The Sydney Derby is upon us once again.
The Western Sydney Wanderers, league leaders for much of the season, have come back to the field somewhat, sitting in second spot on 28 points, one behind leaders Brisbane Roar and now just 3 ahead of crosstown rivals Sydney FC.
The Wanderers are easier on the eye these days, playing positive, attacking football, appearing to have renounced the thuggery of seasons past. Perhaps it’s the club’s newly found maturity or their humbling 2014/15 A-League campaign but they don’t seem to have the chip on the shoulder that characterised their first three seasons.
Much has been said about Wanderers fans and while Daily Telegraph-style exaggerations only served to unite A-League tribes rather than divide them, the fact that there was a greater “problem element” in the WSW supporter base than others cannot be ignored. However, much like in matters on-field, the club seems to be making an effort to clean up its image on the terraces.
The banter between rival supporters is strong and, like any other derby, Sydney’s has developed a history all of its own:
Alessandro Del Piero’s goal way back in 2012, the late, heartbreaking Santalab winner the following season, Ali Abbas’ 93rd minute penalty at a white-hot Allianz Stadium in March 2014 and Sash Ognenovski’s tour de force early in Graham Arnold’s reign.
Sydney was on the ropes in the next game until Bernie Ibini’s solo run that culminated in a 20 yard curling equaliser for the Sky Blues while in the greatest derby of them all, Sydney FC threw away a three goal lead before Terry Antonis sank a dagger in red and black hearts in the 75th minute to win the derby 3-4 at Pirtek Stadium eleven months ago, the now-PAOK midfielder throwing himself into the arms of the travelling Sky Blue support in ecstatic delight.
The last instalment proved how cruel football could be, with some Wanderers “fans” stealing the Cove’s tifo and posting the photo on social media. Despite the visitors’ domination at Allianz Stadium that night, Sydney held them out to snatch a win against the run of play with a late Milos Ninkovic sucker punch that prompted the headline “You Stole Our Tifo, We Stole Your Three Points”.
Last weekend it was all about Abbas and things may be no different on Saturday night, with the Iraqi international, loved by the Sky Blue half of the city but reviled out west, sure to come in for some stick from the Pirtek home fans. The story of Iacopo La Rocca’s horror tackle on the Sydney winger does not require retelling, nor does the callous social media response to Abbas’s injury from a classless section of Wanderer fans. Add into the mix the Abbas-Santalab alleged racism controversy and SFC hierarchy’s requests for Red and Black fans to “lay off” the Iraqi and there is enough spark to ignite fireworks on Saturday night.
The clubs share a dilemma, both lacking a dominant centre forward. Federico Piovacari has disappointed for the western Sydney outfit this season while none of Simon, Blackwood or Shane Smeltz has made the position his own for the Sky Blues, with wide forwards and attacking midfielders doing the bulk of the scoring for both sides.
Sydney’s football has been a joy to watch in recent weeks – fast, incisive passing, terrific movement off the ball, visionary through balls by Milos Ninkovic, who has begun finding his feet in recent weeks, and some excellent runs into space by marquee winger Filip Holosko. Meanwhile, the Sky Blue defence remains as tight as ever while the midfield transitions from attack to defence with speed, getting players behind the ball in seconds to stifle their opponents.
Most of the eleven that started against the Newcastle Jets last week are expected to do so again on Saturday night, with perhaps only youngsters Chris Naumoff and George Blackwood in danger of losing their spots. There is an argument for Robert Stambolziev or Ali Abbas ahead of Naumoff out wide while in attack, Matt Simon may be more equipped to deal with the physicality of the Wanderers defensive line than Blackwood, though the 18 year old has greater pace to get away from his markers.
Unlike Sydney, who go into the contest missing skipper Alex Brosque and Olyroo trio Alex Gersbach, Brandon O’Neill and Andrew Hoole, the home side are practically at full strength, missing only rapid winger Jaushua Sotirio, who has been called up to the Olympic side as a last minute replacement for Lazio’s Chris Ikonomidis.
The Wanderers’ best player, winger and former Netherlands international Romeo Castelen, spent a large part of last week’s controversial loss away to Melbourne City on the bench but looked excellent when he came on in the second half. Is he carrying an injury? Or was he simply being rested for the derby? When Castelen fires, so do the Wanderers and it will be down to Rhyan Grant at leftback to give him little room to move.
The good news for Sydney FC is that Milos Dimitrijevic is coming off his best game of the season and if the Wanderers choose to target playmaker Ninkovic, his fellow Serb is more than capable of exploiting the extra space, while Sydney’s other midfielder, Mikael Tavares, has the athleticism to cope with anything thrown at him by the hosts’ in-form attacking midfielder Mitch Nichols as well as launch attacks from deep.
Both sides are replete with talented footballers and it is genuinely hard to predict a winner in this contest, so this column is opting to sit on the fence, predicting a thrilling 2-2 draw. But a win to the Sky Blues would bring them level on points with their crosstown rivals and continue Sydney’s dominance over their noisy neighbours.
Every Sydney fan will be hoping the reign continues.