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Up to a point

Public opinion is a fickle thing. When Adelaide United made it past cashed-up Kashima Antlers and Bunyodkor to secure a place at the Club World Cup in December, football forums were awash with messages of congratulation (or self-congratulation), hailing the growth made by the A-League, the battler spirit of Aurelio Vidmar’s boys, the supremacy of Australia in Asia, etc.

Now, after a crushing loss in the final at the hands of a technically superior and tactically immaculate side, the roof seems to be caving in. We’re miles behind the Asians, apparently. Australian football is in need of a radical overhaul (or was it “in desperate need”?). The A-League is rubbish. It’s all a Les Murray-esque crisis.

As always, the truth lies squarely between the two. The progress of Adelaide through the tournament was fascinating (and often very exciting) to watch, and it said a great deal about where Australia stands in relation to the rest of the continent. Time for some reflections.

The major lesson to be learnt from the whole experience is that physicality, a tough defence, and a never-say-die spirit will indeed serve A-League clubs well in Asia…up to a point. It was clear even against Kashima and Bunyodkor that Adelaide were facing sides that were, man for man, technically better. But the resoluteness of Angelo Costanzo, Sasa Ognenovski and Eugene Galekovic (hitting a purple patch at the right time) was absolutely central to Adelaide’s success.

The contribution of Ognenovski deserves a more lengthy tribute. Signed just prior to the Champions League, the big man proved a superb foil for Costanzo, providing the sort of strength in the air and shrewd positioning which Michael Valkanis evinced occasionally, but never quite enough. In both games against the Chinese side Changchun in the qualifiers, not to mention the home fixture against Pohang, Adelaide would never have kept a clean sheet but for Big Sash.

And then there’s Costanzo. He has been arguably the finest defender in the A-League since its inception: positionally aware, elegant on the ball and reliable in the air, you could not ask for a better leader at the back…in the A-League, at least. His absence was felt so, so keenly in the second leg against Gamba: had he been there, you could argue that Adelaide would have conceded neither of the two goals they did.

So, put crudely, Adelaide got to the final on their defence. Vidmar’s tactics were truly bizarre at times in the opening stage, and the side was affected by injuries throughout, but five clean sheets were enough to see them through. Then Bruce Djite and Nathan Burns went on their way, and the team was forced into a reorganization for the knockout stage. They adapted admirably, and again it was desperate defending that saw them over the line against Kashima, while Bunyodkor’s profligacy in front of goal did them plenty of favours in the semi-final.

In Gamba, they finally came up against a side that looked both skilful and cohesive, as indeed they had throughout the competition. In Yasuhito Endo, Hideo Hashimoto and Michihiro Yasuda (among others), Gamba possess players of true international class, and in Akira Nishino a coach who managed to combine a commitment to flowing football with sound tactical organization. Without any doubt, the finest side was victorious in the Asian Champions League.

But before we go off the deep end laying into the 5-0 aggregate losers, let’s take a look at the difference between the two sides.

Gamba Osaka are a well-established club, with a youth system, an experienced coach, a 15-year history of top-flight football, and a turnover that utterly dwarfs that of Adelaide

Adelaide United have a thin squad, a neophyte coach (who, despite some of the praise heaped upon him, was shown up badly at times during the campaign), and a three-year history of professional football.

The 5-0 scoreline may have accurately reflected the difference between the two teams (it did), but the tawdry ruminations on the ineptitude and backwardness of the Australian game are totally out of order.

The technical “issue” is plain to see, and the FFA have at least gone about addressing it. And for those who decry the quality of our youth, it’s worth keeping in mind that just prior to Adelaide’s return leg against Gamba, the Young Socceroos qualified for the World Youth Championship in Egypt next year…the first time an Australian youth team has made it through Asia. Among those who missed out, incidentally, were China, Saudi Arabia and Iran

Adelaide’s efforts deserved to be celebrated, and their shortcomings against Gamba need to be acknowledged…but not lambasted or ridiculed. In the final analysis, they have done Australian football proud.

Written by
Real Football

Published on November 16, 2008

See What Others Say
  1. Ben on November 17th, 2008 10:03 AM

    Well said Mikey.
    Anything can happen when it comes down to knockout stage football.
    Adelaide did the A-League proud by making it as far as they did.

  2. Guido on November 17th, 2008 4:35 PM

    Good article Mike. Shame that more people would have read Rebecca Wilson’s shameful anti-football diatribe where she described the Adelaide loss as “an embarrassing performance, which fractured the carefully constructed masquerade around the A-League”

  3. Dean on November 17th, 2008 4:49 PM

    Guido did you see the hundreds of comments attached to that article where she copped a well deserved pounding? LoL

  4. mike on November 17th, 2008 6:08 PM

    Hey Guido!

    I’m sort of inured to excrement like that Rebecca Wilson piece by now. The usual Murdoch suspects dispensed with subtlety ages ago.

    To be honest, Oz football fans should be happy that they’re getting that desperate.

  5. Bill on November 18th, 2008 3:25 PM

    Great article Mike. Rebecca Wilson did have a point (namely, that Australian football cannot afford to be complacent because it still has a long way to go), but she massively overplayed her hand, and any aspect of her article that was valid at all has been lost amongst the predictions of doom and gloom. It’s a pity that she has sunk to the level of this piece.

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