Pre-season predictions are a dangerous game in sport, especially in the salary-capped environment of the A-League. Yet the fall of last season’s top two clubs has been astonishing.
While there were predictions for Sydney FC to struggle without Marc Janko, few people would have braved predicting such a dramatic slide. Even fewer would have dared suggest Kevin Muscat’s Melbourne Victory were anything less than top four material.
Yet here we are, three games from the 2015-16 regular season’s finish, and one of the two clubs will be missing out on finals football. Perth Glory could theoretically still miss out, but despite danger of egg and face colliding that is not going to happen.
For Sydney FC, you can almost pinpoint their demise to January 16. The Sydney derby, where the Sky Blues battled towards a 2-1 win over rivals Western Sydney Wanderers away from home, appears the bizarre catalyst.
It was a huge result which should have pushed the team on towards a premiership challenge, yet criticism for Sydney’s dull, defensive performance was rife, including on The Roar.
Since that victory, Sydney are winless in the A-League with five losses and four draws. They have conceded 18 goals, whereas the previous 15 games resulted in just 13 goals against for the best defence in the league.
Did the criticism of tactics affect the team? Did it affect the unflappable belief of Graham Arnold? The club and fans will rightly say bollocks, but it is an intriguing coincidence nonetheless.
Poor recruitment has been Arnold’s downfall, and to be fair it is an anomaly on the former Central Coast Mariners coach’s record of developing youth mixed with collecting astute signings.
Letting Janko depart without lining up a like-for-like replacement has been disastrous, the Austrian has scored 20 goals for FC Basel and was playing in the Europa League up until last week.
Matt Simon appeared a horrendous signing, and it has appeared so. Meanwhile, Filip Holosko was never the marksman to replace Janko’s goals. The Slovakian has been impressive in patches, however, and his seven strikes far outweigh Shane Smeltz’s tally of four, in a disappointing season for the Kiwi.
In hindsight, the loss of Corey Gameiro to Melbourne City appears inconsequential, given the striker suffered another serious knee injury. But perhaps his luck would have been different staying in the NSW capital, he was certainly on fire at the beginning of last season.
Meanwhile, Jacques Faty and Vedran Janjetovic have bungled their way through defence. Throw in Alex Brosque’s continued injury woes, and Andrew Hoole’s failure to settle and it is no wonder Sydney FC have struggled.
On the weekend, the Sky Blues surrendered a 2-0 lead to the Central Coast Mariners, who are rooted to the bottom of the league, to draw 2-2. It could be decisive in their battle to make the finals.
Yet it Sydney’s dark blue rivals’ plummet that has been more incredible.
On Sunday, Melbourne Victory fans cracked, sending Kevin Muscat’s off the field with a chorus of boos following a 1-1 draw with 10-man Newcastle. It signalled another disappointing result in a sloppy run, which has occurred over a similar timeframe to that of Sydney FC’s.
Since an Australia Day victory over the Sky Blues, the Victory have won just once in eight games, with three losses and four draws. They have conceded 14, including five against Brisbane Roar. A mini crisis that developed over December and January has failed to end, turning exponentially into an ever bigger crisis. At the time, Muscat was unperturbed, it is likely he is more concerned now.
Pre-season everyone was lauding Victory’s depth in all departments. Last season it was hard to choose an attacking line-up from the likes of Besart Berisha, Gui Finkler, Khalid Ben Khalfallah, Kosta Barbarouses and Archie Thompson. They also had Connor Pain as a useful option off the bench.
This campaign, Finkler and Khalfallah have had horrid seasons, and Berisha, despite scoring a solid tally of 16, has seemingly missed more sitters than in his previous four A-League campaigns combined. Finkler was left out of the ACL squad and Barbarouses has signed a pre-contract with Wellington Phoenix. It has all combined for a fractured attack. Muscat has refused to drop out of form stars, but that is also down to a lack of alternatives – Pain’s failure to break the first team suggests he has not progressed sufficiently.
Most fans will point to one decisive off-season departure as a major reason for Victory’s fall – that of former captain Mark Milligan. While it is true his absence has weakened the team, with Oliver Bozanic failing to match his performance levels, the real blow was Carl Valeri falling to illness in December. He had the ability to cover Milligan’s loss, and if he had stayed on the field his partnership with Bozanic would have blossomed to give Muscat a solid base for revival.
Instead, Leigh Broxham and Rashid Mahrazi have alternated in the defensive midfield role, and Victory have lost their impetus and drive.
In defence, the constant of Matthieu Delpierre and arrival of Danny Vukovic has failed to bring sustained consistency. The loss of Nick Ansell before a ball had been kicked was a setback, and while Thomas Deng’s rise has been a fantastic story, another youngster in Giancarlo Gallifuoco has struggled. Victory are in desperate need of a reshuffle come the off-season, regardless of whether they turn things around.
Both Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory have the excuse of competing in dual competitions since the Asian Champions League group stages kicked off at the end of February. But that would be a cop-out, the dual responsibility has only spanned the last four A-League fixtures. Both teams were already sliding before the ACL began, yet perhaps the added fixture congestion has prevented Arnold and Muscat from finding solutions.
Arnold can at least take solace in Sydney FC’s ACL campaign, which has been fantastic with two wins from three, including an incredible victory over Chinese giants Guangzhou Evergrande. Muscat will be less pleased, though can still be content with a solid opening win followed by two draws.
Yet even progression to the knockouts would not be enough for both sets of supporters if their team fails to make finals.
At this stage, with three games remaining, one of Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory are missing out, most likely the former. Victory have a three-point buffer, but face Wanderers, Phoenix away and finally Brisbane. Sydney also face a tough run-in with Brisbane away before two homes games against Adelaide United and the rejuvenated Perth Glory.
For the club that squeezes into sixth, they will face the a historical challenge – no team outside the top two has ever won an A-League championship. It is an ominous statistic.
Though if the norm was ever to be broken, it would be in this season, which has been the most competitive and unpredictable in the A-League’s short history – as evidenced by the position of last season’s two best clubs.