Sydney FC and the big Dutchman Zwaanswijk (a 36-point word if you’re playing along at home) has hung up his boots. That’s five from the starting 11 in last year’s final. Joining the squad is Matt Simon, a previous CCM striker returning from China, Marco Flores comes up from the Victory and Dutch new boy Marcel Seip brings a good 10 years of European experience to Bluetongue Stadium. Liam ‘my goalkeeper gloves make great stubby holders’ Reddy is given a lifeline after blowing his Sydney FC contract but is hardly a replacement for Ryan.

Can the Mariners repeat last years’ efforts? Doubtful. Will they give it a good shake? Absolutely. Golden Boot winner Danny McBreen hits the net before the groundsman has put it up, Matt Simon and young Socceroo Mitchell Duke are both sharp in front of goal, but the cull that occurred behind them may be their undoing. Not to be underestimated, but don’t get over excited.

Prediction: 4th

Western Sydney Wanderers

The new boys on the block last year almost had the fairytale ending. At the start of the season they were at odds of $150 to win it. Who would have thought? Coach Tony Popovic did well in his first year with what was really a bunch of random dudes and Japanese sensation Shinji Ono. But this year expectations are much greater to replicate that success, if not take it all.

They have shed a few bit-part players from last year, including Reece Ciara to Phoenix, Tarek Elrich to Adelaide and Joey Gibbs to Newcastle while regular frontman Dino Kresinger has been released. Joining the Red and White Bloc this year is ex-Sydney FC player Brendan Santalab via China, Tomi Juric and Dean Heffernan have come from other A-League clubs and in-and-out Socceroo Mathew Spiranovic joins from Qatar.

The Wanderers should hit the ground running this year. Defensively they have a wealth of experience in keeper Covic, Topor-Stanley and big-boy Beachamp who on their day are seriously hard to beat. At the other end, they will be hoping to avoid the slow goalscoring start of last year with Bridge looking most likely to feature regularly. Their main strength comes from a midfield that can score regularly in the shape of Ono and Hersi, partnered with Mooy and La Rocca who are capable of knocking a couple in. Going one better this year could be a lot to ask, but looking at where they came from last year, it’s hard to ignore the threat.

Prediction: 3rd

Brisbane Roar

After winning the title in 2011/2012, the Roar was more like a domestic long-haired tabby last season: It looked the goods, but was struggling to get off the couch. Superstar youngster Mitch Nichols, who was on fire the year before struggled for form, normally reliable Besart ‘bi-polar‘ Berisha was hit and miss in front of goal and the overall game plan seemed to be like lawn bowls: get as close to goal as possible but don’t actually score.

There are a few notable absences: Mitch Nichols has gone to Victory, young-gun Ben Halloran got picked up by a German club, Matt Jurman went to the red half of Melbourne and Murdocca sailed off to Sydney FC. On the flip side, previous captain Matt McKay is back from his Asian invasion and ex-Sydney FC spring chicken Dimitri Petratos comes home from abroad. They also picked up experience with Irishman Liam Miller from Perth and promoted a couple of youth boys to the seniors.

Brisbane certainly have a solid starting 11, however they don’t appear to have a great depth past these players. Berisha knocking in a hattrick pre-season is a good sign and it appears as though coach Mulvey has them playing good football. Providing they good a good start, avoid injuries and Berisha finds sparkling form, the Roar will be hard to beat.

Prediction: 2nd

Melbourne Victory

Finishing in third behind the grand final representatives last year, Victory was just like Melbourne weather: hot and cold, sometimes just nice, but not all day.  Flores never really showed his worth, Archie Thompson scored some rippers but missed some sitters, the defence swung from rock solid to somewhat spongy and often conceded late, and let’s not forget the magic of the tricky little kiwi Marco Rojas. Coach Ange Postecoglou still saw room for improvement.

He started trimming the fat from his squad late last year and didn’t let up over the break. Billy Celeski and Rojas went overseas, with Velaphi (Heart), Flores (Mariners) and Diogo ‘touch of an elephant’ Ferreira (Roar) being thanked for their services. Replacing them are Kosta Barbarouses and Mitch Nichols who Ange had previously at Brisbane, Socceroo James Troisi and marquee Chilean international defender Pablo Contreras. Troisi will be looking to impress before Brazil, so he should be playing out of his skin.

