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Vice-Captains' Redemption And Sydney Derby Delight

Could the ending have been any better?

Yes – had Ali Abbas scored the winner.

Sydney FC have begun their difficult run of matches in the best possible way, a last minute Shane Smeltz rocket helping the Sky Blues pick up three vital away points to continue their dominance over crosstown rivals, the Western Sydney Wanderers.

Graham Arnold sent out his side, missing four regulars, to contain attacking threats Mitch Nichols and Romeo Castelen and while it was hardly pretty, it was certainly effective as the hosts, for all their possession (65%), found Sydney FC too hard a nut to crack.

Arnie was honest in the post-match interview, giving his side’s defensive effort a 9/10 but rating its performance with ball not higher than a six. Sydney spent a large portion of the contest in their own half and when they did regain possession, the Sky Blues would return it to the home side just as quickly.

Parking the bus – and let’s not kid ourselves, Sydney FC parked a giant Sky Blue painted gas-guzzler at Pirtek Stadium last Saturday night – can be an effective tactic but unless the team executes its transition from defence to attack quickly, it will be unable to retain meaningful possession. Instead, the eleven men will continue to defend in what ends up being little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Having said that, Sydney need to take pride in – for once this season – making the most of their attacking opportunities and finishing off their chances. That most vital “Shots On Target” column reads four shots apiece, 65 % or no 65%. The Wanderers have only themselves to blame.

Frustrated Wanderers’ coach Tony Popovic claimed that, due to his side’s possession superiority on the night, only one team had the right to all three points but, as Sydney FC have found out the hard way this season, possession means nothing without end product. Popovic was once again outwitted by Graham Arnold and if the 2006 World Cup defender genuinely believes that there was only one side in the contest, he has yet to get his head around the psychological and tactical number that the Sky Blues did on him and his charges at Pirtek Stadium on Saturday night.

It could not have happened without every Sydney player’s total commitment to the cause and no one exemplified it better than under-fire vice-captain Jacques Faty. The Frenchman led the backline with aplomb, keeping his concentration at vital moments, winning the challenges that mattered and holding off a red and black scrum to head in skipper Seb Ryall’s nod-back off a corner to open the scoring.

Many, including this column, have called for the defender’s sacking – Sydney can hardly afford a non-playing visa defender. But if Faty can produce displays like these week in, week out, he could become the defensive leader the Sydney backline has been crying out for since the retirement of Sash Ognenovski.

Faty’s defensive partner Matthew Jurman continued his fine form, unbeaten at the back and setting up Smeltz’s late winner in the 90th minute to receive the Fox Sports Player of the Match award. The fullbacks, however, for all their sterling work, were prone to the occasional error, Ryall at times guilty of ball watching and Rhyan Grant giving away possession far too often. Meanwhile, Vedran Janjetovic had another excellent game between the sticks, making some telling one-on-one saves and blameless for Dario Vidosic’s well-taken equaliser in the 58th minute.

Sydney’s midfield ran hot and cold, at times displaying quality passing but hamstrung by their teammates’ reluctance to push out when regaining possession. What cannot be faulted, however, is the workrate of all three imports Mikael Tavares, Milos Dimitrijevic and Milos Ninkovic, who gave their all for the Sydney cause.

Up front Matt Simon ploughed a lone furrow, carrying out the thankless task of chasing defenders, dropping in to provide the extra man in midfield, defending set pieces and holding off two markers time and again to receive the ball on the halfway line and release his wide attackers. His was the contribution of a man determined not to be outdone and the former Mariner did an excellent job in trying circumstances.

And with Simon tiring and on a yellow card, up stepped his replacement Shane Smeltz. Champions stand up to be counted and A-League’s second-highest goalscorer latched on to a Jurman header to unleash his thunderstrike that was worthy of deciding a derby. Perhaps there is still a future at the club for Sydney’s other vice-captain as an impact player, a role at which he excelled last season.

Were the boos upon Abbas’ introduction in the 73rd minute in poor taste? Probably, but they were also a mark of respect and fear that Abbas engenders among Wanderer supporters. For what it is worth, this column wasn’t greatly bothered by it and neither, one would imagine, was the player himself. He has worked too hard and has bigger fish to fry.

And so another Sydney Derby goes the way of the Sky Blues. Perhaps, as in the case of the Newcastle Jets, the Wanderers no longer believe they are capable of ever beating their crosstown rivals. Sydney’s streak will no doubt end, perhaps even this season, but what is certain is that Arnie clearly has a mental edge over Popovic and long may that continue.

Other results were kind to the Sydneysiders last weekend, helping the Sky Blues leapfrog Melbourne City into outright third on the ladder, just one point behind leaders Brisbane Roar.

Sydney players are enjoying a well-earned short break before reconvening on Thursday to prepare for their massive Australia Day Big Blue fixture with traditional rivals Melbourne Victory. Last time, the difference between the sides was Melbourne’s tough-minded approach and their ability to concentrate for ninety minutes. The Sydney Derby may well have helped the Sky Blues rediscover the hard edge they’ve been missing under Arnold – one they will require in spades if they are to defeat the Victorians at AAMI Park.

The Sydney players will feel confident they have what it takes to take all three points.

Roll on Australia Day.