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.    


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.


Entertaining Sky Blues Draw In Adelaide

The Sky Blues could have walked away with all three points but instead took home just one in a match neutrals would describe as “entertaining” – a loaded word these days.

Prodigal son David Carney, surprisingly, had to settle for a spot on Sydney the bench alongside Ali Abbas, Brandon O’Neill, Shane Smeltz and Ivan Necevski.  Adelaide United, meanwhile, kept Marcelo Carrusca, Craig Goodwin and Bruce Djite in cotton wool for Tuesday night’s Asian Champions League playoff against the visiting Shandong Luneng.

What an opportunity for the Sky Blues to break their four year winless streak at Coopers Stadium!

Instead, Sergio Cirio had the home crowd off their seats in the second minute of play as Seb Ryall allowed Stefan Mauk’s cross to bounce once too often and his delayed clearance ricocheted off the onrushing Spaniard and past the somewhat asleep Vedran Janjetovic

As the rattled Sky Blues attempted to work their way into the contest, their early execution was diabolical as passes went out of play or to their eager opponents, who now had their tails up and the crowd behind them following their slice of good fortune. Adelaide’s excellent passing game clicked into gear, isolating Sydney fullbacks Ryall and Rhyan Grant as they went in search of a second goal that would have spelt disaster for the Sky Blues.

Sydney deserve credit for seeing out that dangerous spell twenty minute spell without conceding, toiling to gradually work their way into the contest.

The hosts had a stroke of good fortune as Matt Simon and Iaccopo La Rocca tussled at the edge of the box. The two had handfuls of each other, with Simon, in truth, the instigator of the wrestling contest. Referee Chris Beath called no penalty – a decision that surprised few Sydney supporters but the TV cameras picked up a well-aimed La Rocca elbow striking Simon’s face when both players were on the ground.

With the Italian already serving out a one-match suspension for accumulated cards next week and no stranger to the elbow as an assault weapon, the Match Review Panel ought to give him a longer spell on the sidelines. There is only one way to deal with players like La Rocca - serial thugs remain serial thugs, whether representing Adelaide United or the Western Sydney Wanderers.

Or coaching Melbourne Victory, for that matter.

The Italian was soon off anyway, going down with a strained adductor and replaced by Jordan Elsey, himself a frequent entrant in the referee’s notebook.

But not before Sydney had their equaliser.

Filip Holosko saw Matt Simon set sail for the penalty area and swung over a well-measured cross for the big striker, whose powerful, angled, diving header – the kind that he delivered for the Mariners in seasons past – beat the despairing dive of Eugene Galekovic.

The quality of crossing in the local game leaves much to be desired and Holosko’s delivery could well serve as an example to learn from – not too heavy, not too light, just right. And Simon did the rest. 

Parity restored, the Sky Blues suddenly had a spring in their step and began laying siege to Galekovic’s goal late in the first half.

Conceding the late goal against the run of play was a painful blow. Six Sydney players watched Bruce Kamau make his way into the penalty area and no one tracked Cirio’s run into the box. Good vision from the youngster picked out the free Spaniard who smashed his shot through a number of static Sydney legs and past the unsighted Janjetovic, whose late dive was to no avail.

Instead of accepting their fate – until the second half anyway - the visitors went on the attack like men possessed. United were suddenly under the pump in injury time.

The Ninkovic-Holosko combination has delivered this season and once again came to the fore seconds before the halftime whistle. The Serb made an excellent run between the lines, as he had done all night long, and set sail across the United penalty area.

Holosko’s run was clever and picking up Ninkovic’s curling through ball, his control was good enough to beat the sliding Elsey while his finish, a cushioned strike of a rising ball than many would have smashed over the bar, underlined his class.

Going into the dressing rooms at two goals apiece, United’s advantage was suddenly gone, the psychology of the match having changed completely.

The second half was all Sky Blues and United did all they could to hang on. The hosts’ passing game was still intact but without the ball they were a shadow of the rambunctious side that had threatened to blow Sydney away in the opening twenty minutes. Sydney came close with long range efforts by Dimitrijevic and Ninkovic while Carney was involved in a brilliant piece of interplay in the Adelaide penalty area that deserved a better finish. If Carney’s cameo is a sign of things to come, the winger is set for good times in the Sky Blue shirt once again.

A draw between Melbourne Victory and the Western Sydney Wanderers, coupled with Melbourne City’s surprise loss at the Hunter on Sunday afternoon, sees Sydney remain 5th on the ladder, level on points with the Melbourne clubs  that sit above them on goal difference.  

Despite some good football, Friday night saw Sydney miss a terrific opportunity to leapfrog City and Victory and go within four points off the table-topping Wanderers and Brisbane Roar.

Have Sydney FC turned the corner and are now a side that plays “proactive football” (a latter-day buzzword as annoying as “metrics”) or was their attacking intent simply part of Arnie’s game plan designed to defeat United?

Is the playing style of the Sky Blues now acceptable to football’s media commentariat?

Who knows?

Who cares?

It’s all about winning. Let us hope that Sydney FC get back to doing just that against Perth Glory at Allianz Stadium on Saturday night. It’s been too long.


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