The second-last round of the Hyundai A-League did its best to hold on to its mystery of which teams will be playing out this seasons finals series that begin in just under a fortnight’s time.

With three separate draws registered over the round giving little clarity, it was Sydney FC’s win at home against the hapless Wellington Phoenix that strengthened their chances of making the six, and the Mariner’s shock 3-1 loss away to Perth Glory that may have dented their chances of second place on the ladder and a home semi-final. Results were as follows:

Adelaide United 2 – Melbourne Heart 2

Newcastle Jets 2 – Melbourne Victory 2

Perth Glory 3 – Central Coast Mariners 1

Western Sydney Wanderers 1 – Brisbane Roar 1

Sydney FC 4 – Wellington Phoenix 1

 

Remarkably, with the fixtures for round 27 as they are, this leaves positions 2 to 7 still undecided with only one round still to play.

 

ladder

 

Talking Points

 

Does the 2013-14 A-League lack a clear contender for the Roar?

At this point in last year’s season we were watching the Mariners and Wanderers in a tight race for the premiership, with third placed Melbourne Victory then a comfortable 10 points further back. Riveting to watch, there was little doubt heading into the finals campaign that both were deserved of their first and second places, and all A-League fans were eager at the prospect of the two juggernauts of the competition meeting at the biggest stage, the Hyundai A-League Grand Final.

However, this season, the last four rounds of the Hyundai A-League have seen an incredible three different teams hold second position on the ladder and while this weekend will see the Western Sydney Wanderers fighting off four other teams this weekend for Runners-Up, we need to remind ourselves that this arm wrestle is set against the backdrop of a Premiership race that saw Brisbane wrap up the title 3 weeks ago and who remain an incredible 13 points clear of their nearest competitor.

This then raises the question, is there any team that can compete with the Brisbane Roar? One that can match the exciting brand of football the Roar has produced this year, and ensures that this year’s grand final match is the spectacle it should be?

At the halfway point of this season, we were all expecting a repeat by the Wanderers. By round 14, Western Sydney was only four points behind league-leaders Brisbane, and held a five-point advantage on Melbourne Victory. Their record sat at 7 wins, 5 draws and only 2 losses. However, the form that propelled them to the A League Premiership in 2012-13 was not to last, and their indifferent form since New Years has seen the gap above widen and the one below erode.

In their defence, and as Tony Popovic pointed out in his post-match press conference this week, the Wanderers have only lost two more than they had at this point last season, which would seem to suggest that the competition has been fiercer this year, and as such, there have been fewer easier wins.

The statistics would tend to agree: by the end of round 26 last season, teams placed 4th to 7th had a total of 126 points, however at the same point for this year we find them with 137. Lower placed teams have refused to go gently into the night and have instead made continued with strong end-of-season runs. This has stifled the number of games the top two teams could reasonably expect to win, and explains why their collective points this season are a full 14 below where they were at the same time last year.

However, does this close competition for other finals positions translate to success in their match ups against Brisbane Roar? The answer is a fairly overwhelming no. Against the current top-six teams, the Roar have a record of 9 wins, 3 draws and 2 losses, with only one of those losses coming after the third round of competition. Only Newcastle appear to have the wood on Brisbane, beating them in all three fixtures this year. I am sure they will be praying to get another crack at the Roar in a finals context.

So should we expect differently from other top-six teams against Brisbane in this season’s finals? History dictates that it may be unlikely with the A-League champion having placed in the top-2 of the premiership every season since 2005-06. Even more telling is that the A-League grand final has been contested between the Premiers and Runners-Up an incredible 6 times out of the last 7 seasons.

If this is the case again this year, then can the Wanderers, Mariners, Victory, Adelaide or Sydney favour their chances when they have managed just 2 wins out of 14 matches this competition?

Farewell to Shinji Ono

The 1-1 draw played out between Western Sydney and Brisbane on Saturday night marked possibly the final home game of Shinji Ono for the Wanderers in his final season in the Hyundai A-League. As we have come to expect from the RBB and Wanderers fans in general, Ono received a boisterous celebration from Pirtek Stadium.

At 34 years of age and without a contract extension with the Wanderers on offer, Shinji will be joining J-League second division outfit Consadole Sapporo for the 2014-15 season.

