Before launching into the preview of the Sky Blues’ return to Docklands Stadium to face Melbourne Victory on Australia Day, let us pause a moment to congratulate Sydney FC’s National Youth League side on their Grand Final win over Adelaide United. The Sky Blues established their superiority early in the contest, going on to play the Reds off the park, lifting the trophy at Central Coast Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Wingers Bai Antoniou and Max Burgess were excellent, Alex Mullen put away two goals up front and was no less effective when moved into his more customary midfield role, while central defender George Timotheu is destined for bigger things. But the star of the show was undoubtedly Nicky Carle’s lookalike and play-alike Daniel Araujo. The talented midfielder showed immense control and dribbling under pressure, together with a workrate and footballing brain that would not look out of place in the A-League side and with NPL football at Blacktown City under his belt, is ready for the senior squad right now.
These players, together with keeper Anthony Bouzanis, should be made part of Sydney’s Asian Champions League squad while the youth side will also gain Aaron Calver and George Blackwood for its upcoming NPL campaign and should become an experienced, battle hardened unit come September, with a number of players ready for first team action. The future looks bright for Sydney FC.
And so on to the Big Blue preview.
Will the real Sydney FC please stand up?
- Are Sydney the free-flowing but profligate side that had turned a certain win into a 2-2 draw against Melbourne City two weeks ago?
- The hesitant lot that had its rhythm disrupted by Wellington Phoenixs at Allianz Stadium last November?
- The team that plays attractive football but is only a moment away from a lapse in concentration, as evidenced in the last Big Blue derby?
- Or the side that parks the bus and grinds out its wins, as Sydney did at Pirtek Stadium last Saturday night?
No A-League team has been more chameleonic. Is Arnie adopting horses-for-courses tactics or has it just been a case of not putting all the elements together on any given night?
Stats bear out that this season’s Sky Blues are a defensively minded outfit and could end up with a defensive record that matches Sydney’s last premiership-winning side of 2009/10. The problem, of course, is at the other end, with the Sydneysiders scoring the Top Five’s least number of goals, though they have begun closing that gap in recent weeks.
So what kind of football side are Melbourne Victory?
Certainly hardnosed and willing to fight for every ball – especially when facing their northern rivals – but Victory have a tendency to allow their opponents some room to play. The current champions have pressing and counter attacking games that are among the best in the country and the sight of Melbourne dispossessing their opponents on the halfway line and scoring on the break has become all too familiar to A-League supporters.
The “For and Against” shows that, for all their much-vaunted attack, Victory have scored just three more than goals than Sydney this season but have conceded an additional five, trailing the Sky Blues by three points on the ladder.
Recent head-to-head shows that Melbourne Victory have defeated Sydney FC in their last two encounters – the concentration lapse-marred meeting at Allianz Stadium last November and the 3-0 Grand Final humiliation at AAMI Park – prior to which, the clubs recorded three draws in the 2014/15 regular season.
The last time Sydney FC defeated Melbourne Victory was in the corresponding fixture two years ago, Frank Farina’s hot-and-cold Sky Blues trouncing their rivals 0-5 at Docklands (Etihad Stadium) as Alessandro Del Piero, Ranko Despotovic, Nicky Carle and Sebastian Ryall (“like a hot knife through butter!”) put a shellshocked Victory to the sword.
It’s been far too long.
While Melbourne’s strengths are undoubtedly their forward line and lightning-fast transition game, they have been known to switch off defensively at key moments and are themselves vulnerable to a quick counter. In Matthieu Delpierre they have arguably the competition’s finest central defender but the southerners have found it hard to pair him with a worthy backline partner and it is this uncertainty that Sydney FC could do well to exploit.
With that in mind, will Arnie release the shackles and instruct his charges to have a red hot go at the hosts? That, too, is fraught with danger due to Victory’s excellent counterattacking game.
The more likely scenario is that, given their defensive solidity this season, Sydney will give the hosts some room to play, narrowing spaces between the lines and aiming to pick their opponents off on the break. This, one suspects, may be the Sky Blues’ game plan on Australia Day and if Sydney’s defence-to-attack transition game is on song, they have the pace and technique to unlock Melbourne’s, at times, brittle defence.
Both sides welcome back their sizeable Olyroo contingent, whose mental and physical state following their exertions in the Middle East is anyone’s guess. The players will be assessed by the clubs’ medical staff and there is every chance that both will rest some of their young internationals, especially given the four day turnaround before Round 17.
Sydney FC can end Australia Day equal top of the table or as low as 5th – the table is as tight as that.
Melbourne Victory present a formidable challenge but certainly not an insurmountable one. If the visitors keep their composure and win their one-on-one battles, they have all the attributes to take home the win that would sound a warning to their A-League rivals, sending every Sky Blue player and fan into a state of delight.