A-League review: Sydney FC march on but watch out for Wellington
It's Monday, so here are the good, bad and ugly from Round 14 of the A-League...
Sydney, Newcastle and disparity
Sydney FC's 2-1 win at the Newcastle Jets on Friday night underlined a few things. First, in relation to the reigning champions, Milos Ninkovic was and remains vitally important and decent results in his absence do not necessarily change that.
After breaking clear of Nick Fitzgerald, the weight on his pass -- so Kosta Barbarouses, running at full speed, does not have to take a touch before setting up Adam Le Fondre for the 14th minute opener -- is hard to replicate at this level. Moreover, the Serbian's ability to win fouls in the second half, as Newcastle dominated possession and the rhythm of the game, acted as a unique pressure valve for the Sky Blues.
There is also the small matter that Sydney have willingly absorbed pressure against theoretically inferior teams of late. Because, flying in the face of ideals and aspirations for competitive balance, the game at McDonald Jones Stadium reaffirmed the fact there is a natural order in the A-League and any measures to stop that are arguably futile.
Thanks to their midfield, Newcastle worked into good positions from the very opening of the match but, Steven Ugarkovic's equaliser notwithstanding, there was a sense Sydney would capitalise from their meaningful attacks, while Newcastle would squander openings. Player quality dictates what happens on the pitch, especially going forward, and a salary cap does not necessarily equate to parity.
The psychological labyrinth of VAR
Football is a game of interpretation and the introduction of video assistant referee late in the 2017-18 A-League season -- aside from the fact Australia was effectively a guinea pig at domestic level -- did not remove that.
If anything, it only added to the vast mass of grey that comes with the enforcement of the game's laws, so the question, somewhat ruefully in relation to the game, is whether Pandora's box can be closed? The parameters to what actually constitutes a clear and obvious error remain unknown.
Take Chris Ikonomidis' sealer for Perth Glory in their 3-0 win over Adelaide on Saturday, which came after some robust body contact on Michael Maria. Since when was a push in the back legal and how forceful does it have to be to remove doubt in a referee's mind?
On Saturday night, during Australia's 2-1 victory over Thailand in the AFC Under-23 Championship, a handball was called and upheld by the video assistant despite the trajectory of the ball not changing from the perceived point of contact. Then, arguably of highest importance, there is the undeniable effect on a game's tempo, which was evident in Central Coast's 3-2 win over Melbourne Victory on Sunday.
The game itself is enough to turn one's brain into scrambled egg. The added variable of VAR only amplifies ambiguity.
Wellington are legit, Melbourne City are *imaginary balance beam*
It is officially time to take Wellington Phoenix seriously. After David Ball went down with injury against Central Coast, Saturday's game against Western Sydney Wanderers was a low-key important test. And, beyond just the 2-0 result at Sky Stadium, they passed.
With Ball, there was still a relative ability for Ufuk Talay's team to manoeuvre around Reno Piscopo's absence. Without him, was an assured performance, in spite of Wanderers coach Markus Babbel's brief assertions on the game's complexion, in the post-match press conference.
Cameron Devlin has fully deserved his A-League player of the month award and his compatible pairing with Matti Steinmann continues to incorporate the players around them in possession. Ulises Davila and Liberato Cacace's goals were eye-catching, but more importantly, the Phoenix have functioned as a unit over the course of 90 minutes, on a weekly basis. That kind of thing commands respect.
Meanwhile, Melbourne City's continued creation of highly specific openings with the ball were on display again on Saturday. Stefan Colakovski impressed and Nathaniel Atkinson's strike from the edge of the penalty area salvaged a 2-2 draw with Brisbane Roar, but it has been a month of distinct examination.
Although Connor Metcalfe and Denis Genreau are with the Olyroos, the same issues would manifest with Erick Mombaerts' preferred composition if they were back in Bundoora.
Pace, power and Australian footballing heritage
This is not exclusive to the Australian game, but clarity and intelligence will remain subordinate to physical attributes and even more so when time with players is truncated, the way it is in international football.
Words and narratives from coaches on dominating games with the ball become mere noise as conservatism rules, so it came as little surprise that Australia played in the manner they did during the opening two games of the AFC Under-23 Championship.
Olyroos coach Graham Arnold oversaw a 1-1 draw against Iraq and a 2-1 triumph over Thailand, but the performances were an extension of what has gone before at youth international level, not to mention his own style over the years.
Denis Genreau's second-half impact against Thailand belies the fact that the tournament hosts should have been out of sight long before that