What We Learned: 56-minute meltdown exposes transfer worry, A-Leagues journeyman reborn

Western United head coach spoke to KEEPUP about the test Gold Coast Knights provided for his side.

This is what we learned from the Round of 16 of the Australia Cup.

The Round of 16 of the 2023 Australia Cup came to a conclusion on Wednesday night, setting up a huge run to the finish in the upcoming quarter finals.

Five Isuzu UTE A-League sides booked their place in the final eight, with sides such as Western Sydney Wanderers, Melbourne City and Brisbane Roar doing it in style, while Western United and Sydney FC also gave us a glimpse of the future.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the A-Leagues representatives as Adelaide United were on the receiving end of a thumping by Western Sydney, and Wellington Phoenix were beaten comfortably by City.

The quarter-finals are rounded out by three NPL representatives – MetroStars, Melbourne Knights and Heidelberg United – who dare to dream of becoming the first state federation side to hoist the Cup when the final rolls around in October.

With a lot to dissect, here is what we learned from the Round of 16.

DETAILS: Australia Cup Quarter Finals locked in as Western’s young brigade steal the show
LAVALE: Western United youngster’s incredible rise to the first team captured in one photo
WATCH: Wanderers’ new dynamic duo tear Reds apart with emphatic Cup statement
REACTION: 15-year-old makes Aus Cup history as Brisbane book quarter-final berth
NIX: Phoenix boss signals key area of improvement after City ends Wellington’s Cup run
CACERES: Sydney FC’s Mr Fix-It created an intriguing XI question. Corica answered in 4 words

56 minutes that will add to Adelaide fans’ major transfer concern

The Reds’ defence is once again under the microscope, after they shipped five goals in 56 minutes against Western Sydney Wanderers on Tuesday night.

Adelaide had the worst defensive record among teams that finished in the top six last season , and those glaring issues were once again forefront at Marconi Stadium.

The Wanderers’ attack – led by Marcus Antonsson and Brandon Borrello – blitzed the Reds defence, which quite simply had no answers on the night.

Reds coach Carl Veart has under two months to work out what his best defensive mix is going into the new season and whether the club needs to seek reinforcements before the window closes.

Javi Lopez will almost certainly slot back into the starting lineup at right-back, but it’s a lot to ask for one player to completely turn the tide.

The rumbles among Adelaide fans are only growing as a result of a lack of additions to the team this winter which has an incredibly strong base to build off already. They are the only Isuzu UTE A-League side yet to complete a single signing this off-season.

Roar’s new No. 9 emerges as Aloisi’s bet pays off

Two wins from two and into the quarter-finals of the Australia Cup. Not a bad start for Ross Aloisi at the helm of Brisbane Roar.

Brisbane continued their solid Cup campaign thus far, with a comprehensive 5-0 victory over last year’s finalists Sydney United 58, exacting revenge on last season’s heartbreaking semi final defeat at Edensor Park.

Aloisi has trusted the kids in the early going of his tenure and, so far, it’s paid off.

Established youngsters Kai Trewin and Henry Hore were solid again, building off impressive 2022-23 campaigns, while Louis Zabala has flourished with an extended run at left-back.

Meanwhile, Thomas Waddingham – who signed a scholarship deal this off-season – scored his first goal for the club in his second consecutive start as the lone striker and could have easily added more.

15-year-old Quinn MacNicol also became the club’s youngest ever goalscorer, when he added the Roar’s fifth off the bench.

The new Roar boss told KEEPUP that he was looking to bring through more Roar academy products under his watch and he’s stuck to his guns early doors.

It will be a fascinating watch to see how things will shape up by the time Round One rolls around with plenty of time remaining in the transfer window, especially in attack.

For now, it’s Waddingham’s position to lose and another bright performance in the quarters against Western Sydney would only further his case.

A-Leagues journeyman reborn in City’s 12-man rebuild

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

After surviving a test against NPL Victoria champions Oakleigh Cannons in the Round of 32, Melbourne City roared back to life with a comprehensive 3-0 win over Wellington Phoenix to book their place in the quarter finals.

This City side – from a personnel standpoint – is almost unrecognisable from the side that took the field on Grand Final day in June, with six new faces in the starting lineup.

