On a weekend that will remain in Kiwi sporting memories for all the wrong reasons, Sydney FC put on a professional display against a home side that had threatened to run away with the competition.
Bucking a season trend, the Sky Blues managed to keep it together for 90 minutes and the three-goal blow out could have been greater.
Those who, with the benefit of hindsight, insist this was an easy win against a weakened opponent, fail to note Sydney’s struggles against the lesser lights this season.
Sydney have, at times, made life difficult for themselves and that, coupled with a potentially destabilising upset loss to Melbourne City last weekend, had threatened to derail Sky Blue premiership aspirations going into the six-pointer across the ditch.
Instead, it was not even close as the Sky Blues took control early and stayed on top until the final whistle.
After two successive error-riddled weekends, the writing was on the wall for young Alex Gersbach. Nonetheless, Nikola Petkovic’s move to leftback, after his less than convincing outing in the position against the Jets, was something of a surprise.
Perhaps all he needed was time in his new role, for Petkovic was outstanding, never beaten at the back and an ever-present danger going forward. He is no Gersbach with the ball at his feet but Arnie had obviously plumped for experience and the big Serb delivered.
It was an excellent all-round defensive effort by the Sky Blues, led by Matt Jurman in the form of his life, while keeper Vedran Janjetovic kept his concentration when it mattered.
The goals will fail to make any highlights reel and Phoenix keeper Glenn Moss will not watch the replay of his attempt at a saveable Jacques Faty stab on goal with a great deal of pride. Shane Smeltz should have been offside but for Matthew Ridenton’s dawdling while an own goal rounded out the 0-3 win to the Sky Blues.
What characterised this Sydney performance was the hunger displayed by every player. The visitors chased and pressed ferociously, forcing Phoenix turnovers time and again.
Midfielders, central and wide, kept possession well and without the ball pressured the opposition, while up front Shane Smeltz put in a wholehearted effort and rewarded himself with a goal. That’s seven this season for the Sydney marksman – certainly the best “off-the-bench” goal scorer in the competition and arguably the A-League’s most effective minute-for-minute player.
That is why his red card is such awful news for Sydney FC.
The replay shows Smeltz and Ben Sigmund contesting a header, after which the defender grabs Smeltz’s arm. The former All White proceeds to throw Smeltz to the ground aikido-style and the striker, on the ground and in frustration, kicks out at Sigmund, though barely touching him with his toe. Sigmund may not have indulged in Diego Simeone-style histrionics but his appeals to Peter Green were unseemly.
That does not excuse the petulance. Smeltz should have known better than play patsy to Sigmund’s provocation and, in the absence of Marc Janko, his dismissal has thrown a spanner in Sydney’s works for the vital home game against Adelaide United.
Will Arnold request that Janko, preparing to represent his country in a Thursday morning friendly, excuse himself and take an early flight to Sydney? It is the ideal solution but a big ask.
If Sydney fail to bring the big man home early, with the leading goal scorer likely to arrive on the morning of the match, should Arnold throw caution to the wind and include him in the line-up despite the long flight and jetlag?
In a game of risk versus reward, Sydney may gamble on the big fella at this business end of the season despite potential risk of injury.
The third option is for Alex Brosque to lead the line and chance the fitness of Terry Antonis, who has recently struggled with apparent knee concerns.
The fans and media may not learn the true composition of Sydney’s squad to face Adelaide until shortly before kick-off. There is little doubt that Janko will be named in the provisional squad but the issue of his presence in the final 16 will remain a mystery.
Four games left and only two points separate Phoenix from fifth-placed Adelaide United. Wellington may lead the table but Victory have the best “for-and-against”, not to mention a game in hand. Meanwhile, Victory, Perth and Adelaide all scraped unconvincing wins against inferior opposition, leaving the table as tight as ever.
The visiting Reds will present a formidable challenge and Sydney will need to be at their best to take all three points at Allianz Stadium. The Sky Blues will press all night long against a side that can be inconsistent and for all its technical brilliance, has, at times, leaked at the back and failed to take its chances up front. With the home side’s tremendous pace up front, perhaps sitting a touch deeper will suit the Sky Blues.
A huge A-League weekend coming up, with Sydney’s final home game of the regular season followed by a full strength Phoenix hosting Melbourne Victory.
The outcome of this encounter will go a long way towards deciding the premiership and Sydney will, no doubt, be praying for a draw.
So a formidable performance by the Sky Blues away from home, plenty of foxing and behind-the-scenes activity to come in the week ahead, and a bumper clash to look forward to at home on Saturday night.
Five teams can win the title in the most exciting premiership race in A-League history. In a game of “who blinks first”, a win will, for a day at least, catapult Sydney FC into top spot on the log-jammed table.
After an outstanding season, it would be an honour well deserved.