Nothing But Blue Skies
Repeating in the A-League has proven difficult for the best sides. Sydney FC might be the exception.
SYDNEYFC ENJOYED AN IDEALRU NINTH EA-LEAGUE LAST YEAR. BUT THERE’ S A CLOUD ON THEIR HORIZON: EVERY RECENT CHAMPION HAS BEEN DRAGGED DOWN IN THEIR FOLLOW-UP ACT. IS THIS THE TEAM TO BUCK THE TREND?
O n a crystal-clear night in May, 41,546 fans at Allianz Stadium held their collective breath as Milos Ninkovic prepared to take the penalty that would secure the 201617 A-League Championship for Sydney FC.
Earlier, Sydney and the Melbourne Victory had fought out one of the most physical, foul-riddled and intense titledeciders in recent memory. After 120 mins of energy-sapping football, the lottery of penalties would decide the grand final. The Victory missed two penalties and with the shoot-out poised at 3-2, Ninkovic was standing 11m from goal and had the crowd up on its feet, like he had done all season.
For Sydney FC fans, seeing their Serbian midfield maestro have the chance to win the championship provided the perfect ending to an almost perfect season. The moment to come was the culmination of a record-breaking A-League campaign the likes no one had seen before. Sydney’s season kicked off with a 4-0 thrashing of their bitter rivals, the Western Sydney Wanderers, in front of a record crowd of more than 60,000 at ANZ Stadium. The result inspired an historic 19-game unbeaten run; ironically that winning record came to an end in their season’s only loss ... to the Wanderers.
On their way to winning the double, the Sky Blues broke the regular-season record for most wins, highest goal difference, least goals conceded, most clean sheets, most points in a season and biggest winning margin, a 17-point gap to second.
Only a week earlier, Ninkovic won the Johnny Warren Medal as the competition’s best player. The Serbian import’s nine goals and ten assists in key moments contributed greatly to Sydney FC’s history-making season.
So, when Ninkovic coolly struck home the winning penalty to secure the Sky Blues their first grand final in seven seasons, pandemonium followed. So it’s no surprise the 32-year-old wants to keep that buzz alive ahead of the 2017-18 A-League campaign. “It was an unbelievable moment,” he tells
Inside Sport. “Probably one of the best in my career when I scored that goal. I just ran, I didn’t know where I was running. I wanted to share this with our fans because they were unbelievable. For the 41,546 people who came to watch us, it was an unbelievable feeling. But now I forget that, as it is a new season.
“But we want to feel this feeling again this year. Because that feeling can drive
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you when it is tough and when things are difficult. Because we know how good last year was, when you’re winning all the time, the atmosphere is unbelievable. That feeling can push us to be better than last year.”
You would think after last season’s campaign, the phrase “back-to-back” would be a buzz word for 2017-18. But mention those three words to Sydney FC’s coach, Graham Arnold, and the veteran boss has a problem. While it may sound like semantics, the seasoned A-League campaigner is looking for something bigger and better from Sydney this season.
“I don’t like using the words back to back,” he says. “I like using the words ‘being greater than what we were last year’.
“It’s a challenge that has been put forward to the players individually and as a team, about being greater in all aspects of their performance than in the past.
“I don’t like to refer to last season – it’s history. Obviously, we had a fantastic season and we dominated the whole year. Now it’s a whole new ball game. The grand final trophy and premiers’ plate has gone back to FFA. We have the imitation trophy at this moment at Allianz; we want to win back the real trophy. It’s about what is in front of us.”
The A-League off-season has again been witness to a busy transfer period, but unlike other teams Sydney has kept the nucleus of the side that won all before them last season. Arnold believes that stability will allow the team to reach new heights this year.
“I feel that we have a greater squad than what we had last season in terms of individual players,” he says. “After three years at this club, the players are fitter than they have ever been. The players clearly understand what I want. I only brought in four or five new players, so they’re the only ones who have had to gel into how we play, as opposed to 10 or 11 players. It’s about getting the right people; getting the right characters who are desperate to win every game.
“The transition has been much smoother this pre-season and up to now it has been outstanding and we’re looking forward to the start of the competition.” H istory shows that going back-toback is not an easy task in the A-League. Only the Brisbane Roar has won consecutive grand finals, which it achieved in 2011 and 2012 under the leadership of current Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou.
Add to that: no club has finished first on the A-League table and lifted the premiers’ plate two years in a row. But Sydney FC captain Alex Brosque has history in his sights once again.
“The standards that we set last year were great, but winning the premiership is so important in the A-League,” he says. “There’s a reason no one has been able to do it twice in a row. So far that has been the message that Graham Arnold is going to use to drive us this year.
“Last year was about achieving certain goals and certain targets and wanting to become a great team. This year is different. Rather than trying to do all those things, it’s about maintaining the same attitude. Our attitude was fantastic last year, but it’s always difficult to back up. So mentally it’s going to be about how strong we are and to make sure what happened to Adelaide United and so many other teams doesn’t happen to us.”
Last season’s grand final hero Ninkovic not only has eyes on what the club achieved last season, he wants the trophy cabinet to be full by season’s end.
“Personally, I don’t think we need to
prove or to show someone that we are the best,” he says. “What we did last season, it was unbelievable; nobody had done anything like that in the A-League before. But this year we just want to win everything. To win the FFA Cup, to win the premiers’ plate and the grand final, and we also have the Asian Champions League. We want to play some very good teams in Asia and to show them that we are very strong.
