Sky Blue Groundhog Day against Perth

With eight A-League matches left to play and seven points separating the now-6th placed Sydney FC from the top of the table, Sky Blue fans should all but dismiss their side’s chances lifting the Premiers’ Plate this season. As things stand, the Sydneysiders have a battle on their hands to simply qualify for the finals series – a prospect unthinkable just a few short weeks ago.

What went wrong on Saturday night?

In essence, Sydney have spent the season turning wins into draws and draws into defeats. Vedran Janjetovic’s goalkeeping error is only the latest in a string of stuff-ups by Sky Blue players since October. At various stages, Jacques Faty, Matt Jurman, Andrew Hoole, George Blackwood and Shane Smeltz have all been guilty of leaking goals or failing to take their chances at the pointy end.

As Tim Cahill writes in his autobiography, winning football matches requires ten players to perform on any given night. Ten can carry one underperforming teammate but the worse that ratio becomes, the lower the chances of success. Hardly rocket science but the formula works.

As things stand, too many Sydney players are failing to deliver over ninety minutes of football. On Saturday night, Rhyan Grant’s positioning, decision making and passing game went to pieces, Jurman is suddenly not a patch on the defender who was among the league’s leading lights earlier in the season while Mikael Tavares’ positional sense at times leaves a lot to be desired.

Add to that the lack of goals from Blackwood, Hoole and Naumoff and the squad suddenly contains a number of “holes”. One could also throw in Riley Woodcock’s inability to put himself in selection frame despite Alex Gersbach’s departure for Rosenborg; the relative lack of goals from Smeltz and Matt Simon and the anonymity of backup defenders Zac Anderson and Aaron Calver.

On the plus side, Faty and Milos Dimitrijevic are back in form while Ali Abbas may have played his way back into the starting eleven at the expense of Grant, who looks to have played his way out of it. David Carney has given Sydney greater creativity and punch, Filip Holosko – missed on Saturday night – is scoring goals again and Milos Ninkovic is sheer class and was Sydney’s best on the night. And despite the Sydney attack failing to capitalise on the chances it created, the return of skipper Alex Brosque gave Sydney a more dangerous look up front.

Overall, however, the picture that emerges isn’t a pretty one. There simply aren’t enough Sydney players who are hitting the heights week in, week out.

Graham Arnold spoke of his players’ failure in transition from attack to defence – among his side’s strengths earlier this season. Perhaps after a week’s hard training in preparation for the rigorous Asian Champions League campaign, the jaded players failed to execute their coach’s instructions.

Not good enough, and Brosque admitted as much in his post-match interview.

In truth, this is not a great Perth side, and is certainly one that Sydney FC should have put to the sword. Instead, Perth Glory coach Kenny Lowe’s tactics played to his team’s strengths – press in the middle third of the pitch and rapidly hit the hosts on the counter.

The opener was down to two errors – not only Janjetovic’s howler that afflicts every keeper at some point in his career but Jurman’s inexcusable error in gifting the ball to the opposition seconds earlier. And in the second half, Chris Harold’s winner came as Tavares failed to track Gyorgy Sandor at the edge of the box and the Sydney keeper could perhaps have parried the Hungarian’s shot a touch wider.

The Sky Blues were certainly not without their chances, at times playing some enterprising football. In the first half, Ninkovic’s chip over the head of stranded Perth keeper Ante Covic just missed the open goal while Alex Grant was fortunate not to concede as his defensive header struck the crossbar. Minutes later, some excellent combination play between Brosque and Carney released the skipper at the edge of the box but his shot went wide and Blackwood’s header sailed harmlessly over the crossbar just before the break.

After the whistle, Carney threw himself at but just failed to connect with Ryall’s dangerous cross after Ninkovic released the rightback with a classy turn and through-ball while Smeltz, perhaps still cold after just coming on to replace Dimitrijevic, failed to control the Serb’s cleverly disguised pass with the goal at his mercy minutes later.

Ninkovic finally received his reward as the best creator of the night as, with time running out, his pinpoint ball found Smeltz once again and this time the Kiwi World Cup international made no mistake, beating Covic with a classy finish. But despite the hosts’ late flurry, they were unable to reel in the visitors to record their third loss in a month.

In a sombre atmosphere, fans’ mood was briefly lifted as the camera panned to fan favourite Nicky Carle in the stands, lending Sydney his support and wearing a floral T-shirt that defied good taste. The former #10 is not only among the most skilful of Sydney FC players but a true gentleman and remains much loved by the fans. If this is the end of the road for Carle the player, the club must capitalise on his football knowledge and abilities, as it has done with Steve Corica, Paul Reid and Terry McFlynn.

If love wears a floral shirt, comedy wore the #27 as Tavares produced a copybook rugby tackle to bring down Perth substitute Krisztian Vadosz in the 84th minute. The Frenchman’s yellow card was well deserved, amid fits of laughter in the stands.

And so, the Sky Blue faithful get to live out their own version of Groundhog Day – after failing to convert their chances, Sydney FC fall short for the umpteenth time this season.

The coach has talked of ringing the changes for the Sydney Derby and he is right.

The club is hurting right now.

This was not good enough.