Sydney fights back to down Wanderers

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Sydney FC fought back from two goals down to beat the Western Sydney Wanderers 3-2 in a wild derby in front of a record crowd at the Sydney Football Stadium.

To state the bare facts of the match – five goals, a red card, an all-consuming melee and a pitch invasion – only scratches the surface.

If ever there was a question of football’s place at the top table of Australian inflatable ball sports, the Sydney derby seems to be the answer. While the national team burns elsewhere, selling out the Sydney Football Stadium (or Allianz Stadium, if they send me money to say their name) is reason enough for David Gallop to crack a smile.

David Gallop, of course, the model name for the for the code-hopping, strictly-business, success-only automaton that the administration gods carved from wood, probably, and sent to Australia to straighten out sport. The crowd, at times, sounded almost European in its enthusiasm.

As ever in football – or most football worth watching, anyway – it was red versus blue.  As the two teams came out, the Cove flapped a mosaic of thin plastic in probable homage to the harbour, and held a banner along the front of the stand: “West is just geography. Sydney is a state of mind.” Up the other end, the travelling Red and Black Bloc jumped up and down, then threw a few flares.

A cheeky Graham Arnold went all Jose Mourinho and delivered a savage blow to Tony Popovic’s confidence in the days ahead of the match with some timeless mind-gamery; executing to devastating effect the “say the opposition is distracted” maneuver.

With the Wanderers looking ahead to the first leg of the Asian Champions League final, Arnold referred to their recent four-goal meltdown in Melbourne, wondering (in a very psychological, mind-gamey way) if “last week was a one-off, or it was because they had one eye on the Champions League? I guess we’ll find out.”

So what did we find out? Either Graham Arnold is a psychological savant, probably also capable of moving the ball around the pitch with the power of his mind, or Sydney FC, after 90 minutes of football, are simply better than the Western Sydney Wanderers.

A cautious start gave way to swooping counter attacks from both sides, with the home team looking better than their opponents, but only relatively – indeed, the opening goal came against the run of play when the Wanderers broke free on the right wing; Romeo Castelen hooking in a cross to Mark Bridge, who swiped a volley into the net for his first goal against his old club.

The crisis deepened six minutes later, as Sydney conceded an atomically disastrous own goal. A Wanderers corner was cleared into the stars by Sasa Ognenovski – all good so far. Ogenenvoski however, had made the critical mistake of applying absolutely no distance to his clearance, opting instead for full-height, and then things started to go wrong.

Vedran Janjetovic misjudged gravity, despite his previous 34 years of experience with the concept, arched his back and threw a hopeless glove above his head to palm the ball behind him. As a familiar disappointment wafted in across the Cove, the away end exploded.

Both sides were happy to foul their way towards half time, with tackles never exceeding the innocuous, but enough to cut short any threat of realised momentum. Sydney broke forward, and Western Sydney broke back – it was a pattern repeated with little result, until Brosque slipped into space on the left after a ball from deep, and squeezed a backheel across to Corey Gameiro on the edge of the box.

The striker drifted in from behind his captain, and took one touch towards goal before screwing a shot across Marc Janko and Nikolai Topor-Stanley wrestling in the middle – Janko seemed to move to avoid getting in the way, but Topor-Stanley found his toes in the wrong place at the wrong time (namely, at the end of his foot) and the ball hopped up slightly to roll past the inside of the far post.

For all analysis, at half time it seemed fair to call it a weird game and almost leave it at that. Neither side had particularly impressed or dominated – rather, it was a case of opportunities being opportunistically taken where they presented themselves. If anything, Sydney FC had the better of the opening exchanges, and could have counted themselves unlucky to go into half time a goal down.

The second half started quickly for the home team. A farcical goalmouth scramble led to two corners in a row, the second from which Sydney completed their comeback to draw level.

Tumbling towards the ground as the corner dipped into the box, Sasa Ognenovski swung a gawky foot out and connected, sending the ball bouncing through Romeo Castelen’s legs and past a bewildered Ante Covic, who predictably struggled to keep himself from exploding into a fine red mist.

The referee, likely as confused as anyone else by the previous few minutes, kept in the spirit of the game and awarded the goal despite unsupported protests from most in red and black.

Soon enough, the match descended into a frantic series of cynical trips and ten metre bursts as players tired and formations stretched. It culminated in a red card for Vitor Saba, who seemed slightly unfortunate to be sent off after sliding across Terry Antonis with a foot raised but seemingly no contact made.

With the extra man, Sydney were able to pour forward with purpose. Janko had a shot blocked and the resulting corner was tipped over the crossbar after header from Sebastian Ryall.

Alex Brosque inevitably scored a third for his side to compound the Wanderers’ collapse, guiding a volley across Covic. Sydney, now, had essentially won: a man and a goal up with 10 minutes remaining; Brosque’s winner was followed by a pitch invasion that never really reached its full potential given the 41,213 fans in attendance.

Sydney won 3-2 in the end, but the result was satisfying for the wider football community because it felt like a realisation of the A-League dream: a stadium that burst into noise on every whistle, drama as good as any league in the world, and a properly exciting, end-to-end, rollicking game of football.

Never mind the quality in places ­– none of the goals were quite as stylish as Allianz saw last week – but for narrative and atmosphere, this was as good as it gets for Australian football.

Both sides have a busy week ahead: Sydney will look to continue to capitalise on its good form against Adelaide United on Tuesday night in the FFA Cup, before a trip to Brisbane on Friday.

Western Sydney, meanwhile, is without A-League football until early November, with its focus now solely turning to the Asian Champions League final first leg at Parramatta Stadium next Saturday.

Sydney FC starting XI: 20. Janjetovic (GK), 2. Ryall, 3. Ognenovski, 6. Petkovic, 16. Gersbach, 17. Antonis, 8. Dimitrijevic, 11. Ibini, 14. Brosque (C), 21. Janko, 7. Gameiro

Sydney FC subs: Necevski, Bojic, Abbas, Naumoff, Carle.

Western Sydney Wanderers starting XI: 1. Covic, 3. Mullen, 5. Hamill, 4. Topor-Stanley (C), 6. Golec, La Rocca, 8. Poljak, 10. Saba, 17. Castelen, 19. Bridge, 11. Santalab

Western Sydney Wanderers subs: Haliti, Appiah-Kubi, Bouzanis, Trifiro.

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