Pre-season has seen acceptable but mixed results, but don’t read too much into it. The exhibition match against Liverpool was an indication as to the Victory’s capabilities and that was with about 5-6 players who will be seeing mostly plastic lawn chair time this year. With the quality and depth of the squad every player should be firing. With a host of young, speedy players, some experienced older heads and a quick-passing playing style that won’t give the opposition a break, the Victory to be the one to watch this year.

Prediction: 1st

The Prediction

It looks to be a very even competition this year. Any team could be capable of getting up over their rivals, although some are looking more likely than others. Melbourne Victory, Brisbane Roar and Western Sydney Wanderers should be in the top three, with Central Coast, Adelaide and Heart making up the Finals spots. Perth and Sydney may just pinch a place in the top six, but Newcastle and Wellington might as well start planning their end of season trip. Newcastle will get a party bus up the coast while Hernandez will make Ernie take them to where kebabs were invented.

The Reserve Keeper: A-League Preview Part 1

Guest blogger, The Reserve Keeper, previews the upcoming A-League season. Enjoy!

With the final siren signalling the end of the AFL and NRL seasons in the past two weeks, it’s time to look ahead to the start of A-League Season 2013/2014. With what is the longest off season in professional soccer (from here on in, we’ll call it football) it gives the marketing gurus at FFA’s HQ plenty of time to conceive ideas on how to get more folk of the previously mentioned codes keen to come along. One of their plans: Strap four wheels on some advertisements and chuck blockies on AFL grand final day. 

While cheeky advertising, the Melbourne Derby – Victory vs Heart – that it refers to is certainly worth a look. In fact, the whole season is worth a look. Last year the A-League ‘came of age’ with some big name signings such as Italian national treasure Alessandro Del Piero to Sydney FC and English journeyman Emile Heskey to Newcastle Jets. This year sees the return of a long list of fringe Socceroos from successful or otherwise stints in overseas leagues. With this season leading into a World Cup year you can bet a motza that these lads will be giving it everything to be noticed and chosen to get on the plane to Brazil. Let’s assess each team and see how they might fair in 2013/2014.

Wellington Phoenix

After getting off to a great start in 2012/2013, the Phoenix went to flames and didn’t respawn like that one in Harry Potter did. Always competitive at home, rarely did they come back from the mainland with 3 points in their checked luggage. Old Melbourne Victory coach Ernie Merrick returns to the local coaching scene, but the results haven’t come back from the lab as to if he will transform this habitual underachiever to a serious contender.

Only Isaka Cernak went out on a transfer, many others including 50-gamer Tony Lochead and regular Alex Smith were simply shown the door. They have picked up a few replacements from local teams, as well as Kenny Cunningham (not the Irishman who played everywhere, the Costa Rican who played nowhere), pulled keeper Lewis Italiano out of the Victorian Premier League, but their biggest import would be ex-Victory favourite Carlos Hernandez. Not known to be the most athletic looking bloke in football, he probably heard their home ground is known as The Cake Tin and needed no more convincing. With the ball at his feet, he can hit a ball as sweet as candy, especially free kicks. Just getting him to chase it is the issue.

When Wellington have their act together they look dangerous, especially with Jeremy Brockie, Paul Ifill, Huysegems and the fresh-faced Tyler Boyd to choose from up front. Getting those players decent service will be the key issue, although some of their backline are known to poke a few in themselves. Despite the scoring potential, getting the chance against some of the better teams will be a tough task.

Prediction: 10th (last)

Newcastle Jets

You could describe last season for the Jets as a building year. The usual starting lineup had an average age of something like 22, and it showed in their 8th place finish. With a host of young Socceroos such as Mark Birighitti in the sticks, Craig Goodwin, Josh Brillante, Mitch Cooper and James Virgilli playing alongside some experienced A-League-ers, one would think the old ‘youth and experience’ mix couldn’t be better. The problem was, the team didn’t look like they were playing the same game at times, and when they were, it was usually ‘kick it to Heskey’.

