Written By Michael Safro (@safrossydney)
Sydney FC’s Asian Champions League campaign that brought a smile to the faces of the club’s long suffering supporters came unstuck in the 90th minute of a tie that had everything.
Everything, that is, except the fairytale ending that would have taken the club into ACL quarter finals – an achievement of which few dared to dream. Instead, it was Shandong Luneng who got to live out a fairytale, substitute Hao Junmin hitting a wonderstrike that was all but unstoppable.
Perhaps only David De Gea could have saved that one.
Sydney’s display, while far from perfect, was everything their A-League campaign was not. It is safe to say that had the Sky Blues displayed as much quality against Australian opposition in the past six months, their season would have been a successful one.
Unfortunately, it was Iran 1997 all over again, if on a smaller scale and in front of a pitifully small crowd of under 10,000 instead of the 100,000 at the MCG all those years ago. But the home fans were left equally gutted.
Football. Bloody hell.
At the risk of being criticised for suggesting the unthinkable, what cost Sydney at the end was their naivety and a total lack of cynicism. They just don’t have it in their makeup.
A man down and protecting a one goal lead with under ten minutes to play, the Sky Blues were feeling the pinch. Shandong had most of the ball and with fatigue setting in, it was all the home side could do to hold on.
It is at that point that most teams who know how to close out games adopt cynical tactics. A shirt pull or a professional foul to break up the opposition’s momentum. A feigned injury to give their side a chance of a breather and frustrate their opponent. A run to the corner flag to take a few precious seconds off the clock.
It is ugly and some will argue they would rather not win that way. But for every Iniesta there is a Busquets or a Ramos. For every Totti there is a Grosso or a Materazzi.
And they got to lift the World Cup.
If Sydney’s first goal had a touch of fortune about it, their second – less than a minute into the second half – was an absolute peach. Many would have been tempted to think that the rightback’s long-range strike against the Mariners fifteen months ago was the best he’d ever hit a ball again.
Some will have to reassess. Collecting the ball at the edge of the visitors’ penalty area, the fullback hit his shot, missile-like, into the far post and past the despairing dive of Shandong keeper Wang Dalei.
If Grant’s goal was straight out of top drawer, the assist was provided by Sydney’s best player of the night. Milos Ninkovic was sublime, turning his man with ease, spraying incisive passes and keeping his markers guessing throughout the contest. Played a lot higher up the park than he was in the A-League, the fans got to see the best of the Serbian #10 who, Del Piero-like, does his best work at the edge of the opposition box.
O’Neill’s free kick that snuck in off the post was well delivered and the home side were a goal to the good early. Unfortunately, their passing became sloppy upon resumption of play and Shandong took advantage. Drawing out Grant, the visitors had Diego Tardelli running at empty space for the next fifteen minutes. After bringing a good save from Janjetovic on one occasion, the pacy Brazilian freed himself again to cut a cross back to the oncoming Walter Montillo and the gifted Argentine took his finish with some class.
The Uzbek referee and his assistants certainly did Sydney no favours but Matt Simon’s conduct did not help. Displaying the lack of self-control for which he has largely escaped punishment domestically, he was fortunate not to concede a second yellow. And while it was playacting at ten paces from the visiting Chinese whenever Simon was within sight of the ball, an experienced footballer needs to have better reasoning skills out on the pitch.
The match turned on its head with fifteen minutes to go. The penalty and red card were fair enough after Zac Anderson rugby tackled Yang Zu in the box as the latter was shooting for goal. But the replay shows that the Chinese striker was offside at the point that the cross was delivered into the Sydney penalty area. The linesman should have had his flag up, making the rest irrelevant.
Vedran Janjetovic was superb throughout the evening and his penalty save made the fans believe that victory was within sight. But Junmin’s late, late winner broke Sydney hearts.
A word on the Cove.
Not only did they turn out in force and produce a brilliant tifo but their support on the night was loud, edgy and parochial. And if the atmosphere they created throughout the contest was fantastic, their conduct after the final whistle was even more impressive and the fifteen minute, post-match send-off they gave their heroes had more than one player and fan wiping their eyes.
And so the offseason cull has begun. The next month will be filled with announcements of player comings and goings. More on that another time but one thing is clear - the players who did so well in Asian competition have shown what they are capable of when they get it right.
Most of them remain at the club. If Sydney FC’s domestic campaign gave their fans little to cheer about, their Asian performances have gone a long way towards restoring the faith of the Sky Blue faithful.
With just two or three solid additions to the team sheet, Sydney FC will have what it takes to give the A-League a real shake in 2016/17.
Roll on next season.