A-League 1,000: The Decider Edition

@hamishneal

1,000-ish words, thoughts, and musings on the culmination of the A-League season which will see one club break their grand final duck and finally claim a grand final triumph as the reds host the red and blacks on Sunday afternoon in North Adelaide.

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Adelaide United v Western Sydney Wanderers, Sunday – Adelaide Oval

Champions of Asia in 2014 but yet to claim a domestic grand final win the Western Sydney Wanderers will travel to South Australia to take on Adelaide United who hail from a city which has four National Soccer League crowns to its credit and is looking to add a first in the A-League era.

After the delirium of Sunday evening in Parramatta which saw the Wanderers secure progress to the decider on the back of a 5-4 extra-time triumph over Brisbane Adelaide will be hoping there is nothing left in the visitor’s tank after an emotional and physically-demanding encounter. The Reds won at Beer Sauce Burger Stadium on Friday night with Bruce Djite scoring twice before Melbourne’s light blues pulled one back prior to goals for defender Dylan McGowan and attacker Pablo Sanchez. Not to be outdone following Djite’s efforts Wanderer Romeo Castelen scored three times in a 33-minute period on Sunday to be the goal-scorer on fire heading into this Sunday’s game.

As it has been for the last four seasons the top two sides from the regular season will meet in the grand final with the home side looking to repeat Melbourne Victory’s feat of last season in lifting the Premier’s Plate plus winning the last game to claim the toilet seat.

In what could be a foreboding piece of recent history between the two sides Andreu netted twice with a Tarek Elrich strike deflecting off the Spaniard giving Adelaide the lead before the Wanderer struck seven minutes from time in the first of the three games the two played this season. Following that October contest they met again on New Year’s Day with a score-less contest. The game at Pirtek Stadium ended with Adelaide still outside the top six but it was the fifth game unbeaten as they embarked on a 14-game run in which they didn’t face defeat.

Back at Parramatta in March the two sides also played out a stalemate with the Wanderers having 13 more attempts on goal but despite the dominance of the home side in that game the Reds were aggrieved not to get an early penalty when then Western Sydney first-choice keeper Liam Reddy brought down Bruce Kamau. The Reds attacker was instead booked for simulation by referee Takuto Okabe.

Reflecting on the above two paragraphs it’s notable to add that former Racing Santander midfielder Adreu was in the action last Sunday conceding a penalty and also *coughs* assisting one of the four Brisbane goals.

Both sides came out of their semi-final triumphs with no suspension issues but key Wanderers midfielder Mitch Nichols faces a ban over his taunting of Brisbane Roar fans, but it won’t be this weekend that he misses (if at all) given the former Roar player has until May 4 to respond to the charge. If Nichols had of been sanctioned to miss the grand final it would not have been the first midfielder in recent times to miss a decider through suspension with Nick Montgomery of the Mariners absent in 2013 when Central Coast won the decider. In that game the Wanderers also had Youssouf Hersi and Iacopo La Rocca out due to suspension. Now with the Reds, La Rocca is looking to win his first domestic grand final as a key part of their defence and Nichols faces the prospect of perhaps missing an FFA Cup game next August which I am sure he is devastated about.

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The Wanderers have a full squad to pick from and Adelaide’s only absentee is Eli Babalj who sustained a season-ending injury in January.

It seemed odd that Wanderers Tony Popovic took as long as he did to make his first substitution, withdrawing Brendan Santalab with 11 minutes remaining in regulation time last weekend. Even allowing for the week off earlier in the finals the former Crystal Palace defender was clearly worried about Brisbane’s renowned ability for scoring late in finals and wanted to keep anything in his arsenal, but one wonders if this will cause any fatigue issues in the final 15 minutes on Sunday.

How the Wanderers limit the ball to Marcelo Carrusca will go a long way to deciding the encounter conversely the Reds will need to look at trying to keep the ball away from Andreu and fellow Spaniard Dimas in the heart of the Wanderers midfield. Both sides have Socceroos at their disposal if they make no changes to their semi-final winning teams with Vidosic on the bench for the Wanderers and Elrich lying in wait to wreak havoc on the wing for the Reds.

