In football there’s only two ways to read the tea leaves before your team comes up against a formidable opponent: either the opponent is going to roll over the top of your team or it will finally falter because your side is ‘due a win’.
The latter reading was particularly favoured by City fans like me because our team had fired up again – 4 wins and 2 draws in the last 6 games, including a 5-0 drubbing of Adelaide and almost clinching a winner against second-placed Newcastle. Surely after losing to Sydney in the FFA cup quarters in September, then twice in the league, City was due a win against the top team…
In the first 30 minutes of this game City gave me hope that my prediction was right. Budzinski fired a few shots and Arzani looked dangerous in keeping with his recent form. Then again, Sydney’s defence didn’t appear that troubled. If only City had retained Wilkinson a few seasons ago, then our defence might be as solid as Sydney’s. A more pressing question on the fans’ minds was how would the team go without this season’s goal machine Ross McCormack. His long range stunner against Adelaide showed what a quality player he is and we sorely needed him in this clash, not back at Villa in England where his future is in doubt. At least Fornaroli was sitting on the bench itching to make up for his lost season so far.
Back on the pitch, suddenly out of nothing Brosque was through City’s defence and Bouzanis did the predictable thing and brought him down, even though the Sydney captain was wide of the goal. The penalty was converted by Bobo. My hopes didn’t sink at that point because we’d shown in numerous games this season that we know how to fight back when going behind. All credit to Joyce for instilling that spirit in the players which was so lacking for years.
At this point perhaps City’s players were waiting for each other to click into fight-back mode, rather than step up personally. In the midfield in particular, Brattan and Mauk went AWOL with Vidosic lacking his usual sharpness. Ten minutes later Ninkovic, arguably Sydney’s most dangerous player, waltzed through the middle and easily volleyed one home.
Only a blistering performance from Fornaroli in the second half and better team defending offered any hope now. I’d like to think that Joyce would have made some tactical changes too. However judging by his comments in the post-match press conference, it didn’t cross his mind because he put it onto the players to simply not repeat the mistakes they made in the first half. So we inevitably witnessed the same outcome in the second 45 minutes. Sydney are a game-winning machine and City failed to make any interventions to stop it. Fornaroli’s return gave us one thing to cheer about and we jumped for joy when later he scored, only for it to be ruled out for an infringement.
I’d certainly misread those proverbial tea leaves and we went home deeply disappointed that a third placed team hardly mounted a challenge to a team running away with the league. Joyce rightly noted Sydney’s excellent ability to make the right decisions in attack and City should have done better with the few chances they created, having scored at least two goals in each of the previous 6 games. But it was the lack of determination to deny Sydney space to play that was most deflating. You can only hope City get over it quickly and regain that grittiness we’ve come to admire this season.