Alessandro Del Piero scored from a penalty rebound as the Blues won the first ever Sydney derby.
Tony Popovic made one change from the side that was defeated in Adelaide, with Labinot Haliti preferred ahead of Youssouf Hersi.
As widely anticipated, Paul Reid replaced captain Terry McFlynn in midfield. Sebastian Ryall was handed a first start of the season replacing the injured Adam Griffiths, while Rhyan Grant was selected at right back, meaning Brett Emerton was pushed into midfield. Mitch Mallia switched to the left wing.
A tight, congested game settled by the intervention of the marquee man.
Both sides played similar 4-2-3-1 formations, with both managers asking the two wide players to drop back and form a second bank of four after initial pressing. The Wanderers duo of Mark Bridge and Haliti were the more disciplined wide players, and the Wanderers appeared more organised for the majority of the game.
With Mateo Poljak broadly picking up Alessandro Del Piero and Paul Reid marking Shinji Ono, there were clear match ups in midfield, meaning the key playmakers (Ono, Del Piero, Reid and Mooy) struggled for space, although Ono often found space in behind Ali Abbas, who was particularly keen to close down Mooy, leaving a pocket of space in front of Trent McClenahan. The Wanderers best move of the game stemmed from this space as Ono played a delicate chip ball well defended by Fabio.
Fabio v Haliti
That particular piece of play symbolised what had been the game’s most notable and interesting battle. Fabio played combatively, moving quickly up the pitch to prevent Haliti even finding time to turn on the ball. It was a risky strategy, evidenced by the number of fouls he conceded down that flank, but it did push Haliti away from goal and prevented the Wanderers from playing quick transitions down that flank. Fabio may have been trying to account for the lack of protection from Mallia, who was slow to track back.
Last week, Sydney’s fullbacks had been exposed by this very problem, with Craig Goodwin free to play off Emile Heskey and run directly at Brett Emerton, resulting in a goal and a few missed chances. Here, Emerton was in the same position he played in the final twenty minutes of that match, where Sydney enjoyed the bulk of possession and were able to come back into the game. Emerton’s positioning had been crucial: he’s more defensively aware and willing to run from box to box, and here he was able to push Adam D’Apuzzo back and restrict the attacking play of the full-back.
Lack of goals
The Wanderers lack of goals is a well-documented problem. Dino Kresinger is admired for his work-rate and pressing from the front, but he’s struggled to even shoot, let alone score. As a tall striker, he offers an aerial outlet and can provide hold-up play, but he rarely offers a threat in behind due to his lack of pace, and with the wingers staying fairly wide and Ono preferring to receive passes to feet, he’s often isolated, and easily marked by central defenders.
Part of the problem can be linked to the style of the Wanderers midfield – Ono and Mooy have been the side’s standout players, but both are playmakers, looking to get on the ball and play penetrative passes, while Poljak is the nominal holding midfielder and stays in deep positions. Rarely is someone actually bursting past Kresinger to add another threat.
Sydney also have a similar problem, but stems more from the mannerisms of the strikers. Kruno Louvrek is also yet to score in the A-League, and the Croatian striker was withdrawn on sixty minutes. Playing just in front of Del Piero, one would expect him to be leading the line, looking to get on the end of crosses and passes into space, but he is actually very similar to the Italian, and likes to drop deep and link up play. Sydney looked more threatening when Mallia was moved to centre-forward following Louvrek’s removal, as the former provided a threat in behind with his pace and diagonal running.
Instead, the game’s only goal came from a penalty rebound following Del Piero’s second penalty. The first ten minutes of the half had seen both sides come out with renewed vigour and pressing higher up the pitch. This opened up more spaces between the lines, and although the Wanderers looked promising when Bridge drifted inside to provide Kresinger with support, Del Piero was steadily becoming the game’s key man. He was constantly finding room down the Wanderers right channel, in between Jerome Polenz and Michael Beauchamp, and Haliti was often drawn deep by his movement, forced into rash challenges, and was eventually substituted. Del Piero found space between the lines and worked some good opportunities, before finding his way into the box and coercing Mooy into a rash challenge.
Sydney looked better when both Antonis and Reid were able to transition possession from defence into attack, but having gone behind, it was the Wanderers who had to provide the running after the goal. They began to push the fullbacks further forward, to which Crook responded by substituting Fabio for youngster Daniel Petrovski.
With the clock running down, Popovic’s last throw of the dice was his seemingly ‘standard’ change: introducing Tarek Elrich for Poljak, removing a midfielder, partnering Bridge with Kresinger and adopting a 4-1-3-2 shape. It was the exact same change as last week when the Wanderers were chasing the game against Adelaide, but the results were similar: while they had greater numbers forward, the opposition were able to sit deeper and simply deny them space in dangerous positions. Crucially, Del Piero was instructed to pick up Mooy, preventing him from playing long diagonals from deep, while Crook also introduced McFlynn, a simple move to add another defensive midfielder.
A relatively even game with Sydney perhaps enjoying more of the run of play, but the difference was in how each side integrated their marquee. With Reid in midfield, Sydney were able to find Del Piero in a more dangerous positions higher up the pitch rather than deep as it was the case in Wellington, while playing Emerton in midfield provided greater defensive solidarity down the flank.
Much to ponder for Popovic, and while he clearly likes Kresinger’s movement in the defensive phase, he may consider introducing Tahj Minnecon as a more dynamic central forward. They look far more promising when the fullbacks provide overlaps down the wing, but understandably he may be wary of exposing his defence. Instructing Poljak to sit between the two centre-backs as Paartalu does for Brisbane could be one possible solution.