Safro's Sydney: Refs, the Reds and rugby tackles

BLOG: It was great to see talented Terry Antonis called up to the Socceroos.

The Sydney FC starlet has picked up where he left off last season and has earned his selection. Antonis is a hardworking and very humble young man who deserves whatever success has and will come his way.

The moment my happiness for the lad wore off, I quickly checked the rest of the squad.

The reason?

To find out if Mark Milligan had been called up as well.

I’ve nothing against Millsy, he makes a fine Socceroo. I just wanted to make sure that Melbourne Victory (who Syney play on the weekend) were as hamstrung by international selection as we were.

As it happens, both clubs will be affected and Victory more so, with Olyroo selection compounding the problem.

My thinking has turned 180 degrees. From someone who has lived and breathed Socceroos for over 30 years since being taken to my first match as a kid – a 0-2 home embarrassment by the All Whites who were about to qualify for the 1982 World Cup at our expense – to a Sydney FC fan who does not want to see his club’s best players lost to international duty.

When David Gallop said that he wanted to make the A-League the flagship of Australian football, I am not sure this is what he had in mind!

The A-League has no international breaks because Foxtel, who all but own the game in this country, do not want football free weekends. And being a short season with competition for fans, grounds and media space, FFA just want to get the games done and dusted without affecting coverage and advertising revenue.

Fair enough. But I don’t have to like it. A way must be found to bring us in line with the rest of the football world so that successful clubs aren’t disadvantaged and we, the fans, do not have to choose between club and country.

And if Foxtel and SBS want something to screen in place of A-League matches, how about helping stage an annual international tournament right here in Australia? Plus one or two more home internationals?

Surely that would offset the networks’ A-League revenue loss! And give us, the fans, the opportunity to sink our teeth into international football without compromising the local game.

And as for competition for media space, the new Fox Sports 4 channel (could they just call it Fox Football?) dramatically increases the network’s sports broadcasting span. Media space issue solved .

Or am I the only one bothered by all this?

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International players were still on deck as the Sky Blues boarded the flight across to Adelaide to take on equally high-flying United.

The loss of Alex Brosque was massive and Sydney fans whiled away the week discussing various permutations in the skipper’s absence.  The good news was that Shane Smeltz was finally back.

Refereeing controversies aside, the truth is that United dominated the game and we were lucky to come away with a point. This isn’t a slur on the Sky Blues, and Arnold was forthright enough in his post-match interview to admit that we are currently behind the Reds in our football development as a team. Let’s face it, they’ve had Gombau for a full season while the Sydney squad is still learning the Arnie way.

We’ll get there.

That we could have won the game regardless is testament to Arnold’s attention to detail and intangibles – morale is the highest it’s been in years and players are willing to give whatever it takes to win the match. Win or die trying. And that is heartening for every fan to see.

I don’t often watch the halftime panel discussion but thought I’d give it a go on Friday night. Mark Rudan, analysing the first half for Fox Sports, absolutely floored me.

His words were, in reference in the Sydney central defensive pairing of Sasa Ognenovski and Nikola Petkovic, and I quote: “They are not very mobile, are they.”

Huh? 

Now Big Sash has always been deceptively pacey but at age 35, speed is hardly his forte. Still pretty quick on the turn though.

But Nikola Petkovic? I would back the Serb in a sprint against most A-League players. And the way he flew back to close down Awer Mabil breaking down the right should have made it clear to Rudan that the Sydney #6 has pace to burn. Love the Big Blue Man but he has never been more wrong.

I thought Petkovic was superb against Adelaide, keeping his concentration in key moments and winning balls that needed to be won. And to see him denied a clear goal by bumbling whistleblower Alan Milliner was painful and an absolute travesty.

It was great vision by Petkovic to spot Eugene Galekovic off his line and bend it high over the keeper and into goal. And as the Sydney defender took the quick shot, Milliner stood by and watched it curl in. It was only when the Sky Blues began to celebrate that he decided the goal would not stand.

It seems Milliner claimed after the match that he did indicate to the players that they needed to wait for the whistle. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he. In any event, there isn’t much evidence of that on replay.

While the decision was a kick in the guts for Sydney, Milliner could not be accused of bias as he was awful for both sides. And how unfortunate is Petkovic to suffer two refereeing blunders in two consecutive matches against Adelaide United? At least he was allowed to remain on the park this time round, but the Ben Williams Curse struck again.

None of which is to take away from Adelaide’s performance. Marcelo Carrusca was sublime for the Reds, running the show like a puppet master. Fortunately for Sydney, his finishing failed him in extra time, but he was clearly the best on the park and, for the neutral, a delight to watch.

United were equally unlucky to lose Bruce Djite to injury - the man has been in superb form this season and it certainly helped Sydney not to have to worry about the big striker in the second half.

If I am singing the praises of Adelaide United it is because they play great, positive football that is very easy on the eye. They move and pass through the lines with precision, their team plays cohesively and, one Mabil dive aside, there seems little to dislike about the way they play the game.

As for the Sky Blues, we seemed a touch hesitant to chance passing through midfield and so surrendered too much possession to the home side. Despite which, we still managed to create enough chances to win the game - had everything gone our way.

While we lost the midfield battle, up front I thought we were decent with Janko and Gameiro developing quite an understanding and Ali Abbas superb breaking from leftback. We missed Brosque of course but it’s a long season and at times we will lose players and need to adjust.

Antonis and Milos Dimitrijevic did not have the best of games, denied the ball by the home side. Some things are outside a player’s control. What is within a player’s control is how hard he works without the ball, both in and without possession. Neither central midfielder, nor wide men Bernie Ibini and Chris Naumoff, shirked his defensive duties, covering every blade of grass and making lung busting runs to help defence and attack. They should be proud of that physical effort and it demonstrates, once again, that every Sydney player is prepared to work for the team. 

It was at the back though that Sydney showed its character and resolve. Vedran Janjetovic had one of his best games for the club, his powerhouse performance denying Adelaide time and again. That he was our player of the match demonstrates where superiority lay at Coopers. All the plaudits he has received since Friday night are richly deserved.

The back four did well too, displaying composure under pressure and putting in good last ditch tackles when required, including one rugby tackle...Oh well, at least it shows the desperation is there.

Eleven points from five games, no losses and three clean sheets on the trot for the first time in seven years. Defensively we are a million miles from the team, fashioned by the unlamented Ian Crook and Gary Cole, that shipped an obscene fifty one goals in 2012/13. So far this season we have conceded just three goals in five games, which is a terrific effort.

The worrying signs are that Ognenovski may have pulled a groin muscle and could miss the Melbourne Victory match. I hope he makes it as we will need every ounce of his experience on Saturday night but if not, I suspect Seb Ryall will shift into the centre once again, with Pedj Bojic  coming in at rightback.

Brosque makes his return from injury and should partner Smeltz up front while Antonis, Gameiro and Janko are lost to international duty. Meanwhile, Victory will be without key men Milligan, Barbarouses and Georgievski, as well as Geria, Pain and Galloway. Ridiculous.

Victory will still be a strong proposition but in the absence of so many key players I suspect they will be happy with a draw at Allianz and set out their stall accordingly. It will be up to the Sky Blues to break them down and I believe Sydney will have what it takes to get all three points in front of a vocal home crowd on Saturday night.