Safro's Sydney: City rope-a-dope

The game that could have taken Sydney to the top of the table, albeit briefly, bore more than a passing resemblance to the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” between favourite George Foreman and former champ Muhammad Ali.

To survive, Ali had devised a tactic of backing onto the ropes, allowing the slow but powerful Foreman to punch himself out while the ropes absorbed the hits.

And as the  favourite began running out of energy, Ali stepped it up and a late flurry of combinations saw Foreman hit the canvas.

And so the legend of “rope-a-dope” was born.

Of course, Foreman remembers things a touch differently: “When I cut off the ring from him, he had nowhere to go but the ropes, and nothing to do but cover up. ...I fought a foolish fight by not letting him come to me more.”

And there we have it.

Did John van’t Schip’s brilliant tactics on Friday night help City emerge victorious at Allianz or did the Sky Blues “fight a foolish fight” by not letting City come to them more?

A dominant, fast and skilful home side, headed for the top of the table, hosted Melbourne City – a side that has personified mid-table mediocrity. The visitors went into the game with a slow backline, a technically gifted midfield and all but no strikers.

One plays to one’s strengths and last season’s Sydney FC, toothless in attack at the back end of the season, fought a similar war of attrition to finish fifth on the table.

Sitting on the edge of their penalty box, City compressed and worked hard in defence, getting all 11 players behind the ball when not in possession.

With the ball, they drew Sydney out with accurate passing and then pinged balls into the space behind the Sydney backline.

Jonatan Germano got on the end of a few in the first half and, late on, Aaron Mooy’s brilliant through ball found James Brown making a run past a dozing, ball-watching Alex Gersbach to land the sucker punch.

There is no doubt that Gersbach is a future Socceroo, a star-on-the-rise in the mould of Terry Antonis. But while at age 17 Antonis was allowed time and freedom to work on his game without undue pressure, Gersbach is having to learn on the job and his lack of concentration, especially late in matches, is becoming costly for the Sky Blues.

Back to rope-a-dope and van’t Schip takes full points over Graham Arnold on this occasion. It may have felt terrific to blaze away at the compressed visitors but this “success” only served to minimize the running of the slow City backline.

With the Sky Blues now reduced to little more than getting the ball out wide and looking for the heads of Marc Janko and Shane Smeltz, City adjusted to push their midfielders out early, preventing crosses and forcing Sydney back inside time and again.

The pace of Alex Brosque, Bernie Ibini and Chris Naumoff was nullified by the lack of space in which to use it.

If ever an occasion demanded a tactical rethink, this was it. It was time to draw out the visitors, creating greater space between not only the back four and goalkeeper, Tando Velaphi, but also the City defensive lines. That extra space would have allowed Sydney’s attacking talents to shine but the Sky Blues kept battering away without changing tack.

Rope-a-dope.

If could have been so different, of course, had Janko got the goal instead of hitting the inside of the post early in the game but luck had finally deserted the big Austrian. The Sky Blues had other opportunities, notably through Smeltz and Ibini, but it was not to be Sydney’s day as the home side squandered possession time and again. Promising moves did not come off and potential attacking opportunities were butchered through errant passing.

No player was more missed in the second half than Antonis. In Arnie’s formation of two flying wingers and Brosque at 10, the talented midfielder has had to contend himself with the role of impact substitute.

And with the Sky Blues camped in the City half, the game was crying out for Antonis to take the game by the scruff of the neck against tiring legs and set up chances, as he has done in previous weeks. Instead he was left out of the line-up with a reported knee injury.

Naumoff continued to frustrate but is a talent from whom much is expected. He is already more willing to back his dribbling and shooting abilities, while the gym work is beginning to pay off as he now finds himself holding off players more easily.

The next step in his development is surely his crossing. The problem isn’t accuracy but confidence. Naumoff gets himself into good positions but then rushes his cross instead of looking up to pick out his man.

It will all come – ‘Kiki’ works hard at his craft in training and is another player on the rise. At 19, he has time on his side.

Vedran Janjetovic had little to do all night but his fingertip save onto the bar off Robert Koren was sublime. The backline was mostly fine though it is notable that Seb Ryall is not taking on players as much as he was prior to his injury.

Three teams find themselves on 38 points. Nick Montgomery’s last minute thunderbolt in Gosford kept Perth Glory in fourth spot, while a testy draw between Adelaide United and Melbourne Victory at Coopers Stadium suited the Sky Blues.

And the game in Adelaide provided the comment of the round as Victory coach Kevin Muscat, displaying breathtaking chutzpah, called for players not to attempt to influence refereeing decisions by crowding the whistle blower. He went on to state that Adelaide’s persistent fouling of talented Fahid Ben Khalfallah “is not going to improve the standard of the competition”.

Presumably, he said that with a straight face.

While Sydney failed to take its chance to open a three point gap on Victory and Adelaide, Wellington Phoenix got it right at Suncorp, taking all three points. The Kiwis are now leading the Victory, Sydney and Adelaide peloton by four points and are a serious threat for the title.

On an international weekend, the Sky Blues travel across the ditch and a win can help them close that gap to just one point. Sydney will be without Janko and Antonis while the hosts may lose up to  five representative players.

In Janko’s absence, Smeltz steps up against his old club and should Brosque continue his fine form, Sydney are a good chance against the depleted home side.

Victory also lose a number of players to international duty but will likely remain too strong for the visiting Mariners, while Perth will have no trouble dispatching the sad and sorry Wanderers at nib Stadium.

All this points to the fact that Sunday is shaping as a must-win for the Sky Blues – a true six-pointer that Sydney cannot afford to draw, let alone lose.

But no matter what happens, the Sky Blues have done themselves and their fans proud this season and have restored the city’s faith in the team. They have played positive, attractive football and while finishing 5th, as Sydney did last season, is still on the cards, this side and the one of twelve months ago, are like chalk and cheese.

It is a squad that needs to be kept together and not broken up like Sydney’s last two title-winning sides were. Given the stability of another year together under Arnie, they will continue to delight the fans by their positive football and a desire to win rather than simply not to lose.

Which, of course, is no eulogy and last Friday night’s hiccup need not be season-defining. There are five regular season games to play and should Sydney make their own luck, they will take out the premiership.

There is no doubt the Sky Blues will be up for the challenge.