However, a lot of the same stylistic principles have remained, and the new faces have integrated seamlessly with the remainders of their Premiership side, including Jamie Maclaren- who picked up where he has left off in the last few seasons with two goals in two minutes against the ‘Nix.

New signings Hamza Sakhi and Tolgay Arslan stood out as the two advanced midfielders, with the former particularly impressing in his first start, while the latter added a third goal in two games after Steven Ugarkovic’s incredible effort ricocheted in off his back.

Ugarkovic commanded things brilliantly in the middle of the park and Socceroo Aziz Behich stood out in his first showing back at the club he burst onto the scene with over a decade ago. Fellow new arrivals Jamie Young and Marin Jakolis also started for the second sucessive week.

In all, nine new arrivals featured on Sunday, with a further three players – Terry Antonis, Samuel Souprayen and Zane Schreiber – coming off the bench.

Antonis looks like a player reborn at City as well and has taken to his new surrounds like a duck to water, putting in another stellar performance after sitting out the entirety of last season at the Wanderers.

Sydney FC’s new approach pays off: Will Corica stick with it?

The Sky Blues are another of the Isuzu UTE A-League sides to embrace their youth this off-season, and so far it’s paying dividends.

Sydney have been one of the quieter sides this off-season on the transfer front, opting to stick with their established base of players and sprinkle in a host of youngsters looking to put their best foot forward in the Australia Cup.

Alex Wilkinson’s sizeable hole in defence has thus far been filled by both Jake Girdwood-Reich and Aaron Gurd throughout this Cup campaign, with the former slotting in alongside Jack Rodwell in their victory over APIA.

Meanwhile, Kealey Adamson and Corey Hollman have started back-to-back games and have performed well at right-back and in midfield respectively. Patrick Wood has scored two goals in two games since being given first crack at the starting striker role since Adam Le Fondre’s departure.

Steve Corica has also handed opportunities to the likes of Jaiden Kucharski, Mitchell Glasson, Matthew Scarcella and new signing Nathan Amanatidis throughout the Cup run – who have all shown enormous amounts of potential when given an opportunity throughout their young careers.

However, it comes with the caveat that there are established starters still to return, including Rhyan Grant and Max Burgess, while Sydney are currently linked with Brazilian striker Fabio Gomes.

It will be interesting to see how Corica finds the right mix of youth and experience this season, having had a track record of turning to the latter more often than not throughout his tenure.

The kids’ performances early doors have certainly given Corica and his brains trust plenty to ponder over as the season draws nearer.

Italiano’s Phoenix taking shape as kids step up

Wellington’s Australia Cup campaign came to an end over the weekend against Melbourne City and coach Giancarlo Italiano believes there’s still plenty of work to be done before the season gets underway.

Italiano said there were certainly positives to take out of the 3-0 defeat, but lamented a lack of conditioning, saying they need to “close the gap” significantly before the season gets underway if they are to do “anything special”.

“Disappointed, yes, with the result, I’m disappointed with the fact we conceded three goals, but I think there’s enough there that where we can work off,” he said.

“It wasn’t for a lack of trying, execution let us down quite a bit. The positive out of the whole game, is that up until 70 minutes we were still in the game.

“In order to play the way we want to play and have sustained periods where we’re running, we are pressing and trying to control the game, you need a big element of conditioning in your legs and I don’t think we’re anywhere near it at the moment.

“If we can match it for 70 minutes with probably one of the best teams in the league, then maybe that is a good sign, but at the same time, we really need to close that gap if we want to do anything special this year.”

The big positive for Wellington has been how the kids have performed throughout the Cup campaign so far, particularly Alex Paulsen, who once again put forward a tremendous case to be the side’s number one goalkeeper this season.

Lukas Kelly-Heald slotted in at left-back once more, with Josh Rudland made his first start and three academy graduates Luke Supyk, Fergus Gillon and Isaac Hughes all made their first team debuts.

Rudan’s welcome dilemma as Wanderers rubbish doubts

Any concerns of a dip in Western Sydney Wanderers’ attacking quality this season have been alleviated after their 5-1 win over Adelaide United on Tuesday night.

The new strike partnership between Marcus Antonsson and Brandon Borrello was electric at Marconi Stadium, combining for four goals and one assist on the night, while evergreen superstar Milos Ninkovic provided silver service in behind as the no.10.

