Safro's Sydney: Muscat v The Karate Kids

It wasn’t quite easy but it felt right.

Graham Arnold has been nothing short of magnificent since taking over and has clearly created something special at Camp Sky Blue. There was a sense amongst the fans that Sydney would get the job done and so it transpired on a cold Saturday night at Allianz Stadium.

In a complete team performance, a few players deserve special praise:

Jacques Faty – in a salary capped league, losing the team’s backline leader to a season-ending injury often spells the end of the club’s finals aspirations but Faty has Sasho Ognenovski’s ability to improve the teammates around him. He read the game superbly on Saturday night and held the upper hand against Adelaide’s attackers.  

Mickael Tavares – both he and Faty arrived unfit in January but are now nearing their best form. Tavares was superb at the back of midfield and his hard work and positional sense allowed his midfield partner Milos Dimitrijevic to play his natural, creative game. He also appeared to have given his head some extra polish and it shone brightly under the lights of Allianz Stadium.

Bernie Ibini – after a poor start to the season, Ibini goes into the Grand Final as the competition’s best wide attacker.  The former Mariner is a constant threat to his opponents who struggle to deal with his pace and dribbling skills, as well as his ability to finish with either foot. At the age of just 22 it is frightful just how good the Westfield Sports High graduate can become and he looms as the Grand Final danger man for the Sky Blues. He also brought a tear to the eye when, after the scoring the opener, he pointed to the heavens in memory of his late father.

Alex Brosque – confirmed legend status with his semifinal brace. Brosque is today a far more complete, all round footballer than the tearaway attacker who left for Japan not long after Sydney last lifted the trophy and his experience and leadership will be instrumental in the Grand Final as his young, wide attackers will look to him for guidance.

Chris Naumoff –the youngster has, at times, appeared “too pure” a footballer and struggled to deal with the physical side of the game but has adapted in the last few months, capping his breakout season with a goal and an assist in a breathtaking semifinal display. The winger no longer flies under the radar and he will be earmarked for some Melbourne Victory softening on Sunday afternoon. 

Adelaide’s theatrics are best forgotten but if the sum total of Josep Gombau’s reign is his side’s cynicism – with and without the ball – then it cannot be judged a success by any reasonable measure. The man tasked with bringing tiki-taka to the A-League has instead become a purveyor of the long ball, and the type of cynical European “professionalism” that his team has exhibited this season is something our game can do without. Good riddance.

So on to the Grand Final.

Who will crack first?

Much has been made of Graham Arnold’s Grand Final experience but Melbourne Victory possess the kind of ruthlessness that eludes most A-League sides.

For the fans of The Karate Kid (the original), Melbourne Victory are most comfortable in the role of the powerful and brutal “Cobra Kai” academy - Muscat perfect as sensei John Kreese - while Sydney FC play a positive, at times naïve attacking style, reflecting Ralph Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso.

Parallels are plentiful.

Containing Delpierre, Broxham, Milligan, Valeri, Finkler and Berisha, the southerners combine the hardness to intimidate with the cunning to extract the most from refereeing decisions. It is a team fashioned in Muscat’s image that aims to win at any price and possesses none of Sydney’s occasional naivete.

There is more than that to Melbourne of course – they are a superb attacking unit but, much like Sydney, their backline has at times faltered this season.

With this in mind, Arnie may instruct his team to zero in on Victory’s soft underbelly at the back. But while staying true to Sydney’s positive football ethos may give the Sky Blues their best chance of success, it could just as easily backfire – the southerners are the A-League’s best team at picking off opponents on the halfway line and destroying them on the counter.

Sydney’s alternative is to sit deeper, aiming to negate Melbourne’s counterattacks and help the Sky Blues take advantage of their own speed on the break. But Arnie has shown great trust in his team’s attacking qualities this season and there is every chance that he will be telling them to stay true to those values in the decider.

Both sets of attackers are excellent and, in truth, would walk into most A-League sides. Neither midfield lacks technique but Sydney’s trio of Tavares, Dimitrijevic and Brosque have the flair that eludes their opposite numbers while the Melbourne midfield of Milligan, Broxham and Valeri possesses the granite-like edge that Sydney lacks.

The difference between the sides may lie between the sticks. Vedran Janjetovic is in the form of his life while Victory’s young and inexperienced deputy Lawrence Thomas may find himself overwhelmed by the occasion.

One thing has been refreshingly missing - instead of the usual “underdog” nonsense that most coaches love to spout pre-game, van’t Schipp, Gombau, Muscat and Arnold have all chosen to talk up their teams and press conferences have been most entertaining as a result.

And it is sure to be an entertaining final for the neutral. The teams don’t like each other. The clubs don’t like each other. And while they won’t be saying so publicly, both teams will be aiming to outdo the other by joining Brisbane Roar as triple Grand Final winners.

This blog has never feigned neutrality and will be with the Sky Blue faithful, willing Sydney FC on to another title. And nothing will feel sweeter than seeing the skipper, wearing his iconic #14 shirt, lift the Toilet Seat on Sunday afternoon. 

It will feel right.