Just how good can the Sky Blues get once they put it all together?
Sydney FC have burst back into the top four with a bullet and sit in third spot on the table, just two points behind league leaders Perth Glory. And with seven games left in the regular season, a premiership is within sights.
Sydney have swept all before them since the Asian Cup break, dropping points only to Melbourne Victory in its climb up the table.
But despite its successful run, the Harbour City team is far from the finished article and has hardly put together a solid 90 minutes all season.
If Arnie cracks the code for putting together two great back-to-back halves of football, Sydney will win the title in a canter
Breathtaking skills from Ibini, Brosque, Antonis and Dimitrijevic, plus Janko and Smeltz’s deadly finishing, have been punctuated by misplaced passes, wrong options and, at times, questionable defending.
If Arnie cracks the code for putting together two great back-to-back halves of football, Sydney will win the title in a canter. But it’s a big “if”.
So on to the Hunter and the visitors needed to pull out all stops to defeat a resurgent Newcastle last Friday night. Carrying the mantle of favourites does not appear to sit comfortably with the Sky Blues just yet – perhaps the scars of the past four years have not entirely healed.
But credit to the Jets.
Player power must never be allowed to win the day and, backed by his newly involved chairman, coach Phil Stubbins sacked pedigreed players and backroom staff allegedly for destabilising the dressing room and undermining the coach.
It was harsh and it was bloody but the manager must be allowed to fashion a team of his choosing, not to mention one where all players pull in the same direction.
Newcastle , now in their early rebuilding phase, lack a certain amount of finesse but have become a tough fighting unit as they embark on a turnaround that should take about two seasons to complete. Each player finally looks as if he cares and the body language of the Jets, slumped to the turf at the full time whistle, spoke volumes.
And, truth be told, this season’s potential wooden spooners outplayed the visitors in the first half hour of play.
Led by wingers Enver Alivodic and Sydney-bound Andrew Hoole, they pressured the Sky Blues into errors and created half-chances while that great unfulfilled talent, Ben Kantarovski, appeared back to his best in the heart of midfield. Suddenly, the Sky Blues looked vulnerable and only last ditch defending kept the home side at bay.
Not much to crow about at halftime but while the Jets’ first half display had heartened the locals, the visiting fans, now used to halftime turnarounds, were expecting a revival.
The revival duly came after the break and the Sky Blues now played with far greater accuracy, taking better options and mounting raid after raid. Passing became crisp and with Terry Antonis, Milos Dimitrijevic and Alex Brosque on song, Sydney created chances and half-chances but the Jets, creaking as they were, were holding out the visitors.
The breakthrough came as Robert Stambolziev replaced the languid Chris Naumoff at the hour mark and set about making a case not only for more game time this season but the possibility of a new contract going forward. The former Panathinaikos attacker looks an old fashioned winger who loves running at defenders and putting in a telling cross.
And he showed a work rate to match.
The substitute was involved from the off, chasing and harrying his opposing fullbacks and forcing turnovers. His efforts paid dividends as he bustled left back Lee Ki-Je into an error and Marc Janko – who else? - was there to pounce, celebrating his goal with a tenpin bowling strike at Sydney’s travelling support and acknowledging Stambolziev’s contribution to what proved to be the winning goal.
Antonis starred – not only running the midfield with aplomb but putting in the kind of physical effort that now sees him ready for international selection and a European contract. Sky Blue fans will be hoping for at least one more A-League season from the kid Sydney signed as a raw 16-year-old and who is now ready for the next chapter in his burgeoning career.
The backline did its job as Rhyan Grant and Matt Jurman excelled for the Sky Blues – Jurman playing his best game of the season to break up the Jets’ attacks time and again. He is a player Sydney must keep and at 25 years of age has more improvement left in him.
Nikola Petkovic was roundly panned for his tentative display at left back in the absence of the suspended Alex Gersbach but decrying the Serb’s performance is akin to blaming a gastroenterologist for being a lousy dentist.
Played in an unfamiliar role, he was generally off the pace, unsure of his positioning with and without the ball and turning over possession far too often.
One can only hope that Graham Arnold’s experiment – one that could have backfired – never sees the light of day again and the vice-captain returns this weekend to the position in which he became the Sydney FC Player of the Year only 12 months ago.
Lesson hopefully learnt as Sydney entertain current champions Brisbane Roar at Allianz Stadium this Sunday afternoon.
The Roar have found their feet under new coach Frans Thijssen and in veterans Thomas Broich, Henrique and Matt McKay – plus the resurgent Solorzano up front – they have enough firepower to give the Sky Blues plenty of trouble.
In midfield the Roar will miss the suspended Luke Brattan while at the back former Wanderer Jerome Polenz will no doubt be up to his old tricks.
Sydney, meanwhile, should have the entire squad available for selection.
With Petkovic returning to centre half, does Jurman keep his place alongside him, with Seb Ryall moving to right back? Or does Grant’s excellent performance at the Hunter displace Ryall from the first 1I? And will one of Grant, Ryall and Jurman drop out of the squad altogether to accommodate Gersbach and the returning from injury, Jacques Faty?
The midfield sees another selection dilemma – the coach can stick with Antonis, Dimitrijevic and Brosque in the middle of the park but may opt to bring back Mickael Tavares to stiffen the back of midfield against Brisbane’s potent attack.
As for Kiki Naumoff - the winger may lose his spot in the starting 11 to accommodate Brosque’s potential move to the left. Then again, given Stambolziev’s impressive cameo in the Hunter, could the Sutherland junior find himself out of the squad altogether?
No doubt these are the great selection headaches facing Arnie. But points must be picked up now as Sydney stand to lose up to seven players to international football towards the end of the month, in what is sure to spark yet another club versus country row.
Plenty to play for as a win at Allianz this weekend, together with other favourable results, will see Sydney FC jump to the top of the table.
After four lean years, this season’s Sky Blues have taken their long-suffering fans on one hell of a ride. On Sunday afternoon, the fans will hope the ride continues.