Stranger in a strange land

What a weird country I’m currently in. I’ve seen these lovely parks with plenty of green grass what would make lovely fields for playing league. But no. It seems that these parks are dedicated to some strange ritual. It does involve something like a football but rather then running it over the try line, they kick if through two large sticks, flanked by two smaller ones.

Yes, I’m in Melbourne where nary a Steeden is to be seen.

But even in this league wasteland (look the Storm may be based here but I’m sure that no-one in Victoria really knows they exist) I can blog about the footy.

Over in Bunnyland, coach JT has done something unusual and blamed himself for the Souths going south in the competition. The lack of a consistent halves pairing is hurting (Jeremy Smith is not the answer). But during the trials, I saw Souths flog the Sharks 44-0 playing an expansive game with some great passes. We’ll see what happens this weekend.

That’s all Folkes for the Bulldogs. Keeping it all in the family, assistant coach and brother-in-law Kevin Moore is the sure thing to be his replacement.

State of Origin is slowly creeping into the mix. In NSW the concern is over who will play halfback? Manly’s Matt Orford rightly would feel miffed if a part-timer such as Robbie Farah is given the half back’s role. Farah, if fit, needs to be at hooker. He tried half last year for the Tigers and was no where near as effective. Incidentally, Farah is listed as half against the Raiders this weekend.

The bolter for NSW half back could be Broncos half Peter Wallace. But please pick a regular half and not fall the idea of playing some one out of position.

Looking ahead to the weekend, the big match is the Storm hosting Manly in the grand final replay. More to say on that anon.


Saturday dawned and I started to count down the hours. I couldn’t wait till 7:00pm when I would attend, not just my first A-League game, but my first ever local football fixture at Gosford. And it promised to be a beauty. The Central Coast Mariners versus Sydney FC.

One thing did seem amiss. During the night I had awoken to the sound of heavy rain a few times. The morning did still seem bleak and I knew for sure that there was no way the local cricket fixtures where going to go ahead. Come just after midday, the rain seemed to ease and all seemed well for the evening’s battle.

About 5:30 I made my way to the Central Coast Leagues club (just across from Bluetongue Stadium) the traditional pre-match venue for cheap beer before a game at the Stadium.

But around 6:40, rumours started to circulate that the game had been postponed. To confirm, I went to a part of the club that looks onto the stadium and sure enough, people were exiting the arena. It was too soggy for soccer as confirmed by some passers by. So what to do? A couple of friends from Sydney had just got in and they weren’t too keen on turning round just yet.

Easy. The beer was cheap and close by. We staggered back out into the rain around 10:00pm all the merrier. Sure we didn’t achieve our original objective but it still was a good night.

Curses! Foiled by Wilkinson again

I was there four years ago, way up on high at Telstra Stadium ,when Jonny Wilkinson in an act of unrivaled sporting cruelty tore the heart of Australia and denied us a World Cup on home soil.

Last night, Wilkinson (and a committed English team) again denied Australia a chance at glory in the Marshal Petain Cup. But the better team did win. Australia seemed off their game and their enthusiasm waxed and wane. England on the other hand always seemed to have their entire forward pack at the breakdown, often embarrassing the Aussie pack who often seemed a few seconds behind the play. Wilkinson didn’t quite have his radar working but it was more than enough to get England home.

Alas England can taunt us with four more years. The only saving grace is that the All Blacks have amazingly suffered the same fate and were bundled out of the cup by France.

But you don’t know what the truth is do you, Ms Jones?

Loudly whispered suspicions have been confirmed that Olympian Marion Jones used performance enhancing substances in the lead up to the Sydney Olympics.

Jones has said that “tapped around the truth for too long”. Tapped around the truth? Ms Jones, you have stomped on the truth then run it over with a steam roller before burying it in an unmarked grave in a wasteland of denial. Then you have the temerity, as Raelene Boyle pointed out, to qualify your admission by stating it was the coach’s fault.

Flaxseed oil indeed. Have you no shame?


The first week of the 2007 Tour de France ended with a win for Tom Boonen, neatly bookending this sprinters festival with the first stage win of Robbie McEwen. While there were surprises in how the wins came, the reality was that the crème de la crème of the sport still took them and those looking for upsets were largely disappointed. Still it was an interesting and exciting week of racing.

Often it’s said that you need a bit of luck on your side to win, especially in the first week, where getting the leadout and sprint just right is a difficult thing, but as the cliches say, you have to be good to be lucky and winners make their own luck. Oh, and there is one more, the better they are the luckier they get. So here’s a snapshot of the past weeks lucky guys.

