IT was make or break for Sydney FC as they travelled to Korea to take on K-League giants Suwon Bluewings in the Asian Champions League – and they survived care of a crucial 4-1 victory.
A loss would have consigned Graham Arnold’s reigning A-League champions – and current leaders – to an embarrassing group stage exit after a tough start to the tournament.
But a huge performance from the Sky Blues, provided by a gritty continental performance at the Suwon World Cup Stadium where resolute defending – and opportunistic finishing – guided them to their desired result has set up an epic final group stage matchday.
It was a performance that “ticked every box,” according to Fox Sports’ Mark Bosnich.
Arnold had hyped up Sydney’s chances in Asia’s top club tournament prior to its beginning, and had paid the price for what proved to be cockiness, with an atrocious start which yielded a four-game winless stretch.
The A-League champs kicked off their campaign with a 2-0 loss at home to Suwon, but in the return leg, they proved a significantly tougher proposition despite a raft of changes.
Leading domestic marksman Bobo – currently enjoying the most prolific ever campaign in the A-League – was left on the bench as skipper Alex Brosque led the line.
Usual midfield lynchpin Josh Brillante, on return from Socceroos duty, was deployed at right back as young gun Chris Zuvela occupied the centre of the park alongside Brandon O’Neill.
There was also a starting debut for Ben Warland in the heart of defence as a new look Sky Blues back four proved remarkably solid – so much so that Fox Sports Ned Zelic described it as “perfect.”
Sydney drew first blood in the match as Adrian Mierzejewski unleashed Milos Ninkovic with a classy through ball. The Serbian was confronted by Suwon stopper Hwa Yong Shin, who had come well off his line to try and intercept the bouncing ball, and conjured a classy chipped finish to nab the lead.
But it was ridiculously short lived, as Sydney copped an equaliser within 60 seconds as their Korean opponents struck directly off the kick off.
A wide ball should have been shut down on its move central well before Dejan Damjanovic slammed home a well timed volley to level up the scores.
It was the only blight on an impressive night for the Sky Blues’ rejigged defence, as their attacking counterparts were clinical – scoring four times from four shots in an astoundingly lethal counter attacking spree.
Mierzejewski was the provider again as Sydney restored their lead.
A pinpoint free kick from near the corner post found an unmarked Brosque at the near post, and the skipper made no mistake flicking home a free header inside an unoccupied upright.
Perhaps lucky to take their lead into the break, Bosnich hypothesised that if Sydney could survive “10-15 minutes, I can see them winning this game, and scoring another goal.”
And so it proved.
A resolute defensive showing in the face of some intense pressure from a frustrated Suwon attack frustrated and tired the hosts, before a chance came for the visitors.
Poetically, that opportunity fell to their eventual man of the match Mierzejewski, who made no mistake sliding home his one on one to double his side’s lead and all but secure a crucial victory.
But it was his replacement Bobo who put the final nail in the coffin, utilising his fresh legs to get beyond a tired defence and slot past the keeper to complete the 4-1 rout.
Sydney are now a significant chance to progress in the tournament, despite the fact that, at time of writing, they look like remaining rooted to the bottom of Group H – with Shanghai Shenhua currently leading Kashima Antlers.
With just one match to play in the group stage, the scene has been set for an extraordinarily dramatic final day. Sydney host Shenhua while Kashima and Suwon do battle with every side still a possibility of moving into the knockout stages.
And if they played like they did tonight, there’s no reason the Sky Blues can’t be one of the two sides who progress.