Review: Sydney's Pulsating Derby Draw

​What a great game of football.

The 1-1 draw suits the Wanderers more than it does Sydney FC but, at times, one should simply stand back and admire the spectacle. This was one such occasion and the Sydney Derby produced a pulsating game of football.

The “F” word – flares – made no appearance at Allianz Stadium in the third Sydney Derby of the season. It begs the question:

Did the morons who behaved so disgracefully at Docklands a fortnight ago restrain themselves due to the suspended three point sentence?

Or was the RBB entirely aware of the identity of the flare throwers the entire time and managed to weed them out in the ensuing fortnight? It is food for thought – perhaps fear of losing their team a vital three points is all the deterrence idiots need after all.

To matters onfield and Fox Sports’s decision to give its Player of the Match award to Matt Jurman was justified. However, this column cannot split Milos Ninkovic, again outstanding, and Matt Simon for top honours.

Still on Fox and what gives with its decision not to replay linesmen’s offside decisions throughout the telecast that went to homes Australia-wide?

The Wanderers’ early goal failed to deflate the hosts but one must pause to admire Mark Bridge’s pinpoint cross and Dario Vidosic’s perfectly directed glancing header. Some will recall a similar header at the SFS by Argentina striker Abel Balbo off a Diego Maradona cross in 1993, beating the despairing dive of Socceroo great Mark Bosnich in a World Cup qualifier that had also ended 1-1 that night 23 years ago.

Chances continued end to end and David Carney, creative throughout the night, should have equalized following his one on one with new WSW number one, Liam Reddy.

Twenty minutes in, the balance of the game had begun to shift. Minutes after Reddy’s save off Carney, Matt Simon unleashed a curling drive from outside the penalty area, hitting the crossbar.

Sydney was now laying siege to the visitors’ goal. And as Jurman attempted to prize the ball off Reddy for another in a series of corners, the classless former Sydney keeper threw the ball into the face of the Sydney defender. The yellow card was much deserved for a keeper whose attitude has cost him a number of professional contracts throughout his career.

Sydney’s equalizer came courtesy of an excellent Sky Blue move. Ryall’s through ball for Holosko was perfectly weighted, the Slovak’s low cross beat everyone before Brosque’s flick off Carney’s delivery deflected off Scott Jamieson to trickle in past a wrongfooted Reddy.

Halftime and with Simon engaged in a verbal battle as both sets of players were walking off the pitch, many failed to spot Mitch Nichols run up from behind and elbow the striker in the back before scurrying off the field in a cowardly fashion. If the measure of the man is how he acts when he believes his actions are invisible, Nichols certainly revealed his character with a classless act of his own.

If the first half was, overall, more Wanderers than Sydney FC, the second presented an entirely different picture. Perhaps inspired by Simon’s chase of a lost cause in the first minute after the break, the Sky Blues had by far the better of the chances and while both sides chased victory, it was the hosts who looked more likely to take all three points.

Simon was everywhere and should have put Sydney in front. Five minutes into the second half, the former Mariner needed to take advantage of his skipper’s cross but just failed to hit the target and a minute later, his long-range lob cleared the crossbar by centimetres, with Reddy backpedalling.

Not long after, Rhyan Grant’s perfectly delivered left footed delivery found a rising Simon, whose downward header was saved by Reddy. As for Grant himself, the fullback began tentatively but gave a terrific account of himself to return to form following an atrocious 45 minutes against Perth Glory last weekend. Arnold’s show of faith in the Sydney stalwart certainly paid off. 

If somebody had told a rusted-on Sydney fan that Matt Simon, of all people, would, one day, receive a standing ovation at Allianz Stadium, medical help would have been suggested. But the big man had clearly won the crowd over with his endeavour and enterprise and the Sky Blue faithful showed Simon their appreciation as he left the field with a half hour to play.

The last twenty minutes became a war of attrition as both sets of players succumbed to fatigue following their end-to-end battle but there was still time for Carney to sky a difficult chance in the 86th minute and three minutes into injury time, substitute Andrew Hoole should have crowned a glorious Sydney counterattack but, as ever, froze under pressure to place his curling effort just wide.

In all, 1-1 was a fair result, though Sydney had the better of the chances, Janjetovic’s two wonder saves - one in each half off Vidosic - notwithstanding. The draw keeps Sydney in the Top 6 by a mere point following Glory’s 6-3 win against Brisbane Roar late on Saturday night.

In all, Sydney’s was a very good team performance, bouncing back from the Perth disaster last weekend. From the back to the front, every player put in a terrific shift and, as has been the case this entire season, it was only the finishing that let the hosts down in key moments.

The Sky Blues fly out to Japan to prepare for their Asian Champions League opener against Urawa Red Diamonds on Wednesday night. Derby fatigue won’t help, though Arnold will freshen up his squad by bringing in Mikael Tavares, Milos Dimitrijevic, Ali Abbas, Shane Smeltz and perhaps even Andrew Hoole for a contest in which Sydney are likely to have no more than 40% of the ball.

The Sky Blues go into the game as underdogs but if they keep their discipline and concentration, they could not only walk away from Saitama with a point but perhaps pinch all three.

And wouldn’t that be a story.

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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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