Big Blue the Sky Blues’ chance to prove they are the real deal
Former Sydney FC coach Frank Farina. AAP Image/Dave Hunt
Perhaps not since John Aloisi rocked the SFS with a thunderbolt to win Sydney FC the Premiership on Valentines Day in 2010, and the grand final a few weeks later at Etihad Stadium, has there been a more anticipated Big Blue.
With Sydney FC showing signs of life, Alessandro Del Piero seemingly in the mood and the Melbourne Victory flourishing at the right end of the table, it’s an Australia Day offering that whets the appetite.
Primarily, the big question heading is whether Sydney FC are now the real deal, or still pretenders.
Last week’s comprehensive 7-1 thrashing of the Wellington Phoenix, with Del Piero dishing up a clinic in finishing, gives the club’s fans some hope they can finish off the season in style and take some momentum into the finals.
But to do so Frank Farina’s men will need a big improvement on their dismal away form.
To date they’ve only won two of their eight away games, picking up seven of a possible 24 points on the road.
While their early season home form was even worse, in recent weeks there have been signs of an Allianz revival, with three wins on the trot.
With six of their remaining 10 games away, there’s no doubt improvement is needed on the road if Sydney are to have any hope this season.
And it starts at AAMI Park on Saturday evening, where Sydney will not only be up against a red-hot opponent, but doing it at a stadium where the Victory are undefeated this season.
Indeed, the only time Ange Postecoglou’s men have lost at home this season was in the opening round derby, and that was at Etihad Stadium.
In front of what is likely to be a full-house at AAMI and with Archie Thompson and Marco Rojas sure to stretch their defence, it’s as stern a test as Farina and his men are likely to face.
Indeed, it’s the type of test that will tell us whether Sydney are right back in with a say on how the season will finish, or merely teasing.
Certainly, in the past few weeks and especially at home, there have been some much better signs.
While Del Piero created headlines around the globe, what was among the most impressive features in the hiding of Wellington was Farina’s use of Jason Culina in the number 10 role.
With Del Piero advanced of him, playing as a second or shadow striker, and the on-debut Joel Griffiths playing high in number nine role, Sydney had the look of quality in the front third.
Whereas throughout the season they have been so reliant on Del Piero to provide all the front third class, here they surrounded him with experience and football nous.
Culina’s role, floating around the front line, often finding space in the wide areas, especially on the left, was instrumental in allowing Sydney to stretch the Phoenix and create space for Del Piero.
While not quite back to the dynamic driving midfielder we often saw at Gold Coast United, Culina appears to be tracking in the right direction.
Indeed, his influence on Sydney’s front third here shouldn’t be underestimated.
Often he was seen drifting into the box, winning a controversial penalty before getting on the end of an Ali Abbas cross to volley home neatly with his left foot.
If he wasn’t in the box, Culina was influencing with a deft touch or two just outside it.
His link up work with Del Piero was a sight for sore Sydney eyes.
When Del Piero won a free kick outside the box on 37 minutes, Culina took a clever position just outside the box, ready to pick up any second ball.
Promptly enough, the ball was at his feet. In tight space, with one touch, Culina moved it on to his left, to Del Piero, who sized up Leo Bertos, dropped the shoulder and shaped another strike into the top corner.
While the finish was sublime, it was the prompt and accurate service from Culina that enabled Del Piero the room and time to size Bertos up.
It has been a shrewd tactical play by Farina to use Culina as an attacking number 10 rather than a defensive number six in recent weeks.
No doubt this was borne from a desire to not only have more creativity up front, but also not to burden him with too much defensive work.
Little doubt Del Piero will relish having a player of Culina’s quality close to him.
Often there was a seamlessness about the movement between them.
When Culina took up high and wide positions, Del Piero could be seen dropping back to influence the play.
While Culina and Del Piero were at their best, the other member of the attacking trio, Griffiths, also had a major influence.
Always taking up a high position, playing as a classic nine, Griffiths also showed some great link up play with Del Piero and Culina.
If he wasn’t playing off the shoulder of the defender, looking to penetrate in behind with a piercing run, like the opening goal, he was dropping off to link the play, often with just one touch.
When a ball came in from the flanks, Griffiths was there, attacking it, with head or feet.
Enabling the front third to flourish was a solid display from the midfield trio behind them.
Brett Emerton, in particular, was often seen close to Terry McFlynn, linking with a more simple pass rather than the complicated dribble we’ve grown accustomed to seeing.
While there was still too much space between McFlynn and his central defenders, there was at least some signs that Tiago Calvano could be a decent pick-up.
Indeed, his partnership with Sebastian Ryall looks to be the best bet from the central defenders at the club.
While Stein Huysegems threatened to get in behind them on a few occasions, they should be better for the hit-out.
The challenge for Farina as he heads to AAMI Park is to ensure there is enough defensive coverage in the middle of the field to combat a Victory side who like to flood the midfield.
At the same time Farina won’t want to sacrifice his own attacking strengths.
While his front three at least gives him some hope of creating consistently, the challenge at AAMI will be to control a rampant Victory midfield, and get on the ball themselves.
Allowing any space for Marcos Flores and Billy Celeski will be a recipe for disaster, especially with Marco Rojas sweating on any ball in behind left back Fabio.
Postecoglou will look to expose that weakness often.
In that sense, a return for Peter Triantis might be on the cards for Farina.
If Sydney can somehow find a way to control the middle of the park, and play with a compact, high line, their front trio gives them hope.
It’s a big “if”, but for Sydney FC to prove they are the real deal, a well-organised showing in the Big Blue would go a long way.
Follow Tony on Twitter @TonyTannousTRBA