Shanghai Shenhua 1- Sydney FC 2

   Sydney FC have made a barnstorming start to their maiden Asian Champions League campaign, scoring a surprise 2-1 win away from home over Chinese giants Shanghai Shenhua, in a historic night for Australian club football.

 In Branko Culina’s first competitive match in charge of Sydney, spectacular first-half goals from Steve Corica and Ufuk Talay were enough to secure the points for the visitors, though a late strike from substitute Xie Hui ensured a tight finish.
 
 The victory sets up a mouth-watering clash with Japanese champions Urawa Red Diamonds at Aussie Stadium on March 21.
 
 Sydney’s goalscorers were the standouts for the club on the night, though a shaky defence may have Culina nervous in the lead up to the Urawa clash.

The match, played in freezing conditions before a crowd of around 8,000 at Yuanshen Stadium, was controlled nearly entirely by a slick Sydney outfit in the opening half.

After a sustained period of possession deep in the Shanghai territory, Ufuk Talay pounced on a poor clearance from central defender Du Wei in the 8th minute; the playmaker’s pass finding David Carney in space on the right.

Carney’s resulting chip into the box was met by Corica – blazing past a near static Shanghai defence – the midfielder finishing with a sweet volley from a tight angle to secure a shock lead for the away side.

The goal, impressive for its top-drawer quality, also contained an element of history. It marked the first time an Australian club had found the back of the net in Asian competition.

But Sydney fans, so used to seeing their club surrender leads under former manager Terry Butcher, must have had their hearts in their mouths when the home side almost produced an instant response.

Clint Bolton failed to hold a difficult in-swinging corner at the near post, spilling the ball to Shenhua striker Sergio Blanco.

With Bolton grounded, only desperate defending on the goal line from Robbie Middleby prevented the Uruguayan from slotting home an equaliser.

Normal service resumed, however, soon after for away side, with Sydney controlling the bulk of possession and continuing to test their Chinese opponents.

Ufuk Talay then stole Corica’s spot on the highlights reel with an early contender for goal of the tournament.

Talay’s thunderous strike – hit on the run, no less, after receiving the ball a full 30 yards from goal – found the top corner, leaving Shenhua keeper Wang Dalei without a hope.

For Sydney fans, despite the small attendance and muted atmosphere, this really was something close to dreamland.

Only three years ago the idea of Australian clubs competing (and indeed winning) in meaningful regional championships seemed fanciful at best.

Now, the brightest of futures had truly arrived.

A late chance for Alex Brosque, seizing on a slip-up from a Shanghai defender to find himself with only Dalei to beat, might have even secured the points for Sydney before half-time, but his shot fell just wide.

Shanghai, however, asserted their warm pre-match favouritism with a string of chances in the second half.

Sydney traded in their previously successful passing game for sustained periods of deep defending as they looked to hold their well-earned lead, in the face of mounting pressure from last year’s quarter finalists.

First, Culina’s men were forced into another goalmouth scramble only seconds after the restart, after Carney and Rudan badly mistimed clearances.

Shenhua midfielders Diego Alonso and Jiang Kun then came deathly close with long-range free kicks – Kun’s effort rattling a beaten Bolton’s crossbar.

A rugby-esque foul from Nikolai Topor-Stanley to the right of Sydney’s box then allowed Alonso to once again take the stage on 76 minutes.

The resulting free kick saw Bolton left stranded as Xie Hui, on as a replacement for Kun, headed home from point blank range.

For Sydney it was fellow substitute Noel Spencer – who seems to have instantly assumed Matthew Bingley’s former role among fans as the midfielder who can do no right – who was the villain.

Spencer’s poor, almost nonexistent marking close to goal allowed Hui the space to finish.

The stage looked set for a tense finish, but, strangely, Hui’s goal seemed to prove a release rather than a burden for Sydney.

The away side’s best chances in the second half fell after Shanghai’s reply – Spencer and Zdrilic coming close with late efforts after impressive build-up play.

Sydney may, however, count themselves lucky to have come away with all three points.

Shanghai were much the better side in the second period, and a seemingly obvious shirt pull from Spencer that would have resulted in a late, late Shenhua penalty was missed by the referee.

In the end, though, the delighted Australians emerged victorious, setting the stage for a blockbuster tie with Japan’s Urawa Reds on March 21.

Culina has certainly delivered on his promise to inject attacking football into a sometimes dour Sydney outfit early in his reign.

It must be noted, though, that the switch seems to be more one of mentality than actual style.

Indeed Culina employed the same 4-2-3-1 formation, and a near-identical first XI, to that which earned the wrath of fans throughout Butcher’s tenure.

But many of the individuals within that XI seemed to have gained a new lease on life in the weeks since the former Sydney Olympic man’s arrival.

Whilst Corica was his usual livewire self, involved to some capacity in the majority of Sydney’s attacking movement, he was joined to that end by a scheming Ufuk Talay.

Talay was the very same consummate, cultured passing midfielder that was too often missing in action in A-league Season 2, pulling the strings for Sydney in a man of the match performance.

His stunning goal was, in many ways, simply the icing on the cake.

David Zdrilic also looked accomplished with his back to goal, whilst Alex Brosque was dangerous in the same wide areas he often looked stranded in under Butcher.

Not quite so rosy, however, was Sydney’s defensive effort.

As fullbacks for the night, Middleby and Topor-Stanley looked every inch the stand-ins they were; too often caught out of position and forced into a number of crude challenges.

Mark Rudan has also had much better nights for Sydney, giving away far too much too close to goal.

This must be of some concern to Culina, going into the probably more testing Urawa match with few, if any options – bar teenage fullback Nikolas Tsatallios – to draft into his back four.

Such concerns, though, should do little to dampen the mood for Sydney.

Despite the worries at the back, the stage is now set for a dream date with the Japanese Champions at Moore Park, in front of what might be the biggest crowd Aussie Stadium has seen in quite some time.

For Sydney, a win would also see them in with a shot at qualification for the competition’s knockout phase.

And if the upset win over Shanghai was dreamland, surely that would represent the coming of something almost unimaginable for the Sydney faithful.

-Tom Mortimer