Rae's Say: A-League, PSV and the FA Cup
I don't mind telling you I'll be waking up a little bit earlier than usual on Sunday morning, with my trusty internet audio player set to take in sound from down under. The Hyundai A-League Grand Final between Melbourne Victory and Adelaide United promises to be a thrilling end to a more than satisfactory second season in Australia's fledgling top division.
In many ways, it's the Grand Final most of us wanted. On merit alone, Melbourne and Adelaide have been the two most able teams over the course of the entire campaign. Yet it goes deeper than that.
For years, Aussie Rules followers have relished confrontations between teams from Victoria and South Australian. Now, that passion has been passed over to the football pitch. Between Melbourne and Adelaide, there's no love lost.
Adelaide coach John Kosmina has become the central figure in this drama, indeed the ultimate villain amongst Melbournites. Last October in Round 8, United travelled to the Telstra Dome, also the venue for this Sunday's big event.
During the game, Victory captain Kevin Muscat knocked Kosmina from his seat in the technical area while trying to retrieve the ball. A furious Kosmina grabbed Muscat by the throat, and was later handed a five-match touchline ban. He was also told by the FFA to take anger management counselling.
The outspoken Kosmina has been in more hot water this week, following comments he made to referee Matthew Breeze at the end of a thrilling penalty shoot-out victory over Newcastle Jets in the minor semi-final. At the time of writing, it looks as though the Adelaide coach will be again forced to watch from the grandstand. Not that this bothers him one iota: 'I could coach them from a coffee shop,' Kosmina quipped.
Kosmina is a positive for Australian football. He wears his heart on his sleeve as a coach, just as he did in his playing days, and will never shy away from a good verbal scrap. In short, he's great value. Love him or hate him, you can't ignore him.
I had the good fortune to be in his company in Kaiserslautern after Australia's unjust defeat by Italy at the World Cup, and again more recently in London before a Socceroos' friendly against Ghana and you'll rarely meet a more likeable football man.
Kosmina's opposite number Ernie Merrick hails from my part of the world. But the Melbourne Victory coach, who has spent most of his working life in Victoria, doesn't conform to the stereotype of the rugged, seething, cynical Scottish manager. Indeed, there was something of the 'ice man' about Merrick's demeanor in the decisive 2-1 triumph over Adelaide in the major semi-final. Whereas fans and just about every other Melbourne official erupted with joy when James Robinson headed home the winner in the third minute of added time, Merrick barely moved a muscle.
There's a scholarly quality to the way he discusses the game, and something vaguely Dutch about his belief in out-playing and out-passing, rather than out-muscling and overpowering the opposition.
There were those who felt Merrick was on a shaky nail at the beginning of the season. After all, Melbourne, despite a strong squad on paper and a massive support, finished a disappointing seventh.
The Scot changed things around dramatically, adding a Brazilian flavour through the acquisitions of Fred and Alessandro, welcoming back Archie Thompson from his loan spell at PSV and significantly, turning captain Kevin Muscat from a defender into a dominating midfielder.
Merrick also came up trumps with his signing of fellow countryman Grant Brebner, (the former Dundee United and Hibs player), who has forged a fruitful partnership with Muscat in the centre of the pitch. Meanwhile striker Danny Allsopp, has been a revelation, with twelve goals this season.
The end result was a runaway minor premiership for Victory. They had it wrapped up with four rounds to spare, and finished twelve points clear of, funnily enough, Adelaide United.
Adelaide will depend on their experienced campaigners to see them through the opening quarter of an hour on Sunday, in front of what will be a hostile crowd in Melbourne. I'm referring to the likes of captain Ross Aloisi, Richie Alagich, Travis Dodd and Carl Veart, all men who will have to stand up and be counted. United's young starlet Nathan Burns, at 18, has a very bright future ahead of him and one hopes an ankle injury, which has hampered his ability to train this week, won't spoil his Grand Final experience.
I'll have more Melbourne v Adelaide talk on our special live edition of ESPNSoccernet Press Pass on Friday beginning at 1pm AEST on ESPN for those of you in Australia.
What on earth is going on at PSV? Trying for their third successive Eredivisie championship, the Eindhoven side appeared set to win the title at a canter not so long ago. Now after a chaotic couple of weeks for Ronald Koeman's team, their lead at the top of the table has been trimmed to a less than comfortable three points over Ajax.
It would be tempting to blame the onset of the winter break for PSV's misfortunes. However, the champions came flying out of the traps after returning from training in La Manga, beating Heerenveen 3-1.
Not until after the Heerenveen game on January 20, did things start to go pear shaped. The following week, against Roda in Kerkrade, PSV's 19-match unbeaten run in the league came to an abrupt end and Roda were good value for their 2-0 victory against Koeman's ordinary looking side.
Surely, PSV would make amends in their next game at home to AZ. Things seemed promising when Jefferson Farfan powered them into a 20th minute lead, but it gave the home team a decidedly false sense of security. AZ were by far the more cavalier side in the second half, and this all-out attacking approach seemed to catch PSV napping. A 3-2 reverse was PSV's first home defeat since the end of 2004.
Then last weekend, Socceroo Jason Culina justified his selection (at the expense of Edison Mendez) by giving them the advantage away to Sparta Rotterdam. Yet this was another sloppy display by the leaders, and it was no great travesty when Haris Mendunjanin levelled matters 14 minutes from time with a sparkling goal.
In a way, we shouldn't be surprised that PSV have been brought back down to earth. Every summer, for a few years now, they have sold a sizeable quantity of the family silver and it's finally catching up with them. For instance, Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink hasn't been adequately replaced, since his £3.4 million move to Celtic.
Other assets are likely to be transferred for cash this coming summer. Mind you I'm not sure it would necessarily be a bad thing for Heurelho Gomes and Alex to move on. Both Brazilians (and one or two others) look almost as though they're too complacent at times, as if they don't see the challenge in Holland as exacting enough.
I had envisaged the growing pains arising earlier for this current PSV squad. The transition from Guus Hiddink to the disciplinarian Koeman, was always going to be fraught with difficulties. Fans of the club must hope the last few weeks represent no more than a temporary blip.
Optimists amongst the supporters might even feel these poor results will provide the necessary kick up the backside ahead of next week's Champions League meeting with Arsenal.
That match, incidentally, is live on ESPN in many parts of the world, and on a short delay in others.
Mention of Jason Culina above, brings to mind the fact that Branko Culina, Jason's father, has landed a rather interesting job back in Sydney. Branko, a respected figure in New South Wales football circles, will succeed Terry Butcher as coach of Sydney FC on a caretaker basis, after Butcher was sacked last week after a trying season at the helm.
There will be no time for Culina to ease into the new post. Sydney, the 2006 Hyundai A-League champions, will next month embark on their inaugural Asian Champions League campaign.
Branko Culina's hopes of staying with Sydney FC on a long-term basis would appear to hinge on strong performances in this very important showcase for Australian club football. Sydney's first AFC Champions League match is away to Shanghai Shenhua on March 7th.
Regular ESPN viewers around the world will know that this commentator is an unabashed proponent of the view that the FA Cup remains the competition of choice for the romantic at heart. Bristol City's gallant effort at the Riverside the other night merely underlines the fact that in very few other countries can a national cup competition produce such compelling drama, involving teams from different tiers.
The philistines in our midst will say that ultimately, there is no mystique: Middlesbrough prevailed, Bristol City are out, so where's the romance?
These people miss the point. Ask any Middlesbrough supporter if they were at any time during the match, completely convinced that the League One side would be swept aside. I think we know what a truthful answer to that question would be.
The 'Boro fans were too busy biting their nails to be confident.