By Steve Wilson
No need to panic. Yet.
That was the message coming out of Sydney FC after the previously near-unbeatable A-League champions fell to a second consecutive league defeat at the weekend, producing an uncharacteristically anaemic performance in a 2-1 home loss to Brisbane.
Five points clear at the top of the ladder with just four games to go, Graham Arnold’s side remain in the box seat.
But all is not well. Cracks are appearing in their erstwhile titanium-clad armoury.
Four games have passed in all competitions since the Sky Blues last won. And only once have they tasted victory in their past seven in all competitions.
The sense of creeping unease was only exacerbated by Saturday night’s sub plots.
David Carney, depending on who you believe, either had to be coerced in to returning to the sheds after dressing and storming to his car, ready to head home, after being substituted at half time; or was always planning on returning to watch from the change room after dumping his bag in a show of understandable upset at having his professional pride dented.
The latter was the official line. Nothing to see here, apparently.
Club captain Alex Brosque, meanwhile, was fortunate he won’t be hearing from authorities after appearing to spit in the general direction of the referee in the same game, in which Sydney’s inability to defend set pieces was once more painfully exposed.
The wheels might not have fully come off. But they appear looser than they have at any point in the past two seasons.
“We’ve had two fantastic years of winning and everyone goes through this period, and this is the time now where people need to step up,” Arnold said.
The champions’ mettle is about to be tested.
There is an air of gleeful schadenfreude in the reporting of the supposed late-season decline.
Universally disliked by other clubs’ fans, any sign of the end of empire is seized upon wilfully, amplified across social media and in TV studios.
It is a mark of how dominant Sydney FC have been in the past two seasons that they should find themselves odds on to claim back-to-back minor premierships and yet cast as a team in crisis.
So, should the fans be worried? Possibly.
Graham Arnold has work to do if he is to leave Sydney FC as back-to-back A-League champions. (AAP: Brendan Esposito)
The club’s drop-off in form has neatly coincided with Arnold’s elevation to the role of Socceroos coach.
That will actually take place after the end of the season. And at his unveiling, the manager was keen to emphasise the announcement would not distract him or the side from the job at hand.
But for all the talk of business as usual, of a task to be completed and silverware to be defended as a fitting send-off to the coach, it is only human nature for change to affect the playing group.
Footballers are not machines. Uncertainty creates fertile ground for concentration to be muddied. Individual errors were at the root of the loss to Brisbane.
Another handbrake on momentum has been the Asian Champions League.
Despite Arnold’s bullish assertion his side were well placed to take local dominance onto the continental arena, recent results provided a chastening wake-up call.
A home draw with Shanghai Shenhau was followed up with a single point gleaned from home-and-away fixtures with Kashima Antlers, in which the Australian champions were second best across the park over 180 minutes of football.
Sydney’s chances of progressing past the group stage are gossamer thin.
Unaccustomed to chasing rather than bossing games, those experiences may well have an impact on the team’s domestic form.
Rhythm has been disrupted. Preparations for A-League fixtures made more challenging by the travel and a loss of confidence in match-day processes.
But the most telling catalyst was arguably found closer to home, up the road in Newcastle.
Ernie Merrick’s impressive side managed the early loss of Roy O’Donovan to a first-half red card and took the game to Sydney in the match of the season, the second-placed team running out deserved 2-1 winners.
Defeats can happen to even the best of sides. But no single fixture did more to strip Sydney FC of their ‘invincible’ aura than that one.
Should Newcastle beat Adelaide on Friday night they will move to within two points of the ladder summit.
What had looked like an unbreachable lead has, in the blink of an eye, become precarious, even if it should remain sufficient.
Even if Sydney, as expected, claim the minor premiership their coronation as championship winners has at the very least been cast in doubt.
Newcastle will not fear them. While Melbourne Victory’s 5-2 win over Central Coast underlined their timely return to form.
Third-placed Victory’s late charge is instructive.
Success in the ACL, in stark contrast to Sydney, has proved a springboard for domestic resurgence. The re-signing of Kevin Muscat as coach for another two years has offered certainty and a renewed sense of purpose and togetherness.
They should not be dismissed from the championship conversation.
For all that, Sydney remain the team to beat, and the bookies’ favourite to go back to back for both pieces of silverware.
And for good reason.
Sydney FC still have the match winning quality of the likes of Milos Ninkovic at their disposal. (AAP: Paul Miller)
In Milos Ninkovic and Adrian Mierzejewski they have arguably the two most gifted players in the division. Proven match winners who can decide any game, at any time.
But the steady accumulation of small doubts is starting to build towards something bigger, emboldening their rivals in the process.
What had looked like another stroll to victory for Sydney has turned in to a genuine title race in which the champions will need to raise heavy legs and tired minds and prove their quality all over again.
“We’ve got that buffer at the moment,” said Arnold of the lead on the ladder in the wake of the Brisbane loss. “And we’ll be back in training tomorrow and we’ll work from there.”
He’s right. This is no longer a cake walk. The idea Sydney need do little more than turn up to win has been debunked.
And for the watching neutral, the finals have been re-energised. It’s up for grabs now.