IT’S Christmas Eve morning, I am all over the place, my head is spinning, I could be Sydney FC’s back four given that foundation, and I have two hours to write this column before I start my Christmas shopping.
Hence, this is my debut foray into T20-style writing, no forward planning, no pausing to take stock, no time to woof down a packet of Shapes as Ellen or Dr Phil fill the backdrop to my sitting. If it is there to be hit, I’ll hit it.
I read in an opposition Sydney-based paper that ‘‘FC finally get a break’’ because the Mariners’ flight out of New Zealand was delayed a day because of bad weather, and the leaders face a rushed preparation.
On their showing at Hunter Stadium on Saturday, Sydney’s best hope of a result may be if the Mariners don’t fly in until after the match tomorrow night, and even then they have a pretty handy youth team ...
I know it is easy to put the slipper into teams when they are down. And I accept that Sydney were missing Culina, Bosschaart and Chianese, and they had Emerton forced off with illness. But remove Del Piero from their lineup and they would not have held any threat to the Jets at all.
Jets coach Gary van Egmond invited Novocastrian legend Craig Johnston into the dressing room to address the players – to good effect, by all accounts.
Sydney played as if – with total respect to those who have passed on – Marcel Marceau had provided their pre-match talk and new coach Frank Farina was boiling under a dignified post-match veneer.
Van Egmond surprised nobody by making five changes to the starting lineup, but I defy anyone outside the Jets camp to tell me they could see Mark Birighitti being rushed back in goals and Sam Gallaway popping up at left back after a 20-month gap between first-team appearances.
Van Egmond picked probably the most mobile team he could muster and started James Virgili and Craig Goodwin to provide maximum width, with an obvious view to stretching Sydney as much as possible and asking Del Piero and Terry McFlynn to do as much chasing and shuffling as possible.
Del Piero, 38 years wise, recognised what was happening in the first few minutes and spent much of the first half encouraging his teammates to close the game up or risk being run ragged.
Sydney did that to better effect in the second half. But their goalkeeper, Janjetovic, had been asleep at the wheel by then, and the Jets had scored two fairly soft goals and had control of the match.
Despite the best-laid and relatively effective tactical plans of van Egmond, it is hard to nullify sheer class for 90 minutes.
Sydney had four chances in the game, and Del Piero provided them all. As ex-Socceroos coach Rale Rasic might say, in his rich Balkan brogue: ‘‘The man is football genius.’’
Certainly he can’t pressure defensively as he once would have – as the gentleman three seats away kept reminding me, ‘‘he moves like a 38-year-old’’ – but his vision and passing were a joy to watch.
A very good judge messaged me at half time in Sydney’s first game of the season and said: ‘‘Hope FC don’t make him homesick too quickly.’’ And eight games later added: ‘‘Thank you FC for bringing him to Australia, but why would you put Italian tiles on a derelict house?’’ You can understand the sentiment.
What would he be like in a Flores-type role for a Melbourne Victory side with lots of pace and punch, and Thompson and Rojas making penetrating runs?
More on the Jets’ next opponents shortly.
What the match highlighted for me was that there is no substitute for quality. The Jets did a good job tactically, and Ruben Zadkovich and Josh Brillante were diligent yet respectful in their defensive treatment of Del Piero.
Still, the little maestro created Sydney’s goal with a perfectly weighted, one-touch right-foot pass and, forced onto his left foot, conjured three defence-splitting passes that might have stung Newcastle.
As I looked around the crowd, I noticed Troy Halpin – the closest thing we have had to a great passer of the ball domestically in the last 15 years – watching on.
Barely a year older than Del Piero, and no club in the eight-year existence of the A-League could find a spot for his match-winning talents.
Wonder what ‘‘Dunga’’ made of it all.
And, more importantly, wonder will we ever learn?
The other thing Del Piero’s visit did was to inspire debate over the greatest players to grace football fields in the Hunter, and I love a discussion like that.
Of course, the timing of your visit as a player – whether in your fledgling days, at your peak or in the twilight years – will influence people’s judgment.
But I would like to add a couple of names to the ones that made the Herald’s shortlist.
Del Piero belongs in the highest echelon of footballers of all time. Make no mistake: a 28-year-old Del Piero would have won that game for Sydney on the weekend. Hell, even a 33-year-old ADP would have got them home, and that is part of the frustration he is experiencing.
No argument with Ray Baartz’s selection of Bobby Charlton. David Beckham was overhyped, and consequently underrated, but has won things everywhere he has gone.
Glad Mick Channon got a mention. Terrific player and great lad. Speaking of great lads, how about George Best, whose performance on the back seat of the team bus outside Rosebud’s club I have mentioned in this column before? Undisputed genius on the pitch.
Well-known local coach Jim Foley assures me he played, and chased shadows, against a precocious young talent called Glenn Hoddle at No.1 Sportsground when Spurs visited – in 1975, I think. (PS: A chubby columnist scored two goals in a 4-1 win in the under-12 curtain-raiser for Newcastle against Auckland that day – and that ensured Hoddle’s mention!)
Aussie greats Date, Baartz, Johnston and Kewell got a mention, and I’d throw into the mix Viduka, Okon and Zelic, who all enjoyed fine European careers. The latter two played for our own Jets at the end of their careers.
Finally, the much parodied and derided Mario Jardel, who was once the most lethal striker in Europe. I don’t have a computer (Santa, are you listening?), but a list of two-time European Golden Boot winners would include only the cream of world football. Before you send the men in white coats for me, ask yourself how good would any of the previously mentioned luminaries have looked after a two-year hiatus, 15 extra kilos, five years of cocaine abuse and a couple of operations to staple a groin back together?
You may have guessed I was impressed by Del Piero on Saturday but not by the Sydney team. Jets fans will get a much truer guide to how their team is travelling when they face a confident, mobile Melbourne Victory side containing far more than one threat.