Friday, December 12, 2014

Are Melbourne Boys Still Number One?

Victorious and Glorious - Melbourne and Perth set A-League standard

It's hard to remember an A-League season like this one, where the successful teams have so clearly and so quickly broken away from the mediocre ones.

The top five in the competition are already a minimum of two wins ahead of the bottom five, which includes two teams - Western Sydney Wanderers and Newcastle Jets - that have yet to win a match.

In contrast, the five leading sides have lost only seven times in 45 outings, and more than half of those losses - four - can be sheeted home to the Jekyll and Hyde-like fifth-placed Wellington Phoenix.

Perth Glory has been the surprise package of the campaign and leads the way with 22 points, while Melbourne Victory (21 wins) is the only unbeaten side.

Already it is hard not to see the top four - Glory, Victory, the consistent Adelaide and Sydney - not making the finals, while Phoenix should also be thereabouts.

Central Coast Mariners, for so long a benchmark for consistency, are struggling, as are the plutocrats of Melbourne City who, despite the wealth of owners Manchester City, are only just scraping into a finals berth in sixth spot, and that courtesy of a lucky win against Brisbane last week.

And who would have predicted the plight of Western Sydney. Grand finalists in their two seasons in the competition and Asian champions, they are pinned to the foot of the table winless and, with the pay row over their appearance in the World Club Cup garnering them more headlines than their football, look to be in a dreadful state.

This is a league where form reversals have been habitual and a string of good results can see a team shooting up the ladder quickly.

But with the competition moving into the middle part of the campaign the likes of  the Mariners, Wanderers, Newcastle, City and defending champions Brisbane - who themselves have endured internal strife and the turmoil of a managerial sacking early in the campaign - need to lift their game considerably unless they are to endure a long, difficult and ultimately fruitless season.


Few would have predicted the glory days would return to Perth so soon after they finished third bottom last season, having won only seven out of 27 games, and firing coach Alistair Edwards mid-season.

Kenny Lowehas recruited well - Andy Keogh, the Republic of Ireland striker has been a particularly shining light - and built a hard-edged, experienced side that now shows the resilience on the road that many former Glory teams did not. They still haven't played either of the Melbourne teams and Victory in particular will give a better idea of their credentials, but it's hard not to see Glory being in the thick of things at season's end. They will be at least aiming to equal previous best performance in 2011-12, when Ian Ferguson and Stuart Munro led the West Australians to a grand final where they lost controversially to Brisbane.


Close but no cigar last season when narrowly beaten by Brisbane in a semi-final at Suncorp, Kevin Muscat has now fashioned a formidable team characterised not just by the strength of their starting line-up but the depth of their squad.

Signing Besart Berisha was a massive coup, strengthening not just Victory but weaking defending champion Brisbane. The Albanian's work rate and enthusiasm is infectious, and he has brought a real winning mentality to the Victory camp.

Muscat inherited Ange Postecoglou's squad last season and he has tinkered and refined it for his own purposes this time round to, so far, great effect. Carl Valeri has been a good pick up in midfield, while the youngsters are showing the benefits of last season's experience.


Have won plenty of fans this season for their cultured football as the Reds come to grips with the passing and possession mantra of Spanish coach Josep Gombau.

Adelaide has looked slick and effective in almost every game, harnessing the talents of Argentine playmaker Marcelo Carrusca and an array of Latin attackers backed up by the physical presence of target man Bruce Djite.

Gombau has wrought improvement from several squad players, notably Osama Malik,while Isais, the Spanish midfielder, is a key component of the Reds pass and move style as he conducts the tempo sitting in front of the defence. Only lost to Victory so far this season.


Looked ponderous and choppy in their opening half of the season against a spritely Melbourne City in early October but have built on that in  almost every subsequent minute of the campaign as Graham Arnold's tactical message and approach to the game gets through to his squad.

Arnold's teams are always tightly focused, organised and hard to break down. This iteration of the Sky Blues are no different. They have  been unlucky with injury - losing Corey Gamerio and Ali Abbas for the season are two blows that would have hit any team - but they retain a resilience, determination and capacity to get a result where many others wouldn't.