Across the regular season Adelaide netted 45 times, one more than the Wanderers, and with a league-best 28 conceded five goals less than their opponent’s on Sunday. With figures like that, and given the three draws between the two sides one would expect a fairly even breakdown when it comes to looking at attack in the final third but nothing could be further from the truth. The Western Sydney outfit have had 41 attempts on goal across the their three fixtures this season with 12 on target but Adelaide have had only 18 attempts in those same three contests with just five on target. One game saw the Reds with not a single attempt on target. Maybe an outlier but how many chances do the Reds want to give the Wanderers to score?

Despite the above statistics around goal-scoring opportunities Adelaide’s long unbeaten run during the campaign after they suffered a car-crash start to the season under Guillermo Amor must be respected and recent history suggests the Wanderers are up against it.

Big game for: Former Adelaide resident Dario Vidosic, the marquee attacker scored three times during the regular season of the A-League and by any means that is a poor return for a player occupying a precious spot outside the salary cap. Vidosic’s fourth goal of the campaign sent the Wanderers fans into delirium. Can he do it twice in a week?

The ‘I’m really looking forward to’ bit: Seeing the players play. Peter Green controlled the second semi-final superbly and Strebre Delovski was voted best referee by A-League players this season so naturally Jarred Gillett is in charge of the grand final. How much we don’t hear of Gillett, who has the whistle for a third decider, will be key.

The betting bit – One serious one not:

Adelaide’s win in Melbourne to ultimately give them the Premier’s Plate to open the final weekend of the regular season stands out as an impressive victory and games like these can be forgotten in the drama of the finals. Adelaide to claim the crown ($1.65) into a surprise appearance at the post-game celebrations of former Reds coach Josep Gombau dancing on the stage.

 Record: 18/29

Profit: 77.55 (ten units per investment)

Images via colliemail.com.au and theguardian.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five Metre Gap – NRL Round 8 2016

@hamishneal

Like the way of the five metre gap in defence looking at the points you may have missed from the eighth round of the NRL. Canberra pinned 60 on the Tigers and the Bulldogs picked up a one-point win after nearly throwing away a 12-point lead.

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Mike Cooper’s shift to the starting line-up has paid dividends for the Dragons, who triumphed on Monday 20-18, with the joint-venture outfit having secured two wins on the bounce coinciding with the move of the former Warrington forward to the starting side. Ex-Warriors prop Russell Packer has been relegated to the bench in the switch by St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor. Packer is still producing solid figures, particularly last weekend against the Gold Coast, but Cooper’s 147 metres gained was crucial in the game against the Roosters and it came on the back of 180 metres the weekend prior. Cooper, 27, has also made 59 tackles across the last two games

As evidenced by Valentine Holmes’ late try at Shark Park Cronulla has attacking skill to score from almost anywhere on the park and they will need to use that flair coupled with attacking efficiency as they are bucking recent NRL trends winning games with less than 30 completed sets. As much as completions are important getting a certain volume of those completed sets is crucial to success in the NRL with 30 considered a benchmark. Remarkably Shane Flanagan’s side completed only 25 sets, with a 79% completion rate, in beating the Panthers 20-18. Their last two victories (Canberra and the Gold Coast) have also come with under 30 completed sets. By way of example Canberra (38 sets), Brisbane (35 sets), plus Canterbury and North Queensland, both 33, all won with a significant amount of completed sets this weekend.

Brisbane registered their seventh triumph this season with an emphatic 30-8 victory over South Sydney despite losing one of their lynch-pins in rake Andrew McCullough to a hamstring injury. Kodi Nikorima, 22, filled in ably and scored the first of Brisbane’s five tries six minutes from the interval. However it was the effort of Jarrod Wallace which caught the eye at Five Metre Gap HQ. With 14 runs, which gained 184 metres, Wallace was crucial as the Broncos cemented top spot in the weekend’s first game.

Manly picked up their fourth win of the campaign with a 26-10 triumph over the Knights but the manner in which Nathan Brown’s charges conceded their fourth try was most disappointing. Down by ten points with two minutes to go and left defending your own line isn’t fun but it was unacceptable Sea Eagle Nate Myles was afforded easy options to offload to fellow forward Jake Trbojevic. It didn’t match the determination Newcastle showed at times especially as displayed by winger Nathan Ross in the first half.