Fabian Cancellara didn’t need any luck to win the prologue, he just blew everyone away, brute force is all the prologue really requires, and Cancellara has that in spades. In stage one there was a lot of bad luck for the winner Robbie McEwen, but then he made his own luck and managed to find a way to win. Winners are like that, they surprise while not really surprising. Then there was stage two, where Gert Steegmans found himself in the lucky position of winning a stage that he wasn’t supposed to. Yeah, that one was pure luck.

Stage three was another for making your own luck. The really good guys can always sniff a win, and Fabian Cancellara did just that. Sensing weakness in the other riders after the Tours longest stage he went for the eleven and held on from a long way out to take the win. Lucky or good? It’s your pick. In stage four there was no luck involved, just a classic set up by Julian Dean for his team leader, a case of everything going right for both, in the end just about everyones pick for the stage took it.

Stage five was the most dramatic of the first week and the luck was all bad for Astana, unfortunately this time it didn’t matter how good Vino and Kloden were they still couldn’t get lucky, in the end the class of Phillipo Pozzato won out on that leg. Stage six went to Tom Boonen. Finally ending a week of frustration, he nailed the win, but not without, you guessed it, luck. Here is what Boonen had to say.

At last another victory. You need so much luck,” blasted Boonen after the win. The sprint did not come easy for the man from Flanders. “Someone touched my rear wheel in the final kilometre. The bike’s rear end was making noises. I was forced to do my sprint in my 11 [tooth gear] and it was not possible to shift.

There was something else about stage six that summed another aspect of the race to date, the futility of the breakaway in modern cycling, Bradley Wiggins long solo and capture. For this I blame the radio contact that team directors now employ as they stage manage the race for their respective teams. They have removed an important aspect of the breakaway in cycling and replaced it with ruthless calculation. And that aspect? Luck.

The Socceroos and the Asian Cup

On Sunday the 8th of July the Socceroos will complete the final stage of the 2004 Football Revolution by competing for the first time in the premier football competition this side of the Urals (I would’ve said the Bosphorus but Turkey and indeed Kazakhstan are part of Europe as far as football is concerned), the AFC Asian Cup. Prior to this the Socceroos had squared off against the likes of American Samoa and Kiribati in the Oceania Nations Cup — the victories were many and comfortable but the quality of the opposition was less than impressive, the only serious challenge coming in the form of the All-Whites*.

The Asian Cup is a somewhat weightier competition, featuring World Cup regulars Iran and Japan — teams we have, shall we say a “history” with — alongside 2002 semifinalists South Korea and a bevvy of established and cashed-up teams from West Asia. This years comp also has a unique (as in never to be repeated, sayeth AFC supremos) format with four host nations: Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia.

While on paper Australia’s squad appears second to none, encompassing our full strike and midfield lineup and most of our European ‘A’ players, easy progress is far from assured even in the Group Stage. Thailand, Oman and Iraq aren’t barnstorming up the (admittedly crap) FIFA ranking tables, but none are to be underestimated and each will play to their considerable strengths and push the Socceroos to their limits. As last Sunday’s friendly with Singapore and Sydney FC’s experience in the Champion’s League demonstrated, even low/middle ranked Asian teams can be very dangerous. No doubt the combination of aggressive, counterattacking play and stifling climate has been playing on Graham Arnold and co.’s minds for quite some time; and their rigorous acclimatisation program and training schedule appeared to pay some dividends fitness-wise if nothing else.

However, defensive woes remain. Australa’s leftback drought has been exacerbated by the recent retirement of several defensive players among them left-sided specialist Stan Lazaridis and capable left fullback Tony Vidmar, and the decisions of central defensive lynchpin Craig Moore and leftback Scott Chipperfield to give this one a miss**. Their absence has left the Socceroos backline decidely unsettled, in Singapore neither Patrick Kisnorbo or Michael Beauchamp looked effective paired in the centre with The Man With The $2000 Soul Patch***, and Luke Wilkshire didn’t convince at leftback. This Sydney FC fan suspects that had Alvin Ceccoli stayed on for the ACL campaign he might well have been called up to fill just this gap — his departure to Avispa Fukuoka in the Japanese second division appears to have put him off Arnie’s radar, which is apparently Europe and Australia-focused to the exclusion of anywhere else.

Some pundits have stated that anything other than a finals appearance would be a disgrace, I’m a lot less sanguine — while this isn’t Germany 2006, the conditions are going to be no less trying. Arnie’s Socceroos may find themselves missing the searing oven of Kaiserslauten by the end of their South East Asian sojourn.

Australia in the Asian Champions League: half-time review

With three of six matches played, it seems fitting to take a breather and assess Australia’s inaugural ACL campaign. Due to the vagaries of Asian Football Confederation deadlines Aussie teams are stuck in a one-year lag, with the Premiers (Adelaide United) and Champions (Sydney FC) of the previous season competing in this year’s cup. Consequently it’s all a little weird, with the embattled Sydney squad of 06-07 playing top Asian sides based on the performances of the unButchered, Dwight-enhanced team of 05-06, while Adelaide were thrust into battle with Chinese Super League champions Shandong Luneng barely a fortnight from their 6-0 humiliation at Telstra Dome*. For both sides it’s been the proverbial crucible, and the results have been decidely mixed.

