Preview: Sydney Derby - Round 20

sydney derby 2014

Sydney FC’s player of the round last weekend did not turn out in Sky Blue.

Blake Powell, a talented footballer and a terrific bloke to boot, never quite got the opportunity he deserved in his two year senior stint with Sydney FC. He certainly made up for it with his four-goal demolition of the Western Sydney Wanderers last Sunday, an amazing haul that exceeds the three that he scored for the Sky Blues in his knee injury-interrupted Sydney career.

Which is just as well.

The Sky Blues are going through a confidence crisis and in the run up to the Sydney Derby this Saturday night, “Blakey” helped even the odds by putting the Wanderers to the sword and giving them a headache of their own.

Sydney’s crosstown rivals may be in the frame for premiership honours this campaign but find themselves missing some key defenders. The impressive Alberto Aguilar is still serving his suspension after tangling with Melbourne Victory’s Besart Berisha a fortnight back while young Jonathan Aspropotamitis collected a red last weekend. Brendan Hamill may start despite being low on match fitness and his presence can only be a boon for the Sky Blues given his track record against them.

It points to one thing – the Wanderers’ best chance of finally winning a Derby is to attack. And attack is where their current strength lies, given the form of Mitch Nichols, Dario Vidosic, Mark Bridge and Brendan Santalab. Not to mention the best right winger in the competition, Dutchman Romeo Castelen.

And this leaves Sydney coach Graham Arnold with a dilemma.

Rhyan Grant, coming off arguably his worst game of professional football, is a better one-on-one defender than the man who replaced him in the second half last weekend, Ali Abbas. Does Arnie gamble and entrust the all-important leftback position to the more polished Iraqi, or offer the quicker and tougher tackling Grant a chance at redemption?

Brandon O’Neill is likely to replace Mikael Tavares, who was guilty of failing to track his man on at least two occasions last weekend. Milos Dimitrijevic, meanwhile, should keep his spot in the side behind Sydney’s form player, Milos Ninkovic.

In attack, Filip Holosko makes his return while David Carney, one of Sydney’s few standouts last weekend, should line up on the left and link with Alex Brosque, who is expected to lead the line. The understanding between the two ex-Socceroos has looked good and another week’s training should see them form an even better attacking combination.

With Scott Jamieson in the form of his career, expect the clash of the fiery leftback and his good mate, the hard-tackling Seb Ryall, to be among the night’s confrontations. Neither shirks a challenge or minds bending the rules on occasion, so the chances of at least one of the pair earning a card are high.

Another contest that holds great interest is form attacking midfielder Mitch Nichols versus whoever has the job of containing him, most likely Brandon O’Neill. Nichols is playing not only for three points but a Socceroo recall so could either thrive or wilt under pressure.

For the Wanderers, impressive midfielder Dimas Delgado returns following his one match suspension. The La Liga veteran has been among the visitors’ leading lights and controls the tempo of the game from the back of midfield. The Sky Blues’ best chance of upsetting his rhythm, and that of their opponents on the night, is to feed Milos Ninkovic plenty of ball, forcing the Spaniard to expend his energy marking the tricky Serbian #10.

The Sky Blues have been unimpressive since Christmas and are coming off their worst month in at least two years, but hold the wood over their crosstown rivals. They will feel that they have the psychological edge over the Wanderers while feeling the pressure to arrest their slide in front of a packed Allianz Stadium.

Across town, the confidence of the western Sydney outfit will be dented following their shock 2-5 loss to cellar dwellers Wellington Phoenix last weekend and they will be nervous about facing the Sky Blues without a number of first choice defenders. What they will be saying to each other in the dressing rooms, however, is that they are playing an inferior opponent and if they attack Sydney they will win the match.

Tactically, Arnie set up his previous two Sydney Derby sides to soak up pressure and hit the Wanderers on the counter, a tactic that has yielded Sydney the full six points this season. However, given Wednesday night’s ACL match - one in which Urawa Red Diamonds are expected to dominate possession - he is unlikely to force his team into 180 minutes of defensive running, so Saturday night’s instructions may well be to win the midfield battle.

Should Sydney do just that, they have the capacity to defeat the Wanderers, maintaining a phenomenal record in the process. If they fail to do so, however, it could be a long night for their long-suffering supporters.

On Saturday night, 40,000 fans will watch a contest that is the envy of other sports in this country. The Sky Blues do not have to entertain but they do have to get a result against a rival that will be desperate to wipe a two year winless streak against Sydney FC.

Long may that streak continue.

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Sky Blue Groundhog Day against Perth

With eight A-League matches left to play and seven points separating the now-6th placed Sydney FC from the top of the table, Sky Blue fans should all but dismiss their side’s chances lifting the Premiers’ Plate this season. As things stand, the Sydneysiders have a battle on their hands to simply qualify for the finals series – a prospect unthinkable just a few short weeks ago.