As Melbourne’s Jesse Bromwich scored the Storm’s third try of the night in the Monday nightcap Warriors coach Andrew McFadden made an early change hooking prop forward Sam Lisone for what looked to be tactical reasons. 18 minutes is early for a prop to go off, even allowing for the new interchange rules, but Lisone seemed somewhat of a scapegoat despite having made only two runs in that time. Four of his team-mates had each given away penalties in that period and one of those was Blake Ayshford getting sin-binned. Maybe Lisone was the unlucky player who needed to be substituted early to send a message to the rest of the outfit. It didn’t help a great deal the Storm scoring twice more in the half before running out 42-0 victors.

Image via theherald.com.au

 

 

 

 

 

 

A-League 1,000: The Closer Edition

@hamishneal

1,000-ish words, thoughts, and musings on the second weekend of the A-League finals which will decide the two grand final teams. An Adelaide win gives them a home grand final but a defeat would upon it up for the Wanderers to claim grand final hosting rights with a triumph on Sunday.

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Adelaide United v Melbourne Sheep Cow Whale Ships, Friday – Beer Sauce Burger Stadium

Both sides are yet to claim an A-League grand final crown with John van’t Schip’s team having fallen at this hurdle last season when beaten 3-0 by the Melbourne Victory and Adelaide still have nightmares about the Victory’s Archie Thompson (and Kristian Sarkies) in 2007 from their first grand final appearance.

In a strange turn of events leading up to Friday’s encounter the Reds were presented with the Premier’s Plate in front of the proverbial three men and a dog which means Adelaide could conceivably disappoint their fans but still not celebrate Asian Champions League qualification which is the key reward in finishing top of the pile. 11 years on and relevant recognition of key milestones still seems a struggle in the A-League. Moving on…

After meeting in Melbourne in round 27, the match which saw Adelaide claim the win to ultimately deliver them top spot, the two sides meet again after the Victorians brushed aside Perth 2-0. The away side has won all three league encounters this year flying in the face of home-field advantage. It’s a statistic which could send Adelaide fans into a cold sweat with the light blues having logged 4-2 and 1-0 wins at Coopers Stadium this season. Adelaide’s sole goal from open play in South Australia this campaign against the City Football Group-backed outfit came to Sergio Cirio in the November encounter which also saw Pablo Sanchez net an 85th minute penalty.

Of the four sides playing this weekend the visitors looked likeliest to roll out the most changes with Ivan Franjic hopeful of a return from injury and Harry Novillo, who was banned for two games after his role in the round 27 melee against Guillermo Amor’s side, hoping for a reduction in his sanction. However Franjic hasn’t recovered from his injury and Novillo was unsuccessful in his appeal so sits this one out. Franjic’s absence again should not prove too much of a concern for van’t Schip as Paulo Retre was a more than adequate replacement at right back against Perth. Speaking of dependable replacements, despite the availability of Socceroo Tarek Elrich former Heart right back Michael Marrone keeps his spot in the starting eleven with his recent performances keeping out his fellow international.

Light blue midfielder Aaron Mooy spent more time towards the left wing against Perth so he wasn’t getting as much attention from the Glory’s Kristian Vadocz and this is something Adelaide will have taken note of so you could expect to see Isaias likely to pay close attention to the influential Socceroo.

Melbourne are seeking club history here and once this season they have spoiled an Adelaide record when their triumph in March snapped the Reds 14-game unbeaten streak. Extra time would not surprise.

Big game for: Novillo’s tweets. The Frenchman was decidedly shirty when his side’s game was delayed once during the regular season due to an W-League semi-final went into extra time and he wasn’t shy to express his annoyance. Expect a slew of tweets aimed at A-League administrators leading up to this match.

The ‘I’m really looking forward to’ bit: A goal in the 71st minute. Last month midfielder Nick Fitzgerald and in November star import Bruno Fornaroli each scored for City when playing in Adelaide in the 71st minute.

Western Sydney Wanderers v Brisbane Roar, Sunday – Pirtek Stadium

Champions of Asia 18 months ago the Wanderers are yet to claim a domestic finals crown and get as good a chance as any here to make another decider hosting the Roar who are coming of an emotional and energy-sapping contest which saw them prevail 2-1 over the Melbourne Victory.

If you just looked at Brisbane off the field they have no business in the finals let alone 90 minutes from a grand final. They started the season not paying players on time, with a head coach deemed to have ‘failed’ elsewhere in the league (who was their fourth mentor in four years) and an ownership group whose intentions whilst maybe not Clive Palmer-esque level of disinterest and inefficiency seemed at least ambivalent to the orange cause. A win would cap a dream run but the Wanderers at home this season, despite loses Wellington and Sydney FC – who failed to make the finals, seem up for the big time.

