Sky Blue fans will speak of this night for years to come.
Sydney FC’s 2-1 defeat of Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande will rank in the club’s Allianz Stadium pantheon alongside Steve Corica’s Grand final winner in 2006, John Aloisi’s 2010 wonderstrike and Sydney’s emotion-charged, ten-man defeat of Melbourne Victory in late 2013.
With multi-million dollar imports Jackson Martinez and Paulinho on the team sheet and coached by World Cup winner Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guangzhou were raging favourites going into the contest.
The hosts, meanwhile, were to be little more than fodder for the Asian millionnaires, a minor speed hump on the Silk Road to success. Frankly, with the money Guangzhou had spent, success is something to which they had a right to feel entitled.
On a night of emotion and high drama, the Sky Blues once again demonstrated that they play their best football when the odds are stacked against them. Sydney rolled the dice to take the game to their more fancied opponents from the opening whistle, proving that fortune really does favour the brave.
Who was it that criticized Sydney’s January acquisition of prodigal son David Carney?
Following a professional career spent largely in footballing wilderness, it appears that Carney’s Promised Land was his home town all along. The winger starred, repeatedly cutting a swathe through the Guangzhou backline, keeping the visitors bamboozled all night long.
Arnold’s decision to name Robert Stambolziev ahead of Andrew Hoole and Chris Naumoff was something of a surprise but the wide man more than justified his coach’s faith. Lacking Carney’s flair, Stambolziev played it simple and direct, and his finish off Shane Smeltz’s nod-on was more difficult than he made it appear.
Referee Alireza Faghani’s decision to award a penalty after Seb Ryall pulled the shirt of Martinez was correct. And as Ricardo Goulart stepped up to take the spot kick, Vedran Janjetovic held his ground long enough to unsettle the Brazilian, whose spot kick was not good enough to beat the diving Sydney custodian.
Minutes later, however, the visitors’ equaliser duly arrived after a period of slack Sydney marking that began immediately following Stambolziev’s opener. The move that seemed to unlock the hosts’ backline on more than one occasion was an offside “decoy” run by Jackson Martinez that opened space for another Goungzhou attacker to make a late run on goal. After surviving two or three such threats, the Sky Blues were finally undone by China international striker Huang Bowen, Aaron Calver’s last ditch slide unable to prevent the equaliser.
Sydney refused to go into their shell after the break, keeping pressure on the visitors with some enterprising football. Guangzhou, meanwhile, changed tack, their slow, methodical build-up of the first half giving way to more direct football in the second. Long balls into the right channel for Martinez became the order of the day, Scolari confident in his star man’s ability to shake his marker, Matthew Jurman.
Instead, what the fans were treated to was an exhibition of central defensive play that equalled the best of Sash Ognenovski, Stephan Keller or Mark Rudan in a Sky Blue shirt. Put simply, Jurman had $65 million Martinez in his pocket throughout the night and his Player Of The Match award was richly deserved.
Jurman was well supported by fellow defenders Ryall, Calver and Rhyan Grant but it was the metronomic midfield pairing of Mikael Tavares and Brandon O’Neill that did much of the screening ahead of them. And unlike recent weeks, both were confident on the ball, playing out from deep to lay the platform for Sydney attacks throughout the night.
The 66th minute substitution of Milos Ninkovic for Milos Dimitrijevic had one eye on this weekend’s clash with Melbourne City and Ninkovic departed to a standing ovation – well deserved by the classy Serbian. Dimitrijevic began slowly but grew into the contest with every passing minute.
In an attacking move, technically limited stand-in fullback Calver made way for fan favourite Ali Abbas, who took up a position at leftback, with Grant moving to the right. The Iraqi immediately became a thorn in Guangzhou’s side, offering attacking options without sacrificing his defensive duties.
Hoole replaced goal scorer Stambolziev and in the final 15 minutes of play Sydney looked the more likely winner, mounting raid after raid at the Guangzhou goal. Urged on by a parochial home crowd – in fine voice throughout the evening – the Sky Blues threw all they had at the tiring visitors.
Dimitrijevic’s 88th minute winner followed some superb interplay between Hoole, Carney and Abbas wide on the left. The Serb received Abbas’ centre in full flight, bursting into the box to hit a powerful left-footed drive past the somewhat unsighted Guangzhou keeper Zeng Cheng and bringing the Sydney crowd to its feet.
A roar of delight from the home fans, a tense final few minutes accompanied by impatient whistles from the stands and Faghani called a halt to proceedings, sending the large Chinese contingent to the exit gates while many Sydneysiders stayed back, celebrating the win with their Sky Blue heroes.
There is no doubt that the hosts executed their coach’s game plan to the letter but part of that plan appeared to be a new freedom to attack with confidence and belief. Unshackled, this team is capable of outstanding football and Arnie could do well to back his players’ attacking abilities for the rest of the season.
It could just take them where they want to go.
Scolari, Martinez and Paulinho?
Nuts to that.
We’ve got Arnie, Jurman and Stambolziev.
A win to be savoured.