DANGER MAN: Archie ThompsonA FORTNIGHT ago I wrote about the Jets’ clash with Brisbane being a date on the calendar that players, officials and fans were looking forward to with great eagerness. The other fixture everyone searched for at the start of the season was the visit of Melbourne Victory and a chap named Harry Kewell.
Saturday, December 3, was the answer, and low and behold it’s almost upon us.
The Victory arrive having notched just their second win of the season, but the five draws they have recorded so far have them sitting one point above the Jets.
Those with only a passing interest in the game, and with a reasonable grasp of mathematics, will be wondering why they have heard so much speculation about the future of coach Mehmet Durakovic, who has after all suffered only one defeat in eight league games while head coach.
It’s an understatement to say that expectation levels are set seriously high down south, and though their 3-2 win with 10 men against Gold Coast on Sunday has temporarily alleviated the pressure building around the coach and the club, a loss to the Jets will have that return as quickly as it dissipated.
When you consider that sections of the Melbourne crowd were baying for blood before the 79th minute on Sunday, then celebrating like grand final winners 15 minutes later, you’ll understand the volatility of a coach’s popularity.
There was optimism that the Victory had turned the corner and that their brave fight with nine men against champions Brisbane a fortnight ago was to be a defining moment in their season. But they were poor a week later against Perth.
The Victory were 2-0 up and cruising before they nearly self-destructed against Gold Coast, relying once again on the pace and energy of Archie Thompson to provide them with a lifeline.
There is no doubt that there is an abundance of talented footballers in the Victory squad but, as I wrote before round one, you can only play so many match winners at any one time and finding a balanced side would be Durakovic’s biggest task.
That could be even more difficult this week, because central defender Rodrigo Vargas will be suspended and Brazilian left back Fabio may miss the game through injury.
The Victory do not have the same depth in defence, nor in terms of working type midfield players, as they do in creative attacking areas.
So have they turned a corner? Is it another false dawn?
I’m convinced they will receive a tougher examination at Ausgrid Stadium on Saturday night than they did from a Gold Coast side that found itself in a surprising position to win on Sunday before losing their way.
I think it’s fair to say that Kewell has not found his best form in a Victory shirt, and it’s also fair to say that the romantic notion of a clash between old teammates and friends in Michael Bridges and Kewell looks increasingly unlikely at this stage of the season.
However, any side with the culture and passing range of probably Australia’s best player, and the Costa Rican marvel Carlos Hernandez, in conjunction with the ever present threat of the irrepressible Thompson, remains a very dangerous opponent.
Jets coach Gary van Egmond has pressed high against every opponent, at home and away, since his return to the helm, and it’s difficult to imagine that a slightly reshuffled Victory side will be afforded any time to settle.
The Jets will be well aware that Thompson, in fantastic form at age 33, is still the best counter-attacking weapon in the A League by some margin, and concentration will be paramount for 90 minutes.
The Jets’ 0-0 draw with Adelaide at Hindmarsh Stadium last Friday was one of those glass half empty, glass half full situations, with analysis of the game dependent on your individual perspective.
I think that having an extra man is always overrated when reviewing match results, particularly when it’s only for a short time, and especially when the disadvantaged team have no requirement to score.
Your Honour, I present to you various exhibits over the past three weeks in the A-League, and rest my case.
The Jets controlled large portions of the game at Hindmarsh Stadium, didn’t concede, and broke a seven-game losing streak on the road.
Therefore I’m taking the glass half full view of the performance in Adelaide.
The Jets’ crowds have been good this season, the Kewell factor will undoubtedly boost numbers, and the later kick-off will add to spectator comfort and ability to attend.
And I can’t see them witnessing a match that is anything other than a thrilling, exciting feast of attacking football.
Van Egmond’s approach will stay aggressive, and Durakovic, whose squad characteristics mean his sides are almost always tilted towards an overload of attacking players, will have little alternative but to once again name a team full of attacking options.
’ve tried to avoid reminding you of how even a competition the A-League is – we beat that drum incessantly, it seems – but with a grand total of two points separating third place and second last, one game shy of the season being a third of the way over, the point has to be made.
More so because, while it’s stating the obvious to say that consecutive wins can catapult you up the table, the Jets play the three teams sitting directly above them on the ladder in the next three matches.
Home fixtures against Victory and Sydney are split by the short trip down the F3 Freeway to face the Mariners on December 10, and a really good run in that trio of fixtures would entrench the Jets in the top four, before the tricky pre-Christmas trip to Wellington.
I have a pretty good feeling about the Jets’ prospects over the coming weeks. Their home form speaks for itself, and there is no doubt they are more of a threat away from home than has been the case for quite a while.
I would imagine that van Egmond would be aiming for a minimum of seven to eight points from the four games before Santa’s arrival.
He will expect to get the first three from a Victory side that has its share of good moments but which is yet to find fluency and consistency.
I’m sure the Jets will look to press high and disrupt the Victory’s build-up from the back. Van Egmond will want Kewell and Hernandez and Thompson working very hard in defence and in trying to get on the football.
On what we have seen so far, with he greatest of respect to the excellent Besart Berisha, the best striker in the short history of the A-League, Archie Thompson, is still the top dog at the Victory, still the most potent individual attacking weapon in the competition, and the biggest threat to a Jets win on Saturday.
If the Jets keep Thompson under control, and keep free kick opportunities for Heranandez to a minimum, they will do enough going the other way to start a crucial month with three precious points.