It’s Sydney derby time on Saturday. If the Western Sydney Wanderers are to take anything from their trip to the SFS, their front three of Romeo Castelen, Frederico Piovaccari and Jaushua Sotirio need to find the polish and start producing the currencies that count up front: goals and assists.
While it’s still early in the season and the signs for the Wanderers have been good apart from the defensive lapses in the first half against Brisbane, their finishing in the opening two rounds has been verging on abysmal.
In the loss to Brisbane it was Sotirio and Piovaccari the most culpable, although right-sided Castelen chimed in with a number of poor efforts as the Wanderers finished strongly.
Last Friday, away to Adelaide United, Castelen took centre stage. Playing arguably his most influential game since joining the Wanderers, he was involved in much of Western Sydney’s build up, until he got into the final third.
That’s where it all fell down for the Dutchman. His final touch, whether that was a pass, cross, or shot, was invariably either the wrong option or a poorly executed one.
Indeed, Castelen has had eight shots in two games, with only three hitting the target. It looks even worse for Piovaccari and Sotirio, who have had six and four shots respectively with the big Italian striker only hitting the target once.
Sotirio, the left-sided flier, has got into some great positions and particularly gave Jack Hingert a working over in the first half at Wanderland, but he did not once test either Michael Theo or John Hall.
The Wanderers’ lack of front third efficiency doesn’t make great reading, especially when stacked up against Sydney FC skipper Alex Brosque, who has produced a goal and an assist, with three of his four shots on target so far.
Even Filip Holosko, who played just over an hour in the season opener, hit the target with his two efforts, and already has a goal to his name.
If Tony Popovic was looking to measure Sotirio up against anyone in terms of goals and assists, he might look to the Brisbane Roar’s Brandon Borello.
While they feature on opposite flanks, Sotirio left and Borello right, they are of a similar age and both considered fairly raw in terms of their technical attributes, with pace and physicality arguably their biggest assets at this stage of their careers.
While Borello has played 30 games compared to Sotirio’s 14, he has already shown he has an eye for goal, his brace against the Central Coast Mariners on the weekend reward for his direct approach and willingness to find and execute a shot.
With the derby in mind, another one to compare Sotirio to is Chris Naumoff, also 20.
Naumoff has already amassed over 30 A-League and FFA Cup games and is starting to find the consistency as a front third influencer.
Over the next 10 to 15 games, Popovic will aim to build Sotirio so he has a finishing touch to go with the electric pace.
Meanwhile, Castelen does suffer a bit in comparison to his excellent right-sided predecessors Youssouf Hersi, such a constant influencer not only in terms of goals and assists, but in that he set the team’s pressing tempo with his non-stop hussle.
Castelen’s defensive game is far less effective than Hersi’s, which places a greater emphasis on him being more influential as a goals and assists provider.
Encouragingly, at least, he has looked more consistent as a go-to in the past two games than he did all of last season, when he had an interrupted start with injuries.
For the Wanderers to make an impression not only on Saturday, but for the season, much will hinge on the goals and assists of the imports Castelen and Piovaccari.
The big Italian got into some great goal-scoring positions against the Roar and really should have bagged a brace, but he was far less evident in Adelaide.
Asked to start the Wanderers press by Popovic, Piovaccari has worked hard, but still appears to be struggling for full condition. Either that or the non-stop pressing just isn’t his go.
Not really a comfortable dribbler, it appears he will be used as a bouncing-board, asked to batter opposition defences and dish the ball out to either Mitch Nichols or the two wide men, then get on the end of the resultant delivery.
Hitherto there has been very little connection up front.
Nichols has proved throughout his career that when he is switched on and focused he can be a very effective running number 10.
When he’s not been in the mood, he’s the last bloke you want around the place.
Popovic appears to have him in the right head-space at the moment, and at least has one part of his front third puzzle in place.
Dario Vidosic is being eased into condition from the bench, and when he and Mark Bridge are deemed fully fit, Popovic will at least have a couple more experienced options.
Whether the derby comes too soon for both to get a start remains to be seen. Either way, it’s likely that front third connection would have been a big focus at training this week.
At least Popovic can take some confidence heading in that his side managed to control much of the proceedings in Adelaide, and created chances in both games.
The Wanderers look far more competitive and functional than they did for most of last season, but the pressure will only intensify until they are able to click up front.
While their passing accuracy isn’t quite up there with Sydney’s Milos Dimitrijevic and Milos Ninkovic, the two Wanderers Spanish midfielders, Dimas Delgado and Andreu, appear to have added a calm to the Wanderers build-up.
Based on FFA Cup evidence, compatriot Alberto will only add to the calm when he returns from injury to slot into central defence.
The Wanderers haven’t kept a clean sheet in their past 15 games and have won only once in their past 15 away games, but the signs were much better on both fronts in Adelaide.
Sydney, meanwhile, have won three of the past four derbies (the other was drawn) and have a terrific record at home in recent times, and deserve to head into this latest edition as the favourites.
But with the often shaky Jacques Faty about, the Wanderers should get their chances, and if the likes of Castelen, Piovaccari and Sotirio can somehow find that final ball, they’re in with a sniff.