No surprises: Leonardo in action against the Victory. Photo: Max Mason HubersMelbourne City coach John van ‘t Schip is expecting Friday night’s opponents, Newcastle Jets, to be defensively organised and to try to hit his side on the counter as they look to continue their strong start to the new campaign, a bright beginning that has confounded many pundits who predicted the Jets would continue to struggle.
They are tactics that have helped the Jets pick up six points from their first three games, including tough matches against both of last season’s grand finalists, champions Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC, and a tough road trip to Wellington.
The Jets, under youthful new coach Scott Miller, have beaten Victory and the Phoenix, but lost at home to Sydney.
Brazilian attacking midfielder Leonardo, who joined the Novocastrians in the off-season, looms as a key player in the Jets’ quick transition from defence to counterattack. But he won’t hold too many surprises for City’s Dutch manager, who has both coached Leonardo and coached against him as a senior player and as a junior in the Netherlands.
The Brazilian has spent most of his career in Holland, starting at the big Rotterdam club Feyenoord but also playing for Amsterdam giants Ajax as well as having two spells at NAC Breda.
Van ‘t Schip coached him at Ajax and against him as a youngster, when the Rio De Janeiro-born Leonardo was a prodigy in the Feyenoord youth set-up and van ‘t Schip was working with the Ajax juniors from the club’s famed development academy.
“He can create something out of nothing. He was, and he still is, fast, he can score goals, give assists, he is all these things,” van ‘t Schip said.
“He had some injuries in the past and some knee problems, but in general he was one of the most talented players. I worked with him but I know him from when he was 17 or 18 when he was playing in the youth at Feyenoord and I was coach from the youth of Ajax.
“We played against each other with the youth teams, and in that period he was unbelievable. But he got setbacks with knee operations. He still stayed on a good level, but it didn’t help him fulfil his talent to the highest possibilities. He is a great guy as well. I wish him all the best, but not tomorrow.”
City played the Jets in a pre-season game which ended in a 1-1 draw at the City Football Academy in August.
But, as van ‘t Schip says, there have been plenty of changes since then. The Jets have strengthened with the addition of Leonardo and Serbian striker Milos Trifunovic and their confidence will be high after their bright start to the new season.
“They had a few additions with their striker and Leonardo for example. It’s a very solid team. Defensively they have a good structure and going forward Trifunovic is a pure striker,” he said.
“They have shown out of their defensive structure they have gained confidence and played some good football, and scored goals and have done this against top teams in the league.
“It’s a credit to them … we have to focus on our game. They have been getting results because they want to frustrate their opponent, so the longer it stays 0-0 for them the better.
“That’s their approach until now, but it can change. With getting points, the confidence, wins and players start playing a bit more differently, so does the team.
“We have to be ready for every kind of approach they could have. We just have to be patient. When we have the ball it’s about being aware that when you lose the ball that is where their danger starts. We have to make sure we can defend immediately and are in good positions.”
It is expected that City will retain the same squad that defeated Central Coast 3-1 in a highly entertaining encounter at AAMI Park last Sunday.
Club captain Patrick Kisnorbo, dropped for the FFA Cup semi-final defeat in Perth, responded well to being restored to the line-up by scoring the team’s opener, while another experienced player who has been left out, Erik Paartalu, is not guaranteed any quick return while youngsters like Jacob Melling, who have returned from injury and taken his place, have done well.
Marquee player Robert Koren is still not available with a calf injury, while Michael Zullo is also on the easy list.
“Koren and Zullo are not ready yet. And Harry is not ready … Erik is fit, so he’s in contention for selection. Koren is almost ready to play but he needs a little bit more. It’s a little injury. The medical staff said to start him tomorrow could be a bit of a risk,” van ‘t Schip said at the pre-match press conference.
“Paartalu has to work hard, and wait for his chance. Other players get their opportunity now. Adelaide [where City play on November 5] is maybe too early for Michael. Hopefully he can be close to the game against Western Sydney [on November 14]. We have to see that day by day. He is getting closer so that’s something.”
City’s coach did not want to get involved in the politics of the FFA’s decision to warn Wellington Phoenix that it could be axed at the end of the season, but said it was a shame for the players and the club’s fans.
“The only thing I can say is that Wellington Phoenix has a good team. It would be very sad if those players or the club would not be able to play any more … but that’s my own opinion and I think the competition should grow.
“If you take away a team, it doesn’t mean that you are growing, or there maybe should be other plans that other teams are coming into the league. I think they have thought about it very carefully, they will come with an explanation why.”