Safro's Sydney: Is the long lean spell over?

If, prior to season kick-off, David Gallop had been handing out top two finishes and the Asian Champions League football that comes with it, the Sky Blue faithful would have snatched his arm off.

The squad, partially rebuilt by Frank Farina and taken to the next level or two by Graham Arnold, is not yet the finished article so for Sydney to find itself just one win away from the Grand Final is a momentous achievement. 

With an hour left to play in Wellington on Sunday, the notion of a fairytale ending briefly reared its head but the second half was a hard slog for the Sky Blues against Phoenix.  

The visitors did well to see through a hard-fought win that sees them finish the regular season in second spot on the table.

Phoenix have had a good season and gained ascendancy from the opening whistle. After some enterprising football they were duly rewarded with a penalty 10 minutes in as Bernie Ibini swung out a boot at Michael McGlinchey in full cry. The Sydney winger needed to back his blistering pace to catch the Kiwi midfielder rather than dive in but chose the lazy option and paid the price.

Fortune smiled on the Sky Blues as Roly Bonevacia’s stuttered run-up, and scuffed spotkick, bore all the hallmarks of Mark Viduka’s penalty miss at Stadium Australia almost a decade ago.

As one door closes, another door opens and Sydney took control.

Ibini has proved capable of scoring with both feet this season. Getting on the end of an excellent piece of distribution from goalkeeper Vedran Janjetovic, the winger rode a yellow card-worthy Albert Riera challenge to break into the Phoenix penalty area, and kept Louis Fenton guessing by cutting right and left, before unleashing a thunderbolt to bring his regular season goal tally to an impressive six.

Kids, work on your non-preferred foot.

Chris Naumoff worked ever so hard and took his chance when it mattered, drawing Riera into a late challenge in the Phoenix penalty area. Shane Smeltz’s spotkick was more power than placement but did enough to squeeze under the diving Lewis Italiano.

Naumoff’s shoulder injury is most unfortunate and Sydney fans will hope that the attacker isn’t out for long. Early reports appear positive so his replacement, Robert Stambolziev, may still find himself riding the pine despite an enterprising showing in Wellington.

Much like Sydney’s second-half profligacy, Wellington’s resilience is not to be underestimated. A Phoenix training ground corner move saw Matt Jurman, who was otherwise faultless at the back for the Sky Blues, arrive a fraction late to prevent Michael Boxall from slotting home a hard-driven Nathan Burns cross.

To stick or twist?

Sydney responded in a fashion that belied its recent “no safety net” approach. Needing a draw to finish second, the visitors compressed and put in a solid defensive shift, denying space and width to the home side and keeping Janjetovic relatively trouble-free to take all three points at Westpac Stadium.

No one was better in Sydney’s second half rear guard action than Jurman’s central defensive partner, Jacques Faty. The Senegal international has taken over Sasa Ognenovski’s backline leadership role and was coolness personified, winning the duels that mattered and laying the most solid of foundations for Sydney’s victory. Meanwhile, both fullbacks, Rhyan Grant and Nikola Petkovic, gave little away and the sight of Petkovic back to full fitness was a relief.

In a season where Sydney’s backline has, at times, struggled with concentration lapses, it was an impressive Sky Blue defensive effort heading into the finals.

Further up the field, Mickael Tavares and Alex Brosque had solid hit outs in the middle of the park. The skipper should have done better in a one-on-one chance on the break in the second half but, apart from that lapse, had another excellent game.

Milos Dimitrijevic pulled the strings and while his work rate and vision remained top-notch, he was, once again, on the periphery of the game. Perhaps having to play the role of sole midfield creator in the absence of Terry Antonis is beginning to tell. Or is the season catching up with the midfield magician?

Meanwhile, Smeltz was still a touch off his best but his penalty goal and extended run have done him the world of good. He combined well with Sydney’s other attackers and has given Arnie a selection headache heading into the finals.

The upcoming two week break will recharge not only Dimitrijevic and the rested Marc Janko, but  Sydney’s entire squad as it prepares to face Wellington Phoenix, Adelaide United or Melbourne City.

The weekend off will help the Sky Blues deal with the niggling injuries that are inevitable at this time of the season.  And as Arnie and his coaching staff ready the squad for its biggest home match in five years, the medical contingent will be working overtime to ensure that all players are at their physical best.

The availability of Antonis is crucial. The talented midfielder and forgotten man could prove the difference between a semi-final spot and Grand Final success on May 17 and, should he recover a semblance of fitness, the boost that he can give Sydney off the bench is immeasurable. One thing is for certain – if there is a way to get him training and playing without jeopardizing his long term prospects, Sydney will have him on the bench.

After a long, lean spell, the Sky Blues are once again playing for a Grand Final spot to the delight of their fans and will approach the game with their tails up and fearing nobody.

Just one step from another Grand Final.

Here’s hoping a massive home crowd paints Allianz Stadium sky blue.

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