Lest anyone forget, this is uncharted territory for any Australian domestic football team, and these two teams have been put into
draws with super-teams from mature, successful leagues (particularly the J and K-Leagues) unhindered by anything approaching the A-League’s $1.7 million salary cap – indeed, most of Sydney and Adelaide’s opponents field players worth more than either side’s squad put together. ANZAC Tests they ain’t.

First, the groups:

With only the topmost team qualifying for playoffs, Adelaide have effectively kissed their chances of qualifying from group G goodbye a week ago when they failed to defend a 2-0 lead against Seongnam Chunma Ilhwa*, whose subsequent equalisation dudded both sides, each now stranded five points behind Shandong Luneng who hammered V(for Vietnam)-League champs Gach Dong Tam Long An** 4-0 to go three wins in a row. It was a match Adelaide will rue, as Young Socceroos Nathan Burns and Bruce Djite (think Mark Viduka born in the USA via Cote d’Ivoire and Togo) combined brilliantly to bamboozle a veteran Korean defense (each must wonder how they didn’t score a brace apeice) only for the visitors to claw their way back with some pacy flanking in the second half.

Sydney’s position in group E is salvagable but salvation is no longer directly in their hands. Sitting at third with four points from a win, draw and loss following their 2-1 defeat to Persik Kediri, the inaugural champions now need to win every match and hope either Shanghai Shenhua or Persik ambush Urawa Red Diamonds in either side’s home match in order to qualifiy. As it happens, they too will be mourning a 2-2 home draw, in this case last month’s match against Urawa, who were let back in the game after an uncharacteristic fumble from Sydney’s form goalkeeper, Clint Bolton, after the home side had gone up 2-0 in the first twenty-three minutes; David Carney nabbing the opener in inside 56 seconds from a piercing Mark Milligan pass.

Already it is apparent that playing in Asia is challenging venture: Sydney FC have now played matches in sub-zero temperatures in Shanghai and last week at Solo City they braved 33ºC and 85% humidity on a pitch that was fit for scuba diving only the night before due to monsoonal rains – to deleterious effect.

Also playing on the coaches minds will be the physical mismatch between many Asian players and the direct, physical style of play favoured by Australian sides, which has contributed to more than a few lopsided foul sheets; though few referees have exhibited the one-eyed prejudice that characterised Australia’s World Cup campaign. However the low yellow card threshold, where two seperate yellow cards in the group stage are enough to earn a one-match suspension has proved hazardous already: Sydney have already had two players suspended this way, which has cut a below-strength squad even further, while a similar threat looms over Adelaide.

In fairness, some of these lessons could only be learnt the hard way, and both teams can fairly claim to have been hobbled by Cranky Coach Implosion Syndrome prior to their campaigns, yet already several issues have emerged in both side’s campaigns particularly as concerns preparation, fitness, discipline and acclimatisation, all of which need to be addressed if Australian sides are to prosper in the ACL.

* Melbourne, having sealed the competition’s first Double (oh how we hates them…) have qualified for 2008, and Adelaide, runners up in both categories will return as well. Don’t ask me wether that’s because they came second in the final or were runners up for the premiership. Please.

**a bizarre team in its own right: one of the premier K-League sides, with numerous titles, it is funded by the Moonies and draws an average crowd of just 7,000.

*** any suggestions on abbreviations, nicknames? I was thinking: ‘the Vietnamese Side With The Really Long Name I Don’t Have A Chance Of Pronouncing Correctly’…

A-League preliminary finals Round Two preview

Round two of the Preliminary stage is upon us, with all four teams still in with a sniff (though some noses are whiffier than others).

Adelaide United and Melbourne Victory have played out a scoreless draw, punctuated with scintillating chances – 5 to 1 in Adelaide’s favour – that never hatched. A non-result, I hear you say? – far from it. In a playoff equation two things become paramount: keeping a clean sheet and nabbing an away goal. Melbourne have managed to scrape the former, but their inability to nail the latter has exacerbated an already precarious position. They go to Telstra Dome on Sunday for a finals match without a win in four games. Adelaide, a perplexing team with a reputation for slow, grinding-out-a-result football have managed to throw the switch to attack mode, ably aided by (another!) Brazillian signing Diego Walsh, who has managed to make a nuisance of himself in three sucessive matches despite not scoring a goal.

On the whole Adelaide are in front by a nose or more here, having better recent form and the chance to drive home a lethal away goal – but keep in mind, Telstra Dome will be packed to capacity with ardent MV fans who believe anything is possible, wether their players believe it is another thing altogether.

