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Sky Blues' ACL Domination

Why such a paltry turnout? What accounts for Sydney’s great form in Asia? And what was up with Mikael Tavares?

​Just over 5,600 fans turned up to Allianz Stadium on Tuesday night to see the Sky Blues put themselves within a whisker of a spot in the Asian Champions League (ACL) knockout stages.

Why so few? It is Sydney’s A-League campaign that has gone to the dogs and the club should have little complaint if only a hardy thousand or two turn up for the Sky Blues’ meaningless final domestic game of the season against Perth Glory on Sunday afternoon.

In the ACL, however, Sydney FC are flying and with nine points from a possible twelve, the team from the Harbour City has exceeded expectation in their best ever ACL campaign.

You’d think the fans would have turned out in force, wouldn’t you?

In a game that failed to reach great heights, Milos Ninkovic crowned the hosts’ best move of the match with a toe-poked finish past three Korean defenders and the diving, sprawling, Pohang stand-in goalkeeper Kim Jin-young. That the visiting keeper completed the contest as the visitors’ best player sums up neatly where superiority lay on the night.

The playing surface, for the most part uneven and divot-ridden, surprisingly failed to deter both sides from attempting to play decent football, though the Koreans did use the long ball on a number of occasions to try and get in behind the Sydney back four.

What accounts for Sydney FC apparent form reversal in the ACL?

Is their football dramatically better than we have seen in the A-League?

Not really, although they seem to be avoiding the defensive howlers that have plagued them in recent months.

In that case, are Sydney’s Asian opponents worse than their A-League opposition?

Not at all – Urawa Red Diamonds, Guangzhou Evergrande and Pohang Steelers could all compete in, and win, the A-League.

So to what do we put down Sydney’s oriental success then?

Psychology plays a massive part in every walk of life, not least in the pressure cooker environment of professional sport. Could the players have unconsciously focused on the ACL campaign, in preference to A-League, from the very start of the season? After all, the A-League is meat and drink to most of them while the ACL could represent the pinnacle of their sporting careers.

Unlike the UEFA Champions’ League, in which the top participants have large squads that allow them to focus on domestic and European club competition simultaneously, salary-capped Australian sides have no such luxury. There is a reason that A-League teams that are fortunate enough to participate in the ACL tend to bomb out in one or the other. Or, as in the case of Sydney’s atrocious 2010/11 season, both.

The Sky Blues’ performance on Tuesday night was far from flawless but the occasionally misplaced pass went unpunished by a tired and somewhat understrength Pohang outfit. Sydney looked to hold possession at every opportunity, forcing their opponents, in the middle of a three game spell in a week, to run and run on a heavy pitch, especially in the first half.

The second was a different affair as the Sky Blues looked to play forward and capitalise on the visitors’ fatigue. Suddenly gaps were appearing where there were previously none as the hosts set about dismantling the weary Steelers.

The goal came as a result of some good lead-up work by Andrew Hoole. Much maligned – often deservedly – the Novocastrian seems to be better suited to a traditional winger’s role than that of a wide attacker in a 4-3-3. Under less pressure to score, the Olyroo focused on supply rather than goals to make a far better contribution to the Sydney cause than he has done most of the season.

Ninkovic, a deserved Man of the Match, played the second striker’s role to perfection, pressing his opponents in a metronomic display. He positioned himself to profit from partner Matt Simon’s nod-ons and at times dropped into midfield to combine well with Brandon O’Neill and Milos Dimitrijevic – both midfielders excellent on the night. The Serb ran himself to exhaustion, substituted to a standing ovation by Shane Smeltz in the 90th minute.

David Carney was, as always, very good on the ball but looked exhausted in the last twenty and this column at least was greatly surprised that it took Arnie until the 85th minute to replace him. If Carney sees out his contract through to the end of next season, one can only wonder how much better he can become after a full preseason with no shortcuts.

Iranian referee Mohsen Torki was particularly poor, matched only in his lack of competence by his assistants and displayed a confrontational, belligerent attitude that got the crowd and players offside. His “shirtfronting” of Hoole was not the actions of a referee looking to calm proceedings.

It was as if Torki went into the match with the determination to deny Sydney FC any significant chance of victory. Perhaps it was attempted payback. We did, after all, give them Ben Williams.

The absence of Mikael Tavares raised eyebrows. Omitted from the squad last Saturday night, he spent the evening with family and friends in Bay 16, resplendent in his Sydney FC suit. It was strange to see him in the stands while other rested players were seated in the Sydney FC box, but it could simply have been an act of generosity from Graham Arnold.

But with Sydney entering their vital ACL encounter three days later without a single midfielder on the bench, questions must be asked regarding Tavares’ future. The Frenchman has another year to run on his contract but with cousin Jacques Faty at unbackable odds to leave the club at the conclusion of the season, one wonders if Tavares will be in the airplane seat next to him.

And so ends another instalment in Sydney’s amazing ACL saga of 2016. In its best Asian campaign, the Sky Blues need just one point from their next two games to secure the club’s first ever presence in the league’s knockout stages. If other results are favourable, they may have got there already.


Silver linings.

It’s been an odd season.