What We Learned: 18yo’s compelling A-Leagues case; No. 9 dilemma looms

Sydney FC click into gear, Brisbane Roar take another step forward, Melbourne City escape and Knights fight on. This is what we learned from the quarter-finals of the Australia Cup.

And then there were four.

The 2023 Australia Cup quarter-finals came to a conclusion on Sunday evening, setting up a blockbuster slate of semi-finals.

Three Isuzu UTE A-League outfits progressed to the final four, with Sydney FC cruising past Western United, Brisbane Roar seeing off Western Sydney Wanderers in a six-goal thriller and reigning premiers Melbourne City surviving an enormous scare from NPL South Australia side MetroStars.

They are joined in the final four by NPL Victoria powerhouse Melbourne Knights, whose dreams of becoming the first member federation side to lift the Cup continued after their enthralling come-from-behind win over Heidelberg United.

It’s now setup two blockbuster semi-finals in Victoria, with City hosting Sydney FC in a 2016 Cup final rematch and Knights welcoming Brisbane to town.

With a lot to dissect, here is what we learned from the quater-finals.

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BRISBANE: Welcome to the Aloisi era! Roar see off Wanderers in six-goal Cup thriller to book place in semis

Waddingham sends a statement of intent

Thomas Waddingham has put forward a compelling case to lead the line for Brisbane Roar this season.

The 18-year-old striker scored his second goal in three appearances for Brisbane in their 4-2 victory over Western Sydney Wanderers, continuing a barnstorming start to his senior career.

Waddingham showed tremendous football IQ in the lead-in to his goal, making a darting run to the near post which went unspotted by the Wanderers defence to give Brisbane their first lead of the game.

Thomas Waddingham

The youngster was taking up brilliant positions all evening, dropping between the lines and providing great linkup play with his attacking partners in crime Henry Hore, Carlo Armiento and Nikola Mileusnic.

Brisbane opted against signing a replacement for outgoing striker Stefan Scepovic this off-season, with new Roar coach Ross Aloisi instead choosing to back in Waddingham throughout the Cup.

The young number nine only signed a scholarship deal in August, following a string of impressive performances in pre-season and in NPL Queensland with Roar’s youth side.

Waddingham, however, will face some competition heading into the season as KEEPUP understands the Roar will unveil a new attacker soon.

But his case is difficult for Aloisi to ignore, especially if he can carry this form into their semi-final clash against Melbourne Knights.

City’s new midfield one-two punch is set to devastate

Melbourne City fans, get excited. Your new midfield star duo have well and truly arrived.

Tolgay Arslan and Hamza Sakhi put in yet another brilliant showing in City’s come-from-behind 2-1 victory over MetroStars, with the former scoring the winner to seal Rado Vidosic’s side’s place in the final four of the competition.

On a night where City were without a host of stars including Jamie Maclaren, Mathew Leckie, Andrew Nabbout and Callum Talbot, the midfield duo stood up and led their side over the line.

The duo have huge shoes to fill, in wake of the departures of Valon Berisha, Marco Tilio, Florin Berenguer and Richard van der Venne, who all slotted in to the two advanced midfield roles brilliantly last season, and so far the signs are promising.

Arslan – who arrived from Serie A outfit Udinese – came to the club with huge expectations and has slotted in seamlessly. His class on the ball and overall smarts have caught the eye immediately.

Had it not been for a misfiring Max Caputo, Arslan could have easily had an assist to his name as well on a night where he took his goal tally to four in three games – despite the circumstances surrounding the goals (two penalties, a deflection off his back and rebound from a missed spotkick).

Meanwhile, Sakhi has stood out in back-to-back games alongside him. It was the Frenchman’s sensational ball to Terry Antonis which kickstarted the move, leading to Curtis Good’s equaliser.

He also came close to scoring himself from long range, deep in the game.

Complimenting their work is the ever-present Steven Ugarkovic who also deserves credit for another steady showing behind them as the defensive midfielder, filling in brilliantly for the outgoing Aiden O’Neill.

A healthy selection dilemma in the Harbour City

Brisbane Roar aren’t the only team with a selection dilemma up front heading into the new season.

Sydney FC’s Patrick Wood continued his fine start to the 2023 Australia Cup by firing home his third goal in three games in the Sky Blues’ 3-0 over Western United on Sunday afternoon, and by the same token, furthered his case to lead the line from the off this coming season.

Wood has been given an extended run in the starting lineup since Adam Le Fondre departed in the off-season and has made the most of each of his opportunities in the XI.

The 21-year-old showed glimpses of his potential early last season when Le Fondre was on the shelf with injury, scoring two goals in the opening four games of the campaign, but struggled to maintain his form and see regular playing time as the season progressed.

But Wood’s Cup campaign has given coach Steve Corica plenty to think about, especially with the arrival of Fabio Gomes on loan from Atletico Mineiro last week.

Wood’s teammate Jack Rodwell was full of praise for the young striker post-game, believing his ready to take the next step.

“Patrick’s brilliant,” he told Network 10.

“I said to him all pre-season, the work he does up front, it helps the team out so much, even tracking back from from behind, when he’s out in the game.

