While there is still much work to be done to turn around what has hitherto been an embarrassing season, there were much better signs from Sydney FC in their shock 1-0 win over the competition pace-setters on Thursday night.
Among the most impressive things about Sydney’s performance was the condition of the players.
Already there is evidence that Anthony Crea, the man brought in by Frank Farina to get the squad in shape has been having an impact.
For a team that has particularly struggled in defensive transition this season, this was their most complete defensive performance of the campaign.
While they didn’t always flow in attack, they looked for more structured and organised to deal with an opponent that has been flying at the head of the competition.
But for a couple of moments when Daniel McBreen and Mitchell Duke got in behind, the Sky Blues transitioned almost as swiftly into defence as the team coached by Vitezslav Lavicka in his first season.
Graham Arnold came into this game with a plan to sit back in his own half, not press Sydney high, and react swiftly when they won the ball.
No doubt reasoning that Sydney’s defence has looked a mess throughout the opening 12 rounds, he would have been hoping to take advantage of the holes he thought would inevitably open up on the counter.
But Farina and his men had other ideas.
Apart from the opening 15 minutes or so, when Tom Rogic threatened to cut the game open with his incisive touches, gliding and dribbling, Sydney coped well.
Once the game settled down and Sydney started to control possession through much patience on the ball and use of width, Sydney showed they might even have the ability to control an opponent.
At the heart of their plan without the ball was the young holding midfielder Peter Triantis, making his starting debut after coming off the bench in Wellington.
It was some responsibility for Farina to thrust his way.
Not only was Triantis the only holder in a new look four-man diamond midfield, but he was entrusted with the job of halting Rogic, one of the hottest properties in the local game.
Apart from the opening period, where he conceded a yellow card for a challenge from behind on Rogic, Triantis did an exemplary job.
The fact he played almost the entire game on a yellow card, with his type of combative game, speaks to a tactical awareness.
Shadowing Rogic everywhere he went, the player signed from Sydney Olympic on a youth contract frustrated the silky schemer for much of the night.
Perhaps it was Triantis’s bulldog-like pressing and hassling, invariably clean, that prompted Rogic to snap and get himself sent off for an awful late challenge.
Few have been able to shackle or rattle Rogic in the past 12 months, and he might now get a couple of weeks to think about how he reacts in future.
In many ways, Triantis reminds me of a couple of former Olympic players in Peter Zorbas and Paul Kohler, not the most blessed of passers, but diminutive and fiercely competitive in defence.
Looking at Farina’s 4-4-2 line-up, Triantis looked like he might be isolated, with Alessandro Del Piero ahead of him, Brett Emerton to his right and Ali Abbas to his left.
It looked a midfield bereft of press.
But with two speedsters in Blake Powell and Yairo Yau up top, split wide, Sydney had a plan.
It was to sustain possession, with Del Piero orchestrating the play, giving another master-class in how to protect the ball.
When Sydney dished it up, there was a real commitment to funnel men back behind the ball.
The Mariners tried to go quickly, but, much to their frustration, Sydney were able to keep up.
Even when the Mariners got in behind Sydney’s left late and Rogic was lining up a tap-in, there was Triantis, sprinting back, applying just enough pressure to get a touch and put Rogic off, forcing him to shoot over.
It typified Sydney’s desire this night.
Already, only a month or so after Farina and Crea joined, the Sky Blues look a far better conditioned side.
Arnold may have gambled that Sydney would crumble and his side would finish stronger, but there was a steely determination about the hosts, one we have rarely seen this season.
In front of a bumper Christmas crowd of just under 17,000, it was the type if mental approach Sydney fans would expect more regularly.
With Del Piero in a great mood, assuming the responsibility, and the rest providing the legs, they were able to finish strongly.
The Mariners, meanwhile, will mark is down as a poor day at the office, and the signs where there when their bus turned up late for pick-up.
Arnold will reflect and wonder whether sitting off and reacting swiftly was the best way to deal with this struggling Sydney side.
It wasn’t his greatest tactical night.
But Sydney and Farina, emboldened by some sustained possession and better defensive organisation, should take a bit of confidence out of this showing.
By no means has their season turned around, but it was a performance that gives them hope, even if the Mariners played into their hands somewhat.
While Farina still has much to sort out, if he can get this type of mental and physical application, and all-team defensive effort, on a consistent basis, then he at least has a base.
If he can surround such plans with more quality, then the football is likely to get better, and Sydney FC fans will tell you it’s not before time.