What went wrong on Saturday night?

In essence, Sydney have spent the season turning wins into draws and draws into defeats. Vedran Janjetovic’s goalkeeping error is only the latest in a string of stuff-ups by Sky Blue players since October. At various stages, Jacques Faty, Matt Jurman, Andrew Hoole, George Blackwood and Shane Smeltz have all been guilty of leaking goals or failing to take their chances at the pointy end.

As Tim Cahill writes in his autobiography, winning football matches requires ten players to perform on any given night. Ten can carry one underperforming teammate but the worse that ratio becomes, the lower the chances of success. Hardly rocket science but the formula works.

As things stand, too many Sydney players are failing to deliver over ninety minutes of football. On Saturday night, Rhyan Grant’s positioning, decision making and passing game went to pieces, Jurman is suddenly not a patch on the defender who was among the league’s leading lights earlier in the season while Mikael Tavares’ positional sense at times leaves a lot to be desired.

Add to that the lack of goals from Blackwood, Hoole and Naumoff and the squad suddenly contains a number of “holes”. One could also throw in Riley Woodcock’s inability to put himself in selection frame despite Alex Gersbach’s departure for Rosenborg; the relative lack of goals from Smeltz and Matt Simon and the anonymity of backup defenders Zac Anderson and Aaron Calver.

On the plus side, Faty and Milos Dimitrijevic are back in form while Ali Abbas may have played his way back into the starting eleven at the expense of Grant, who looks to have played his way out of it. David Carney has given Sydney greater creativity and punch, Filip Holosko – missed on Saturday night - is scoring goals again and Milos Ninkovic is sheer class and was Sydney’s best on the night. And despite the Sydney attack failing to capitalise on the chances it created, the return of skipper Alex Brosque gave Sydney a more dangerous look up front.

Overall, however, the picture that emerges isn’t a pretty one. There simply aren’t enough Sydney players who are hitting the heights week in, week out.

Graham Arnold spoke of his players’ failure in transition from attack to defence – among his side’s strengths earlier this season. Perhaps after a week’s hard training in preparation for the rigorous Asian Champions League campaign, the jaded players failed to execute their coach’s instructions.

Not good enough, and Brosque admitted as much in his post-match interview.

In truth, this is not a great Perth side, and is certainly one that Sydney FC should have put to the sword. Instead, Perth Glory coach Kenny Lowe’s tactics played to his team’s strengths – press in the middle third of the pitch and rapidly hit the hosts on the counter.

The opener was down to two errors – not only Janjetovic’s howler that afflicts every keeper at some point in his career but Jurman’s inexcusable error in gifting the ball to the opposition seconds earlier. And in the second half, Chris Harold’s winner came as Tavares failed to track Gyorgy Sandor at the edge of the box and the Sydney keeper could perhaps have parried the Hungarian’s shot a touch wider.

The Sky Blues were certainly not without their chances, at times playing some enterprising football. In the first half, Ninkovic’s chip over the head of stranded Perth keeper Ante Covic just missed the open goal while Alex Grant was fortunate not to concede as his defensive header struck the crossbar. Minutes later, some excellent combination play between Brosque and Carney released the skipper at the edge of the box but his shot went wide and Blackwood’s header sailed harmlessly over the crossbar just before the break.

After the whistle, Carney threw himself at but just failed to connect with Ryall’s dangerous cross after Ninkovic released the rightback with a classy turn and through-ball while Smeltz, perhaps still cold after just coming on to replace Dimitrijevic, failed to control the Serb’s cleverly disguised pass with the goal at his mercy minutes later.

Ninkovic finally received his reward as the best creator of the night as, with time running out, his pinpoint ball found Smeltz once again and this time the Kiwi World Cup international made no mistake, beating Covic with a classy finish. But despite the hosts’ late flurry, they were unable to reel in the visitors to record their third loss in a month.

In a sombre atmosphere, fans’ mood was briefly lifted as the camera panned to fan favourite Nicky Carle in the stands, lending Sydney his support and wearing a floral T-shirt that defied good taste. The former #10 is not only among the most skilful of Sydney FC players but a true gentleman and remains much loved by the fans. If this is the end of the road for Carle the player, the club must capitalise on his football knowledge and abilities, as it has done with Steve Corica, Paul Reid and Terry McFlynn.

If love wears a floral shirt, comedy wore the #27 as Tavares produced a copybook rugby tackle to bring down Perth substitute Krisztian Vadosz in the 84th minute. The Frenchman’s yellow card was well deserved, amid fits of laughter in the stands.

And so, the Sky Blue faithful get to live out their own version of Groundhog Day – after failing to convert their chances, Sydney FC fall short for the umpteenth time this season.

The coach has talked of ringing the changes for the Sydney Derby and he is right.

