Safro's Sydney: Controlled and comfortable

BLOG: It felt comfortable. For the first time in a long time, it actually felt comfortable.

After four miserable years, from the opening whistle it felt as if we were never going to lose. We Sydney fans are a chastened lot of course and much heartache has taken place since that Byun penalty in 2010, so no one is getting carried away just yet.

But this team looks different.

We may or may not win the title but there is a top-of-the-table look about the Sky Blues this season.

It appears as if we are finally putting together all the elements required of a top football side – a solid backline, a midfield that controls possession and an attack that knows how to create and finish chances. And the required concentration and intensity to fight for ninety minutes.

We are not alone of course and Adelaide United look equally strong at this early stage of the season. Melbourne Victory will also present a powerful challenge while writing off the chances of last season’s grand finalists is premature at this very early stage of the season. But for the first time in a long time, we look genuine contenders.

On the subject of the Wanderers, they deserve Australia’s congratulations for winning the Asian Champions League in hostile Riyadh. Their victory is great for football in this country and is arguably a massive nail in the coffin of AFL’s aspirations in western Sydney.

Did I watch the game? In the words of Liverpool’s great manager Bill Shankly: “If Everton were playing at the bottom of the garden, I’d pull the curtains”.

But congratulations all the same.

Back home and I felt we controlled the match, winning the midfield battle through technicians Terry Antonis and Milos Dimitrijevic.  Antonis is really looking the goods and while I would hate to lose him to the Socceroos for the Japan friendly on November 18, embattled Ange Postecoglou could do a whole lot worse in his search for midfield cohesion ahead of the Asian Cup.

In many ways Antonis reminds me of a young Jason Culina. This is surely the 20-year-old’s last season in the A-League and if he takes a leaf out of Culina’s book he is set for a stellar European and Socceroo career. Antonis looks to have added a kilo or two of lean muscle this season and his newly-found physical strength has helped add graft to his prodigious technical talents. His hard, low drive through a sea of legs from outside the box was Gerrard-like.

What odds a fit-again Tom Rogic replacing Antonis next season? But I am skipping too far ahead now.

While the midfield did its job, defensively Sydney were solid and gave little away. We did get opened up more than in previous weeks so Arnie has a job on his hands to tweak things ahead of the massive Adelaide game on Friday night. They will take the chances the Mariners fluffed.

That said, the last time we kept two consecutive clean sheets was all the way back in December 2011, breaking the Roar’s winning streak at Jubilee Oval and then heading up to Skilled Park to play out a drab 0-0 draw in front of three men and a dog. Good signs.

Things could have been different had Mitchell Duke had the presence of mind to take his chances. He looked the only truly dangerous Mariner out there and on another day could have had a hat-trick. Having said that, there were chances we missed too.

Could Duke be the man to replace Bernie Ibini when his loan runs out at end of season? Duke’s contract has another season to run but who knows what murky deals are struck between the clubs. But, again, I digress.

Ibini himself continued to frustrate – he appears to be “fighting the ball” each time he brings it under control and many a fine Sydney move was stalled as a result. The attacker’s work rate was first class as was his tactical awareness, making intelligent runs time and again. But his end-product on the ball was negligible and Arnie’s patience finally ran out in the 70th minute.

Alex Brosque’s ankle injury may win the former Mariner a reprieve on Friday night but I have a feeling that his days as a first 11 player may be numbered unless we see a dramatic form turnaround.

Back to Brosque and home fans’ hearts were in mouths as we watched the skipper go down clutching his ankle but the Sydney all-time top scorer appeared able to put his weight on his foot, which is a good sign. He misses the game on Friday night but should hopefully be OK for Melbourne Victory the week after.

Livewire Corey Gameiro was involved in everything and gave a typically wholehearted performance despite missing a gilt-edged chance early in the match. His partner Marc Janko didn’t see much ball but was involved nonetheless.

Sydney narrowed midfield space, allowing time and space for fullbacks Ryall and Abbas to attack out wide. Both Sydney men are at the top of their form and looked to have the measure of their opponents at both ends of the park.

So on to Hindmarsh, or Coopers Stadium as it is now known, for the kind of top-of-the-table-match we have not been part of since 2010. Adelaide United are a fine football team and Josep Gombau has turned them into an impressive outfit that plays excellent football and knows how to open up its opponents. They have the league’s best keeper in Galekovic, Isaias and Carrusca will create in midfield while in Djite and Cirio they have two of the league’s most in-form marksmen.

I feel, however, that  Adelaide’s backline is its soft underbelly, so attack may be our best form of defence. It proved to be the case in the FFA Cup as an understrength Sydney played largely without the ball throughout the first half but as soon as we began having a right go in the second we turned the game around completely, at least until Ben Williams’ moment of madness.

With Brosque out, does Gersbach come into left back to push Abbas further up the park? Or does Naumoff replace the injured skipper in a like-for-like swap? Does Ibini keep his spot? Or does Arnold give Carle another start against Adelaide, but this time in a more central role?

My personal preference is to push Abbas further up the park and take a chance on the young, talented Gersbach at left back. He let no one down in the Sydney Derby while Abbas is in the form of his life and can cause havoc with the ball at his feet.

There will be healthy respect between the sides and either can take the points.

But what we do know is that the Sky Blues will travel across to Adelaide fearing nobody. And for the first time in a long time, carrying the rising hopes and expectations of its long-suffering supporters.

The players have belief. Do we dare embrace it too?