In the most recent pre-season I was desperate to get out and see a few Sydney FC games. Not only was I needing my live football fix, but I wanted to see what had prompted the club, so often the laughing stock of the A-League, to go to Eastern Europe and hire a largely unknown Czech named Vitezslav Lavicka.
Spending a little time with him after one of the pre-season wins only emphasised what a shrewd operator he was.
There have been times throughout the season proper when things have looked a touch shaky, particularly throughout a three game losing streak in November.
In the main though, Sydney have looked a well-oiled machine capable of winning its first premiership and qualifying for the 2011 Asian Champions League, the prizes awarded to the team that finishes the regular season on top.
That was only emphasised over the festive period, when Sydney strung together an impressive set of performances over a nine day stretch which saw them go away to the defending champions before picking up maximum points in two home games.
After the scoreless draw in Melbourne, much of the talk was about how the Victory had firmed in to title favouritism on the back of an aggressive and up-beat display.
But I was equally as impressed with the Sydney effort, feeling they came away from Docklands with the psychological edge.
Ernie Merrick’s men threw everything at Sydney, who refused to crack, finishing strongly.
Yes, Melbourne had dominated possession, and controlled much of the tempo, but I sensed Lavicka was more than happy to set the stall out deep and nullify the space in behind, forcing Archie Thompson to play in front of his back four.
Effectively he and his men were happy to play for the draw, not a bad strategy away from home and against a team that was flying.
Note also that Lavicka was missing his main defender Simon Colosimo on that night, with Stephan Keller and Sebastian Ryall stepping up with great displays. For all Melbourne’s efforts, Clint Bolton was left to focus on organising his defence.
All the while Sydney offered a threat on the counter, and in the dying moments just about made it a classic smash-and-grab.
Four days later I was at the SFS to see Lavicka’s men all but put the cleaners through their northern rival, the Central Coast Mariners.
Yes, Sydney only won thanks to Alex Brosque’s wonderful first-time first half strike, but in truth they were a two or three goal better team on the night, such was their domination in every third.
Surely they couldn’t sustain this type of methodical control four days later, when Adelaide came to town? Surely, after two intense mental and physical efforts, they were due for a let-down?
Not a chance.
Once again Lavicka’s men produced a professional performance full of poise and purpose, with the 1-0 scoreline not reflecting their domination.
Adelaide were shot, bereft of any control and short on ideas. As Aurelio Vidmar admitted after, “Sydney were very slick and very, very good.”
It is the type of European professionalism we have hitherto yet to see in the A-League and perhaps not since the days of Zoran Matic and Adelaide City, and you sense Lavicka has been building the team to peak about now, in the run-in to the finals.
In the early part of the season it was all about getting the back third functioning.
Then the attack started flourishing, with Alex Brosque and Mark Bridge offering constant pace, mobility and some super technical combination, ably supported by the evergreen Steve Corica, in some of the best form of his career.
No defence has able to get any rest with these three guys flying around the front third.
Now the diamond midfield is functioning beautifully, with Stuart Musialik pulling the strings from deep, Terry McFlynn adapting on the left, and Karol Kisel offering some wonderful energy and attitude from the right.
The Slovak took a while to get going, but his performances of late have been top-shelf, justifying Lavicka’s faith and eye for a player.
Sydney have been a work in progress, but Lavicka and his assistants, Michal Zach and Tony Popovic, have built a machine.
In recent times they have resembled a Melbourne Cup stayer, effortlessly put to sleep early before bursting to life in the home stretch.
Sydney, the city, has never seen anything like it, season one included.
Their team is watch-able, very, very watch-able.
The pity is that not enough is being done to sell this message.
Yes, the three new imports aren’t big names, but in Keller, Kisel and the unsung Sung-Hwan Byun, Sydney have picked up three winners, whose performances are getting better with the season.
The Korean has been a revelation, not always for his attacking work, but importantly for his defensive work.
Sitting alongside Colosimo, he has excellent positional sense, good coverage on the ground, and a decent leap, emphasised by some handy aerial work on Matt Simon and Co. recently.
Meanwhile, the Swiss central defender has been brilliant. The bigger the game, the more dependable he appears.
The form of all of these key men says much about Lavicka’s shrewd work, and the FC board would do well to lock the Czech in long term.
Melbourne may have a game in hand, but right now, and provided injuries don’t hit, you’d be game to back against the Sky Blues finishing the season first past the post for the first time.