Stalemate as Sydney, Victory remain unbeaten

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Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory remain the only unbeaten teams in the A-League after a strangely entertaining 0-0 draw in front of 21,424 people at Allianz Stadium on Saturday night; both sides failed to score in a match defined by profligacy in front of goal, and depleted by the absence of eight internationals.

The year is 1901 (I know that it’s actually 2014, but stick with me here), and the Constitution of Australia has just been entered into force. Among its eight chapters is a section recommending that, courtesy of a pretty pathetic squabble between Melbourne and Sydney, the capital of a new Australia should be created approximately equidistant from both, and so twelve years later, on a sunken patch of frozen tundra, Canberra is born.

Over a century has passed since and, despite the absence of a Canberra-based side in the A-League to give some real credence to the claim, the rivalry between Australia’s great metropolises remains. If there’s a danger of focus being dragged towards the shinier, more Asian Champions League-winning or David Villa-having clubs in the major capitals, Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory are fighting the tide.

Both are among the only unbeaten sides in the competition – Adelaide United the third – clear of the gap between fifth and sixth, and are visibly improving on whatever they were trying to do last season. With the narrative building nicely, it only made sense for an international break to rip into both sides and remind the A-League of its place in the world. Where it couldn’t take players out of the game by scheduling domestic league matches during a designated international week, the FFA made up rules of its own and banned them.

So, as the Socceroos gear up for a game against the Japanese in Osaka on Tuesday night, Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory were without key players for the 32nd edition of the A-League’s first great rivalry. With Marc Janko, Corey Gameiro, Connor Pain and Kosta Barbarouses abroad, and Mark Milligan and Terry Antonis ruled out with injury and car crash-related ridiculousness respectively, there was a hollowness about the match before it had kicked off. On the upside, it meant that Allianz Stadium finally saw Shane Smeltz.

Melbourne made sense of a frantic opening five minutes, before properly butchering a chance to go ahead. In a move that was hilarious as it was tragic – more so, if anything – Archie Thompson ran free as a bald eagle through the Sydney backline with Besart Berisha streaming in behind, drawing the goalkeeper towards him before sliding the ball across for his teammate.

Berisha scored but had inexplicably run offside, thankfully only realising after he had embarassed himself by tearing towards the corner flag in celebration while the majority of the 21, 424-strong crowd cheered his mistake.

Minutes later, Sydney had scored an offside goal of their own, Ognenovski deflecting the ball in after a short corner was whipped across a crowd of bodies in front of Nathan Coe’s goal. Victory, though, were firmly in the ascendancy.

They pressured high on the wings and were dogged in winning possession back from a retreating defence, but were frustrated in their attempts to stick the ball into the net.

Thompson was put through again and tried to round the goalkeeper as Sydney struggled to introduce competitiveness to the match, but Janjetovic fell quickly at his feet to save.

Until this point somewhat secondary to the actual football, both sides decided to give some substance to the narrative, and Ali Abbas duly sparked a scuffle with Thompson over nothing on the sideline. Apoplectic that Peter Green’s cards had yet to make an appearance, Kevin Muscat wheeled around to the stands, looking just about ready to slide tackle the royal baby in the face.

The half descended into a succession of shots aimed at goalkeepers at either end, yet the match remained scoreless.

Thompson had opportunities, and time to take them, but was wasteful. Brosque, at the other end, wriggled free of Leigh Broxham and found himself one-on-one with Nathan Coe, but sliced under the ball and sent his shot spinning into the crowd.

There was a final chance for Melbourne to go ahead before the break: Berisha skipped clear of Ryall’s attentions on the left, and squared to Khalfallah in space, but Janjetovic rushed to clear. As halftime came and went the game was really only in need of a goal, but the enthusiastic thousands were given rain instead.

Sydney started the second half as Melbourne had the first; lurching forward with the seeming intention of scoring.

Ali Abbas won a freekick in dangerous territory on the edge of the Victory box after Bernie Ibini dragged play up from the opposition half, but Milos Dimitrijevic skimmed the crossbar with his effort to reinforce a familiar theme – damn close, but not damn near close enough.

The field now heavy with water, the game stretched between counterattacks. Thompson grew sluggish as time went on and left Berisha and Khalfallah to lead Melbourne back into the match, though any runs towards the Sydney were cut short by a sliding Sasa Ognenovski, who was, for most of the night, anyway, doing a decent impression of a professional defender.

Eventually, and somewhat unexpectedly given the intensity of the first half, it got a bit boring. Melbourne had exhausted themselves in the first half, and with twenty minutes left to play, Sydney were tiring too.

Both sides lunged into tackles but lacked the contact to provoke a reaction beyond the stands – “That’s disgraceful!” yelled a Sydney fan above the benches as Abbas crumpled in front of an unimpressed Graham Arnold late on. “You’re supposed to be a FIFA referee!” he shouted, as if he still took FIFA seriously.

Arnold and Muscat came together at the end of the match; both happy with the half their side had dominated, but equally disappointed that neither had managed to do anything meaningful with their chances.

Typically maddened, Muscat shouted at whatever interrupted his field of vision. “You go talk to your players,” Arnold told him, “And I’ll talk to mine.”

The message for both, one imagines, should be an encouraging one; the scoreline belying the quality of a curious match.

Next week, Sydney FC head south to a resurgent Melbourne City, while the Victory will look to cut Adelaide United’s lead at the top of the ladder with a match against a stumbling Brisbane Roar side.

Sydney FC starting XI: Janjetovic (GK), Ryall, Ognenovski, Petkovic, Abbas, Ibini, Dimitrijevic, Gligor, Naumoff, Smeltz, Brosque (c)

Sydney FC substitutes: Necevski, Bojic, Gersbach, Triantis, Carle

Melbourne Victory starting XI: Coe (GK), Mahazi, Broxham (c), Leijer, Murnane, Makarounas, Valeri, Finkler, Thompson, Khalfallah, Berisha

Melbourne Victory substitutes: Thomas, Nabbout, Brown, Dover, Cavallo

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