With Amor Layouni, Kusini Yengi and Yeni Ngbakoto all leaving this off-season, the Wanderers have had to re-jig their attacking unit going into the new campaign and so far, the signs are promising.

The Wanderers have scored 11 goals in two Australia Cup games, with five of those coming from absent Olyroo Lachlan Brook in their victory over Floreat Athena in the Round of 32.

Marko Rudan faces a welcome dilemma when Brook is back from international duty, especially when it comes to finding the right mix between the four players and given how strongly Borrello has performed playing more centrally for the entirety of the calendar year thus far.

On top of that, Dylan Pierias once again stood out in his second successive start since moving across from Western United, while youngsters Nicolas Milanovic, Marcus Younis and Zachary Sapsford continue to put their best foot forward off the bench.

Young Western United trio push their case to Aloisi

The Western United rebuild is off to a promising start this campaign, but the cause for the most optimism out of their Cup run has come primarily from their youngsters.

With a host of key players missing including Aleksandar Prijovic, Daniel Penha, Noah Botic and Ramy Najjarine, Western coach John Aloisi turned to his academy talent against Gold Coast Knights and they didn’t let him down.

18-year-old striker Oli Lavale was handed his first start for the club, while Matthew Grimaldi and Max Bisetto were given extended opportunities off the bench and impressed.

All three players made enormous impacts against the Knights, with both Lavale and Grimaldi hitting the scoreboard to wrap up the victory, while Bisetto came within inches of a goal of his own which was denied by a desperate goal line clearance.

The trio have been standout players for Western’s Academy side in Victoria NPL2 competition, playing a key role in their push for consecutive promotions, which they fell agonisingly short of achieving on the final day of the season.

Lavale scored six goals in the 2023 campaign and finished second in the club’s goalscoring charts behind Bisetto who took out Western’s Golden Boot with 14 goals for the season.

Grimaldi – meanwhile – was rewarded with a scholarship deal off the back of being what Aloisi described as the NPL side’s “standout” player.

Meanwhile, fellow youngsters Sebastian Pasquali and new goalkeeper Thomas Heward-Belle impressed against Knights, with the former starting to finally string together some consistent football after years of being dogged by injury.

What about the NPL sides who progressed?

Three NPL sides remain in the hunt to take home the 2023 Australia Cup this season, after MetroStars, Melbourne Knights and Heidelberg United all booked their place in the final eight of the competition.

Metro survived an enormous scare from Football NSW League One outfit Inter Lions, coming away with a dramatic 1-0 victory in the dying embers of the contest.

The NPL South Australia premiers are set to face an even tougher task against City in the next round, which could fall after a Grand Final appearance, should they defeat Modbury Jets in the second leg semi-final on the weekend.

However, they will be far from an easy beat for City given they are currently undefeated in their last 22 games and by the time said contest on their home deck rolls around – it could be as high as 24 games.

Knights – on the other hand – are a side reborn this season under new coach Ben Cahn, who has taken the club to not only their first NPL Victoria finals berth since 2015, but also their deepest Cup run.

Cahn’s side were too good for Campbelltown City on Tuesday night and their progressive style of football has won plenty of admirers throughout Victorian football circles.

Just like Metro, their quarter final clash could come days after a potential NPL Victoria Grand Final, should they defeat premiers Avondale in the semi on Saturday.

Their opponents in the next round is none other than Heidelberg. The fellow NPL Victoria powerhouses comfortably beat Mt Druitt Town Rangers 3-0, continuing a blistering end to their 2023 campaign after missing out on finals off the back of a disappointing regular season.

Since losing the Dockerty Cup final on August 4, the Bergers have won each of their last five and have made a habit of playing spoiler during this run, ending Green Gully’s finals hopes and South Melbourne’s premiership pursuit with victories over the two in consecutive games.

They even beat Knights 3-2 in the final round of the season, albeit their opponents had already locked up fourth spot on the table and had effectively nothing to play for.

Victory over the Rangers ensured George Katsakis’ side will be in the quarters for the fourth time in five trips to the national stages, but the Bergers have never got past the final eight on their three previous attempts.

The ‘Cardiac Kids’ – as coined by legendary broadcaster Greg Blake – are primed for these kind of matches and have made a name for themselves as a team which rise for the big occasion, setting up a blockbuster clash against their local rivals.