The second last domestic game of the season is a replay of the first which saw Brisbane win 3-1 on the back of a first-half double to Jamie Maclaren. Since then the two teams returned to Parramatta in December with the home side exacting revenge 2-1 before the Roar won a thriller 3-2 last month in Brisbane after Tony Popovic’s side hit the lead 2-1 with 12 minutes to go. If you include the FFA Cup tie, which saw a GolGol Mebrahtu strike in Penrith give the Wanderers a victory, it’s 2-2 on the season in the games between the sides. Notably Jamie Maclaren has scored in all three league encounters.

The goal-keepers in this game are an interesting study with Brisbane’s Jamie Young having dislodged Michael Theo even when the former Socceroo returned from injury. Young has managed to keep the five-time A-League winner on the bench and logged seven clean sheets in 19 games whilst Andrew Redmayne started the year duelling with Dean Bouzanis for the spot only to be dropped sometime after Liam Reddy landed at the club before he was then recalled. Redmayne has seven clean sheets in 21 games.

Both sides have little to worry about in the way of injuries and have a clear deck suspension wise to Popovic and his opposite John Aloisi can pick their best teams for this late afternoon classic.

Wanderers’ Andreu, Dimas and (to a lesser degree) Mark Bridge will be responsible for closing down service through the midfield via Thomas Broich and Corona. Given Brisbane only got away nine shots on goal last weekend against the Victory and if the Wanderers can reduce the visitor’s chances they will go a long way to securing a grand final berth, possibly at home.

Big game for: Brendan Santalab. A substitute for most of the season Santalab got the starting berth late in the campaign and he rounded out the home and away rounds in style with a double in Wellington. Can he go from bit part player to finals hero in the space of seven months?

The ‘I’m really looking forward to’ bit: Cranky goal-keepers. Given both teams have scored in all three league contests between the sides this season it’s a reasonable assumption we may see a fair bit of keeper rage.

The betting bit – One serious one not:

Castro and Kenny Lowe hamstrung us last weekend but we will ride with the red and blacks to progress to the decider ($1.55) into a comedy “Show us your Piovaccari” banner from travelling Brisbane fans on Sunday.

Record: 17/28

Profit: 72.05 (ten units per investment)

Image via smh.com.au

 

 

Five Metre Gap – NRL Round 7 2016

@hamishneal

Like the way of the five metre gap in defence looking at the points you may have missed from the seventh round of the NRL. Brisbane blanked the Knights 53-0 and Cronulla thrashed the Raiders in Canberra.

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Manly kept up a rather unique streak in round seven as for the fifth weekend running they had five or more players attempt a kick general play. The usual suspects of halves have been doing most of the kicking in the likes of Dylan Walker and Apisai Koroisau but often forwards have been isolated on final tackle plays. Players including Tom Symonds and Blake Leary tried their hand at kicking in the Sea Eagles 22-10 defeat at the hands of the Eels. Without Daly Cherry-Evans on deck due to injury Manly’s attack has been largely ineffectual, absent the Warriors game in round six, and the amount of kickers used is probably an example of this lack of direction. The Sea Eagles were not the only team to reel off five kickers this weekend with, for example, Souths utilising the same figure and Brisbane, 53-0 winners over Newcastle, using five general play kickers. Maybe the latter is the exception that proves the rule.

Speaking of kickers, Penrith’s Jamie Soward forced five drop-outs as his side poured the pressure on the Roosters late in their game on Monday night to seal a 20-16 victory. Anthony Griffin’s side, who picked up their third win of the campaign, didn’t score a four-pointer for the final 34 minutes of the game but it was the pivot’s late play in wet conditions which kept the Roosters camped well in their own half and meant the Tricolours finished the round anchored to the foot of the ladder.

South Sydney halfback Adam Reynolds wasn’t missed in his return from injury on the weekend making 24 tackles, the most of any halfback for this round, as his side was humbled 44-18 by the reigning premiers North Queensland. The Rabbitohs’ playmaker was equal to the task with no glaring misses but that effort was telling on his attack with the 25 year-old only showing glimpses of his brilliance. However with his side failing to complete ten of their 38 sets it didn’t give Reynolds a great base to work from on attack.

