The A-Leagues All-Stars took on FC Barcelona in a post-season friendly for both sides, just 72 hours before the A-League Men’s Grand Final in an entertaining affair of football.
There was a mixed response from the Australian football community about the game, with both sides presenting valid points for and against, but the on-field action lived up to the pre-game hype.
The excitement in the air from the crowd was palpable. Anytime either side got an opportunity in the attacking third early on, it would require an early masterclass from Filip Kurto to stop the La Liga side from scoring first, which was equally met by Marc-Andre ter Stegen at the other end needing to take a calculated risk just inside the box to stop cult hero Jason Cummings from putting the All-Stars in front.
Despite a fantastic effort through the opening 34 minutes by the All-Stars, who nearly found the net on a couple of occasions, it would be Barcelona who would open the scoring first.
Capitalising on a turnover by Kye Rowles, Ousmane Dembele would glide a shot to the left of Kurto, bouncing it off the upright and into the back of the net, with Barcelona taking the one goal lead into the break.
That lead would be short-lived in the second half as the All-Stars got a prime attacking opportunity less than two minutes in, as an Anthony Caceres shot would lead to a rebound that would be put in the net by Reno Piscopo, who is currently signed to an unknown A-League Men’s club after departing the Wellington Phoenix.
Adama Traoré would find the back of the net six minutes later to take the All-Stars into the lead on the counterattack, showing that the collection of the A-League Men’s best was not going to go down without a fight.
With increased pressure from Barcelona after the second goal, the defence of the All-Stars was relentlessly tested, and they were almost rewarded again on the counterattack, but Garang Kuol would, unfortunately, miss just to the side of the goals, and Barcelona’s Adama Traoré would find the equaliser, after an initial save by Andrew Redmayne would rebound into the net, leveling it at 2-2 in the 73rd minute.
Barcelona would retake the lead in the 77th minute through Ansu Fati, sending the crowd into a euphoric eruption, putting the pressure back onto the All-Stars to create some magic to secure a draw, if not outright victory.
A massive opportunity to equalise would fall to Kuol with a few minutes to go, as his first shot would ring off the woodwork, and the rebound be saved by Arnau Tenas, denying the youngster a chance to write himself into A-Leagues folklore.
Despite some further pressure for the All-Stars, time would run out, and Barcelona would walk away victorious on their maiden trip to Australia.
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Speaking post-game, Barcelona coach Xavi was full of praise for the All-Stars squad.
“Tactically, very good. Tactically, I think it’s excellent. They played really well. They defended really well. They created chances in transition, on the counter-attack, we suffered a lot especially in the second half, [at] the beginning of the second half.
“Technically, it’s so good, so a big surprise for us.
“I have to be honest. I don’t follow a lot of [the] Australian league, but I knew Isaías for example, and we played against him in Qatar.
“More or less, I expect this level now.”
These statements were matched by the coach for the All-Stars Dwight Yorke in the post-game press conference.
“I[‘ve] definitely seen more than I thought at first.
“I came in with a very open mind as a coach, just to have a look and probably more of an observation point of view. The backroom staff, Robbie (Stanton) and Heather (Garriock), and the rest of the boys really helped me along enormously to understand some of the players, what they’re capable of doing.Embed from Getty Images
When asked post-game whether there were any players Yorke might give a little bit of a nudge to in trying to recruit them to Macarthur, he did not shy away from giving a very direct answer after a brief chuckle.
“Well, I’m not going to tell you that mate. I’m not going to tell you that.”
“As Jack (Rodwell) mentioned, we only had literally just over two and a half hours in terms of preparation on the football pitch so it’s hard to say, but definitely there are one or two players I’m interested in. Whether I can get them or not, that was yet to be, yet to find out.
Yorke now moves on to coaching A-League Men’s side Macarthur FC in the 2022/23 season, and he is up for the challenge that coaching week in and week out in the A-League Men’s will bring.
“Overall, I can’t wait for the challenge. I know the challenge that I was coming into as a manager. This is just a little bit of flavour (the All-Stars game). It will probably be a slightly different level, but I’m ready for the challenge ahead as a manager at Macarthur.
Turning this crowd of 70,000 into A-Leagues fans
A question that has dominated the discussion of Australian football recently is what games like this do for the local game, where the advertising is mostly aimed at attracting Australian fans of whatever European team is visiting to witness the sides they support from thousands of kilometers away from whichever league they play in.
Despite the entertaining football being played out in front of them, a lot of fans started to get very restless late in the first half on either side of the first-half goal, which presents a problem.
Top-level football was being played in front of 70,000 people, and all the crowd wanted to do is a wave, or create (an albeit pretty) lights display with their phones, which is disappointing.
But it also gives hope for the state of the sport in the country.
What a crowd like this shows is that there is an appetite for football in this country at the top levels of the game. If you run off the assumption that around 15000 of those in attendance are week in, week out A-Leagues attendees, that leaves approximately 55000 who are either European football fans or theater-goers who are there for the prestige that a team like Barcelona provides.
The All-Stars players did their part to impress even in defeat, which was echoed by both coaches, and the APL needs to capitalise on the success of the match. It will be a difficult task, there is no doubt about that, but if the league could turn even 10% of the 55000 into people attending A-Leagues games, it would have a massive impact on the domestic game over the coming years.
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