Americans say a draw is like kissing your sister. This felt worse. It felt like a loss.
Melbourne Victory had every reason to feel superior going into the Big Blue at Etihad on Saturday night. Unbeaten in the league, playing great attacking football and facing a Sydney side that has faltered in recent weeks, most home fans expected three points.
There was more than a touch of concern prior to kick-off. The loss of Corey Gameiro hurt the Sky Blues up front while Ali Abbas’ long term injury made the team vulnerable on the left. And Sash Ognenovski’s inability to recover from his hip complaint has left Sydney shy of a genuine defensive leader.
Last week I asked the question – will Graham Arnold send his team into Etihad to soak up pressure, or will he surprise by going on the attack?
The line-up that gave it away. With two ball playing midfielders in Terry Antonis and Milos Dimitrijevic lining up behind Alex Brosque at #10 and Marc Janko partnering Shane Smeltz up front, this was not a side sent out to contain. We were going for it.
Sydney’s domination of the first half, punctuated by two well-taken Archie Thompson sucker punches and a lovely bit of interplay between Janko and Smeltz, was all but complete. The scoreboard may not have reflected Sydney’s dominance going into the break but our football was superb.
Arnie said post-match that this was the best football Sydney has played all year.
Early this season we were rampant against Brisbane Roar up at Suncorp but this was better. And more impressive again given that we were playing a confident Victory instead of a Brisbane side in the middle of a crisis.
The Sky Blues were not as dominant in the second half as in the first but still produced plenty of chances and should have taken all three points. Instead, our inability to finish up front and a lack of concentration at the back cost us dearly.
Every A-League coach knows now: “attack Sydney on their left”. This isn’t a criticism of seventeen year old Alex Gersbach. When he is lining up for the Socceroos in a few short years, we’ll be able to say that it was Sydney that turned him from a raw kid with potential into a left back of international pedigree.
But Gersbach needs protection and the way we are lining up, it appears as if Arnie is hoping the problem takes care of itself.
It won’t. We need Rhyan Grant in front of Gersbach to provide cover.
The Socceroos were highly successful at the Asian Cup four years ago, playing Matt McKay on the left in front of the attack-minded but defensively suspect David Carney. Carney overlapped and McKay covered and dropped inside, linking with midfield and attack and opening the channel for Carney to exploit. It worked a treat and a similar approach can help Sydney fix its left-sided vulnerability.
Instead we had the floating Antonis and attack minded Brosque nominally patrolling the left side and suddenly Sydney were finding themselves in 1 v 2 situations. Substituting Grant for Gersbach hardly solved the problem as Grant found himself facing the same 1 v 2 dilemma.
The problem is structural and needs addressing pronto.
Two weeks in a row Sydney have conceded late goals that we never should have. While Seb Ryall does a fantastic job in the middle of the backline, Ognenovski’s organisational abilities are irreplaceable and his absence is beginning to tell. Not only have Sydney failed to keep focus for the full 90 minutes in two matches but one or two players have failed to track their man in key moments.
I would venture to say that the big man’s absence has cost us three goals in two games.
Inability to finish
Brosque has played great football in recent weeks but his finishing has let him down badly. Hitting the post in the first half was forgivable but his second half decision to cross inside instead of taking the shot betrays a striker in the middle of a confidence crisis in front of goal.
All round football
The Sky Blues played their best attacking football of the season on Saturday night. Antonis and Dimitrijevic were superb as Sydney won the midfield battle with guile and skill, leaving opposition Socceroos Mark Milligan and Carl Valeri chasing shadows time and again. On his performance at Etihad, Antonis is a shoe-in for the Asian Cup squad.
Bernie Ibini has been excellent and his early season travails are a thing of the past. He is unlikely to make the Socceroo final cut but is definitely a player on the rise.
Meanwhile, the Janko-Smeltz partnership promises to be a most potent one and their interplay was worthy of two experienced, senior international strikers. More is to come from them.