The club is hurting right now.

This was not good enough.    

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Sydney FC v Perth Glory Preview

By Saturday night, it will be almost a month since the Sky Blues last won a game.

The stat is hardly an impressive one, reminiscent of Frank Farina’s inconsistent Sydney FC of 2013/14. Ideally, Sydney needed to be in the Top 3 of the A-League competition as they embark on the most gruelling part of their season. Instead, sitting in 5th spot, the Sky Blues have given themselves a mountain to climb.

To right that wrong, the Sky Blues have no better opportunity to pick up a win than on Saturday night at home against Perth Glory, a side that somewhat lacks the class of the teams above them on the ladder.

Only the foolish would dismiss Glory’s chances of recording an upset win, however. The West Australian squad has undergone a massive rebirthing exercise in the January transfer window, selling captain Michael Thwaite to Liaoning in the cashed-up CSL and Antony Golec to Sheriff Tiraspol in Moldova (look it up). These sales followed the departures of underperforming Sidnei Sciola and Guyon Fernandez.

In their place, in comes last season’s controversial but prolific striker Andy Keogh, impressive Hungarian midfielder Krisztian Vadosz, central defender and Perth native Shane Lowry and the talented youngster who somehow slipped through Sydney’s net, Under-17 international Kosta Petratos. Socceroo Adam Taggart has also signed but is unable to take part as FIFA rules ban players from representing more than two teams in one season.

Impressive work by Kenny Lowe in the transfer market then and, together with new Socceroo rightback Josh Risdon, in-form flyer Chris Harold and candidate for Player Of The Season, Spanish leading goalscorer Diego Castro, Glory will feel they have more than a fair chance of upsetting the hosts.

Meanwhile, the visitors’ Sydney connection is strong, with former Sky Blues Richard Garcia, Hagi Gligor and this season’s surprise packet Marc Warren no doubt determined to make a point to Sydney supporters and a few of their former teammates. Things could get heated given Garcia’s volatility and Warren’s penchant for flying into tackles. Filip Holosko would be well advised to watch his legs.

Perth have been adept at scoring goals and have the pace to trouble any opponent but have leaked at the back, opening the way for the Sky Blues to capitalise on their opponent’s defensive frailties. Alex Brosque makes a welcome return from long term hamstring injury while new signing David Carney, impressive in his cameo last weekend, is expected to walk out with the Sky Blue first eleven for the first time in nine seasons. The attacking quartet of Brosque, Carney, Holosko and Milos Ninkovic has the goals in it to put any opponent to the sword.

Wary of being undone on the counter, however, the Sky Blues may not go for broke against a side that likes to attack but remains wildly inconsistent. Coach Graham Arnold is more likely to contain Perth’s attacking threats early before unleashing his forwards to do the business. An early home goal would be nice, however.

Interestingly, Robert Stambolziev receives a call up to the extended squad while Andrew Hoole remains on the outer. The tenacious winger has more to offer the Sydney squad than simply being training fodder in 11v11s and deserves an opportunity to press his case. He does, however, have Carney and Chris Naumoff ahead of him in the pecking order.

Beyond the contest itself and in the face of widespread condemnation, the FFA have finally opted to punish the Western Sydney Wanderers for their flare use, albeit with a mere $50,000 fine and a suspended 3 point deduction. It will be interesting to see if they follow through on their threat to strip the team of three points should the flare issue rear its ugly head once again. One suspects that had the FFA been tougher on the Wanderers last season (and stripped them off points then, which hardly mattered when they were running last on the table), we would not be dealing with this issue today.

Meanwhile, in the fallout from last week’s encounter at Coopers Stadium, serial thug Iaccopo La Rocca has received a three match suspension for his elbow to the face of Sydney’s Matt Simon. Simon is no shrinking violet himself but this column would be prepared to stand by its statement that no player in A-League history has used his elbows as weapons more than the Italian.

No sympathy then, though plenty for his club for their gallant display in the Asian Champions League qualifier against Shandong Luneng – had Marcelo Carrusca brought his shooting boots that night, they could well have made the competition proper.

Could he not have missed that injury time penalty against the Sky Blues instead?

Two pieces of poor defending and a touch of bad luck robbed Sydney of a vital two points last weekend and Arnie will have been drilling the message about concentration throughout the week. Sydney FC simply must get back in the winners’ circle on Saturday night - any further slip-ups will make the Sydneysiders’ title challenge all but evaporate into thin air.

Consistency has been Sydney FC’s Achilles Heel this season but if they play their best football, the Sky Blues should run away with all three points against Glory and get back to winning ways. Perhaps, like Andrew Lloyd reeling in Olympic champion John Ngugi in 1990, Sydney FC will make a late run to blow away the competition.

Every Sky Blue fan certainly hopes so.

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