Things went pear-shaped even prior to kick-off.
The Cove, mid-We Are Sydney, did not hear the ground announcer’s call to a minute’s silence to mourn the victims of this week’s atrocities and took at least twenty seconds to quieten down.
Better matchday planning is required.
Skipper Alex Brosque needed to rest so Graham Arnold reshuffled again, moving Rhyan Grant to right midfield in a 4-4-2.
Marc Janko and Shane Smeltz were set to resume their burgeoning partnership and with Bernie Ibini in red hot form, Sydney had every hope of a good performance on the back of the excellent football they displayed at Etihad eight days earlier.
The first half saw the home side pass its way to almost complete dominance, with the visiting Wellington Phoenix playing on the break. Ibini was once again superb and, moved out to the left, spent the half cutting Louis Fenton to shreds. Ibini’s crossing was accurate and incisive but Janko and Smeltz failed to finish off his good work.
Nil-all, and an uneasy atmosphere hung over Allianz Stadium at the break. The home side had played the better football but there was something clearly lacking.
Something less tangible.
Sydney had played as if on auto pilot - the spark simply wasn’t there. Things were strangely quiet in the stands too and the Cove, despite its best efforts, were unable to rouse the home fans to their usual noise levels.
Torpor and lethargy were the order of the day, on and off the field. Perhaps the beach weather had taken its toll?
Whatever it was, something wasn’t right. And despite Wellington’s own lack of sparkle in the first half, Sydney just didn’t have the cutting edge.
The second half went much the same way, as an anaemic Sydney side played to instruction but without the enthusiasm of the previous three months. The visitors were doing precious little in attack, content to soak up pressure and play on the break, but Sydney lacked the urgency and intensity to put them to the sword.
With half an hour to play, the match was there to be won. Sydney needed a spark and Chris Naumoff, the only true game-breaker on Sydney’s depleted bench, was the logical option to come on and replace Rhyan Grant out wide.
Alternatively, a formation change could have helped – a switch to a diamond, pushing one of Terry Antonis or Milos Dimitrijevic into #10, may have given us the attacking platform to seal the deal.
Instead, Arnie dithered and Wellington took control.
The tide turned late as Sydney switched off at key moments once again. Nathan Burns, back to his best form and surely Socceroo-bound after years in the wilderness, took his chances superbly and put the struggling home side out of its misery.
How to analyse a game like this?
Just as in the Perth loss a fortnight ago, Sydney lacked the leadership and drive to will itself to victory. And just as in the previous two matches, the Sky Blues had clocked off with 20 minutes to play.
Has a lack of belief crept in?
It appears so – Sydney heads dropped as soon as we had conceded the first goal. Sky Blues' fans have not seen this kind of passive acquiescence since the 7-2 defeat at the hands of the Mariners in 2012 and arguably showed more courage and fight in that debacle up in Gosford than on this occasion.
Coaches must deal in intangibles and no matter how slick their team looks in training 11v11s, a lack of belief in the squad will manifest itself on game day.
Yes, Sydney are short of quality players and will be shopping up a storm come January - especially with the devastating news that Sash Ognenovski’s season may have also come to an end - but with three games left until the Asian Cup, Arnold's men must go into January break on a high, whatever it takes.
Two years ago, new coach Frank Farina had cancelled Christmas, sending the message to the squad that times were tough and every player must play his part in turning things around.
This time Sydney are far from last on the table and this was only their second loss of the season.
But after an excellent October and November, they have not won a game for a month and have now fallen out of the Top 4. The players are second-guessing themselves and not playing with the confidence of earlier rounds.
The mindset isn’t right, and Arnold agreed as much after the match. Clearly Sydney are missing players but that’s no excuse for a lack of fight under pressure and a failure to concentrate in the final 20 minutes.
The team must rediscover its mojo and do it quickly. Despite the injuries, Sydney still have a strong first 11, many of whom would walk into most A-League sides.
It is up to Arnold to find the keys to turning things around and imbue his team with a revitalised sense of purpose and belief.
And it is up to each and every Sydney player to take a long, hard look in the mirror and say to himself: “If it is to be, it is up to me”.
Which new Sydney leader will stand up?
Adelaide United arrive on Boxing Day and will feel confident despite also coming off a loss.
The ball is in Sydney’s court and if the Sky Blues win the midfield through Antonis, Dimitrijevic and Ibini and find the concentration, leadership and belief to fight the whole ninety minutes, they will go a long way towards all three points on Friday night.
Merry Christmas everybody.