Potential for mental fragility was there and Graham Arnold must have found it tough refocusing his players.
The squad, seething from the Iacopo La Rocca incident, had a job to do to beat the high flying Perth Glory.
But the sense of injustice must have been there, not only as a result of the severe injury to the popular Ali Abbas but due to FFA’s inaction.
Local rivalry is always tinged with a sense of historical injustice. A very ugly chapter has now been written in the Sydney Derby’s short history – a derby which has assumed even greater, if toxic, significance.
But the players needed to put it all behind them.
Would the team refocus enough to take the game to Perth Glory, a club on the rise?
The return to home soil was certainly welcome while Milos Dimitrijevic was a sight for sore eyes.
Perth, meanwhile, had clocked up some serious frequent flyer points lately. Would they recover? And are they the real deal? The first half showed that they are.
Sydney began poorly once again. Running the Sky Blues ragged, it was only Perth’s last pass that failed them and when they got it right, Matt Jurman and Vedran Janjetovic stood in their way.
It was 0-0 at the break and Arnie had much work to do in the sheds.
The second half saw a revival as Sydney finally got its execution right. Half chances were created and it was now Perth’s turn to sit on the edge of their box.
We’ll take the penalty, given by a referee I regard as the least competent in the league. How Alan Milliner managed to see a penalty in Shane Smeltz’s hard driven shot hitting the shoulder of Dino Djulbic is beyond me. Perth were justifiably upset, and more so upon seeing former teammate Smeltz coolly chip the diving Danny Vukovic.
It is at this point we needed to take our chances and put the game to bed but Terry Antonis and Alex Brosque spurned opportunities.
With the Sky Blues needing to see the contest through to the final whistle, enter Ruben Zadkovich.
The difference made by the player Sydney fans love to hate was massive – getting in opposition players’ faces and distributing well. Perhaps the Cove should reserve songs about his mother’s alleged occupation for Besart Berisha. It seems to work on the Albanian.
We were suddenly under the pump and instead of putting the game to bed, found ourselves deep in our half again, with Perth gathering momentum for a final onslaught.
And yet again, Alan Milliner surfaced with another awful decision. Somehow, Chris Naumoff, receiving the ball off a throw-in was adjudged to have fouled his marker, Zadkovich.
What happened next, however, was a throwback to the bad old days. There was simply no marking as the Sydney defence lost concentration and allowed Rostyn Griffiths to bury his header unchallenged.
No blame should be apportioned to Janjetovic for the goal, Griffiths was simply not tracked and, had there been a man on him, the ball would not have gone in. Instead, we made it easy.
Curiously, Milliner’s call for the Perth penalty a few minutes later was correct. Kiki Naumoff did indeed mistime his challenge inside the Sydney penalty area, clipping the leg of the flying Scott Jamieson.
We were 1-2 down at home and, having ridden our luck the past few weeks, it was not to be on this occasion. And as bad as Milliner is, he certainly did not cost us the game.
What we lacked on Thursday night was leadership. Don’t get me wrong, Brosque is a great captain and club legend but in football, captaincy and leadership aren’t always one and the same. For any team to win a title, it needs half a dozen strong individuals who will drive the team on to victory when the going gets tough.
In the absence of Ryall, Ognenovski, Abbas and Janko, it was a team of introverts that took the field at Allianz and, while the eleven out on the park did their best, Sydney missed the drive from its on-field leaders.
And it was only when we conceded our second goal late in the second half that Arnold turned to a player he has stubbornly neglected. A player who is an on-field leader and could have contributed so much to the cause, had he received his opportunities earlier.
Arnold’s conversation with Nicky Carle may have gone something like this:
“Look Nick, I know I haven’t given you a run all season, except in the FFA Cup and out of position six weeks ago, but we are a goal down with three minutes to go, do you think you could you go out there and save the game for us?”
It doesn’t work that way and a ring-rusty Carle could do precious little in the dying stages of the contest. Surely Arnie has had ample opportunities to get Carle involved in previous games, if for no other reason than to keep him sharp enough for an occasion such as this.
Disappointing as it was to lose the match, there are lessons to be learnt.
We need to be more aggressive in attack, rather than consistently taking the safe option – something that we have done too often lately.
Alex Gerbach needs protection and in Abbas’ long term absence a player must be found who will provide cover on the left while also finding attacking combinations with leftback, midfield and attack. Rhyan Grant seems the logical answer and if he succeeds, Sydney will go to market in January not needing a direct replacement for the injured Iraqi.
As for Perth, they may not be as strong as Adelaide and Melbourne Victory but are most certainly the real deal.
Were the Sydney players affected by the Abbas injury enough to defocus them? It is a hard one to answer but I feel they were and will need to refocus ASAP.
The round has not been a good one for the Sky Blues and while Perth, Melbourne Victory and Adelaide have pulled away, Wellington Phoenix have closed the gap on us to just one point.
Perhaps the extra few days off will do the Sydney players some good. Let’s hope so as the Sky Blues prepare to mount a challenge away to the impressive Victory at Etihad on Saturday night.
As much as it pains me to say it, Kevin Muscat, the former A-League enforcer, now looks an up-and-coming manager of considerable promise.
Victory will be at full strength while Sydney is going through something of an injury crisis. There is no beating about the bush – the hosts will be going into the match as favourites, but will be wary of Sydney’s new-found resilience and ability to soak up pressure. Or will Arnie surprise them and send the team out to attack?
What mindset will Sydney take into the match? Will Ognenovski and Janko make their returns? And will Seb Ryall score against the Victory again?
We will need to improve on previous weeks if we are to defeat the home side and perhaps this is the challenge we need to spark us back to early season form.
With 13 points between us and the noisy neighbours, Sydney is Sky Blue.
Roll on Saturday night.