Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A-League Christmas Wrap

A-League.
As the players take a deserved Christmas break, Soccerphile unpicks the happenings in Australia's A-League with four rounds of the regular season remaining.

The new premiers
All the Christmas cheer should be heaped on Ernie Merrick's Melbourne Victory who clinched their inaugural premiership just before the eight A-League clubs headed into the mid-season break. Melbourne's charge towards banishing the memory of last season's seventh-placed has been relentless. They have continued to top the charts in, well, every measure, even breaking Adelaide's season-old record of winning the title in just 17 rounds. Merrick's only dilemma ahead of the finals series is whether to rest a squad who started pre-season back in April ahead February's grand final.

The second-place aspirants
Sydney FC's Terry Butcher has his critics in Australia (with one vehement detractor former Socceroo Craig Foster's dislike of the Englishman's coaching philosophy bordering on the obsessive) but of late he's been getting the desired effects. An eight-match unbeaten run has seen the reigning champions leapfrog Adelaide and Queensland into second with a crucial victory with 10-men over Perth retaining a two-point gap to Adelaide in third. There's little doubt Sydney are less pleasing on eye than under German Pierre Littbarski last season. But Butcher is steadily doing the job he was brought from Scottish football to do and with all his players now available should be able to match the might of the league leaders.

If Adelaide United end up with little reward from their season's endeavours, it will be a harsh outcome. Through November and December they were caught between a rock and a hard place like so many newcomers in top-flight surrounds. Do you build or consolidate? Is off-field success a necessary evil and how much can commercial projects jeopardise results on the pitch? All debate was to do with signing Brazilian legend Romario who had agreed to guest in the A-League as he chases down 1000 career goals. As it turned out, the former premiers won just once during Romario's four appearances as Mr 986 became Mr 987 and Adelaide slipped from second to third. The former World Cup winner's team-mates never quite looked on the same wavelength as the little maestro and some of coach John Kosmina's team selections were clearly compromised as result of simply needing to field him. Some are saying Adelaide are more dangerous bizarrely now one of the game's greatest-ever goalscorers has left.

The playoffs chasers
The league's key battle until the end of the season is likely to be between the Central Coast Mariners, Newcastle Jets and Queensland Roar. New South Wales neighbours the Mariners and the Jets meet in two weeks time but that aside the three pursue entirely different run-ins. They are all evenly-matched with Newcastle recently winning 3-0 in Queensland but the Roar hitting back with a 3-2 win on the Central Coast.

In terms of the season, Queensland and Newcastle are heading in different directions. With one-third of the campaign completed, the Roar were second and the Jets bottom but just one point separates the pair now with both having changed coaches this year. Gary van Egmond has inspired the Jets by instilling a rigid structure and letting maverick playmaker Nick Carle - a player constantly overlooked by the national team - roam free. Meanwhile, former Socceroos boss Frank Farina has enjoyed less initial success back in his home state after over a year out of the game. The calculating Farina, though, was an excellent choice and is already starting to apply his stamp on the side.

The dearly departed
The only consolation for Perth Glory coach Ron Smith is that the New Zealand Knights were even more ordinary this year. Smith's side approached the season as badly prepared as the English cricketers heading into the Ashes, not helped by Smith's appointment on the even of the competition's start. Both sides have suffered injuries to key players with former Socceroos flyer Stan Lazaridis virtually disappearing from view after a series of ineffective displays sandwiched between stints on the sidelines. Stan, though, will be so much better with a full pre-season under his belt.

New Zealand's very existence, as has been reported on Soccerphile over the past week, is under threat. Like Perth, they too are now under FFA control, one of the worrying traits of a league so often viewed with optimism. Terrible crowd figures, uninspiring football and a generally argumentative attitude towards recruitment have seen them fall foul of the game's governing body.

Three wins in 38 games over 18 months hasn’t helped but, needing to prove Australian doubters that a Kiwi team can survive with their neighbours, their approach has won few friends on either side of the Tasman Sea. Those in charge of the game truly want to find the Knights a generous investor and rebuild. But the club need to recognise the way to flourish is by tapping into the very fact that alienates them from the rest of the league. They could do a lot worse than becoming the All Whites reserve side.

Soccerphile predictions
So, here goes …

Champions: Adelaide United
Runners-up: Melbourne Victory
Semi-finalists: Newcastle Jets, Sydney FC


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