09/01/2016 The ANZ Stadium white elephant will annoy me till the day I die @safrossydney
On rare occasions, planets align and the sporting fairytale comeback – usually the province of Hollywood writers – becomes reality.
What a 405 day road to A-League return it has been for Ali Abbas.
From the disgraceful challenge by Iaccopo la Rocca, a player who, along with Jerome Polenz, epitomised much that was wrong with the Wanderers in their early seasons, to the excruciating knee pain, the anguished realisation not only that the season was over but so was the dream international return at the Asian Cup, the post-op recovery, complete with crutches and then the arduous road towards rebuilding strength and fitness.
From dealing with the mental scars of the injury itself, to ignoring the taunts of the a classless section of the Wanderers’ supporters, forcing oneself to stay positive in recovery and then overcoming fear upon returning to full training and then NYL football.
The life of Ali Abbas has had enough twists to fill a book and the player appreciates the opportunity given to him by Australia and Sydney FC. Abbas is loved by fans for his wholehearted approach to the game and a never-say-die attitude.
Decent pace but no Bernie Ibini.
Excellent skills without being Alessandro Del Piero.
Hard in the tackle but not a patch on Terry McFlynn.
Able to finish his chances but hardly in the class of Marc Janco or Alex Brosque in front of goal.
Abbas’ strength lies in combining all these attributes and binding them with mental resilience, fierce determination, more than a touch of leadership and a love of the game that shines through every bouncing step he takes out on the pitch.
And so, Sydney’s second goal of the night belonged to the Iraqi international, showing his teammates how to finish under pressure following Matt Simon’s splendid backheel.
Welcome back Ali.
It was a great game in which to reintroduce the winger, as it was for Milos Dimitrijevic to rediscover the form of last season. The 2014/15 Player of the Year was everywhere, directing traffic, switching the point of attack, beating players in the middle of the park and offering a platform for Mikael Tavares and fellow Serb Milos Ninkovic to set up chances for their strikers.
It is hard to tell if the Jets were simply poor or if Sydney FC made them appear worse but the hosts played the game largely in second gear. Perhaps they were saving themselves for the upcoming Sydney Derby or, as they have done much of the season, lacked the ruthless edge to punish an ordinary opponent.
Filip Holosko’s goal settled the early nerves and was taken with some class, the Slovakian international controlling Ninkovic’s defence-splitting through ball at full speed to slot home past the diving Mark Birrighitti. The finish was calm and composed, the hallmark of a player who has rediscovered his form and confidence. Holosko joins Brosque as Sydney’s equal top scorer this season and will need to continue his fine run of 3 goals in 4 outings if Sydney FC are to make a charge for the top of the table.
Sydney’s other winger, Chris Naumoff, on the other hand, appeared tentative despite a wholehearted effort. “Kiki” had a couple of decent strikes from distance but took the wrong option time and again and lacked the conviction to take the game to his opposite, Jason Hoffman. The 20 year old has time on his side but may find himself back on the bench on Saturday night, replaced either by Robert Stambolziev, who was lively in his 25-minute cameo, or even Abbas himself.
Another youngster, central striker George Backwood, continued his travails in front of goal against Newcastle’s ordinary defensive unit. The rest of his game was a joy to watch – the Young Socceroo displayed great control, won headers and glided past his opponents with ease. As remarked by Luciano, a man seated next to me at ANZ with whom much football discussion took place, it appears that all he needs is a breakthrough goal to begin cashing in on his prodigious talent, much like Frank Farina, who went on to become a leading striker for the Socceroos after four barren years, some three decades ago.
Sydney’s defence was rarely tested but this proved a good opportunity for the error-prone Jacques Faty to regain some confidence. What was telling, however, is that Sebastian Ryall kept the armband despite the return to the starting side of one of Sydney’s vice-captains. With Shane Smeltz staying on the bench throughout the contest, it appears that both vice-captains, Smeltz and Faty, may have lost the support of their coach – a sure sign that transfer window action could still be on the cards for the Sydney club in coming weeks.
Ryall, meanwhile, took time rediscovering his rightback mojo and was often mentally off the pace in Sydney’s first half attacking forays. He will need to become reaccustomed with the position in coming weeks as the Sky Blues chase the leading bunch in the absence of Alex Gersbach.
Tough games coming up for the Sky Blues and the Sydneysiders will rue the seven points they threw away since that late November home encounter with the Wellington Phoenix. Halfway through the season, it is patently clear that there is not a single, truly outstanding team in the A-League right now and better finishing would have seen Sydney FC going into the Sydney Derby at the top of the table.
Not having fully capitalised on their opportunities against easier opponents, the upcoming weeks see the Sky Blues face the Wanderers and Melbourne Victory away from home, host table-topping Brisbane Roar and pay a visit to Cooper Stadium – a place that has proved a graveyard for Sydney FC time and again. The Sydneysiders will need to pick up at least 8 points from these four difficult matches to stay in title contention.
If the Sky Blues are up to the challenge, they will put themselves in the frame for premiership honours. Should they stumble, however, they will rue their inability to take their chances against opponents that they should have put to the sword.
Just how good are Sydney FC this season?
We’ll know by February.
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