“He’s been immense, and he got a goal today. I’m buzzing for him.”

Another strong showing against Melbourne City in the semis might be enough to secure his spot in the XI come round one, especially while Gomes continues to integrate himself into the squad.

But even when he’s ready to go, there’s no guarantee he will waltz into the starting XI should Wood continue to bang in the goals.

Back to the drawing board for Western Sydney

It was a far from ideal way for the Western Sydney Wanderers to end their 2023 Australia Cup run.

After comprehensive victories over Floreat Athena and Adelaide United in the opening two rounds, the Wanderers came crashing back to earth in stunning fashion, falling to a 4-2 defeat to Brisbane Roar.

Marko Rudan’s side struggled to curtail the ferocity of Brisbane’s attacks throughout the 90 minutes, especially in wide areas.

The alarm bells are not ringing just yet for the Wanderers, who may well go from strength to strength with more match practice and the availability of key players, but rectifying their defensive frailties will certainly be top of the agenda heading into the A-Leagues season.

Aidan Simmons – who ended the season as first-choice right-back is available again – and the impending arrival of Dutch midfielder Jorrit Hendrix will only will help them from a defensive point of view with another experienced campaigner shielding the back four.

There were moments Western Sydney looked dangerous going back the other way, especially via Brandon Borrello and Dylan Pierias, who provided great service to Marcus Antonsson – who scored a third goal in two starts and looks to be a great find.

However, they could only muster up nine shots to Brisbane’s 17.

Lachlan Brook also returned from the bench and should slot back into the starting lineup, following an impressive pre-season and Cup performances so far, having scored five goals in their Round of 32 victory over Floreat.

Defensive lapses cost Western dearly in the Sydney heat

Western United’s deepest run in the Australia Cup to date came to a disappointing end on Sunday afternoon.

John Aloisi’s side were let down by ill-timed defensive lapses against Sydney FC, which ultimately cost them on the scoreboard as they fell to a 3-0 defeat.

On both the second and third goals, Western failed to clear their lines, which allowed for Sydney to lock the ball in the penalty area and put the 2022 Isuzu UTE A-League champions to the sword.

It was these moments which cost Western dearly last season, especially early doors when they struggled to burst out of the gates.

Back the other way, Western weren’t able to create too much either, only mustering six shots to Sydney’s 13. However, it’s easy to forget this was a side missing a host of key players who are set to walk back in the starting XI once they’re ready to play from the first minute.

Aloisi handed a start to youngster Oli Lavale alongside Michael Ruhs once more, but Daniel Penha and Noah Botic are breathing down their neck, and should be in the mix to start their season opener against Melbourne City.

Penha made his club debut and showed glimpses of his ability, but was unable to make any real impact on the contest, while Botic returned from the bench after Olyroos duty.

There are still doubts over the future of Serbian star Aleksandar Prijovic, who is still yet to be sighted in the Australia Cup.

One of the NPL’s finest is ready to make the leap

Melbourne Knights fans, dare to dream.

One of Victoria’s proudest football clubs secured their place in the final four of the Australia Cup for the first time in history, when they came from two goals down to beat rivals and fellow NPL Victoria heavyweights Heidelberg United 3-2.

Mitch Hore’s late winner sent Knights Stadium into delirium, as Knights fired two goals in second-half stoppage time to complete the most improbable of comebacks.

The architect behind Knights’ resurgence has been Ben Cahn, whose stocks continue rise as one of the best coaches outside the A-Leagues.

Cahn joined Knights in the 2023 off-season after a successful tenure at NPL Queensland side Olympic FC, and led the club to their first finals appearance since 2015 after many years in mid-table purgatory.

The Englishman instilled an exciting, free-flowing brand of football, which took Knights to a fourth-place finish on the table and in the end, a tight semi final exit at the hands of eventual NPL Victoria champions Avondale.

Former Socceroo and now, Knights defender Ivan Franjic spoke about the culture shift this season following their victory over the Bergers, which Cahn has helped spearhead this season.

โ€œThatโ€™s the team weโ€™ve been all season. Weโ€™ve changed the culture this year. Knights have done excellent over the years and credit to the boys,” he said on Network 10.

โ€œWhat a come back. What a win. Itโ€™s great for football in this country.โ€

Cahn’s work was recognised by fellow coaches, as he and Avondale boss Zoran Markovski took home the NPL Victoria Coach of the Year for 2023.

However, it seems as if it’s only a matter of time before CahnBall is seen on an even bigger stage. Cahn has been linked with the vacant Central Coast Mariners head coaching role following the departure of Championship winning boss Nick Montgomery for Scottish side Hibernian.

Ben Cahn (right) during his time at Central Coast Mariners.

He previously worked at the club between 2015-17 in a myriad of different roles, most notably as assistant coach to Paul Okon.

Portions of the Mariners fanbase have called for the club’s hierarchy to take a punt on the untried A-Leagues boss, showcasing just how popular he is.

It remains to be seen whether they will opt to go down the untried route again, or opt for an experienced boss like Ufuk Talay or Warren Moon – who have both also been linked with the job – but Cahn’s work at both Knights and Olympic FC has shown he should be deeply considered for such a position.