On face value it was a very good weekend for the Newcastle Jets. They have, barring a minor miracle, secured a top-two finish in the A-League, and re-ignited hopes for a premiers’ plate among their more optimistic fans.
Make no mistake, they thoroughly deserve to be where they are, but despite recording only their fourth victory on New Zealand soil in 13 seasons of A-League football, a couple of areas of real concern for coach Ernie Merrick emerged on Saturday.
Not the rumoured approach and $800,000-a-year deal from Sydney FC, floated in the media, which Merrick brilliantly down played with the old “I couldn’t afford the pay cut” line. But a defence minus skipper Nigel Boogaard, which was sliced open on numerous occasions, and an inability to produce adequate pressure on the ball further up the pitch.
Part of you wants to praise a gutsy win, at a historically difficult place to get points, but you have to acknowledge that the Phoenix not only spurned more chances than the Jets, but chances that offered a comfort for finishing standard not often seen at this level.
As ever Ernie was up front. “Phoenix were the better team”, and “it was an ugly win”, followed by “we can’t play as loosely at the back”.
It was, strangely, the Jets’ worst performance since they lost at home to, you guessed it, Wellington in mid-January, the difference being three very valuable points.
Many will be thinking it’s the sign of a good team to play below their best, and still win, and I’d agree. But the loss of Nabbout and Boogaard should not be underestimated.
Dimi Petratos will be absent for the next match, possibly two games, and though the return of Roy O’Donovan will help, they are different types of player.
That next match is against Adelaide, at Coopers Stadium on Friday night, and presents in my eyes a far sterner test than Wellington, particularly in terms of the pressure Adelaide will apply to the ball.
The Reds have scored only 25 goals to date, the same as the Mariners and Wellington, and 22 less than the Jets, but are in the top six, suggesting that their organisation and attitude matches most in the league.
They don’t have anyone in the top-10 goalscorers’ list, but have import striker Johan Absalonson, who scored last week, back from a lengthy injury spell.
The Jets will need to be significantly better this week, or they will come home with no points.
Title favourites Sydney FC slipped at home for the first time in 27 games, and left the door to the premiers’ plate oh so slightly ajar.
Read more: The Phoenix on Merrick’s radar
They can slam it shut with a win over the brave-but-naive Mariners on Saturday, but jeez some nerves could be jangling if they don’t, and the Jets win in the city of churches.
Much has been made of the psychological effect of coach Graham Arnold’s announcement that he will leave at season’s end to coach the Socceroos, but I’m not so sure that’s a valid reason for Sydney’s form.
Perhaps there is more going on behind the scenes than we know about, in a team that has some excellent quality but probably needs some major regeneration.
I don’t care how good your sports-science department is, when the majority of a side is over 30, playing twice a week and travelling to Asia every second or third week, performances can suffer.
Sydney were flat against Brisbane on Saturday, second to every loose ball or headed clearance, against the oldest team in the competition.
Their intensity in pressing is unrecognisable, and the lack of concentration at defensive set pieces is for me a symptom of tired bodies, tired minds.
They’d be swimming a little, getting massaged, playing pool, maybe a round of golf (in carts), and having a barbie at Arnie’s or Carney’s this week if I was in charge. Is there a night meeting at Canterbury this week?
They won’t have forgotten how to play, Making sure the legs are fresh enough to allow that, is key for me.
The dogs are barking about Melbourne Victory at the moment, on the strength of their recent form, and though they have enough talent in the front four to challenge, I don’t think they have been tested sufficiently defensively to assume that all problems have been solved.
That said however, the Jets and Sydney will be watching their improvement carefully, as it seems increasingly likely that the two Melbourne teams might be their respective opponents in the qualifying semi-finals.
Like every football fan, I was delighted to see Ronny Vargas return to the game via the bench on Saturday, and his composure helped Newcastle’s ball retention noticeably in the last 30 minutes.
He played very competently, but well within himself as you might expect at this stage of his return.
Clearly smart enough to avoid too much physical attention, he allowed his touch and balance to provide his contribution, rarely stretching, jumping, or leaving his ankle vulnerable to any contact.
The changes of pace, flicks and willingness to invite challenges will return progressively, but expecting him to be the main man before the end of April is still a big ask, in my opinion.
That said, class is permanent, form and injury fleeting, and Ronny will be loving the fact that he is well on the way back to playing the game he loves, at a level that he so obviously enjoys.
That is the good news.
The bad news is that the VAR is going to be used at the World Cup in Russia. Can’t see any controversies brewing there! God help us.
Imagine the political outfall of a tight decision in an Argentina v Brazil match. Or England v Germany.
Perhaps it’s a blessing that Italy didn’t qualify this time around? Hope we don’t upset the Colombians too much, it can get a bit personal.
I’ve told you before, refs judging other refs is fraught with danger at the best of times, in a World Cup semi-final or final? Please.
The platform for high farce has been laid in gold pavers.
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