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Sky Blues Power Without Glory

Graham Arnold’s shake of the head at the full time whistle told the story. Where had this performance been all season?

Resolute, blemish-free at the back.

In control of the midfield.

Clinical in front of goal.

Sydney FC’s display against a strangely lethargic Perth Glory was among its best of the season, flying in the face of their tentative A-League displays in recent months but continuing their rich vein of form in the Asian Champions’ League (ACL).  True, the visitors missed the guile of talismanic Diego Castro and the pace of Chris Harold but even that pair would have made little difference, such was the gulf in class on the day.

With Sydney’s A-League season dead and buried, one can only surmise that this was a performance with a view to Sydney’s clash with Urawa Red Diamonds on April 20. If so, the Japanese, sitting second to Sydney FC on the ladder, are in for a tough encounter.

David Carney has lost some of his electric pace of a decade ago but rolled back the years, eliciting the “Super Dave” chant from the Cove with an opportunistic finish, after some good lead-up work from Filip Holosko and a pinball-like bobble off two Glory defenders.

Carney’s decision-making plummeted in the last twenty minutes, as fatigue set in. With ten days to prepare for the Urawa match, Super Dave could be in for some tough training sessions as the coaching staff looks to build his fitness for the vital ACL games ahead. 

If Holosko’s chested control of Ali Abbas’ through ball that led to Carney’s opener was quality, the Slovak’s goal five minutes later was sheer class. Often criticised for not creating enough on his own – as befitting a marquee attacker – the winger drifted inside. Receiving the ball, Holosko outpaced and then dribbled around the seemingly static defensive duo of Alex Grant and Shane Lowry, finishing low and hard under the diving Perth keeper Ante Covic.

In the season’s wash-up, the displays of every Sky Blue player will come under the microscope, the foreign marquee’s that much more so. At times, the Slovak international disappointed but has reached ten goals by the end of the season – not a bad return for a winger in a team that has performed poorly in the A-League.

It is no secret that Holosko declined an opportunity to represent his country a few weeks back to give Sydney FC his best endeavours. His kissing of the Sydney badge upon scoring his goal against Glory on Saturday night indicates that playing in the Sky Blue shirt has come to mean much to the Slovakian.

The second half saw the Sky Blues create chance after chance and, but for better decision making, could have scored another two or three goals. There was a brief but ultimately fruitless Glory revival but the Sky Blues, now with ten men, sat back and picked off the visitors with one counterattack after another. And in the 84th minute of play, Milos Ninkovic released Abbas in the Perth penalty area and the Iraqi comfortably beat Dino Djulbic, smashing a rasping drive past Covic for a 3-0 lead.

If rumours are correct that Abbas, off contract at the end of the season, is looking to engineer a move overseas, the Cove favourite has a keen sense of history, scoring on his return from long-term injury at ANZ Stadium in January and now, possibly in his final A-League match for the Sky Blues. Either way, this isn’t a farewell – much is expected of Abbas in coming weeks.

In injury time, Brandon O’Neill released substitute Andrew Hoole, whose timing was perfect to receive the through ball at full pace and make a run at the Perth goal. The winger’s cross to Ninkovic was well aimed and the popular Serb finished clinically to end the Sky Blues’ A-League season on a high.

Once again, French cousins Jacques Faty and Mikael Tavares were conspicuous by their absence. Faty, now surplus to requirements, is no longer a Sydney FC player, while it appears that Tavares, who has another year to run on his contract, may not be overly keen on remaining with the club.

For ACL purposes, it would serve Sydney FC well to hold on to the midfielder until the end of the season, as the former Senegal international could still have an important role to play in the Asian competition. But one gets the feeling that Tavares’ days are numbered.

In a game where just about every Sydney player shaded his Perth opponent, the O’Neill-Milos Dimitrijevic midfield combination worked a treat, George Blackwood tried hard but took some poor options and Matt Simon put in a powerful effort, though, as ever, was a loose cannon with his tackles.

