ATTACKING SKY BLUES GO TOP OF THE GROUP
Sydney FC produced another inspired Champions League performance to put themselves in with an excellent chance of reaching the competition’s playoff stages for the first time in its history.
Much remains to be done but, with three rounds left to play, the Sky Blues lead the group by two points and could confound their critics to end the season on a high after all. Graham Arnold deserves credit for setting out his stall in an attacking formation in Korea, as do the players for being inspired to play for a win away from home.
It was a funny sort of game though. In many respects, it resembled a game of park football:
Line up in a 4-4-2 – check.
When you win the ball, lump it to the two big guys up front – check.
The back four doesn’t cross the halfway line unless there’s a ball to be won – check.
If the ball bounces free, give it to the skilful bloke with the long ethnic name in the middle of the park – check.
In a display Claudio Ranieri would have been proud of, the Sky Blues chased, pressured and harassed the hosts to the point of exhaustion, taking advantage of their opponents’ early-season uncertainty. On this display, Pohang will not win the Champions league this season and may struggle domestically following an offseason player fire-sale.
Sydney’s pressing game worked a treat and the front four of Andrew Hoole, Chris Naumoff, George Blackwood and Matt Simon all put in massive efforts to deny the hosts time and space, the pressure leading to turnovers by the Koreans.
With two big units up front, Pohang’s defensive tactics largely consisted of pushing up on the Sydney wingers to cut off the supply of crosses from out wide. This worked – to a point – but, in the main, backfired as it opened acres of space in the middle of the park for Milos Dimitrijevic, who, unpressured and unchallenged, played quarterback with ease and aplomb.
The Sky Blues had to withstand something of an early storm from the Koreans but kept their shape and gave their keeper Vedran Janjetovic little to do. Janjetovic carried out sweeper duties well, mopping up when necessary, but for the most part, the backline of Seb Ryall, Zac Anderson, Matt Jurman and Ali Abbas did its job to perfection against what was, admittedly, an unimaginative opponent.
Having soaked up pressure from the hosts, Sydney began to threaten late in the first half and their goal came courtesy of a good run by George Blackwood, who looked sharp throughout the contest. Abbas intercepted a Pohang through ball and slipped a pass to the young striker, who brought the ball forward before playing a diagonal pass across the Pohang box. While the ball was not intended for the late-arriving “Kiki” Naumoff on the back post, it beat everyone else to fall at the feet of the young winger and his finish was emphatic.
If the Sky Blues are to learn a lesson from this goal, it is to attack in numbers - not something they have done often enough this season. The moment Abbas found Blackwood, he set off on a run straight down the middle, taking a defender with him. Hoole’s run was to Blackwood’s left while Simon’s took a man a defender with him up front. And as the former Mariner attempted to run onto Blackwood’s through ball, it drew in the Steelers’ leftback, who had come in to help clear the danger.
Again, fortune favoured the brave and Naumoff took full advantage of the opportunity.
Put the goal down to Sydney FC’s positive mindset and intent.
It must be said that Pohang keeper Shin Hwa-yong did not appear up to the task and was, in fact, late coming off his line for Naumoff’s goal. Reluctant to come out, use his hands or dive at the feet of Sydney attackers, a joke quickly developed among those who watched the game with me - that as a result of injuries to the Steelers’ first, second and youth team keeper, it was a Pohang outfield player who had bravely put his hand up to take the gloves. We briefly discussed who would have done the same for the Sky Blues and this is how Shin became known as “Seb Ryall”.
The Sky Blues maintained the rage after the break and could have doubled their advantage. And though the last fifteen minutes became a slog as Pohang went in search of an equaliser, every Sydney outfield player worked ever so hard to put up the shutters and keep Janjetovic largely unoccupied.
The win sees Sydney FC on top of Group H, for now at least.
Two Champions’ League matches coming up at Allianz Stadium as Sydney host Pohang Steelers on April 5 and then will be out for revenge against Urawa Red Diamonds on April 20. Another win should see the Sky Blues book a passage into Round of 16 and one hopes that Sydney continue their positive approach to the competition.
These games can’t come soon enough.