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Dec 3, 2012

Champions League disgrace

The A-League Angle delves into the world of Australian football, providing analysis of the top-flight club competition Down Under.

Champions League disgrace

This week the Asian Football Confederation managed to hand down one of its most mind-boggling decisions.

The AFC have determined over the course of the past few weeks that the A-League is now worthy of only one guaranteed place in the Asian Champions League, with one more team able to reach the group stage through the qualification round. This comes scarcely a year after the A-League was granted a third slot in the competition, and just eight weeks after an AFC delegation visited Perth to ensure that Australia's third club was readied for next season's tilt.

It also leaves billions of people around Asia looking at their governing body's process - and authority - with more than a little concern.

More perplexing is the overall co-efficient used to determine which other leagues are granted places in the Champions League. Take for example the Saudi Pro League, or the Qatar Stars League, who provided west Asia's only winner of the past seven years. Both have four direct entries into the group stage.

In total, west and central Asia can enter 18 teams in the competition (including qualifiers), while east Asia - winners of six of the past seven titles - can contribute up to 17.

It's politics. Pure and simple. And Australia, unfortunately, has been the victim of the AFC's whims on this particular occasion. They're not the first country - and they certainly will not be the last - to have football damaged by an organisation charged with protecting the game.

The reason given for the reduction is that the A-League is not seperate enough from Football Federation Australia and also that there is no promotion/relegation system - issues which have not changed since an increase from two guaranteed places was granted 12 months ago. The real problem, though, is that the AFC is evidently willing to overlook the significant shift in on-field domination from west to east over the past decade in order to placate high-powered executives.

The AFC has long stated its aim for the Asian Champions League is to emulate that which their UEFA colleagues have achieved in Europe. Somehow it's difficult to imagine UEFA giving greater chances to eastern European leagues than their western neighbours.

The big loser out of this decision is Perth Glory. They are now without any hope of participating in the Champions League next season and have been left bewildered by the entire AFC experience. This is a team currently trying to bring David Beckham to Asia. It makes one wonder what fate might have befallen a club in a struggling position.

Perth's woes were compounded on Friday evening when they fell victim to an in-form Melbourne Victory. The on-field defeat came as a result of a wonderful strike from Marco Rojas, who continues to impress playing in a wide role under Ange Postecoglou.

However, perhaps the most notable element in the Victory's sharp rise has been the influence of Kaka lookalike Guilherme Finkler. Like the Real Madrid playmaker, "Gui" has delighted with his touch and vision, surpassing that of high-profile team-mate Marcos Flores.

Meanwhile, the A-League's only guaranteed club in the 2013 Champions League, the Central Coast Mariners, moved top of the table with a hard-fought win over Adelaide United in sweltering conditions. Brisbane Roar, who will now need to qualify over a Thai opponent, bounced back with a 1-0 win over Newcastle Jets, but it was a triumph clouded by controversy.


Refs in the spotlight

The match in Brisbane proved significant for two reasons; the Roar overcame a poor home record against Newcastle, and the performance of referee Brenton Hayward brought whistle-blowers into sharp focus once again.

The moment which sparked interest occurred just before half-time as the Roar's Thomas Broich and Josh Mitchell of the Jets collided. Mitchell responded with a double-handed push, which brought Erik Paartalu and Connor Chapman into the equation as each looked to defend their respective team-mates. Broich and Mitchell were both sent from the pitch.

Replays confirmed that Hayward - in charge of just his third A-League match - got it wrong. Broich appeared to do nothing wrong, and his dismissal robbed the Roar of what should have been a one-man advantage for the second half. Mitchell's second yellow card and subsequent red seemed justified, but Paartalu and Chapman should have also seen yellow for turning what was a fairly harmless situation into an all-in tussle.

That was only the beginning of a forgettable weekend for the men in the middle.

Sunday's matches were marred by similarly head-scratching decisions. Not least referee Matt Gillett's refusal to award the Western Sydney Wanderers a penalty in their 1-0 loss away to Wellington Phoenix. A bizarre cross-cum-shot from Jeremy Brockie proved the difference, but the Wanderers should have been on level terms when Wellington skipper Andrew Durante handled the ball in the first half.

Substitute Joey Gibbs then had what seemed a clear-cut penalty waved away when he was brought down in a rugby-style tackle by Ben Sigmund. It didn't excuse Gibbs' later miss in front of an open goal, but coach Tony Popovic had every reason to feel aggrieved.

Finally, Sydney FC defender Fabio somehow escaped without any punishment for a studs-up challenge from behind on Melbourne Heart's Ben Garuccio. Perhaps the officials were lulled into a sleep-like state by both sides' lack of cutting edge, but it was a truly appalling piece of play.

It's no wonder coaches, players and supporters alike are becoming frustrated by this level of officiating. Still, to be fair, the majority of decisions are the right ones, but this is the second such commentary on refereeing controversies in this column this season. That's two too many.


Culture club

Former national team boss Frank Farina is the latest man in the Sydney FC hotseat after he took over from Ian Crook midweek. It seemed the harbourside club would opt for a foreign manager but swiftly put to bed those rumours with the appointment of Farina, whose last spell in the A-League ended with a drink-driving charge while at Brisbane.

Indeed, the greatest legacy of Farina at the Roar was an ill-disciplined club culture. It was a dressing room dominated by veterans Craig Moore, Charlie Miller and Danny Tiatto, all of whom endured their share of controversy.

Shortly after taking over from Farina in 2009, Postecoglou took charge of a thorough cleanout of those deemed a poor influence on the club's talented younsters. Those who were kept went on to claim back-to-back A-League championships in some style, while the perceived troublemakers were never seen on the pitch again.

Who knows, perhaps Farina has learned how to control players with big personalities since his departure from Brisbane, or that same approach could work in his favour at Sydney FC. Regardless, the Farina era has begun with the immediate axing of football director Gary Cole, indicating he has a clear vision on how he wants the team to be run.

For now, the Sky Blues did manage to keep a clean sheet against the Heart, but more positive is the increased involvement of a fit-again Jason Culina. The former Socceroo could prove pivotal, particularly if Ali Abbas is moved to his preferred position on the left, in Sydney's finals aspirations.

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