A-League Tops and Flops
The A-League had some extra attention this weekend due to the glut of postponements in the English Premier League - the 'second' league of many Australian fans. It was quite entertaining to watch England - crestfallen from its Ashes loss - struggling to cope with the winter snow while the A-League continued on perfect summer evenings, even in Wellington!
That was until torrential rain caused Gold Coast's clash with the Mariners to be called off after 20 minutes, proving that the curse of the bad weather was a worldwide phenomenon this week. Oh well: there were still four games for Tops and Flops to sink its teeth into. Let's see who make the grade.
Wellington Phoenix are always strong at home, where the often wet and windy weather takes Australian teams out of their comfort zone. But in perfect sunny conditions on Saturday they halted Newcastle Jets' mid-season surge in emphatic fashion with a 4-0 victory, perhaps showing that the dodgy weather has been holding them back! Even with star forward Paul Ifill leaving the field early with a leg injury that's set to keep him out for six weeks, the Nix put in their slickest attacking performance of the season. Stand-in captain Tim Brown's trademark runs from midfield proved particularly effective against what was, to be fair, an understrength Newcastle, while Marco Rojas is starting to make a name for himself.
Top and Flops has promised to be more than a mere weekend wrap. So despite the fact Melbourne Heart found themselves on the right end of a 2-1 scoreline against Adelaide on Friday, they've still been deemed the worst performing team of Round 19. Heart played poorly before getting out of jail with their two goals at the death, and the game could have been long over on a day when Adelaide were more ruthless at the other end. John van't Schip has a philosophy of patient football along the ground but Heart played the ball at too slow a tempo for that to be effective, a problem that has plagued their play for much of the season. Sergio van Dijk's goal for Adelaide resulted from a goal kick at the other end - a situation from which a team should never find themselves caught out defensively. The late fightback was commendable for its spirit, but the three points papered over another timid showing from the new boys.
Last week, Archie Thompson shared this award with his strike partner Robbie Kruse, but this week he gets it all to himself despite going off injured at half time in Melbourne Victory's 2-0 win over Perth. Thompson's hamstring injury, should it keep him out of the reckoning for Australia's Asian Cup squad, would be a real shame given the form he had played himself into since coming back from a serious knee injury. Archie spent the first half at AAMI Park twisting and turning his way in from the left flank, giving Glory defenders Josh Risdon and Josh Mitchell nightmares. On the stroke of half-time, Kruse's clever backheel found Thompson's feather-like first touch, and he injured himself in the process of applying a clinical finish.
Josh Mitchell not only struggled and eventually failed to contain Archie Thompson, his distribution out of the back for Glory was abysmal at times. The big centre back is comfortable heading balls out of the air but Thompson and Kruse's jinking runs turned him inside-out, eventually leading to the critical opening goal. A number of Mitchell's passes, particularly in the first half, missed their targets embarrassingly. His poor execution was symptomatic of Perth on the night, where a much improved all-round team performance was undermined by a lack of quality.
So improved, in fact, was Perth's performance that coach Ian Ferguson deserves his share of credit in what's been a long and difficult season at his new club. Ferguson failed to make an immediate impact when taking over from Dave Mitchell in the early rounds of the campaign but there are signs he is starting to get Glory playing at a level closer to their potential in recent weeks. There was nothing wrong with Ferguson's gameplan in Melbourne despite the 2-0 loss. They played a high-tempo style focusing on the flanks, where Victory are weak, and they often created good crossing opportunities with overloads out wide. It was then that the team's woeful crossing undid their goal-scoring potential.
Branko Culina hasn't got the credit he deserves - Tops and Flops included - for the well-drilled Newcastle side he has put out on a limited budget, but his previously immovable object transformed into a mere speedbump somewhere on the flight across the ditch to Wellington. The Jets' defensive record was put to shame by a Phoenix attack that has hardly been fearsome this season and that was at least partly down to Culina's selections and tactics. Culina sent out little-known youngsters Tommy Misura and Jacob Pepper from the start ahead of his more experienced substitutes, only to withdraw the pair when the match was all but over at 3-0 at half time. With such an understrength team, Culina might regret not setting out a more defensive stall at the Caketin: a slow defensive transition proved costly as the Jets conceded the opener on the counter before completely switching off on a quick free kick to let Marco Rojas net the second.
GOAL OF THE WEEK
Archie Thompson's finish was simply clinical but it was the classy build up between he and Robbie Kruse and his sumptuous first touch that made his effort stand out.
BEST OF THE REST
Australia's squad for the Asian Cup was inadvertently leaked by the AFC last week and it made for good reading for the A-League. The extended 50-man squad, to be cut to 23 on December 28, contained 15 domestic players, with around half of those in with a good shout of travelling to Qatar.
WORST OF THE REST
It never rains but it pours. That old saying applied twofold on the Gold Coast as the torrential rain came down and the fans flocked to the stadium in unprecedented numbers thanks to Gold Coast owner Clive Palmer's decision to throw open the gates. In a dreadful piece of luck for Palmer and United, the weather contrived to spoil what should have been a party at Skilled Park. Over 20,000 tickets were ordered by locals keen to have a taste of A-League action but only half of those braved the conditions to come to the ground, and those who came only saw 19 minutes of play before the game was rightly stopped for player safety due to the vast puddles on the pitch. One can only hope Gold Coast's hopes of connecting with their community haven't been destroyed by rotten fortune.