Its all or nothing with Ernie Merrick's men - this season they either win well, or they go down fighting, but they don't draw.

Phoenix have won five out of nine, often very convincingly as the 5-1 and 4-1 home wins over Melbourne City and Newcastle attest, and they have been pretty competitive in every other game they have played, suffering some unlucky and late losses, especially in the 2-1 defeat against Adelaide.

The Kiwis are always traditionally tough to beat at home, but they have improved on the road. Should make the finals, and at home they will be nobody's pushovers.


What can you say about the most heavily hyped team in the A-League's 10-year history. The bookies' reaction to the Manchester City takeover was fanciful: making the team that had finished bottom the previous year title favourites was ludicrous on the back of a change of ownership, even if the new owners were among the wealthiest people in the world. This is a salary-capped league with lots of restrictions: you can't simply go and buy talent and stuff your squad with it.

Still, City has been disappointing. The David Villa circus proved a distraction more than a blessing. Robert Koren might retain the ability that made him a Premiership regular for years, but we don't know as we have yet to see him, while Damien Duff has also gone down with injury. It is always a risk signing older players, and City have been burnt before. They will be keeping their fingers crossed about the prospects of the injury-prone Josh Kennedy, due to join in January. Can make the top six, but unlikely to be title contenders unless Koren and Kennedy prove a truly inspirational combination.


It's not quite a case of how have the mighty fallen, but it's certainly surprising to see the champions struggle in the fashion that they are this season.

 The loss of Besart Berisha to a major competitor was always going to hurt, but few expected the departure of Ivan Franjic to have such an impact as well. And no one would have predicted the injury that put first choice goalkeeper Michael Theo, one of the best in the business, out of action for so long.

Allied to that there has been highly publicised instability in the camp, with title-winning coach Mike Mulveygetting the axe six rounds into the new season. And this week captain Matt Smithbid Brisbane adieu, accepting a deal to join Bangkok Glassin the Thai top division. Stand-in coach Frans Thijssenhas the talent at his disposal to bring about a recovery, but Roar would not want to get too much further behind the leaders.


The club that has made a habit of confounding the doubters is starting to look rather shaky and somewhat directionless as it seeks to compete with bigger, better-funded opponents.

The Mariners' togetherness has helped them achieve so much success against the odds, but their results this season leave plenty to be desired and the decision to shift games away from Gosford to try to build a fan base in Sydney looks doomed to failure.

The Mariners need to concentrate on the basics, make themselves hard to beat and reconnect with the public on the Central Coast if they are to rescue something from a season that is in grave danger of slipping away.


It was never going to be an easy assignment for new boss Phil Stubbins in his first appointment as an A-League head coach: the Jets have never been stable during the Nathan Tinkler era and the off-field issues have always seemed to compromise the club's on-field performance.

Newcastle have not made the finals since the 2009-10 season and it would be a surprise to see them do so this time. Still winless after nine games, they have been competitive through many matches but all too often lack the concentration or discipline to hold onto a lead, surrendering winning positions.

Stubbins is an experienced coach and he will be keen to turn things around. He is all too aware that not many managers get a second chance in this competition.


Who would have thought it. Tony Popovic's side gained a reputation for their pragmatism, toughness, discipline and structure during two fantastic first seasons in the A-League when they got to the grand final on both occasions only to lose out, first to the Mariners, then to Brisbane.

They went into this season as one of the favourites, but it has all gone hopelessly wrong. The Asian Champions League triumph against the odds was an extraordinary achievement, but its legacy, at domestic level, has been one of failure.

Bottom of the league with no wins in nine matches and a goal difference of minus nine is testimony to the disarray the Wanderers have been in during this nightmare campaign.

Their woes have been exacerbated by the distractions of the World Club Championships in Morocco, where a pay row over appearance money has cast another shadow over the club.

Its folly to write off a champion team, but they look nothing like one at the moment and will be hard pressed to finish any closer than sixth at best on the evidence so far this campaign.

Post a Comment