Thursday, February 20, 2014

Who Can Predict the A-League?

A-League
Who can predict the A-League? Just when it looked like the die had been cast for the season, a few results have turned everything on its head.

Brisbane Roar still retain their seven point lead at the top of the table, but they just cannot seem to beat their nemesis, the Newcastle Jets. The Jets unlikely 1-0 win at Suncorp Stadium on the weekend reminded everyone that, as good as they have been, Brisbane are beatable.

A seven-point lead with eight games remaining should be enough to see them claim the Premiership, but suddenly this week's game against the rampaging Melbourne Heart (who would've thought we’d be saying that a month ago!) takes on more importance.

It’s top vs bottom, yet Heart come into this game having won four of their last five, including a 5-0 demolition of Wellington Phoenix in Wellington on Sunday, and chock full of confidence. The arrival of John van't Schip and the sale of the club to Manchester City has given the red and whites new found belief and, as crazy as it sounds, they’re an outside chance for the top six.

It's a long shot, but with eight games left to play they are sitting seven points behind sixth placed Sydney FC who probably best epitomise the inconsistent nature of the A-League this season.

The Sky Blues lost three of their first four games, then went on to win five of their next six before slumping again to win only two of their last nine. Yet in that horror run was arguably one of the best moments in the club’s short history - the 5-0 demolition of fierce rivals Melbourne Victory. In Melbourne, no less.

After enduring the week from hell Frank Farina's side did what they had to do on Saturday and claimed all three points to put them back inside the top six. Reports suggest Farina needs a top four finish to guarantee his position for next season. And while they are only two points behind fourth, it would be a brave man who would suggest Sydney will achieve that.

The three teams with the toughest run home are Australia's three participants in the AFC Champions League - Western Sydney Wanderers, Central Coast Mariners and Melbourne Victory.

After Melbourne overcame Thai side Muangthong United on Saturday night in Geelong to earn a place in the group stage, all three must now navigate their way through the group stages while also trying to maintain their Premiership and Championship hopes in the A-League.

Tony Popovic has been well aware of the looming congested schedule and has been preparing accordingly, rotating his squad regularly in the first four months of the season to ensure his players are fit and firing for the rigours of competing in two competitions.

All three clubs will play 13 games in 53-55 days, which equates to a game every four days. Add in the lengthy travel times to Japan, China and South Korea and all three clubs will need to be meticulous in their planning to ensure they can compete favourably in both competitions.

We’ve heard about the tough travel for A-League clubs in the past. It was always a pre-planned excuse for A-League teams who didn’t take the ACL as seriously as they should have. And while there is no doubt it is a factor, it will not change now or into the future. So rather than complain, clubs have to learn to adapt and plan their season accordingly.

While Popovic was criticised in some quarters for his constant tinkering, if the Wanderers can maintain their A-League title challenge and perform well in the ACL he will be proven correct, and may well create the template for other coaches to follow in the coming years.

The only A-League club to have any success in Asia is Adelaide United, and after a less than positive start to the season, things seem to have turned around for Josep Gombau's side.

Lambasted at the start of the season for his decision to implement an entirely new philosophy and game style, and focusing on performance over results, it has started to pay off for Adelaide who have climbed to third on the table and are playing some of the best football in the league, led by their Argentine play maker Marcelo Carrusca who has just re-signed with the club for a further season, a massive boost to the club in the run in to the finals.

While there have been some obvious little tweaks to his plan from the start of the season, not much has changed at Adelaide other than the players are executing the game plan better than they were at the start of the season, which was always going to be the case as they grew more accustomed to the style.

This was clear to see in their second goal on the weekend when, as they have done all season, they opted to play out from the back through Eugene Galekovic. And whilst it almost came unstuck (it would have earlier in the season), the fact they were able to play their way out of trouble and in the space of a matter of passes find their way down the other end of the field to score the winning goal shows how far Adelaide has progressed.

With another eight matches to fine-tune their game plan in the run home they are a side every team will want to avoid come finals time.

And this weekend they have a great chance to cement their spot in the top three when they travel to Melbourne to take on their biggest rivals at AAMI Park. Adelaide fans still talk about the day they broke their hoodoo against Melbourne Victory with a 4-0 win at AAMI Park.

They would love nothing more than to repeat that feat this weekend.

But with just under a third of the season remaining there are no doubt a few more twists and turns left in this A-League season. Absolutely nothing can be taken for granted.

Paul Williams

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