As his side suffered an agonising golden point defeat at the hands of the Storm Tigers forward Ava Seumanufagai can be proud of his effort logging 166 metres in place of skipper Aaron Woods with the Blues prop out of action for the next month at least. Seumanufagai, 24, crossed the 150-metre threshold despite only playing 47 minutes and also made 26 tackles as Jason Taylor’s side were edged out 19-18 after Cooper Cronk’s field goal. Also notable in that fixture was Storm forward Jesse Bromwich’s 216 metres in 66 minutes, the third week running the Kiwi international has run for 150 metres or more.

Cronulla are proving surprising entertainers early this season and convincingly beat Canberra on Sunday 40-16. It took until rounds 15 and 16 last season for the Sharks to score 24 points or more in successive games when they played the Knights followed by the Cowboys in Townsville, winning both encounters. Shane Flanagan’s side have won their last three games in 2016 scoring 25 or more points and two of those triumphs have come away from home. Rush those Sharks players into your fantasy team/s.

Image via abc.net.au

 

A-League 1,000: The History Edition

@hamishneal

1,000-ish words, thoughts, and musings on the first weekend of the A-League finals which has two elimination games. Adelaide and the Wanderers lay in wait for the winners of these fixtures.

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Brisbane Roar v Melbourne Victory, Friday – Suncorp Stadium

Two three-time winners meet in the opening game of the finals series with one team bidding farewell to their domestic season but Melbourne are still in Asian Champions League action.

In quirk of the draw the two sides meet having played out a dramatic 0-0 in Melbourne last Saturday. Prior to that Brisbane thrashed the Victory 5-0 in March, Danny Vukovic’s last game in the Victory goals, and the other contest this season between the two was also a one-sided contest with the Victorians winning 4-0 in January, highlighted by a Kosta Barbarouses double. Whilst the game in March was saw a Jamie Maclaren hat-trick for Brisbane.

Given Melbourne have not scored in their last two games against Brisbane having Besart Berisha back after his ban was reduced is a huge plus. What wasn’t a huge plus was the farcical circumstances in which Berisha’s return was allowed. If indeed Phoenix skipper Andrew Durante did grab his throat in the 26 encounter as was stated in Berisha’s evidence how come the title-winning defender hasn’t been subsequently sanctioned for violent conduct under the obvious error missed by a referee? Maybe that’s because it didn’t happen that way. Moving on…

The Roar are dangerous on the break and get to the point when the do arrive in the penalty area, rarely spending time playing the ball around at the top of the box (they average only 12.7% of their passes in the final third) so if Melbourne’s defence, led by Matthieu Delpierre Nick Ansell who is expected to return, can shut Brisbane down early in the final third they improve their chances of not conceding greatly. The Roar ripped six shots from outside last weekend as the Victory held them out.

The Victory’s only road loss since the start of February was to the Roar so they have done well away from home despite only finishing sixth but two years ago the Roar won the only finals contest between the two sides 1-0 so finals history and recent head-to-head form is in the Roar’s favour.

If Melbourne get away only four attempts on goal as they did last weekend they are no hope of winning this game as one would think Brisbane can’t miss the net, as they did last weekend, for a second week running if they get as many chances again.

In addition to Ansell, Berisha and Delpierre’s return Barbarouses will be back as will Daniel Georgievski.

The home side should be largely unchanged but in the tense finals atmosphere Jack Hingert will need to not be as reckless given he nearly cost his side a card and more last weekend.

Big game for: Looking ahead. Should they win Melbourne face a game in Adelaide on Friday next week after having played Shanghai SIPG in China during the week in the ACL, the players need to focus on this game but I’m sure the enormity of the week ahead will play on their mind late in the game if they have a slight lead.

The ‘I’m really looking forward to’ bit: A cards bonanza for the visitor’s. With three reds this season the Victory have two more than Brisbane but a whopping 72 yellows to Brisbane’s 45. They are likely to pick up the first booking.