Recruiting has been poor from the Jets this year. After freeing up a few minor spots, they have brought in Dutchman Kew Jaliens, fringe Socceroo Nathan Burns and Joey Gibbs came across from the Wanderers. While there aren’t any major weaknesses amongst their squad, it appears as though it will be another season hoping the young boys will be the shining light. ‘Kick it to Heskey’ is on hold for now as he is out for a good few weeks with injury, so hopefully Van Egmond has another gameplan. Unless his brigade of U/23’s step up to the plate, more so with the prospect of going to Brazil, it may be a year of disappointment.

Prediction: 9th

Sydney FC

The sky blues made loud noises last year with the signing of Italian legend Alessandro Del Piero – who is back for his second season. No doubt him and everyone at so-called Bling FC will be wanting to improve on last season’s 7th place finish.

The short term signing of Lucas Neil was exactly as described as he has moved on. Both Griffiths boys have departed overseas, as has Fabio and a few others down to State League teams. Snapping up Richard Garcia from Heart should put an extra cylinder in their engine room and their backline will welcome Matt Jurman (Roar) and Pedj Bojic (Mariners). Coming in from abroad are Aussies Corey Gameiro, Marc Warren and Serbian Nikola Petkovic.

Once again, it will be ADP doing most of the damage. Whether it is setting up a play, goals from a dead ball, or being given too much space and smacks one top corner for fun he will be good to watch. With a better backline they should leak less goals, although its still essentially two state league keepers on their books. They have some young guys that can bang in a goal or two, but rarely do they get more than a few games in a row to prove it. Even with a marginally better squad than last year, expect more of the same.

Prediction: 8th

Perth Glory

After a very slow start, the Glory finished in 6th place last year mainly down to the appointment of Allistar Edwards as coach bringing them home strong. Defensively they were sound enough, but with star striker Shane Smelt out for large parts of the year with injury, up front was a little less Bourbon and a little more Baileys.

There was quite a turnover in the off-season – mainly shedding players who didn’t really feature last season – but also losing some key players such as Billy Mehmet, Dean ‘The Heff’ Heffernan and Liam Miller. The new shirts being printed feature an influx of younger blood from their own youth system, as well as Cernak from Wellington, Ryan Edwards and Jamie McLaren from UK clubs and Brazilian Sidnei Scoila Moraes.

How they will fair this year will depend much on the system Edwards has them playing. The main structure of the squad won’t be too dissimilar to last year but expect some better football. Having said that, there are a lot of inexperienced players behind the core group, so asking big things from them may be too much.

Prediction: 7th

Melbourne Heart

“There’s only one team in Melbourne” is the catch-cry from the blue half during a Melbourne derby. It might be time to put this one to bed, as Heart have probably done the best recruiting of all the teams this year. Last year’s poor 9th place should not be repeated with the stocks they have now. In Aloisi’s second season in charge, he will be hoping for less ‘tell us about that penalty again’ and more results on the pitch.

Heart has yet again said goodbye to Eli Babalj, farewell to Josip Tadic and Simon Colosimo (both overseas), Richard Garcia is an unfortunate departure to Sydney FC, Clint Bolton moved into a management role at the club and a few others were let go. Some of the new names are more familiar than others, with too many to all go into individually. Harry Kewell needs no more fanfare but a great signing and Patrick Kisnorbo has worn the green and gold more than a few times while based in the UK. Mifsud is the marquee player a current international striker with Malta. Engelaar is highly rated, but is out for a while after a broken leg in pre-season. It is hard to say whether the unluckiest keeper in the league, the David ‘Calamity’ James of the A-League – Tando Velaphi – will start ahead of Redmayne. Maybe if Perth’s keeper Vukovic promises not to beat him from a goal-kick again he will get a run.

The bottom line is that Heart have the names on paper, but can they get it together as a team unit? They will not be on top of the pile at the end of the season, but expect them to upset a few teams along the way. They should see finals football, but consistency will determine their level of success.

Prediction: 6th