Ten day until Sydney’s ACL match against Urawa Red Diamonds. With a draw enough to get the Sky Blues through to the next round, a win will cement their spot at the top of the table. One hopes that more than 5,000 fans show up to support the club in the highest level of club football competition that Asia has to offer.

In the meantime, let’s enjoy the 4-0 win. At least it gave the fans something to smile about.

And forced others to shake their heads at what have been.

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Sky Blues' ACL Domination

Why such a paltry turnout? What accounts for Sydney's great form in Asia? And what was up with Mikael Tavares?

​Just over 5,600 fans turned up to Allianz Stadium on Tuesday night to see the Sky Blues put themselves within a whisker of a spot in the Asian Champions League (ACL) knockout stages.

Why so few? It is Sydney’s A-League campaign that has gone to the dogs and the club should have little complaint if only a hardy thousand or two turn up for the Sky Blues’ meaningless final domestic game of the season against Perth Glory on Sunday afternoon.

In the ACL, however, Sydney FC are flying and with nine points from a possible twelve, the team from the Harbour City has exceeded expectation in their best ever ACL campaign.

You’d think the fans would have turned out in force, wouldn’t you? 

In a game that failed to reach great heights, Milos Ninkovic crowned the hosts’ best move of the match with a toe-poked finish past three Korean defenders and the diving, sprawling, Pohang stand-in goalkeeper Kim Jin-young. That the visiting keeper completed the contest as the visitors’ best player sums up neatly where superiority lay on the night.

The playing surface, for the most part uneven and divot-ridden, surprisingly failed to deter both sides from attempting to play decent football, though the Koreans did use the long ball on a number of occasions to try and get in behind the Sydney back four.

What accounts for Sydney FC apparent form reversal in the ACL?

Is their football dramatically better than we have seen in the A-League?

Not really, although they seem to be avoiding the defensive howlers that have plagued them in recent months.

In that case, are Sydney’s Asian opponents worse than their A-League opposition?

Not at all – Urawa Red Diamonds, Guangzhou Evergrande and Pohang Steelers could all compete in, and win, the A-League.

So to what do we put down Sydney’s oriental success then?

Psychology plays a massive part in every walk of life, not least in the pressure cooker environment of professional sport. Could the players have unconsciously focused on the ACL campaign, in preference to A-League, from the very start of the season? After all, the A-League is meat and drink to most of them while the ACL could represent the pinnacle of their sporting careers.

Unlike the UEFA Champions’ League, in which the top participants have large squads that allow them to focus on domestic and European club competition simultaneously, salary-capped Australian sides have no such luxury. There is a reason that A-League teams that are fortunate enough to participate in the ACL tend to bomb out in one or the other. Or, as in the case of Sydney’s atrocious 2010/11 season, both.

The Sky Blues’ performance on Tuesday night was far from flawless but the occasionally misplaced pass went unpunished by a tired and somewhat understrength Pohang outfit. Sydney looked to hold possession at every opportunity, forcing their opponents, in the middle of a three game spell in a week, to run and run on a heavy pitch, especially in the first half.

The second was a different affair as the Sky Blues looked to play forward and capitalise on the visitors’ fatigue. Suddenly gaps were appearing where there were previously none as the hosts set about dismantling the weary Steelers.

The goal came as a result of some good lead-up work by Andrew Hoole. Much maligned – often deservedly – the Novocastrian seems to be better suited to a traditional winger’s role than that of a wide attacker in a 4-3-3. Under less pressure to score, the Olyroo focused on supply rather than goals to make a far better contribution to the Sydney cause than he has done most of the season.

Ninkovic, a deserved Man of the Match, played the second striker’s role to perfection, pressing his opponents in a metronomic display. He positioned himself to profit from partner Matt Simon’s nod-ons and at times dropped into midfield to combine well with Brandon O’Neill and Milos Dimitrijevic – both midfielders excellent on the night. The Serb ran himself to exhaustion, substituted to a standing ovation by Shane Smeltz in the 90th minute.

David Carney was, as always, very good on the ball but looked exhausted in the last twenty and this column at least was greatly surprised that it took Arnie until the 85th minute to replace him. If Carney sees out his contract through to the end of next season, one can only wonder how much better he can become after a full preseason with no shortcuts.