 Melbourne Sheep Cow Whale Ships v Perth Glory, Sunday – AAMI Park

Like our first finals match-up these sides meet recently when Perth beat the light blues 3-2 in round 26. They have played high-scoring games throughout the year with a 2-2 contest in Perth in January and a 5-1 win to the Victorians in November. It’s worth remembering their first meeting this season was when Perth was in a wretched run of form when they suffered through a winless November having lost three and drawn one game before they were beaten in Melbourne in a game which saw the home side with five different goal-scorers including stars Bruno Fornaroli and Aaron Mooy. Kenny Lowe’s side is a completely different outfit now with Sidnei and Michael Thwaite, who featured in that game, amongst the players no longer with the club.

Both sides have key team news issues with the home side set to miss Harry Novillo (unless his sanction is over-turned) but Perth will be (cliche alert!) sweating on the fitness of playmaker Diego Castro who missed the game in Sydney last weekend which saw Kenny Lowe’s side humbled 4-0. They will also be hoping to get striker Chris Harold back after Andy Keogh operated fairly isolated last weekend.

Frechman Novillo’s role is a melee during the round 27 game against Adelaide has proved hugely costly with the winger handed a two game ban. Coupled with the recent loss of Michael Zullo to injury and the light blues, who would have been hot favourites for this fixture if it was played a month ago, are now starting down the barrel of a finals exit a week earlier than last season.

Jacob Melling and Connor Chapman could push forward more often in Novillo’s absence with Anthony Caceres, a substitute last week, set to play a more prominent role.

I’m not sure what to make of Perth’s game on Sunday, they had something to play with the chance for this elimination final to the played in WA. Maybe the ‘ride’ they have been going on took a toll. Better a stinker in round 27 than in a knockout game though. Even without Castro and Harold they did still manage 14 shots on goal so the creativity was still there it was just the execution that let them down. Perth’s attack down their left flank was almost non-existent which made Sydney’s defensive job easier. Castro’s return, in particular, will hopefully provide so more use of the width and in a promising sign he did train in the first two sessions of the week after missing the contest against Sydney FC due to a hamstring injury.

Big game for: History, five years ago Perth beat the then Melbourne Heart 3-0 in the only finals contest between the two sides. How makes the new history here?

 The ‘I’m really looking forward to’ bit: A game of goals. As mentioned 15 goals between the sides this season offers a high-scoring encounter and Perth have scored at least one goal in each of their finals games.

The betting bit – One serious one not:

Looking at the match result I fancy Perth to progress ($2.30) into Kosta Barbarouses hitting the woodwork in this match, the kiwi international has rattled the bars and posts five times this season.

 Record: 17/27

Profit: 82.05 (ten units per investment)

Image via outside90.com

 

 

‘What becomes of the broken hearted?’ The missing four from the A-League finals.

@hamishneal

Adelaide have finished top in the A-League securing an Asian Champions League spot and last year’s grand finals winners, the Melbourne Victory have finished sixth on the ladder. In between are the Wanderers, Roar, Melbourne’s light blues and Perth, but what of the missing four?

7th. Sydney FC (34pts)

An oft-injured skipper and the push for Asian Champions League progress combined to see Sydney FC, grand finalists last season, miss the top six this time around. Graham Arnold has coached in two of the last three A-League grand finals so this is new territory to a degree for the Sky Blues boss but he has an ACL campaign still to focus on before looking fully at squad changes for 2016/17. After finishing 16 points worse off than last season, Sydney’s funk can largely be put down to a lack of finishing and a struggle to actually get players gelling up front. An injury to skipper Alex Brosque, initially misdiagnosed, meant other strikers needed to step up and that simply didn’t happen. One particular game against the Phoenix in November saw the Sky Blues profligate in front of goal and drop two points at home. Defender Jacques Faty has already left the club (more on that shortly) so Sydney will have an extra visa place to utilise and will be able to recruit with a focus on a key position.

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Not their fault (should be in line for the club Player of the Year and maybe a performance bonus)

Vedran Janjetovic. The Sydney ‘keeper kept eight clean sheets in 27 games which was the second best amongst A-League ‘keepers all season – in 20 games, Eugene Galekovic had 12 clean sheets, so Janjetovic’s effort is very notable. Elsewhere for the side from Moore Park, Filip Holosko did show marquee quality striking at times compared to some other A-League marquee recruits but it still wasn’t enough.

Shuffle the decks (where we grab another A-League player from the vanquished four to improve a key area of weakness)

Arnold could do worse then look across the Tasman and give off-contract Hamish Watson a run. The former Hawke’s Bay United striker is yet to be retained by Wellington and provides a bustling striker role, which would be a good back-up for their current under-performing striking core.

