Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Palace's underdog king leads underdog nation

Crystal Palace's gritty midfielder Mile Jedinak was chosen last week to lead the Australian national team into the World Cup finals. For Jedinak, it marks a crowning point in a remarkable football journey.

Jedinak has just completed a remarkable season in the English Premier League. Palace, the unfashionable South London club I have followed for forty seasons, defied all the odds in not just retaining its status in the league but finishing 11th out of 20.  This with the lowest paid squad in the EPL and having endured a horrid start with 9 losses from their first 10 games.

Jedinak emerged from Sydney's western suburbs to feature for Sydney United in Australia's old National Soccer League, progressing to Central Coast Mariners in the A-League before catching the eye of Turkish league club Gençlerbirliği.  After a season and a half, he moved to South London.

Crystal Palace has signed more than its fair share of Australian footballers in the last 20 years, but few have made a lasting impact on the South London faithful.  With most of Palace's football played in the demanding and physical second tier of English football over that time, "elegant" midfielders like Nick Carle and Craig Foster aren't remembered fondly, while striker Nicky Rizzo, midfielder Anthony Danze, defender Shaun Murphy and keeper Steve Mautone stayed briefly without making impact. Kevin Muscat is recalled as not much more than a thug, and though Carl Veart is remembered affectionately in some quarters, his sobriquet "goal machine" was largely tongue in cheek.  The only Aussies to make any lasting impact were Craig Moore, whose stay was all too brief after cash-strapped Palace had to sell him back to Glasgow Rangers, and Tony Popovic, who followed his playing career as assistant coach to Dougie Freedman.

Jedinak had a rocky start at Selhurst Park following his arrival in South London at the start of the 2011-12 season, with fans comments including "you see better players on a Sunday morning in the pub", "pretty likely he'll never cut it as a real midfielder" and "Dougie's worst signing simply not good enough".  However, before long, the hardened Palace faithful came to admire his robust tackling, interceptions and hard yards.  By 2012-13 he had become a fan favourite, was made club captain, and was Palace's player of the year.  

Following the club's success in the Championship play-offs, Jedinak was inspirational in leading Palace's remarkable 2013-14 Premier League campaign superbly.  He started every Premier League match for Palace, anmade more tackles and interceptions than any other Premier League player during the season.

Jedinak has been handed the Socceroo captaincy at a pivotal time for the national team. Coach Ange Postecoglou has engaged in a clearing of the decks, with a series of retirements largely dispensing with the remnants of the so-called "golden" generation which reached  peak with the 2006 World Cup campaign. What remains is the greenest, least-prepared squad seen in many years.

The 2014 Socceroos, faced with their own group of death against 2010 finalists Spain and the Netherlands, plus highly rated Chile, are expected to make a quick and potentially reputation-damaging first round exit in Brazil.  The Aussies are given as much chance of making an impression as was Palace after promotion a year ago to the Premier League.  

How fitting then that Jedinak, the battler from battling Palace, is charged with the responsibility of leading the youthful Australian über-underdogs into the fray. It is more than symbolic that Postecoglou forsook the option of choosing to hand the armband to the enduring and popular talisman Tim Cahill.  Although he falls well short of the grammatical atrocities of the former Socceroo Mark Bosnich, Jedinak lacks the smooth talking and wherewithal of Cahill or former captain Lucas Neill.  But the bustling "beast" from Selhurst Park seems just the right man in the right place for this job.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Atléti and La Liga provide a beautiful conclusion

For those of much more used to a diet of English Premier League, last Saturday's winner-takes-all contest in La Liga provided a stunning, absorbing, highly-satisfying bookend to the season of domestic league action in Europe.

Along with other Australian aficionados, I was faced with an interesting choice of late night /early morning viewing - the FA Cup final between Arsenal and Hull City, or 2nd vs 1st in Spain.  While the former probably exceeded its billing and provided a more drawn-out and closer contest than most pundits predicted, I was so glad I chose the latter.

The La Liga fixture computer had provided the most dramatic of final round contests.  Barcelona would host Atlético Madrid, with the visitors in pole position, but needing at least a draw to win the title. A home win would reap the title for Barcelona.

Some context.  For the previous nine seasons the title had been shared between the two superpowers of Spanish football, Barcelona and Real Madrid, and in only one of those seasons had another team finished runner-up. Atlético, forever in the shadow of its royal city rival, had not won the title since 1996. More than this, Atlético faced into the 2013-2014 season with a financial disadvantage routinely seen across Europe's leagues.  The eleven who started this game in Atlético's away yellow had cost under €40m, less than the individual value of most in Barcelona's team.  In EPL terms, this was Aston Villa attempting to trump Man City and Chelsea for the title.

The stage was set brilliantly at Barcelona's Nou Camp, with sunshine dousing the 100,000 crowd, of which only 500 seats had been made available for the visiting fans.  A mass display from the 100,000 (less the 500) provided a foreboding entree for the visiting team.  We cut to the sight of the nervous Atlético players waiting in the tunnel.  Eventually they were joined by their opposite number from Barca, and we were treated to the sight of genuine, affectionate embraces between the opponents - extraordinary given the momentous occasion, and that shortly they were to engage so vigorously and physically on the field of battle, and a contrast with the sullen, uber stoicism seen in EPL tunnels from a Gerrard or a Terry.

Come kickoff and quickly the viewing audience was immersed in a superb contest.  Barcelona, certainly not at their best, showing great nerves, but buoyed by the mass home support, and having the lion's share of possession. Atlético, soaking up great pressure, skilled and dangerous on the break, and with no small measure of confidence drawn from the previous 37 games of out-performance.

Then the drama.  Within a few first-half minutes, Atlético had lost both top scorer Costa and Turan to injury.  Perhaps Barca smelled blood, but whatever it was, Sánchez conjured up a freakish goal out of nothing for the home team.  Half time and the title was heading back to Barcelona, and a 5th title in 6 years. The alluring Atlético coach Diego Simeone was seen gently shaking his head, wondering how fate was conspiring against him and his team.

Come the second half, and it was Atlético who bounced out of the blocks, dominating possession and after twice going close, finding the precious equaliser. Inspired by their rally, and with the holy grail now within reach, the red and whites (in their away yellow) foiled the desperate forays from the home team.  The tension was palpable, the home support increasingly fervent.

The climax. The final whistle.  Scenes of utter jubilation from the Atlético players and the small dot of away supporters on the Nou Camp canvas.  And then, perhaps the most extraordinary sight of the afternoon, with great swathes of the Barcelona home support breaking into spontaneous warm and generous applause in recognition of the contest they had witnessed, and the visiting team's gallantry and massive achievement in dragging the title away from the big two.  Atléti's proud coach Simeone joined in the celebrations, and then briefly, but beautifully, returned to his dugout as the television cameras caught him in a quiet moment of proud reflection on the enormity of what he and his team had just accomplished.