The result of the opening game of the new season signifies little but the match was testament to the enthusiasm and commitment of young players, new players and new combinations, all with something to prove.
Sydney United deserve their win only for holding out so well after being awarded an early penalty. But Wollongong dominated so much so that, in the words of two local fans in front of me, their second half looked like a training run.
Zeljko Babic, one of several recent Wolves players now appearing for Sydney United, got an early touch on a high ball in the Wollongong penalty area but had little chance to do anything with it.
Nahuel Arrarte, formerly a United player, had his shirt severely stretched by Dean Heffernan, another ex-Wolf. Arrarte soon after ³accidentally² tripped up Heffernan off the ball. And to round things off Heffernan gave Wollongong newcomer Borislav (Bobby) Dragas a hefty shouldering, also well off the ball.
Unitedıs first attempted shot came from another former local hero, David Huxley, in the third minute. But the kick was miscued and went wide right
Steven DeGiovianniello, a Wollongong acquisition from Campbelltown, impressed early with his authority in midfield and accurate distribution.
In the seventh minute, another Wolves newy, Michael Hawrysiuk from Bonnyrigg White Eagles, collected a pass from the left but pushed the ball left of goal when a decent strike on target was clearly in order. The first decent chance of the game wasted.
A minute later DeGiovianniello took the ball down the middle of the park and fed Tanju Balabanel to his right. Balabanel who apparently scored 26 goals in the New South Wales Winter Super League for the Sydney Crescents was another standout for Wolves, his constant running and physical strength clearly troubling the United defence. On this occasion he hit an optimistic first time shot wide of goal.
One of the few old hands remaining in the Wollongong side, Stuart Young, was played into open space on the right but his first-time cross was lobbed too long.
One of Unitedıs more experienced heroes on the night, Damon Collina, put in a good tackle on Young, Arrarte brought down Michael Cunico off the ball and Balabanel made a good break into the United penalty area, but was ruled offside.
In the 12th minute Shane Lyons, on a good through ball from DeGiovianniello, had room to do something in the box but took on Collina to get a better angle. Collina bettered him.
Then Collina blotted his copybook (in a yellowish fashion) by bringing down Hawrysiuk who was passing him and preparing to cross after working a good one-two with Arrarte.
Hawrysiuk seems not to be the fastest runner around, but he has a great change of pace and certainly kept Heffernan quiet most of the night. Balabanel again collected the ball in a good position in front of goal but again was ruled offside.
In the 17th minute Huxley had a first-time volley wide to the right of the Wollongong goal.
Two minutes later a clumsy leap by Dragas, falling all over Babic, effectively decided the game in favour of United. Joe Vrkic another former Wolf converted the penalty and the United backline did the needful for the rest of the game.
Not that Wollongong didnıt apply pressure. A minute later Young swept a ball from the right just over the United crossbar.
But the visitors immediately threw away a chance to really seal the result. Babic did great work round the defender on the right and lobbed in a perfect cross to the goal box. Heffernan was on hand to put away the easiest of goals but nodded the ball over the crossbar. A let off for Wolves.
In the 23rd minute Labinot Haliti brought the ball down the middle of the park and passed left to Heffernan who cut in and shot across the face of goal, just wide of the right upright.
Michael Santalab earned his yellow card for bringing down Lyons who was making good use of a finely delivered pass from Hawrysiuk. The free kick was good, but bounced past the goal without anyone touching it.
Down the other end Andrew Crews tackled Babic in his own goal box. The ball wasnıt cleared far and Crews found himself having to make an easy save.
In the 29th minute Hawrysiuk, who moments earlier had demonstrated his good long throw, chipped the ball into the box for Young. It fell for Balabanel, however, whose shot cannoned into a defender.
A couple of minutes later Young pulled the ball back for a fitter looking Dustin Wells who hit a decent low shot to Unitedıs new keeper, Liam Reddy.
United then won a free kick 20 metres out in front of goal. Matthew Langdon dipped the free kick into the ground in front of Crews. Heffernan won a good tackle and chipped the ball back to Huxley who was quickly dispossessed by DeGiovianniello. Hawrysiuk, reading play well, made a great tracking run back inside Heffernan before intercepting a pass to the former Wolf.
The game was looking even at this stage except United had no ideas.
Mirko Jurilj was good beating and then winning a free kick from Babic who was cutting in along the goal line from the right.
Lyons, down the other end, was more successful, cutting the ball back from the line for Hawrysiuk who dug the ball high over the bar. The lead up looked good and Wolves seemed pleased with the effort, but it was another wasted chance.
Paul Ivanic hit a clever backheel into the path of Heffernan but Heffernan was robbed by Dragas. Michael Cunico was doing some good running and tackling for United.
