A-League roars to new level
Season seven of the A-League has arguably been the dramatic yet in the still-fledgling Australian national competition. On and off field drama were in plentiful supply throughout the seven-month campaign, a fact highlighted as Brisbane Roar converted a last-gasp penalty to dramatically claim the crown for a second successive year with virtually the last kick of the season. The standard of football too received widespread recognition for another leap in quality, with the Roar at the forefront.
Off the field attendances, television audiences and club memberships all enjoyed a significant upswing. The arrival of long-serving and high-profile national team players Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton provided a priceless impetus of star power as football continues to compete for attention with entrenched rival codes. Kewell being arguably the nation’s most well known footballer, while Emerton became the first Australian to join the A-League from the English Premier League in mid-season, as he did with last September’s switch from Blackburn Rovers to Sydney FC.
Stars and surprises
The top two league positions were the same as in 2011, but elsewhere the ladder bore little resemblance to the previous year. Brisbane Roar started their campaign as they ended the last, continuing an undefeated streak which stretched to a national record 36 matches. Remarkably their first loss led to a run of defeats, with their poor form coinciding with the absence of injured attacking duo – Brazilian wideman Henrique and player of the year Thomas Broich. A constant however was unheralded striker Besart Berisha who perfectly complemented the Brisbane formation to accrue a record 21 goals, including two in the season decider.
Central Coast Mariners assumed the summit and were never headed to collect their second Premiers Plate for topping the league table. This despite seeing an 11-point lead whittled down to just two points by season’s end. It was an overdue reward for the Mariners who, under former Australia coach Graham Arnold, missed their maiden title in 2011 as Brisbane equalised in injury time before prevailing on penalties.
Brisbane again proved imperious in the finals series, defeating the Mariners in both legs of their semi-final and then securing that dramatic 2-1 triumph against Perth Glory in Sunday’s decider. The heartbreaking nature of Perth’s defeat will not, however, mask what has been a highly successful season for the club on Australia’s remote west coast. Former Rangers stalwart Ian Ferguson led the team from second last in December to third and within touching distance of the championship. Australia’s biggest club at the time that the former National Soccer League was disbanded in 2004 finally seem to be back to their former glory.
Further afield, Wellington Phoenix - under New Zealand national team mentor Ricki Herbert - continue to impress, and this year they supplemented their traditional strong home record with vastly improved form on the road. Melbourne Heart reached their maiden finals series in just their second year in the competition, with Dutchman John Van’t Schip providing a parting gift to the league’s newest club before his departure for Mexico.
The league’s two biggest clubs – Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC – both endured erratic campaigns. Star recruits Kewell (Melbourne) and Emerton (Sydney) struggled to find their form in the first half of the season, with Melbourne going through two coaches before falling well short of the play-offs. Sydney’s form was equally unpredictable but they slowly gathered momentum and reached the top six on the final day of the season.
Roar lead the way
Last season was recognised for the improved quality of football and this year has been similarly lauded for another jump in standard. Providing the template have been Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar, whose high-tempo short-passing game has proven highly effective. Local media have nicknamed the side Roarcelona in reference to their playing style similarities to Spanish and European champions Barcelona. There is evidence too of other clubs aiming to follow suit and seeking success by following Brisbane’s methods.
“It (the standard) is definitely lifting,” Central Coast Mariners captain Alex Wilkinson, a veteran of nearly a decade in the Australian game, told FIFA.com. “The coaches we are getting in are very good, very tactically aware.
“I think the pace of the game in Australian soccer is always quite fast, but I think it is mostly tactically that I have noticed a big difference. A lot of coaches are paying a lot of attention to what other teams are doing and how they want to set up for certain teams. We are seeing that regularly, and it is great that players are having the opportunity to work under coaches that can teach certain systems and it is great that players can adapt to that.”
“The foreigners that have come in now are high quality, which is great. Guys like [Thomas] Broich coming in have really lifted the standard of the league and hopefully that continues over the next few years.”
The league has lost the under-performing Gold Coast United, although a team from the western area of Sydney will be fast-tracked for next season, keeping the competition at ten teams. It promises to be a pivotal moment in the short history of the league, with the region enjoying the highest participation base in the country, while also being a rich source of talent for the national team.