The New Year brought more of the same for runaway leaders Brisbane Roar but the rest of the A-League had a shake-up in Round 21. The two Melbourne teams continued their hot form while none of the three sides in the chase for second place found a crucial win. Down the table, Sydney shocked everyone by scoring their first goal since December 1 in their surprise win at Newcastle. With the finals now in sight, let's see who is finding form at the right time.
I'm almost tired of writing Brisbane Roar in this position but I'm sure their fans aren't getting tired of seeing it. With captain and midfield metronome Matt McKay away on Asian Cup duty and Thomas Broich and Ivan Franjic out injured, it seemed like an already challenging trip to Adelaide's Hindmarsh Stadium fortress would become a bridge too far for Brisbane. If they were going to lose their second game of the season, surely it would be this one. But the understrength Roar had other ideas. They proved that the entire squad is fluent in Ange Postecoglou's system, with the likes of Henrique and Luke Brattan slotting in seamlessly. Jean Carlos Solorzano's goal had an element of fortune with a deflection in the lead-up but it earned a deserved 1-0 victory over the near-equally impressive Reds in a match of extremely high quality.
There seems to be two North Queensland Fury teams, depending on whether they are home or away. The club's future is hanging by a thread and Franz Straka admitted what we all knew after Fury's 2-0 loss at Melbourne Heart: that the uncertainty is affecting the team's on-field performance. When Fury are at home, they have the motivation of playing for their club's modest but loyal supporters but away from Dairy Farmers, they look a disinterested side. Unfortunately, that's earning them some time in the flops column but despite the sympathy they are due, they were still poor at AAMI Park. David Williams and particularly Chris Payne were not as precise as required on the counter-attack, leaving their porous defence facing a Heart barrage for most of the match.
For sheer influence on a result, it is impossible to go past Kevin Muscat. The Melbourne Victory skipper didn't grab the headlines in Victory's 2-1 come-from-behind win over the Mariners but his driving presence from the back ensured another sombre New Year's Eve on the Central Coast. Muscat and Central Coast strikers Adam Kwasnik and Matt Simon have a history of 'unfriendly relations' and the needle continued at Bluetongue until eventually, and inevitably, Muscat came out on top as Kwasnik was sent off for dissent after another Muscat foul on him went unpunished. With the Mariners in the lead and packing their ten men behind the ball, Muscat's footballing assets took over. He played quarterback expertly from his free sweeper role, poking and prodding for weaknesses in the Mariners' tiring defence, guiding perfectly weighted passes to team-mates in the most advantageous positions. Eventually the weight of pressure told and the superb Central Coast rearguard was breached twice in three minutes.
Central Coast and Adelaide both lost to good teams, giving Gold Coast United the perfect chance to push towards that second place with a win at home to Perth. They managed to dominate the lowly but improving Glory but striker Bruce Djite was among the chief culprits in front of goal as the match finished 0-0. Injuries haven't helped the former heir to Mark Viduka's throne settle on the glitter strip and United's style of play arguably doesn't suit the bustling target man, who might prefer more service from wide areas and players running off him. Nevertheless, Djite spurned some of his side's best chances and kept alive the question of whether Gold Coast have the firepower to make an impression in the finals.
Vitezslav Lavicka's job as Sydney FC coach has come into question in recent weeks, although the club insists he's safe until at least mid-January - how comforting! Perhaps the rumours shook Lavicka into action because he made some long-awaited changes for his side's 2-1 win at Newcastle. Lavicka's 4-2-3-1 formation has been tried at times this season but his selections complemented the system perfectly this time. Bruno Cazarine thrived as the sole striker, particularly once Jets defender Ljubo Milicevic had gone off injured. Sydney's five-man midfield outnumbered and outplayed Newcastle's diamond, and that was where the match was won. Young defender Matt Jurman was also brought in for a long overdue selection, based on his performance and Sydney's struggles at the back.
It is difficult to pick out a poorly performing coach this week, with most on the losing sides having faced the bad luck of key injuries or red cards, or running into quality teams. It was Miron Bleiberg's Gold Coast who would be feeling most as though they dropped points they were good enough to win from their stalemate with Perth. Gold Coast's season has been built on defensive stability and perhaps Bleiberg could be criticised for giving his team an attacking licence at times such as Monday's draw, when the hunt for three points might have been a greater risk than seeking one. We won't ultimately know the answer to that until the end of the season.
GOAL OF THE WEEK
Bruno Cazarine's goal into an empty net after Jets 'keeper Ben Kennedy had failed to clear properly was made to look easier than it was by some quality striking. Adam D'Apuzzo launched himself at the striker's feet as he shot but big Bruno managed to curl the ball over the defender but below the crossbar.
SAVE OF THE WEEK
Michael Theoklitos reacted brilliantly to claw a Sergio van Dijk header across goal out of the air as Nigel Boogaard was poised to nod home an equaliser for Adelaide in Brisbane's win.
BEST OF THE REST
Melbourne Heart's Rutger Worm has become something of a cult hero this season, with his flowing blonde locks and comical media appearances proving a hit with fans. The Dutchman's surname has been his most distinct feature however and some particularly keen fans have decided to position themselves on Worm's wing at AAMI Park with signs declaring their area the 'Worm Hole'. Love the passion, lads.
WORST OF THE REST
It's hard work keeping up with the ins and outs of the A-League teams at the moment, such is the chaos of the January transfer window. Adelaide, Gold Coast, Victory and Newcastle are all bringing in new recruits who could have a significant bearing on the finals' race. But the A-League's timing means these signings are arriving just a month before the end of the regular season. It's hard to see the likes of Ryan Griffiths and Danny Allsopp - plus a raft of foreign wildcards - as anything but pinch-hitting mercenaries, so short is their window to make an impact. Clubs deserve the opportunity to reinforce and a potentially later start for next season could make the transfer window more timely, but for this campaign, it's an odd situation for the purists to fathom.