Safro's Sydney: Fans living on the edge

Hosting Brisbane seems to bring the rain out in the Harbour City.

Memories of Sydney’s embarrassing 2-5 loss to the Roar in the wet last season came flooding back with just over 10 minutes left to play.

Revenge is a dish best served cold and at 4-1 up it would take just one more goal for the memory of that drubbing to be replaced with an emphatic destruction of the holding champions.

Brisbane may have won the opening few minutes with the marginally offside Henrique’s fine finish and a passing display that briefly frustrated the locals, but the rest of the game was all Sydney - until the 80th minute, anyway.

Solid at the back, in control of midfield and lethal in attack, this looked the most complete Sydney display of the season.

Matt Jurman curled in a stunner with his right foot and the Sky Blues were level pegging. For the second week running the central defender has been among Sydney’s best and his performance highlighted that his potential re-signing with the Sky Blues may come down to not simply dollars but playing opportunities.

And with Jurman’s equaliser Sydney were away, settling to run the legs off the visitors on a heavy, greasy pitch that somehow held up well in the conditions.

Only the final ball lacked quality.

This changed with Bernie Ibini’s wonderfully disguised return pass to Alex Brosque, who won the race against Adam Sarota. The former Utrecht man, who now looks a shadow of his former self, mistimed his challenge, clipping the back of the skipper’s leg. Kris Griffiths-Jones pointed to the spot, Marc Janko made the conversion look easy and Sydney continued its dominance, taking a 2-1 lead into the half-time break.

Most of the second half saw the Sky Blues display the kind of swagger the Moore Park faithful have not witnessed since 2010 (and arguably not even then) – stroking the ball around with style and self-assurance and making the visitors chase shadows.

Anyone who scores a hat-trick deserves praise but clearly Marc Janko is a very special footballer who has found his niche in the A-League to lead the goal scorers’ charts. He works hard with and without the ball and has the presence to lead from the front – in many ways the glue that binds the team together. He may not have Alessandro Del Piero’s profile, but neither does he have his own dressing room.

Backline balance was restored as Nikola Petkovic successfully resumed his place in central defence, Seb Ryall moved to right back and excelled while Alex Gersbach, back in after suspension, played an outstanding 80 minutes of football.

Most A-League sides that match Brisbane’s possession stats will likely defeat the men in orange, at least until they manage to replace Besart Berisha.

By the fulltime whistle, possession was 50%-50% and 11 Sydney shots on target to Roar’s five tell its own story. For the vast majority of the game the Sky Blue attack was far more clinical than Brisbane’s and Jamie Young’s six saves to Vedran Janjetovic’s one are an indication of which keeper had the busier night.

So why the heart palpitations at the end?

Four goals in the final 10 minutes, three to the visitors, had the home fans alternating between nervously gnawing on their nails and furiously whistling for fulltime.

The 80th minute penalty, won by James Donachie, was straight from the Thomas Broich (and, to be fair, Del Piero) playbook – feign a challenge for the ball, stop dead in your tracks allowing the opponent to run through you, collapse to the turf. It was certainly not a dive but cunning use of the opponent’s determination to win the ball. This is the grey area that is the most difficult for the referees to police and Kris Griffiths-Jones’ penalty decision was understandable.

So 4-2 up with ten to play and the clouds gathering at Allianz were not merely the ones overhead.

Milos Dimitrijevic for once dallied on the ball and Alex Gersbach found himself out of position, beaten by the impressive Brandon Borello who squared for Steven Lustica to finish past the diving Janjetovic.

4-3 and suddenly visions of righting the wrongs of last season’s drubbing in the rain were replaced with horror flashbacks of 2011, when Mohamed Adnan and Besart Berisha’s injury time goals saw Sydney somehow snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Would history repeat itself?

Just 14 minutes earlier, the introduction of Terry Antonis had brought the fans to their feet, his name sung around the stadium to hail the young crowd favourite. Is Antonis the new Nicky Carle? How well does the kid have to play to earn a start on this team?

Antonis quickly settled into the game and his curling shot brought a fine save from Young in the 86th minute. From the ensuing corner the Sky Blues stretched the visitors with some fine passing and Antonis drew in two players to release the overlapping Ryall. The fullback found Brosque making a great run into the penalty area and the captain sealed it at 5-3.

Game over and celebration in the stands.

For all of 60 seconds.

Relief proved short lived as Gersbach was once again caught napping out on the left and Borello took advantage. This time the left back managed to get a touch but Jurman somehow belted his clearance into Nikola Petkovic’s rear end, the ball bobbled clear and Dimi Petratos pounced to bring it to 5-4.

And a minute later Mickael Tavares was needed to swoop in to dispossess Broich in the box after yet another piece of calamitous Gersbach defending. 

Which is why, heading into the three minute injury time that somehow became four, there were not many fingernails left intact in the stands. This time the Sky Blues kept the ball, and their heads, to see out the contest and take three most precious points, forcing their way into second spot on the table.

Sydney FC have emerged as a good football team when under pressure but struggle as frontrunners. Twice in a fortnight the Sky Blues have let a three-goal margin slip while also making hard work of the underdogs Jets and Mariners.

It is an odd mindset.

But despite placing themselves under more pressure than necessary, Sydney have found the mental strength to drag themselves out of their self-inflicted mire time and again. Many teams do not possess that quality but Antonis scored a late winner in Parramatta while Brosque was on the spot to secure that vital fifth goal against a Brisbane side that could have done untold damage to Sydney’s run for the title.

There is no doubt that topics of complacency and keeping concentration for 90-plus minutes will be hotly discussed in Sydney dressing rooms in the lead up to Melbourne City’s visit to Allianz this Friday night.

With Robert Stambolziev’s three fine cameos in three weeks, is he a chance of a start in place of Kiki Naumoff?

Melbourne City will not be an easy proposition. Their midfield holds the ball well and while their attack has not been their strong point, Josh Kennedy, if fit, looms the danger man, meaning that Sydney fullbacks will do well to push up on the visiting wingers early to cut out the crosses.

Sydney fans will hope that a refocused Sydney outfit will concentrate from whistle to whistle and get the job done against a slow backline on a weekend where Adelaide United can defeat Melbourne Victory at Coopers Stadium, the Mariners could get something at home from Perth Glory while Brisbane Roar has the weapons to outplay Wellington Phoenix when they host them at Suncorp.

If all goes well for the Sky Blues this weekend, they will hit the top of the league by Sunday afternoon.

Heady times and heart palpitations.

A race for the title.

Would you be anywhere else?