The longer the A-League season runs and the further behind us the pandemic appears, the more distant excuses and extenuating circumstances drift from the collective thinking around the performances of the 12 teams.
The A-League season 2019-20 is kicking into high gear, so here are six talking points from Round 3.
Saturday’s Sydney Derby is actual peak A-League
There is a certain split personality about the A-League.
For every instance that a team might have to play without their playing jerseys, the league then throws up nights like Saturday night, and the magnificent occasion that was the Sydney Derby number 23.
What a match it was.
The crowd was amazing and in full-voice, the build-up was intense, the game was thrilling, and there was the mandatory controversy and literal line-ball decisions.
The showpiece event ended up being everything that is entirely amazing about football.
Full credit must be given to the designers and operators of Bankwest Stadium for being built into a true theatre of sport.
So loud was the crowd inside the stadium that commentators on the sideline could barely hear themselves talking to each other.
The RBB, finally back home having been more nomads and actual wanderers for the last several years, were in full voice, and the Cove combined to create a sporting atmosphere that no other sport in Australia can rival.
And further credit goes to the players involved.
The play was intense, the passing was accurate, the running, the shooting (mostly in the main by Sydney) created numerous chances on goal, it was a contest befitting the occasion, and gripping to the very end.
Even the officials, normally a lightning rod for criticism if there is a chance that they might ‘ruin’ the event, played their part nobly, letting the game flow, calling fouls as they appeared, whipping out yellow cards as required, but not feeling the need to dismiss anyone unnecessarily, while the main controversy regarding whether Sydney should have been awarded a goal was one of disagreement over the merits of the decision, rather than the decision itself.
Overall, from a neutral’s perspective, the officials got the calls largely right, or at the very least, you would have to mount a pretty strong and comprehensive argument to imply that they decided the outcome.
And final credit must be given to Brandon O’Neill.
The midfielder came off in the 79th minute, having run himself into the ground and his team down a goal, almost somewhat unjustly so.
Tara Rushton found herself interviewing the Sydney player from the bench, mid-game, and the accomplished Sydney star was an absolute delight to behold.
Having come off exhausted, he could have given some angry responses about the penalty should have Sydney had, or the goal-line call that went against them, but instead, O’Neill decided to take an enlightened perspective on playing well but not scoring, and then to conclude the interview by marvelling at what a grand occasion it was.
You really could not fault one part of Saturday’s derby, it was a simply astonishing event.
And therein lies the wonder of the A-League.
For all its faults, when a showpiece game, regular season or otherwise, is played out as the event that it can be, there are few sporting events in Australia that rival the A-League for sheer sporting theatre and entertainment.
You done good, A-League. You done very good.
A week is an actual eternity in sport
Welcome to the hot seat, Robbie Fowler.
Seriously, how good is professional domestic league sport?
Not seven days ago, this column was pointing out that Marco Kurz, having taken up the reins at the biggest football club in the land, went into Round 3 with zero wins and the pressure rating turned up to 11.
His team was heading to Brisbane, who had played well but without luck in their season opener in Perth, and were looking to kick off their home campaign with a big win to kick-start their season.
Well, Marco was just keeping the hot seat warm, because as his side left the banana republic with a handy 1-nil win, he left the hot seat, only to hold the door open for Robbie Fowler to walk on in and sit down.
Okay, okay, look, the existence of the bye round early on can make looks deceiving, so from one perspective, the Roar have only played two games, and it is early days.
Of course, another perspective is that Brisbane are heading into Round 4 without a win, and find themselves at the foot of the table, and history has shown in this league that unless you are Adelaide United in 2016, you simply cannot start a season losing and expect to win a championship.
Fowler won’t be hitting the panic button, not at all, because it is not as if his team is playing relatively poorly.
His team played quite well against Melbourne, dominating possession and having just as many shots on goal as the Victory, but as Sydney FC would equally learn against the Wanderers, possession is all good and well if you don’t hit the target and beat the keeper.
And this is where it gets interesting for Fowler, because with a next-up start away to the table-topping Wanderers, if Brisbane are not careful, they will find themselves going into Round 5 winless, and likely their season done early.
How good is coaching?
Adelaide might be the real deal
All round, it has been a great week for football in Australia, where factoring in the extraordinary Sydney Derby, that came off the back of the wonderful event put on at Coopers Stadium mid-week for the FFA Cup final.
By all rights, Adelaide should have been spent by the time they took the park in 30-degree temperatures at McDonald Jones Stadium.
To a certain extent, Adelaide played a touch with a look of exhaustion in the first half, as the Ernie Merrick marching machine of Newcastle pounded away at the Reds’ goal.
Some pundits noted that perhaps Adelaide went into the half-time break lucky to be just the one goal down, and to be sure, Newcastle had their first chance after 18 seconds, but at the break, all that separated the two teams was an Arroyo wonder-strike, and it was not as if Adelaide didn’t have their own chances.
Adelaide were a fresher side in the second half, perhaps realising that if they could play 45 minutes of high intensity football, they might get a result, and when Riley McGree scored the equaliser early on, the game was ‘red’-hot and there for the taking.