8th. Newcastle (30 pts)

The only side of the bottom four who improved on their 2014/15 season points total, and that’s a good effort given the circumstances. The Jets didn’t reach the heights of my bold pre-season prediction which had them in the finals, but they offered some glimmers to prove them can improve again next season. However, until the ownership sale from the FFA to the USA or Chinese owner is confirmed, they will continue to be hamstrung by the level of off-field investment the club can make and any marquee purchases. The Jets lost Milos Trifunovic late in the season but the work of Ryan Kitto and off-contract import Morten Nordstrand showed enough that with added competition for places it could be a burgeoning partnership. Trifunovic’s great start stalled and, had he hung around, he would have struggled for a starting eleven spot next season. The ham-fisted running of the club under Nathan Tinkler means a host of key players, such as Mark Birighitti and Serbian Enver Alivodic, are coming off contract at the same time, but hopefully those two are amongst the first retained for the one-time grand-final winners.

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Not their fault

Coach Scott Miller. The Jets boss entered the season as not just a young face in coaching terms but on the back of massive ownership upheaval in the club, and still he guided the side to a finish 13 points better than last season, not to mention he lost his best player, David Carney halfway through the campaign. January acquisition Nordstrand might not have reached the heights of Andy Keogh, but the Dane was probably the second-best mid-season recruit in the whole competition.

Shuffle the decks

Tomislav Uskok was among the first players cut loose by the Mariners this week, but the former Melbourne Knights defender would be a handy pick-up for the Novocastrians who logged only three clean sheets all season.

9th. Wellington (25 pts)

Ernie Merrick’s side finished 21 points behind their total of last season and had their campaign interrupted by questions over their future (raised in October, not resolved until February). With the A-League’s version of the ‘sword of damocles’ hanging nearby and injuries to two internationals, it was a season to forget for Wellington. The most galling thing for ‘Nix fans will be that their seven wins made up triumphs against every side playing finals, so it was their abject effort amongst sides like Newcastle and Mariners that sees them consigned to the sidelines in early April. It seems almost a distant memory that Jeffrey Sarpong arrived from Holland with the hopes of some Merrick magic turning the midfielder into an out-and-out striker, it didn’t pan out and he had left before the season was out. Albert Reira was a positive influence but lost he way late in the season getting sent off in round 26 was not his greatest footballing moment.

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Not their fault

Roy Krishna. The Fijian frontman missed a key part of the season due to injury and, bar the odd game, goals dried up for Wellington as a result; the side often benefitted from the space he gave others. Roly Bonevacia also gets a nod here, but it’s got to the stage were teams are kicking the Dutchman out of games which sees him getting frustrated and conceding needless free kicks.

Shuffle the decks

In keeping with the theme of recruiting players from Victorian teams, I’d suggest Ernie Merrick give Daniel Heffernan a one-year deal. The former Heidelberg United striker had an odd season at the Mariners, featuring in only seven first team games (of which he only started two) and was part of the group of players ostracised from team training before he was brought back into the fold. In November, I saw him dominate a youth team game (I know, I know) where he scored a hatrick against the FFA Centre of Excellence. The 28 year-old deserves an extended shot somewhere.

10th Central Coast Mariners (13pts)

October 10, December 31, and January 30 – the three dates of the Mariners only wins all season. They couldn’t even muster a victory in their FFA Cup round of 32 tie (lost to Wellington) after making the semi-finals in 2015, albeit with a favourable draw then. Mariners coach Tony Walmsley saw plenty of players come and go during the year, notably Spaniard Luis Garcia, who arrived to much fanfare but won’t be back next season, while mid-season departees Anthony Caceres, Nick Fitzgerald, and Liam Reddy will feature in squads for other clubs in the finals. It’s safe to say most people did not think the Mariners would open their season with a win over Perth and end it with a derby defeat in possibly Garcia’s final game of professional football. Walmsley has already acted quickly in the recruiting stakes, adding Faty but he has also axed Heffernan, Uskok, and midfielder Francesco Stella. A clean-out is clearly needed but those three are all players he signed during the season. Not every mid-season singing comes off but that’s a horrible conversion rate. A porous defence meant the Mariners needed to score plenty to win and never once registered a clean sheet all season. Even the equally awful Aston Villa in the Premier League has one clean sheet.

