Two of the competition favourites played out a tight 0-0 draw in front of a rather disappointing crowd at the Sydney Football Stadium.
Sydney FC, without their three main strikers in John Aloisi (injured), Alex Brosque (suspended) and Mark Bridge (kept on the bench after his exertions in China), started with only 17-year-old Chris Payne up front. Melbourne were without another Olympian in Archie Thompson, and thus Ney Fabiano was handed a first A-League start, partnering Danny Allsopp in attack.
It was Fabiano who had the first chance of the match, when Tom Pondeljak played him in neatly on 5 minutes, but his close-range shot was saved by an advancing Clint Bolton. This turned out to be one of Melbourne’s best chances of the night.
On nine minutes Bolton was in action again, deflecting Allsopp’s shot into the path of Carlos Hernandez, who was quickly closed down by the Sydney defence. At this point, Melbourne were looking likely to score.
The game became bogged down in over-tight marking and harsh tackling, and when Payne finally found some space on 15 minutes, when Terry McFlynn set him free on the right, he was not quick enough off the mark to elude a saving Melbourne tackle.
The game remained dour. On 25 minutes, Hernandez was presented with a free kick in an excellent position on the edge of the Sydney area after a foul by Jacob Timpano, but the Costa Rican could only provide catching practice for Bolton.
Nick Tsattalios, on Sydney’s left, was occasionally getting caught out of position, and Allsopp took full advantage on 29 minutes: surging down the right and reaching the byline, his cutback was mis-kicked by the retreating Robbie Middleby: Tom Pondeljak knocked it back across goal for Fabiano, who again made a mess of the chance.
Sydney, too, were occasionally penetrating down their right flank, with Melbourne’s Evan Berger looking uncertain of his role throughout. Ten minutes from the break, the speedy Adam Casey combined with Middleby, hit the by-line and pulled the ball back invitingly; but there was no-one there in a sky blue shirt.
Just a minute later came another palpable chance for Melbourne: two Sydney defenders got in each other’s way in the penalty area, the ball broke perfectly to Jose Luis Lopez, but the new Melbourne signing’s left-foot shot was again straight at Bolton.
Another error by Tsattalios set Matthew Kemp free on the right on 42 minutes, but this time Timpano was back in time to clear the danger. Half-time arrived, with the spectators feeling distinctly underwhelmed by the football on show.
Ernie Merrick made a switch at the break, with Leigh Broxham replacing Pondeljak in midfield. Melbourne were on the attack again early in the second period, and Tiimpano came to the rescue again when Fabiano muscled his way down the left and pulled the ball back.
Steve Corica, intermittently influential for the home side, broke free in the centre on 53 minutes and almost managed to set the onrushing Shannon Cole through on goal on the left. A minute later, Kevin Muscat sent an angled header from a corner just wide of Bolton’s far post.
The inexperienced Payne, who had made little impact against Melbourne’s strong defence, was replaced by Mark Bridge just before the hour. Soon after, Melbourne made another change: Berger was replaced by Billy Celeski, as the away side switched to a back four, and began pressing Sydney ever further up the pitch.
Bridge almost made a stunning impact for Sydney on 66 minutes, when his clever pass released Casey on the right; Michael Theoklitos, however, was quick off his line to smother the chance. A minute later, Sydney came even closer, when a swerving free kick from Shannon Cole came back off the inside of the post.
Melbourne pressed on as the minutes ticked away, and John Kosmina, keeping Mark Bridge isolated in attack and leaving the tired Corica on the pitch, had clearly decided to settle for a draw. Melbourne were only able to engineer a few half-chances towards the close, including a good low shot by Lopez on 83 minutes: otherwise, the Sydney defence dealt capably with the many assaults on their goal. Honours even in the A-League’s classic grudge match.