Whilst the 2013-14 season has not seen him reach the heights he did in 2012-13, it is safe to say that the Wanderers will still be losing a valuable member of their midfield squad, so often a central tenet of the Wanderer’s on-field dominance. As far as references from past managers go, Ono could not have fared much better than the words of Tony Popovic following their match against Brisbane

“…on the field he brings his quality, his class, his creativity… as a club and certainly the players have enjoyed working with him. He’s very professional, very dedicated, and if you speak to any of our young players, Shinji Ono…the first one there in the morning, always working hard looking after himself”

So given such a glowing review from his current coach the question begs itself, why was a contract extension not offered? Particularly given that Western Sydney has yet to find a replacement they said they were still looking for when Ono made his decision.

His lack of goals this year compared to last year is probably also an indicator of the decline in his general contribution to play for the second half of the 2013-14 season. Troubles with injury and illness restricted Ono in the middle part of this season, and at 34 it appears that the Wanderers do not hold enough faith in his abilities to return to full form to chance another season with him.

Having said that though, his position within the team remains critical, and Western Sydney will need to ensure that their next marquee player brings the same level of organisation to the squad, or risk having the club’s younger players without the strong guidance that Ono provided. It remains a critical replacement for the Wanderers and may dictate a lot of their success in the 2014-15 A-League season. We wait with baited breath to see who the new player might be.

The cursed brilliance of Alessandro Del Piero

For much of the second half of the 2013-14 A-League season, the talk around Alessandro Del Piero has been of the ‘will they, won’t they’ kind, more specifically if a contract extension will be offered to the Italian great at the end of the 2013-14 competition or not. While few can argue that Del Piero is the best player Sydney have and has dragged the Sky Blues kicking and screaming to a finals berth, argument has persisted on whether he is in fact holding the club back: would Sydney be better off parting ways with Alessandro.

This weekend’s 4-1 win over Wellington provides a perfect example of the heavy reliance the Sydney team have on Del Piero. After all, it was his build up play that led to his successful penalty, and to his wondrous free kick for his brace (should I be capitalising his?) He also had a hand in the third goal with a finessed play-on to Ryall for his goal. In short, his performance was such that it would not surprise me if Abbas was to come out this week to the media that he had lent his shirt to Del Piero when that fourth goal was powered into the far top corner from outside the area.

Hyperbole aside, ADP remains the lifeblood of the Sydney FC squad. His 10 goal this year are double that of the next highest Sydney FC goal scorer Richie Garcia, as the Italian maestro follow on from his incredible 2012-13 season as Sydney highest scorer with 14 (the next highest Sky Blue player was Yairo Yau with 6). Sydney’s run into the finals this year would not have been possible without him, which begs the question, why would you even consider letting him leave?

The answer lies in the irony that Del Piero, and Sydney FC at large are victim of his own successes. Much like the latter years of Thierry Henry at Arsenal, or more recently Barcelona with Messi, having a player that good in a team, a player relied upon on a weekly to get results, changes the way a team plays.

Too often other players in the team will play the wrong option to try and get the ball to a superstar player when he should not be receiving it, they will slacken off in support play on expectation that the player will make it all happen by themselves , and worst of all, the team will have little idea how they play when a player like that does not play.

This is without even the additional financial burdens of the A-League.

What has been evident in Sydney FC’s season this year is that they are short of quality players in many areas of their squad, and this is at least in part due to the diversion of funds to pay Del Piero his reported $4 million per year salary. Despite his exception to the wage cap as a marquee player, any club director places restrictions on the collective wage they offer a team each season, and the reality is that by making this sort of payment, Sydney FC has been limited in the money they can spend elsewhere.

Without that kind of investment, the reliance continues to build, and the team’s habit of relying on Del Piero to produce becomes increasingly two-dimensional.

The third goal of Sydney’s on the weekend displayed the kind of football Sydney’s fans had been missing. Great one touch football from Sydney FC along the right wing followed by a cool finish by Sebastian Ryall, and yet all the television commentator could point out was the great final pass from ADP.

It would be hard not to succumb to the aura of the man, but too often the team has had to fall back on the talent of Del Piero to find the back of the net, and as a fan, the football has become increasingly flatter to watch.

As hard as it may be for the Sky Blue management and fans to accept, the possibility of dropping Del Piero may not only free up some expenditure on other areas of the team, but the tactics as well.

 

Play of the week

In the horrid conditions that were Allianz stadium last night, Sydney FC and more specifically Sebastian Ryall were able to produce a magical team goal that surely warrants inclusion as a contender for goal of the year.

Collecting the ball near the half way line, Ryall traded passes along the righthand touchline before an incisive pass to Del Piero. A quality layoff by the Italian was exceeded only by the sublime first-time shot Ryall would make to register Sydney’s third. A rare piece of team brilliance by the Sydney FC team that has been living in the shadow of ADP for quite some time.