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Not their fault

For the side that finished with two less wins than their five last season this is very hard, but Liam Rose impressed at times. The 19 year-old was often shuffled around to allow for tactical changes but gets a better than pass mark in a horrendous season for the Mariners. Mitch Austin also performed superbly. However, when the Mariners were successful they had buy-in from the players which extended to some upping sticks from their residence’s in Sydney. Possibly three hours a day in a car to and from training doesn’t seem efficient for an elite athlete.

Shuffle the decks

Jets midfielder Leonardo would be a like-for-like replacement for Garcia but the Brazilian did have injury issues and whether the Mariners would use a visa spot on a player with a history of injury issues when they had similar problems with Fabio Ferreira this season (who only started 18 games) would be the issue.

Images via smh.com.au, fansunite.com, abc.net.au and theguardian.com

Five Metre Gap – NRL Round 6 2016

@hamishneal

Like the way of the five metre gap in defence looking at the points you may have missed from the sixth round of the NRL. Newcastle and the Roosters each registered their first wins of this campaign with Brisbane two points clear at the top.

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With top sides often accused of lacking flair it was notable Brisbane’s second and third tries from Thursday night in their 26-0 triumph over the Dragons came from kicks. These tries were also the second and third from kicks Wayne Bennett’s side had registered all season. Up until that point, including Corey Oates’ opening four-pointer, only one of their 18 tries this campaign came from kicks. Given this lack of tries from kicks prior to round six should Brisbane have been easier to plan to defend against? A 5-1 record suggests not but now the Broncos have pulled out a few extra threats on attack including the athletic display from Anthony Milford.

Kicking out to an early lead helped Parramatta immensely as they vanquished the Raiders 36-6 on Saturday with coach Brad Arthur tweaking playing time and planned substitutions which resulted in Origin backrower Beau Scott playing only 34 minutes. Playing 59 and 74 minutes in the two weeks prior the former Knights forward, having scored his side’s fourth try nine minutes from the interval, was rested for longer than normal with a view to their quick turn-around and to rest some niggling injuries. On Sunday there were details about a study looking at playing on a five-day turnaround which suggested a side’s hope of winning the following game didn’t drop as much as what popular belief would have you think (damn those pesky facts) However I’d suggest Arthur was looking towards not only the Manly encounter in round seven but the following fortnight when the blue and yellows play in Townsville then meet the Bulldogs. All this could come to very little if they cop a large points deduction for alleged salary cap breaches but it’s intriguing to note how much their coaching staff are thinking during one game about the next game and giving themselves a chance at least, points penalty or not.

In the interests of balance, after we pointed out a below par effort from the Knights bench in recent weeks, it’s notable how important the Newcastle bench forwards were on the weekend as Nathan Brown’s team edged the Tigers 18-16. Former Dragon Jack Stockwell (111 metres) and Daniel Safiti (100 metres) produced error-free displays with Safiti’s twin brother Jacob, 77 metres, chipping in. It was a big turnaround from even the prior round when only Stockwell (103 metres) from the Newcastle replacements got over 68 metres.

With his third NRL club Kiwi born-centre Hymel Hunt appears to have found a home and is improving at the Rabbitohs. Once of the Melbourne Storm and the Titans before that the 22 year-old provided the flick on for the Bunnies opening try as they were beaten 17-10 by the Roosters and has scored two tries this season. Aside from Greg Inglis the outside backs of the Rabbitohs are amongst the most inexperienced in the competition so a gradual improvement is need if Michael Maguire’s side is to progress up the table, that said they have scored 134 points and have Adam Reynolds set to return. A key issue with Hunt’s progress will be if Inglis is moved into the centres when Alex Johnston is available. This move could be at Hunt’s expense.

The round concluded with a gripping contest in Melbourne which saw the Bulldogs triumph 18-12 over the Storm after they absorbed a huge amount of pressure from the Storm attack. The opening Bulldogs try came against the run of play and by halftime the Storm had been tackled inside the Canterbury ‘red zone’ on 20 occasions to the Bulldogs six. One expected the relentless Storm to perhaps run over a fatigued Bulldogs outfit given the home side had six more sets of possession but it was the Storm making errors (five in the second half compared to two by Des Hasler’s outfit) which proved pivotal as the visitor’s moved into fifth on the ladder – above the Storm on points difference.

Image via smh.com.au