With Melbourne Victory thumping Wellington Phoenix 1-4, hammering the final nail in the Sky Blues’ A-League coffin in the process, Saturday night became all about resting Sydney’s best players for their vital Asian Champions’ (ACL) League clash with the visiting Pohang Steelers this Tuesday night.
Certain ACL starters Matt Jurman, Rhyan Grant, Mikael Tavares, David Carney, George Blackwood and Matt Simon were given the night off. Andrew Hoole remained on the bench while Milos Dimitrijevic, Milos Ninkovic, Brandon O’Neill, Robert Stambolziev and Ali Abbas received limited time against Adelaide United.
By the look of the players who did not take the field on Saturday night, the ACL starting 11 just about picks itself.
Seb Ryall was another to miss the game and one hopes that the injury that he picked up last weekend isn’t severe enough to keep him out on Tuesday night. If it is, Zac Anderson will partner Jurman in the heart of the defence and if Saturday is any guide, that could prove calamitous. Ponderous on the ball and off-radar with his passing, Anderson has now played enough matches to be at his physical best, leaving few excuses for his display. Anderson was at fault for Sydney’s second goal and has much to prove in coming weeks if he is to receive a new Sydney FC contract.
Riley Woodcock played just over sixty minutes in his first competitive outing of the season (FFA Cup excepted, ironically against Adelaide). Why did Arnie leave it so late in the season? The leftback is no Philipp Lahm but is serviceable enough at this level and, with a few matches under his belt, could have, at the very least, provided some much needed balance in attack following the midseason departure of Alex Gersbach.
Little-known midfielder Alex Mullen, 23, showed that he will not give up his place in the Sydney squad without a fight. Decent on the ball with good engines and a safe but reliable passing game, Mullen grew into the contest in his first start of the season, backing himself to make forays up the field and forcing Eugene Galekovic to scramble in the 63rd minute.
In truth, the Sky Blues’ Second Eleven weren’t awful against United, whose win took them to the top of the table at game’s end and, if not for a couple of defensive mishaps, would have held out the visitors. Bruce Djite’s first goal came as an unlucky deflection off Anderson’s left boot forced Vedran Janjetovic into a reflex save and the Adelaide striker buried the ball with glee.
Could Janjetovic have palmed the ball away a touch wider? Not sure if he had the time.
The visitors’ second was in keeping with the litany of defensive errors that has plagued the Sky Blues the entire back half of the season. Woodcock was too easily beaten by a flying Michael Marrone, whose cross went directly to Anderson, under pressure from the impressive Bruce Kamau. Mentally off the pace, the Sydney defender attempted to control the ball when a clearance was the best option, especially for a player not at the top of his form. Dispossessing Anderson, Kamau’s shot rebounded to Djite, whose rocket gave his side a 0-2 lead.
Chris Naumoff played the entire 93 minutes and could have scored in Sydney’s final attack of the evening, going on a mazy run that left him one on one with Galekovic, but the young attacker shot straight at United’s legendary keeper. Worse yet, he appeared to have torn a calf muscle in the process and may have played his final match of the season.
Given that he has yet to be offered a new contract, this may even have been the last time got to see the gifted but inconsistent “Kiki” in a Sky Blue shirt. Perhaps not.
Having gone two goals up, the visitors were professional and clinical throughout the second half, keeping possession with maximal effect. They did what they had to do but it remains a mystery how a big, powerful man like Djite gets bundled over with such ease, while Marcelo Carrusca hit the ground repeatedly, writhing in apparent agony only to resume running moments after milking yet another free kick.
That’s football. Or it’s unpleasant side, at any rate.
The A-League season is over for the Sky Blues, save for a now meaningless home match with Perth Glory next Sunday afternoon.
There will be a Sydney A-League season review in coming weeks.
In better news, Sydney FC go into Tuesday’s ACL encounter with a fresh squad. The Korean side lost their domestic encounter 1-0 on Saturday and with their ACL match sandwiched between two domestic fixtures, are expected to bring a weakened side to the Harbour City in pursuit of a draw. The pitch will be heavy and uneven, which may work in the hosts’ favour.
Since the Sky Blues’ 2-0 initial loss to Urawa Red Diamonds, Sydney have played attacking football against Guangzhou Evergrande and Pohang Steelers to hit the top of their ACL table in style.
If the hosts don’t “bottle it” and continue their cavalier approach against the Korean visitors, they could give their fans another memorable evening at Allianz Stadium. A win would go a long way towards assuring the Sky Blues’ spot in the competition’s knockout stages, writing a new page in the club’s history books and giving the fans something to smile about.
Here’s hoping for a big crowd at Allianz Stadium on Tuesday night. Amid the domestic doom and gloom, this could be special.