Kevin Muscat, Melbourne Victory’s coach, looked unimpressed when asked on the eve of the Big Blue clash with Sydney if the current league leaders, unbeaten in 16 A-League matches coming into Thursday night’s game, could be the best A-League team ever.
“Not at this stage” was Muscat’s peremptory response as he went on to give reasons why his team had the beating of Sydney, and how Graham Arnold and his men knew it.
Victory are not far off Sydney, but they haven’t got the beating of Sydney, at least not yet this season.
On Thursday night it went close, but wasn’t quite good enough to dent the Sky Blues’ long unbeaten run when a Filip Holosko header and a blistering Bernie Ibini shot first cancelled out James Troisi’s opener and then ensured Sydney would stretch their unbeaten streak to 18 A-League games spread across two seasons.
And while Sydney are still some way short of being the greatest A-League team ever – it is sobering to think that their lengthy run without defeat is now only half as long as the record set by Brisbane Roar – they can at least start to believe that their aim of becoming the 2017 version of The Invincibles in not just a pipe dream.
Arnold has challenged his side to become the team that has the greatest season ever in terms of points amassed in a 10-team competition with 27 matches.
The best points haul in that configuration so far was the 57 achieved by Western Sydney Wanderers in their debut campaign in 2012/13.
After Thursday night’s win Sydney is now 11 points clear at the top (from Victory) and has 43 points from their 17 games. It now needs only 15 points – five wins from the last 10 matches – to surpass the Wanderers total and statistically become the greatest team in the league’s 12-season history.
And, on the evidence they have presented all season, there is no reason why Sydney cannot go on with the job.
Unlike the tiki-taka Brisbane teams with which Ange Postecoglou set records, Arnold’s Sydney are not particularly easy on the eye. That is probably why they are not getting the adulation from neutrals that Brisbane received.
Not that that will worry Arnold and his players.
There is little flamboyancy about Sydney. There are few virtuoso displays of skill, not many silky passages of play, little in the way of breathtaking individual actions.
Arnold’s Sky Blues are, however, relentless. In the way of Western Sydney in that club’s first campaign, they have a habit of crushing and squeezing the opposition, first stopping them from playing and then imposing themselves on their rivals.
But they are sharper up front than Tony Popovic’s Wanderers were four years ago.
In that initial campaign Western Sydney only scored 41 goals in their 27 matches, conceding 21.
With 10 games left in the current home-and-away season Sydney have already scored 38 goals, conceding only eight.
Sydney are strong mentally: when they go behind they don’t panic. The sense of self-belief is immense, says Arnold, with a group who like and trust each other, a team who have come together and grow in understanding as the season has progressed.
They are not impregnable – as Fahid Ben Khalfallah showed when he embarrassed the makeshift full back Aaron Calver on several occasions in the first half on Thursday night, helping to create Troisi’s goal. Marco Rojas also went close in the opening period, and in truth Sydney didn’t offer much of a threat until Milos Ninkovic’s excellent cross found the head of Holosko to put them back on terms.
Victory did dominate the opening exchanges of the second half but there was always a feeling that when they didn’t take their chances – Ben Khalfallah hit the bar, goalkeeper Danny Vukovic made a point-blank save from Leigh Broxham – then Sydney would somehow find a way to grab the win.
Sydney will never have a better chance to take not just the Premier’s Plate but the A-League title.
They have not won a trophy in seven years – their last came in that Grand Final win on penalties against Victory in 2010 – and they are now in pole position to take the Plate and win their home semi-final, which would give them hosting rights for the title decider.
Mathematically they could still be caught, but who would bet against them now?
For Victory the job ahead is now to regroup for the upcoming derby against Melbourne City on February 4.
Muscat has consistently refused to use fatigue as an excuse for the fact that his side has now lost three matches on the spin – away to Wellington and Perth and home to Sydney – but it has played a part.
Victory get a nine-day break now, and Muscat will need his players to rest and then regather themselves for the final third of the campaign: if they are to derail the Sky Blue express they will need to match Sydney in effort and mindset. Muscat would like nothing better than to end the streak – if it is still going by then – when Victory next meet Sydney in the NSW capital in March.
“I’m not walking away from tonight terrified,” was his message after the game. “I will never give up trying to catch them. We haven’t been opened up tonight. We haven’t been out-passed or outplayed. I was really happy with the football we played.”
Muscat believed his side created more chances than Sydney when they went down to 10 men after centre back James Donachie was sent off.
“We scored a very, very good goal but it’s disappointing at the moment that we’re making some decisions defensively that are resulting in goals.”
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