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It’s a glimpse isn’t it? As the frigid weeks of the off-season crawl by, the FFA Cup slashes through the deathly absence and in doing so lets in a warm shaft of light.
This is what the A-League could be like, with more teams in it, more colour in it, more intrigue and unlikely upset, and if not for the dreaded duct tape, a bit more ethnicity in it.
The teams and the players that carry their colours out aren’t as familiar. The grounds are smaller, but often fuller. There is a sense here of a carpet, slightly drab and thick with must, being cut away and pulled up to reveal a lovely set of floorboards, and you wonder why they were carpeted over in the first place.
An evening brimming with six cup matches, all of them, in one way or another, available to watch online, or indeed in person as is best advised.
If the Congress Review Working Group report released today was a 100 pages all dipped in and infused with the depressing stench of further turmoil ahead, Tuesday night was the perfect olfactory counter and riposte, delicious in every way, varied in character and bouquet, a wonderful, rich scent that sent hurried electric messages, eager lads laughing and running, straight to the salivary glands.
How to sample them all? Well, one at a time.
Brisbane Roar vs Melbourne City
Brisbane began brightly against Melbourne City, with new recruit Stefan Mauk making an immediate impression with energy, hunger and no small amount of zip. City, as was perfectly expressed by their slightly sluggish start, are in need of a jolt to the system.
Entirely overshadowed this week by their city rivals, there’s a small, neutral hope that they will offer a worthy retort to the Honda signing, with a marquee of their own, to really give some fizz to the rivalry, enough perhaps to carbonate the multiple derbies to come this season.
Of course, in Bruno Fornaroli, they still have one of the league’s preeminent attackers, and one shouldn’t underestimate the impact a developing and burgeoning Riley McGree might have this season. It was Fornaroli’s always-impressive ability to shield the ball from hulking centre backs that wormed City back into things early, as the Uruguayan set up Nathaniel Atkinson to slap a shot toward goal on the run.
Later in the half, Luke Brattan went down after a fairly routine-looking skirmish in midfield, but stayed down in a wholly unusual way, totally motionless. He would not be moved for a great deal of time, as what seemed to be a spinal injury meant the game was halted entirely and an ambulance called.
It was scary stuff, really. It took well over half an hour for Brattan to be lifted off the turf, stabilised and on a stretcher, his parents with him in the ambulance; thoughts were of only optimistic things, and all those watching, in person and on television, were thinking of him as he left.
The injury put a mute on the contest, which dribbed and drabbed out, 0-0, into extra time. As the match trudged toward penalties in a daze, Fornaroli stunned everyone with a wondergoal, snatched out of the malaise, as he controlled a pass on the run, deliberately flicked the ball up off his toe, then smashed the ball in on the volley.
Super stuff, and City won 1-0.
Gold Coast Knights vs Newcastle Jets
When I switched over to Newcastle Jets versus Gold Coast Knights, the Jets were a goal up, with the clock only barely scratching 20 minutes gone. Well, these things can happen when team separated by an entire, disconnected division meet in the Cup, but these mismatches always have a tinge of magic to them, that is until leads turn into routs.
How lovely to see a team playing in a strip so pleasingly designed as the Knights’ was. A club founded by Croatian-Australians in 1978, they play in those wonderful Croatian checks, red and white, with blue socks, a design still glowing warmly in the memory after Croatia’s World Cup run to the final. Just as Luca Modric and co were underdogs there, so the Knights were too here, but a game of it they were intent on making.
Every trip into the Newcastle half was met with shrieks and whoops, every half-chance, or unwise shot met with roars and applause.
Imagine if, in the build up to the match, the body that the competition is named after had made deliberate and concerted efforts to try and harness the energy that was so evidently emanating from the Croatian-Australian community – or indeed any football-loving Australian keen to dip their toe into the many glassy rock pools of a multi-cultural nation – during the World Cup and advertise this game appealing to that energy, before it dies down and returns to the shadows, unaddressed and covered up.
The Knights have undergone a number of face-lifts since their creation, and having been asked to remove ‘Croatia’ from their club name by the football federation in the 90s, they’ve had to survive more than one harsh cleansing. But there’s no mistaking the origin of those checks, and how resplendent they were in them, even standing next to the Jets’ almost all-gold strip.
Back to the game, though; the Petratos brothers Dimi and Kosta were running riot on each flank, and Steven Ugarkovic – one of the most underrated players in the A-League – was being his neat and progressive self in midfield. The Knights were holding their defensive structure, with two distinct banks, keeping a clear line, resisting the urge to chase men or ball and so disrupt rigidity of their stance. They were breaking with speed, if not precision.
Dimi Petratos had a sighter, a free kick from 30 metres out, and then 15 minutes later a second from the same spot. The first was curled over, the second smashed true and straight and into Knights keeper Josh Langdon’s palms.
That was as close as the Jets got to doubling their lead before the break, so it was 1-0 – it had been Nikolai Topor-Stanley that had scored the Jets’ first, a fairly soft goal too – which was a fine state of affairs, all things considered, for the Knights.
The second half, where the legs grow heavy and ache with fatigue, and the lungs shrink and begin wheezing, is so often where the fatal blow is inflicted on the lower-level team. The Jets would end up narrow 1-0 winners.
Bentleigh Greens vs Wellington Phoenix
Off to the next game we went, for the second half between the Nix and Bentleigh Greens. Marco Jankovic had scored for Bentleigh, a standing header from five yards out after a corner was missed by almost all of the Wellington defence.
It was not a moment of distinction for Mark Rudan’s team, and they were trailing all the way into the second half, despite Bentleigh Greens’ James Kelly being sent off. Kelly’s had been a case of one orange card, and then a second foul that barely justified a booking – overall, his misdeeds probably deserved the red when tallied up, not that that’s how this works at all.