The lead-taking, and ultimately game-winning, goal by McGree was just any Newcastle Jets’ fans’ worst nightmare, the triple threat: goalkeeping error, former player scoring, Adelaide taking the lead.
McGree over the last two seasons has had a penchant for scoring against his former side, and it also turns out that scoring remarkable wonder-goals at McDonald Jones Stadium that will be repeated for the ages was no one-off, his curling corner carried over the head of Glenn Moss to give his new team the win.
But for the Reds, winning a cup final and following that up with three points away from home, that is an incredibly good week, even more impressive for the fact that they have played three games in seven days.
Gertjan Verbeek is building something special over in Adelaide, and with a trophy already in the cabinet this season, and a group of players that appear to be able to play day in, day out for him, keep an eye on the red machine.
They look like being there or thereabouts when it matters at season’s end.
Duke by name, Duke by nature
Mitch Duke was a man possessed on Saturday night.
He almost ran himself into the ground, and as a member of a front three, it’s not necessarily the type of workload that a forward needs to undertake.
Make no mistake, his bullet header, one of only two shots on target for the Wanderers all night, was a world-class strike, and in big football fixtures, such moments can be game, season, and title defining.
The Wanderers were under the pump for essentially the entire match, as shown by the 68 per cent possession that Sydney enjoyed.
Sydney, led by a Milos Ninkovic masterclass, looked for all money like they were going to score at some point, and while this is pure speculation, you can imagine that Niknkovic is wondering what more he could have done to set up a goal for the profligate Kosta Barbarouses.
And the Wanderers would have lost this game with ease last season had they still had Vedran Janjetavic between the sticks, instead of Swiss keeper Daniel Lopar wearing the gloves.
The Swiss shot-stopper was stupendous, showing both reflexive saves of sheer genius to block Barbarouses one-on-one, while also maintaining calm when the ball was bobbling along his goal-line in the controversial moment where officials decided not to award a goal to the sky blues.
And to be sure, there were several things that overshadowed Duke’s performance, if not his goal, none more so than Robbie Slater going full Zapruder film-style in recreating the Barbarouses headed goal with the ball on the line post-match.
So, far from saying that Duke was the standout player on the park, when in fact both sides likely had players who performed better than the big front man, there was just something about the way he threw himself into the game that signified the very essence of a captain’s knock on a football pitch.
In a game that almost had everything, and no doubt others will talk about the bigger points of the game, Mitch Duke played a captain’s role that was ultimately game-winning, and for that alone, he deserves special mention.
Strike it like it’s hot
Amidst a great many curious aspects of season 2018-19, the matter that still sticks in my mind was what actually happened between Bruno Fornaroli, Warren Joyce, and Melbourne City.
The only reason that is even mentioned here is because watching Fornaroli carve up against Wellington in the latest Distance Derby – gee, Fornaroli must have done something really wrong if Joyce would not even fathom selecting him.
The rest of the competition will be mindful to be put on notice: if Fornaroli and Diego Castro start clicking this season, then watch out.
As Fornaroli sat out an entire season of his career last season, you might understand if he was slightly off the pace this season, and to be sure, he has been largely quiet in the opening two games.
What was hugely surprising about Fornaroli’s game against Wellington is that he was everywhere in that first half on the back of the biggest road trip in Australian domestic sport.
Make no mistake, Perth signing Fornaroli may ultimately turn out to be the signing of the winter, when you consider that the Glory are a team coming off a premiership win and grand final loss.
Tony Popovic has lost a few grand finals in his time, so he is more than familiar with knowing how to get his charges up for the next season in response.
Nobody can, or at least should, be anticipating that the Glory will have a grand final losing hangover this season, under the guidance of Poppa, as it will likely be far from it.
For a team that failed to hit the scoreboard in the biggest game of the season back in May, Fornaroli could well be just the tonic to help the Glory go one win better, and get that monkey off Poppa’s back once and for all.
This Maclaren is purring
And so a new rivalry is created, because one Melburnian derby just isn’t enough, when you can have three of them.
While Western United are looking to assert early authority in the new three-way battle for Victorian supremacy, Melbourne City were a team coming into this contest with travel-weary legs, and battered egos.
Now Jamie Maclaren got a particular mention last week, but talking points is doubling down and giving him yet another shout out, because a striker in the richest of rich veins of form should be celebrated and appreciated as often as possible, given that consistently goalscoring strikers just don’t come along every day.
Maclaren at the moment is the hottest Australian striker doing the rounds, and it was a testament to Adelaide United that they kept him off the scoresheet during the mid-week FFA Cup final.
The control, turn and finish by Maclaren for his first goal out at Geelong was as skilful as they come, up there with Arroyo’s strike the previous evening for the Jets, and as for his winner, well the quality of the strike speaks for itself.
Now sitting atop the goalscoring charts, Maclaren will know that he needs to make this healthy hay while the sun is shining brightly, because winter is always a game or two around the corner for any goalscorer.
While Melbourne would have watched on pre-game, at the very least in the background, while Fornaroli was putting on a clinic across the ditch, moving on the Uruguayan for the Australian would have been done with an element of risk about winding up with egg on your face.
Instead, the freely scoring and high-performance F1-specimen is rewarding Melbourne City with the returns they crave: goals.