Iranian referee Mohsen Torki was particularly poor, matched only in his lack of competence by his assistants and displayed a confrontational, belligerent attitude that got the crowd and players offside. His “shirtfronting” of Hoole was not the actions of a referee looking to calm proceedings.

It was as if Torki went into the match with the determination to deny Sydney FC any significant chance of victory. Perhaps it was attempted payback. We did, after all, give them Ben Williams.

The absence of Mikael Tavares raised eyebrows. Omitted from the squad last Saturday night, he spent the evening with family and friends in Bay 16, resplendent in his Sydney FC suit. It was strange to see him in the stands while other rested players were seated in the Sydney FC box, but it could simply have been an act of generosity from Graham Arnold.

But with Sydney entering their vital ACL encounter three days later without a single midfielder on the bench, questions must be asked regarding Tavares’ future. The Frenchman has another year to run on his contract but with cousin Jacques Faty at unbackable odds to leave the club at the conclusion of the season, one wonders if Tavares will be in the airplane seat next to him. 

And so ends another instalment in Sydney’s amazing ACL saga of 2016. In its best Asian campaign, the Sky Blues need just one point from their next two games to secure the club’s first ever presence in the league’s knockout stages. If other results are favourable, they may have got there already.

Clouds.

Silver linings.

It’s been an odd season.

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Sydney Stand-ins Fall To Adelaide

With Melbourne Victory thumping Wellington Phoenix 1-4, hammering the final nail in the Sky Blues’ A-League coffin in the process, Saturday night became all about resting Sydney’s best players for their vital Asian Champions’ (ACL) League clash with the visiting Pohang Steelers this Tuesday night.

Certain ACL starters Matt Jurman, Rhyan Grant, Mikael Tavares, David Carney, George Blackwood and Matt Simon were given the night off. Andrew Hoole remained on the bench while Milos Dimitrijevic, Milos Ninkovic, Brandon O’Neill, Robert Stambolziev and Ali Abbas received limited time against Adelaide United.

By the look of the players who did not take the field on Saturday night, the ACL starting 11 just about picks itself.

Seb Ryall was another to miss the game and one hopes that the injury that he picked up last weekend isn’t severe enough to keep him out on Tuesday night. If it is, Zac Anderson will partner Jurman in the heart of the defence and if Saturday is any guide, that could prove calamitous. Ponderous on the ball and off-radar with his passing, Anderson has now played enough matches to be at his physical best, leaving few excuses for his display. Anderson was at fault for Sydney’s second goal and has much to prove in coming weeks if he is to receive a new Sydney FC contract.

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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.

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Wishing The Season Away

​In Seinfeld’s “English Patient” episode, Elaine finally explodes in a packed cinema, screaming “Just die already! Die!”

If last season’s Sky Blues took their fans on a wonderful journey, the 2015/16 version has been a roller-coaster ride – slow and steady on the way up, some yo-yoing in the middle and a breakneck-speed, screaming plummet towards the end. Watching their team stagger to the finish line has tested the patience of even the most mild-mannered of Sydney FC fans.

Could the season just end now?

Mercifully, there isn’t long to go in the A-League – a drive up to Gosford next weekend and tough, successive encounters against Brisbane and Adelaide. After that, Sydney’s domestic season will be finally put out of its misery at Allianz Stadium against Perth Glory on April 10.

Of little consolation is fellow ACL contestants Melbourne Victory’s 5-0 demolition at the hands of top-of-the-table Brisbane Roar. In a race to the bottom, Victory’s A-League run-in is no easier than Sydney’s but even if the Sky Blues manage to jag a finals spot at Melbourne’s expense, their season could, under no circumstances, be termed a success.

With Jacques Faty and Filip Holosko on the bench and the squad due to board a Sunday morning flight to Korea, Graham Arnold opted to give young Aaron Calver another outing at rightback. Robert Stambolziev continued his stint in the first eleven while striker Matt Simon was nowhere to be seen.

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