The other side of this finals competition takes place today at a booked-out EAS, as Sydney and the Jets fight for the chance to challenge the top two. Unlike the Adelaide-Victory match there will be no second chances.

Last round’s match-up was a stark contrast to the Adelaide-Victory equation, with Newcastle managing to bung in an away goal but only after Sydney had scored off two headers courtesy of the rampant Alex Brosque and Mark Milligan. This leaves Sydney slightly ahead of Newy (but kicking ourselves at the though of what could have been…) having neutralised the away goal with two of their own. As usual, the side in sky-blue goes in with a raft of injury worries, with leftback Alvin Ceccoli and centreback Nikolai Topor-Stanley (’Hyphen’ to the fans) in doubt and defensive mid Terry McFlynn out for the season. If neither is fit, expect Milligan to return to centreback and new signing Jonas Salley to replace McFlynn in the ‘policeman’ role.

Newcastle, by contrast are likely to make few changes – the most likely starting with striker Rodriguez over Vaughn Coveney and possibly replacing Okon with Durante in the back four.

Newcastle are in a difficult position, needing to beat Sydney without conceding; if they score first it is well and truly game on but an early Sydney goal could well be game over. The crucial battles will be on Sydney’s side of the line between playmakers Carle and Rodriquez and the Talay/Milligan(/Salley?) pairing. Sydney will need to shut these two down while still keeping regular service to lone striker Brosque and their attacking midfielders, who have managed to slip two goals by Newcastle twice in the last month or so.

Parental Quandary

Dear Sideliners, sorry, I have not posted much at all lately. Been too busy to even think about sport. But now I have a problem, that only you can solve.

Five loves AFL, more than can be said even in a lengthy blog post. Last year I forked out and signed my son up for Auskick. He was four at the time, and not much good at sport as both his parents are literati couch potato types (his mother’s footy obessions notwithstanding). He liked it, mostly, though less on cold days. The downside was a 45′ drive every Saturday morning and much juggling of weekend family life. The plus side was it gave him was an appreciation for the code, taught him some kicking and catching skills and meant I finally had someone to watch footy with. Also, football at this distant venue was warm and sunny.

Now it’s time to think about signing him up for sport again. The choices are Auskick, at a new venue a bit closer to home, or soccer/football, much closer to home but at a venue that will be cold and misty for much of winter. He said he would like to play closer to home, and that if he doesn’t like soccer he’ll return to footy next year. But I figure he’s going to get soccer at school (which he started this year) and fear that he will forget about my own cherished code. I also think that it’s good to learn hand skills (and, before you ask, rugby league or union are both out of the question).

So, the question for you at Sidelined is, do I force the issue? Or just look wistfully at the game every Saturday and wonder if I’ll ever have someone to play kick to kick with?

And will it be compensation enough to make the P&C invite the Auskick lady to come up and train the kids at school once in a blue moon?

Tennis’ old argument

First let me state that it has always been so, though the idea that womens tennis has been eminently more watchable persists amongst so-called serious commentators.

First, the men’s game continues to progress on a technical basis, with the players exhibiting more power, more speed and more variety than that shown by the distaff side of the court. Womens tennis has not really progressed since the days of Martina Navratilova, when there was a hope that her all court athleticism, following on from the true greats of Margaret Court and Billie Jean King, would be expressed by today’s players. Instead what we see is a procession of cookie cutter Anna Kournikova style wannabees who show no particular nuance in the structure of their games.

There was some hope when the Williams sisters came on the scene that they had the potential to break the Martina Hingis/Tracy Austin style of play and take it to another level. However once they drove Hingis from the game, they stopped improving, probably because of the lack of competition and the sheer boredom of playing another Russianova cut from the can’t serve/baseline defender/hit it as hard as you can mould, pumped out by the assembly line tennis factories in Florida and elsewhere. It’s not surprise that Hingis is back and competitive, the womens game has not progressed, and even gone backwards. Does anyone for a moment think that Jim Courier could do the same?

Currently, the only female players with the ability to cut through the blandness are Amelie Mauresmo, Justine Henin-Hardenne (not playing due to injury), Kim Clijsters, Alicia Molik and Serena Williams. Each one of these players show the potential for the kind of big game that many of today’s male players bring to the court everyday.

You’ll note that Maria Sharapova does not get a mention here because I do not regard her as a player with any serious technical complexity to her game. She performs within a narrow range of skillsets, all of which she does extremely well, but outside of being an ornament, she adds nothing to the game technically. This narrowness of style brings the weakness of the womens game into sharp focus because of the inability of many of her competitors to beat her.

The others have the ability to expand their games to include new tricks and new ways to solve on court challenges, Sharapova only has the ability to hit her way out of trouble.

Here’s hoping the next week shows us how well they can play.