Friday, 7 September 2007

Coasting it

The new A-league season is well underway and at time of writing we have the quite remarkable situation of nine games played (two full rounds and the first game of round 3) and only one team has won any game – Central Coast, with 3 wins from 3, with the other six fixtures all drawn.

If the A-league was in England, Central Coast wouldn’t have a chance. They would be the Fulham or Derby County of the league. Sydney FC would undoubtedly be Chelsea and Melbourne Victory Man United. The salary cap, the two-headed monster of the fledgling Aussie league, is the saving grace. While it is the reason that the league can’t hold onto players like Victory’s Fred, or fails to lure the still out-of-contract John Aloisi, it’s also the reason that every team has at least on paper a decent chance of winning the thing.

And so it’s the unlikely Central Coast out of sleepy Gosford that rules the roost at present. And they’ve done so to date with a sparkling brand of football. One of the most enjoyable and absorbing games I saw last year was their visit to face an all-conquering Melbourne Victory at the Telstra Dome. A blistering opening 12 minutes saw four goals, and by half time Central Coast led 3-2 and Melbourne were down to nine men. The second half with only one albeit gloriously late goal from Danny Allsopp was just as compelling as the first, as the visitors piled on early pressure but couldn’t convert and Victory slowly made their way into the game and managed that memorable late reward.

In Lawrie McKinna the out-of-towners have a canny coach and they certainly make the most of their resources. They have every opportunity of matching their first season effort in reaching the final before the Lowy-propped up slickers from Sydney gained an unpopular victory.

But of course, it’s too early to rule out the balance of the challengers. While Melbourne Victory has been decidedly unimpressive to date, and Allsopp and Thompson are missing Fred terribly, the champions deserve to be considered strong contenders. Adelaide United has cast aside the traumatic end to its fine season 2 with Aurelio Vidmar assembling a fine squad behind the brilliant Nathan Burns. Queensland Roar will be nothing if not interesting with the two returning stalwarts Craig Moore and Danny Tiatto in their mix, albeit clothed in one of the football world’s most garish colour combinations. Tiatto announced his arrival with a hideous two footed tackle which was the most vile piece of thuggery I’d seen since, er, Tiatto the last time I saw him playing for Australia. Newcastle looks as though it’s going to be highly competitive again this year despite the absence of Nick Carle, while Perth Glory is showing some signs of an overdue return to the, er, glory days. Wellington Phoenix, hopefully, will be able to maintain its hopeful start to the season by shedding the forgettable memory of the Knights. I think it was a wise step to maintain a franchise in the shaky isles ahead of the frankly uninspiring Townsville bid. Surely there has to be more potential in a much bigger market, and Wellington strikes me as the kind of place that could get behind even a mildly successful outfit. They looked very engaging in their first round clash against Victory, and hopefully their game 2 blow out in Gosford will be a blip and not a trend.

That leaves Sydney, which remains an enigma. Their penchant if not hell-bent demand for glamour marquee players has seen Juninho pull on the mid-blue shirt this season. It’s not clear that Mark Milligan will be around all season following his premature sortie in Europe, while the returning Tony Popovic looks twice as slow as he did two seasons back when he looked awfully slow when I was cheering him on in a Crystal Palace shirt. Surely the harbour town team will be a better bet under Branko Culina than during the hapless Butcher era, but no doubt they’ll remain the team everyone else loves to hate!