Wellington were looking slow, heaving a little as they moved over the turf. Nathan Burns and Roy Krishna were being too easily dispossessed, and the Greens were driving through the Wellington midfield with startling ease. Still, the Nix were a man up, and only a goal down, so there was no reason, at the start of the second half, to think they wouldn’t perk up.
But Bentleigh didn’t look like a team fretfully holding on to a narrow lead. They were defending with a stout confidence air, already knowing that whatever Wellington foray they were resisting would end in limpness and impotence, and were striding out of defence having apparently planned their route before regaining the ball. They were pressing across the full length of the pitch, and were in constant communication, shoring up weak spots with harping and hustle. It was impressive.
Sapreet Singh, a very nice young player, shot with venom from distance, but the shot was caught and thrown out with a pleasing swiftness by Greens keeper Ryan Scott. Wellington attacks washed up onto the Bentleigh shore, and with the same resting ease with which a cliff face repels wave after crashing wave, Bentleigh repelled the Nix. It felt like it might take many millennia of football for the Nix to cut through. Greens would take the Kiwi scalp, winning 1-0, and Cup magic was sprinkled liberally around.
Hellenic Athletic vs Western Sydney Wanderers
Hellenic Athletic, in the crisp blue and white stripes of the Greek flag, were taking on Western Sydney, and were a team containing names like Barry, Hordor and Maskey. They have a 48 year-old striker with a head full of dreadlocks, and a number of bush-ranger beards in their team – how absolutely ripping! What fun!
It was like a football-themed episode of Game of Thrones, except one can hardly say “Winter is Coming” with any conviction in the north of the Northern Territory, when a mid-winter’s day will drop down to chilly 33 degrees Celsius.
Meanwhile, the Wanderers were quickly up 2-0 within half an hour, beneficiaries of an own goal and penalty. They began to cruise, and Roly Bonevacia even tried an almost-insulting attempt from a free kick closer to the halfway line than the goal. Athletic were pressing and, indeed, fouling like a team unaware of exactly how hard they should play in the first half against a superior team.
Pacing oneself, it appeared, was not part of the game-plan, and it was not helping their cause. We saw only the briefest glints of exactly how Bruce Kamau, Oriel Riera, Bonevacia, and Nick Fitzgerald might look, might gel, might click and whirr and score goals together. It’s certainly a front unit with potential, if only the unrealised variety.
Athletic would pull a goal back through Daniel Smith. Oh? A blip, perhaps. Then in the second half, young Maskey – a lad standing barely 5 foot-and-a-half, curled a free kick into the corner, a cross taken from out on the wing that was horribly misjudged by Wanderers keeper Danijel Nizic. Nizic got lost under the flight of the ball, and it dropped under the crossbar. 2-2, and there was no cruising now.
The Wanderers would wrest back the lead, normal business resumed. But wait! A perfect through ball, curled from the left over to the right! Maskey dashing onto it, with Nizic charging out with equal intent! A perfect chip, and 3-3! What a thriller this was turning out to be.
Robbie Kilmartin had a goal-bound header cleared off the line, with Nizic missing the ball entirely and clearing out the Hellenic striker like a big meat torpedo. Nizic’s ability to misjudge a 50-50 contest was on full display this evening. Kilmartin walked off gingerly; would be see Helio Carvahlo, the wondefully-named 48-year-old striker? With 83 minutes gone, no, we wouldn’t, as Kilmartin trotted back on.
Riera had a golden header saved point blank, stopped by the Hellenic goalkeeper’s prodigious stomach. It’s worth reminding everyone that Hellenic train once a week, and are a team of amateurs.
Then, in the 92nd minute, the Wanderers capitalised on a team unable to stay lit, extinguished just before the end, as Hellenic – unable to chase back one last time before the whistle – were caught horribly short at the back. At least three Wanderers lined up to tap home after a dash down the left, and Bonevacia obliged. 4-3, a gut-punch for the locals and their team but a wonderful game.
Devonport Strikers vs Northcote City
Northcote City were being drubbed by Tasmania’s Devonport Strikers, 3-1, with the third goal a wonderful effort by Joel Stone, leaping like Baryshnikov to control a clipped through ball with one daintily extended toe, before slotting unerringly past the onrushing goal keeper.
Of the the little I saw of this game, that part was gorgeous.
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Perth Glory vs Melbourne Victory
Finally, the Victory – without Honda – were leading Perth Glory. Terry Antonis had just been felled by a terrible Shane Lowry tackle, one that yanked Kevin Muscat from his seat, appealing for a red card – he’d know a thing or two about those. Victory were narrowly in control of a taught scuffle at the break.
Melbourne started Kenny Athiu, probably the first choice striker at the club at the moment, with Besart Berisha in Japan now. Athiu has a magnetic quality to him, all limb and leg on the pitch, with a fluidity to his movement; he takes not jarring steps, but soft strides, his broad shoulder slipping between defenders much more easily than they should.
He and Josh Hope might make those apparent holes in the squad disappear, although when Athiu missed a sitter from a few yards out, it urged to the contrary.
Perth were playing some tight stuff, playing out from the back; one sequence saw about half a dozen passing triangles arranged, all passes of 15 feet or less, smacked rat-a-tat from teammate to teammate under heavy pressure, eventually cutting through to find a clear path out into the Melbourne half. It was very neat indeed. But not neat enough, with Victory 1-0 winners when the whistle blew.
Well, a flurry of matches, all of them captivating, all of them sweet symphonies of competitive football filling the resounding silence of the pre-season. The FFA Cup, in allowing for these encounters, implicitly pushes the case for an expanded league, a freer set of teams and team colours, a second division; it urges for football with football.
We should all appreciate the value in that.