In other positives, Seb Ryall held the fort admirably while Nikola Petkovic’s was solid and consistent. And our relatively new tactic of playing low hard crosses to strikers’ feet at the edge of the box worked a treat, yielding two goals.
Vedran Janjetovic’s save off Besart Berisha in the last minute of play was the kind we have come to expect from Sydney’s excellent shot stopper but he may have done better in Thompson’s first two goals.
In the first goal he should have pushed the ball over the bar or around the post rather than batting it back into his six yard box.
Could he have done a touch better for the second?
Two key moments. That’s all it takes. Goalkeeping is a brutal and thankless task.
Despite being positioned five metres from the attack that split Antonis’ head and required 10 stitches, Peter Green failed to red card Milligan. The whistle blower clearly lost his concentration at a key moment and will not look back upon the incident with a great deal of pride.
There is no doubt whatsoever that Milligan led with his elbow, deserving a straight red, and while it is a lay down misere that he will miss at least a fortnight for his awful action, it is Melbourne City and Newcastle Jets who will benefit from his absence rather than Sydney FC, who should have played against 10 men for over an hour.
Sydney’s two goals
The more I hit “replay”, the less certain I am whether or not Janko was offside at the point that Smeltz flicked the ball to him. And if a dozen replays have been inconclusive, the linesman’s decision to allow the goal should surprise no one.
There is also no evidence that the whole of the ball had crossed the whole of the sideline in the build up to Sydney’s third goal. The replay makes things no clearer while Rhyan Grant’s foot partly obscured the linesman’s vision so once again, his decision not to raise the flag is justified.
Nicky Carle and where to from here?
It breaks my heart to see the Sydney midfielder out for the season. Eerily reminiscent of Paul Gascoigne’s rash challenge on Gary Charles in the 1991 FA Cup Final that cost the England ball wizard a year of his own career, Carle’s flying tackle was unnecessary and deserved a yellow. But the resulting prognosis that Carle is out for the season with knee damage is depressing for fans and player alike.
Those of us who have had the fortune to meet and chat with Carle know what a gentleman he is. A family man, always up for a football discussion and terrific with kids, the former Socceroo may now have played his final game for Sydney FC. It is my fervent hope this isn’t the case and we see him again in Sky Blue.
If it is not to be, I hope to see the breathtakingly talented playmaker out on the field once again, even if in opposition colours. I was an unabashed fan before he came to the club five years ago and remain so to this day.
Carle’s contribution to the Sydney cause was at its finest in 2011 and 2012. Playing in his preferred #10 role, he was a leading light and his combination with Bruno Cazarine was outstanding, the highlight being a piece of audacious interplay between the two attackers culminating in Carle’s diving header over the head of the helpless Tando Velaphi at NIB Stadium.
Get well soon Nicky. And if this is the end for you at Sydney FC, thanks for the memories and best wishes in the future.
It seems callous to look at the upside of Carle’s injury, but his limited playing time this season means that he will not be missed as much as one would think. Meanwhile, his high wages allow Sydney to go to market and sign a high quality injury replacement player.
It is no secret that we are chasing reinforcements and while it is heartbreaking to see good Sydney footballers out for the season, the show must go on and the cavalry will be arriving in January.
What price Tom Rogic?
We are back home on Sunday to host a resurgent Wellington Phoenix. A win will put a four point buffer between the Sky Blues and the Kiwis and possibly move us up into third spot while a loss will see Sydney slip out of the four.
Sydney FC are not quite down to “bare bones” just yet but squad depth is being tested. The Sky Blues have four matches to play until the start of the Asian Cup and the three-week international break will be most welcome.
I suspect that we did not approach the Perth match with the intensity it deserved and paid the price accordingly. There is no doubt Arnie will be doing all he can to shake out any complacency in the run- up to Wellington’s visit to Allianz Stadium.
The match will be a tough one – this isn’t the Phoenix of recent seasons – but if Sydney play the way they did at Etihad on Saturday night, three points will be ours.