“We lost some key players but it’s not too much. Most of the players have stayed and we know each other. So, this year is going to be much easier than last year. If I want to compare last preseason at this time and today, we are much, much better at understanding each other than last season.”
While Sydney has kept the nucleus of its squad, the club has lost two big personalities in goalkeeper of the year Danny Vukovic, who moved overseas, and right back Rhyan Grant, who suffered a major injury.
Ninkovic admitted the club will feel the absence of both players for what they produced on and off the field. “I feel very bad for Rhyan Grant, because he’s a nice guy,” he says. “He’s a very important player in the dressing room, he’s very strong mentally and he will come back soon. He was the best right back in the league last season. But we signed Luke Wilkshire, who I know from when I played for Serbia against the Socceroos in the 2010 World Cup.
“Then there is Vuka [Vukovic], who is a great guy and a great goalkeeper. He was the best goalkeeper last season. Of course, he is a big loss for us. But our new goalkeeper, Andrew Redmayne, is very good. When we played against Arsenal he was unbelievable."
Besides Grant and Vukovic, Sydney FC has also lost two wingers, with fan favourites Filip Holosko and Bernie Ibini departing in the offseason to overseas clubs. However, Arnold looks to have made a shrewd piece of business in bringing in Polish international winger Adrian Mierzejewski.
Mierzejewski has played for Poland 41 times and when he signed with Turkey’s Trabzonspor in 2011-12 for €5.25m, it made him the most expensive transfer in the history of the Polish League. With Champions League and Europa League experience against teams such as Inter Milan and Juventus, Arnold believes Mierzejewski will add some polish to Sydney FC’s squad and alongside Ninkovic will provide even greater attacking threats.
“He’s a top-quality player, his pedigree and his CV says it all,” he says. “To have two of those kinds of players in the one team shows the improvement that the
“All the players have quality… It’ s not like they won the league last season and now, how to say it in English? ‘Their noses are high.'”
team still has in it.”
In the FFA Cup quarter-final win against Melbourne City, Mierzejewski gave Sydney FC fans a taste of his skill on the ball, with his dribbling skills and passing range running the City defence ragged. After just over a month with his new club, Mierzejewski is impressed with the quality of his team-mates and the focus they have for the season ahead.
“We are the best team in Australia,” he says confidently. “I am surprised when I watched the last Australian national team game that there was not one player from Sydney FC there.
“All the players have quality. I can see the level and the standards of training here is really high. It’s not like they won the league last season and now, how to say it in English? ‘Their noses are high.’ They are still working hard and want to be better.
“I’m just the new player, the rest have been training together for the last two or three years and last season was proof that it was going the right way.”
Mierzejewski’s recent stint with Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr saw him feature in the Asian Champions League and with Sydney entering that competition in February, that experience will be crucial.
When Sydney last played in the ACL in 2016, the club earned a famous 2-1 victory over Chinese Super League side Guangzhou Evergrande, which was led by Brazil World Cup-winning coach Luis Felipe Scolari. The win helped the Sky Blues advance past the group stage for the first time in their
history. But in the next round, a freak longrange goal by Shandong Luneng knocked them out.
During that time, Sydney’s A-League form suffered and it saw them miss out on the finals in 2015-16. The seventh-placed finish was Arnold’s worst-ever result in his coaching career. After last season’s success, it’s hard to believe Arnold was under pressure at the beginning of last term. With Sydney playing in the ACL and A-League again this season, the veteran campaigner admitted some valuable experience has been gained.
“First and foremost, I know that we have a group of players who are more prepared for that,” Arnold says. “I don’t want to look back at what happened in the past. Obviously, I’ve learnt lessons from the past. It’s all about moving forward.
“The most important thing in the past for
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me has been the scheduling, which has been tough. But FFA has fixed that by making a much better draw for the A-League teams who are participating in the ACL and so there is a good break in between the weeks, which gives you the opportunity to be successful in both competitions. We have a top-quality squad that is hungry to do well in all competitions.”
With Sydney breaking so many records last season, a debate began as to who should be considered the best team in the A-League. Brisbane Roarholds therecordfor the longest unbeatenrun of any Australian football code, which stands at 36 league matches without defeat. But if the Sky Blues win back-to-back championships, they will have won four A-League titles and will overtake Victory and Brisbane Roar, who have three.
However, Brosque feels the Sky Blues are forging their own identity. “To be honest, we as a team never compared ourselves to Brisbane,” he says. “In my opinion, did we play the kind of football that Brisbane Roar played? No. For me, the way that Brisbane played in that year was probably some of the best football that we’ve ever watched.
“But in terms of actual statistics and records, then it’s hard to go past what we did last year. We’re just looking at it as being our own thing and understanding that what we did was something special and great and we want to be spoken about on our own terms.
“That will be something that will drive us again. What we did last year was great and mentally it was fantastic. But we’re going to have to be better in every single way if we want to do it again.”
KeeperDanny Vukovic is a big loss for Sydney FC, but AndrewRedmayne [¦§¨©] is a handy replacement.
Graham Arnold has brought in Polish international winger Adrian Mierzejewski.
Milos Ninkovic closes in on glory in the 2017 grand final's penalty shootout. Ninkovic's teammates close in on him in celebration of a famous Sydney FC title.
Sydney FC coach Graham Arnold was alone at the top last season.
David Carney and Sydney FC claimed an historic Asian Champs final win over Guangzhou Evergrande, but their 2015-16 A League campaign [ ] ran out of steam.