Sydney FC 1 Melbourne Victory 1
From thirteen fans at Belconnen to over twenty-five thousand at Aussie Stadium tonight.
Sydney FC seems to have peaked at the right time…
Well, everywhere but on the pitch. Although there were some good signs, it was clear to every impartial observer that Melbourne Victory did indeed live up to their name, at least in a moral sense. Archie Thompson, considered a doubtful starter during the week, gave the Union boys ample reason to be grateful for his inclusion: he tormented the Sydney FC defence all night, and his eventual goal was more than a just reward.
Before the game, your correspondent had the chance to speak briefly with injured defender Mark Milligan. Besides admitting that his wrists were still numb from the aforementioned Belconnen outing (some of the fans present could tell a similar tale), he averred that, although the Sydney players had seen some DVD footage of Melbourne in action, the Victorian side was still largely an unknown quantity.
Twenty minutes before kickoff, with the stadium starting to fill nicely, the Cove began flexing their vocal muscles. And a most impressive exercise it was; the well-known Qantas ad, with its operatic pretensions, was gently wafting across the stadium when it was suddenly drowned out by a concerted Cove effort.
And the huge Australian flag, fluttering above the Cove just before kickoff, drew a warm cheer from the crowd. Sadly, the equally massive Sydney FC banner, unveiled a few minutes later, failed to attract such attention. No doubt it will be more suitably acknowledged in the future.
The “Union” presence, numbered in dozens rather than hundreds, had taken the high ground in Bay 1, and stuggled manfully against the Cove for most of the game. Now and then, the enemy chants broke through…particularly in the second half.
The pitch, all things considered, was in reasonable condition. In the course of his encounter with the Cove faithful during their midweek banner-making session, Alvin Ceccoli had been heard to comment that the pitch had improved substantially since the pre-season semi-final against Perth. Indeed it had, although, as Mark Rudan subsequently pointed out during the press conference, there was still some way to go. Many players slipped on the turf during the game.
As the players finished their warm-ups, two nice moments punctuated the pre-match rituals; one of the younger Melbourne players was given a cheery greeting from the stands by a group of relatives, acknowledged by a quick wave; and a confident fan assailed Sydney FC’s chairman, who made a brief appearance, with a cry of “Walter! Two-nil, mate!”, eliciting a joyful raising of the fist from Mr. Bugno.
Melbourne lined up in a 4-4-2 formation with Allsopp and Thompson in a typical big man-little man pairing. Pierre Littbarski had opted for a three-man strikeforce, with Yorke spending much of the game just behind Petrovski and Zdrilic. This meant consigning Carney and Middleby to the bench; would Sydney FC become the third home team in this first round to be punished for its lack of width, after Newcastle and Perth?
The three frontmen began well enough, combining to create a palpable chance in the third minute (although Yorke, after playing his part in the move, was bundled over off the ball by Carl Recchia). A minute later, Talay, going down just inside the Melbourne area, had his penalty claim waved away.
Melbourne, however, began to hold their own, with the Sydney defence finding Thompson’s pace and intelligent runs a constant headache. Bolton was forced to save with his legs after Thompson was played in following a mistake from Iain Fyfe, and the little Socceroo striker, now turning provider, gave Allsopp an excellent chance to open the scoring on twelve minutes. The shot went wide.
A minute later, in what was perhaps Sydney’s best move of the game, McFlynn, Ceccoli and Petrovski were all involved in a cutting left-wing attack; Zdrilic, the recipient of the final ball, forced a fine save from Eugene Galekovic.
Petrovski almost made a goal out of nothing on nineteen minutes with an ambitious overhead kick, but a period of Melbourne dominance followed. Thompson, loosely marked and outpacing the Sydney defence regularly, nipped into the box to connect with a cross from Sarkies near the mid-point of the half. Bolton was beaten, but 25,000 Sydneysiders breathed a sigh of relief when the ball came down from the crossbar.