Hawrysiuk made another great intercept and played a long ball to the left for Balabanel who crossed to Wells who stabbed the ball wide to the right of goal. A typically wonderful tackle by Huxley on Arrarte ruined a good sequence of quick passes by Wollongong. Then Huxley collected a yellow card for a not-so-good tackle.
Just before the break Young hit a ball in from the right, Lyons returned the ball towards goal but Young just missed connecting with his head. The ball went back to Lyons who missed a good chance on the rebound from his own shot into Reddy.
Half time, and I wish to register a complaint! The bar no longer sells VB. And the canteen no longer sells hot beef rolls. Just cold grey paste pies and sausage rolls, chips and hot dogs. Oh for those long lost days at Brandon Park, with the barbies burning furiously and real steak sandwiches!)
The second half began with Balabanel working hard at one end and Babic busy at the other. In the 48th minute Reddy was down pulling the ball away from Youngıs feet. Wells and Young started working well together. Wells set up Young for a long shot, but the ball was on Youngıs wrong foot and his slight hesitation gave the defence time to close him down. Young made a good turn around Cunico but failed in his effort to chip through and Cunico won back. DeGiovianniello then beat Haliti, Langdon and Huxley in one skilful turn.
Great fighting by Balabanel saw him win a ball against all hope in the right of the United penalty area and then pass back to Arrarte who hit a long shot, easy for Reddy to catch. It was all Wolves. Dragas put in an early cross from the right for Wells to head on target but again it was little trouble for Reddy.
Langdon made a good tackle on Wells and got the ball through to Babic who wasted a chance. Lyons set up DeGiovianniello whose shot was blocked by Huxley. Then DeGiovianniello showed a bit more class, beating Langdon and playing through for Balabanel who fought into the box. But, with an option wide to his left, Balabanel had a go himself, wide to the right of goal.
Ben Blake, who seems to have filled out a bit, took Ivanic in a good tackle. Collina fouled Balabanel and Arrarte hit an okay free kick to the right post and won a corner. In the 71st minute DeGiovianniello tried a gentle dig at goal from outside the area. It dropped just over the bar. All the time, Vrkic, Collina and Santalab were keeping Wolves at Bay.
In the 74th minute Huxley set up Cunico for a shot from outside the area, but it was too high. Langdon intercepted a pass meant for Wells and made ground, taking the ball upfield. In the 77th minute Cunico did well to stop Arrarte after good work by Balabanel on the right. Then Heffernan received his yellow card for a foul on Arrarte.
Inside the final ten minutes, Hawrysiuk hit a screamer from distance, just left of target. If it had gone in it would have been an early candidate for goal of the season. In time added on Balabanel hit the left upright on the rebound of a shot from Young after an earlier shot from Balabanel was only partly cleare
The two Wolves fans in front of me liked Dragas and Balabanel for Wolves and Vrkic and Santalab for United. Some commentators were singing the praises of the new Wolves squad earlier in the week: morale had improved and all players were fresh and committed. Unfortunately the players may still only know the old refrain: ³If only weıd put away our chances!²
In the post-match media conference United coach Grant Lee said he was pleased that his young, inexperienced side had worked so hard and toughed it out. Wolvesı John Turner, of course, lamented his teamıs missed chances. ³If you donıt get them in the back of the net it is going to come back and haunt you.² Lee said the match was good experience, a good baptism, for his young players, Tolgay Ozbey and Paul Ivanic.
Turner said Tanju Balabanel was quick on his feet. ³Itıs his first go at it so obviously heıll get a lot better. Thereıs a lot of young guys out there, a lot of babies who probably need to play a few games at this level. Itıs not cut your wrists time, itıs not crisis time. I think we did enough. I think we played some attractive football. We never stopped attacking, we kept having a go.² He said Balabanel was quick but he needed to have put one in the back of the net. If he had done that it would have changed the game.
Turner said he didnıt disagree with the penalty decision but ³I think itıs always going to be very hard for that big man, because heıs two metres tall and every time he gets over a little man heıs going to look a lot clumsier than it is Outside of that [Dragas] didnıt do too much wrong Iıve seen a lot worse than that that hasnıt been a penalty Hell of a way to lose especially when itıs very early in the game Itıs always difficult playing catch-up.²
Lee said United had an upset before the game, losing captain Mark Rudan with a slight strain. He said there was a lack of communication but Santalab and Vrkic did well nevertheless. But ³itıs hard when you have a lot of young boys out on the park who are fairly inexperienced and all of a sudden things are happening [opponents changing position] Thatıll come in time.² He said Anthony Doumanis, who was returning from trials overseas, would figure quite heavily for United this season.
Turner said there might be some small changes next week; two players missing, Vlado Zoric and Chimaobi Nwaogazi, were experienced players who he would have liked to have had there with the young ones the five or six he said were making their NSL debuts. He said he had to give Sydney United their due; they put their bodies on the line in the box. ³Every time we were going to have a crack at goal there was a touch or a leg in the way full credit to them.²