Monday, 26 November 2007

Aussies world cup downer

To everything there is a season, so the good book says. Well, reflecting on the sixteen months since Australian football was basking in the glorious German sun in 2006, you'd say that that particular season has turned distinctly and definitively. If the disaster of the Asian Cup finals was our autumn, then all of the portents for the upcoming qualifying season for South Africa in 2010 point to a rather more bleak mid-winter.

And in the last two weeks, Australian football has been hit with a triple onset of gloomy weather. First was the desultory spurning of the national team coaching position by the experienced Dutch manager Dick Advocaat. With many Aussies hoping that with Dick at least matching Guus Hiddink's nationality, that might put him at least part way to matching Hiddink's magic. But we weren't given the chance to find out, as Dick cocked his leg at the FFA and merely used the offer to extract some more roubles out of Zenit St Petersberg.

And in the last week, we have learned that several of the Asian qualifying ties don't fall on FIFA sanctioned international dates, meaning we will likely be denied the services of the bulk of our Europe based stars.

Finally, in last night's World Cup draw from Durban, Australia learned it had earned a spot in the Asian "Group of Death", alongside China, Qatar and its Asian cup nemesis Iraq.

Frank Lowy, godfather of Australian football, had nicked some pretty impressive chinks in the armour of the political juggernaut that is FIFA. Yet the happenings of the past two weeks just serve again to remind Australia how much progress it hasn't made in world football terms.

Not only can't we hold an experienced manager at his word, it is now any one's guess who we can recruit to steer the Socceroo ship through the qualifying campaign. Next, from the crazy match dates, Australia suffers the most of any of the Asian countries, with so many of its players in Europe. Don't expect any favours from Tim Cahill's gaffer at Everton, the anti-international terrorist David Moyes. And to cap it all off, Australia (and China) become the victim of the weird notion not to seed current Asian champions Iraq.

Australia found it tough enough to come to grips with the Asian challenge at this year's tournament in Malaysia and Thailand. The next lesson in its Asian football education looks like it just got a whole heap harder.

Australia made giant, joyous strides in its football journey heading to WC'06. It now faces a perilous path and will be desperate to avoid a slippery slide back down the hill.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Unlucky thirteen

It's been a fascinating season for Melbourne Victory. The mantle of "champions" is indeed a burdensome one to carry. And typically there's only one way for a current champion to go - down.

Victory manager Ernie Merrick is wise enough to understand that to attempt to stand still is in fact a recipe for being carried backwards in the current. So his 2006-07 squad has faced several changes. A number of fringe players out - Lia and Ferrante to Wellington, Sarkies to Adelaide. And, as stated before in these pages, the enforced loss of Fred to DC United.

All eyes, therefore, on the newer-looking combination as they kicked off the season. And stupefyingly, a run of five straight draws. And since then there's been a range of ups and downs. Until yesterday, when there was an almighty down, albeit in the context of a dramatic, traumatic contest.

One of the stand-out games of last season was the 3-3 draw when Central Coast came to Melbourne. And in yesterday's fixture at the deliciously named Blue Tongue stadium in Gosford, the same combatants fought out 90 minutes of similar ingredients to the Telstra Dome blockbuster 12 months back.

The sending off of Victory wing-back Keenan in the 21st minute proved a defining moment for this fixture. For the next hour of play, the visitors, in the same manner as when two players down a year ago at the Dome, played out of their skin. While the Mariners had their moments, hitting the woodwork twice, it was the disadvantaged Victory which produced its best football of the season. Muscat and new boy Pace holding firm at the back, ring-in Vasilevski proving to be a revelation, and the forward trio of Hernandez, Allsopp and Thompson looking as menacing as at any time this year. And the controlled way Victory brought the ball out of defence and into attack was exacting and admirable.

Reward was due, and finally arrived on 77 minutes when Hernandez finished off a concise move. Surely that would be that.

But several of the travelling party were just exhausted by that stage. And that, combined with the mental relaxation and attack-into-defence transition, meant that roles were suddenly reversed, with the Mariners pushing concertedly for an equaliser. It arrived only minutes later through the persistent Petrovski. On a day when new boy John Aloisi seemed plainly ineffective, it was always Petrovski most likely to be incisive.

Worse, much worse, followed for Victory, with Pondeljack finishing off a smart move in the 88th minute to leave Melbourne 2-1 down. And their misery was completed on 90 minutes with Vargas sent off for retaliating on the pesky Petrovski.

So in the space of 13 minutes, the champions forsook the chance to go equal top, instead find themselves sixth, and now with their defensive options decimated face the immediate prospect of a surging Sydney FC . Their backs are now truly against the wall, and require a turnaround of truly championship quality.