In the absence of its usual wide men, Sydney FC had created next to nothing on the right until Petrovski, moving out of the centre, took off on a splendid run on 36 minutes by the right touch-line, which earned his side a corner; but, sadly, nothing more. Melbourne’s delivery from set-pieces was not always commendable, but their defence from them emphatically was.
Thompson forced Bolton into yet another save on 41 minutes, and McFlynn, with a shot resulting from a corner, went agonisingly wide just a minute later. Despite Melbourne’s dominance for much of the half, Sydney were getting closer, and on 44 minutes the breakthrough came. And the crowd LOVED it.
Muscat failed to cover the run of Andrew Packer down the right, and his cross, which initially appeared too shallow, allowed Dwight Yorke to drift away from his makrer, Pantelidis, and plant a superb stooping header beyond Galekovic. An outstanding goal to open Sydney FC’s A-League account – and scored in front of the Cove, no less!
There was still time for Yorke to receive the ball in a goalscoring position again, only to be called offside; a moment later, the whistle went for half-time.
It said something for the effect of the goal on the Sydney players that Petrovski boldly tackled Thompson at the kickoff. However, this was not to be a harbinger of Sydney FC domination from that point; indeed, the second half was all Melbourne.
Thompson and Allsopp both had good chances five minutes after the restart. Seven minutes later – just after the first yellow card of the game, presented to Celeski for a foul on Yorke – Thompson drew a magnificent save from Bolton. Infiltrating the defence once more, he found room in the box for a header which Bolton just managed to get a fingertip to, guiding the ball into a grateful Cove. Not for nothing did Littbarski afterwards say that he would buy Clint Bolton a cake in gratitude for his performance.
Zdrilic, who had faded considerably, gave way to Carney on 58 minutes. The blond winger again took up a position on the right, although, as is becoming increasingly common, he soon switched flanks. Sadly, his impact was negligible; the Sydney midfield as a whole, even McFlynn and Corica, who had impressed in the first half, largely disappeared in the second.
Kevin Muscat, the object of much hostility and derision from the Sydney crowd, had already incurred a chant – begun, impressively, from the side-pitch crowd rather than the Cove – impugning his bed-time activities. The long-awaited, inevitable yellow card, on 64 minutes, produced a cheer almost as big as that which accompanied Yorke’s goal.
Melbourne, too, made two changes on 66 minutes as their pressure increased. On 73 minutes, after a half-chance against the run of play for Yorke, it finally told. Thompson, inevitably, was the scorer.
It was almost a mirror-image of Sydney’s first-half goal; a cross from the right, and Thompson, leaving the defenders in his wake once more, angled his header neatly past Bolton. 1-1.
Littbarski made more changes. A further option out wide appeared when Bingley, a welcome revenant, came on for Talay, allowing Packer to move forward (and Ca rney to move to the left). Mark Rudan, another player returning from injury, gave way to young Jacob Timpano.
Although Sydney did apply some late pressure, restoration of the lead never looked likely. Petrovski, with a deft header, forced Galekovic into a late (and fairly straightforward) save, but the best chance of the final few minutes belonged to the undisputed man of the match, Thompson. Descending on Bolton for what must have seemed the hundredth time following a Melbourne break, the tired striker mishit wildly, to the great relief of the nearby Cove. One-all it finished; an enthralling, fine game of football, and a tremendously exciting night.
Littbarski was understandably muted in the post-match press conference, although he too had found the atmosphere heady in the extreme. Both he and Mark Rudan stressed that it was a point gained rather than two lost.
Ernie Merrick, by comparison, was jaunty, voluble and visibly excited. He was effusive in his praise of Thompson (despite desribing him, beguilingly, as “uncoachable”), and insisted that his star recruit “should be playing in Europe”. Perhaps so, Ernie, but may I suggest that it’s a good thing for the A-League that he’s over here.
What a night. What an atmosphere. What a start.
A win? OK, we’re still working on that one.
Sydney FC: Bolton; Packer, Fyfe, Rudan (Timpano), Ceccoli; Corica, McFlynn, Talay (Bingley); Petrovski, Yorke, Zdrilic (Carney).
mikey @ syndeyfc-unofficial.com