On the face of it, there was to be a lot expected from this match given that the evening was to serve as Olympic's first game at its new home at the Sydney Football Stadium and that one could fairly have expected a bumper crowd for Sydney's real local derby. All of this even notwithstanding the fact that tonight's game was the only top flight (in fact, probably only) football match in Sydney this weekend and that many would have been keenly awaiting the start of the season just to again experience the sense of being a supporter. To its credit, Soccer Australia put some thought in to tonight's match up (including herding the crowd into the lower tier of the western stand and no doubt "shooting" the game from the eastern stand so as to give the impression of a well supported event on TV), but alas, the football just wasn't up to the billing. Unlike others, however, I think the greatest blame lay with the atrocious condition of the playing surface. It is surely an albeit a perennially obvious lesson in why soccer (football) should be played on a devoted pitch. We can be thankful that at least we don't also have to contend with other summer sports! (Well, that is other than we play moderately important international fixtures!!:( )
The game was dull! And worse, progressively diminished in excitement as the game wore on. Ironically, it was at the eleventh hour that a heretofore unknown player - a mere child of 15 years of age (apparently the second youngest player to ever play in the top league) - registered the lone goal of the match with a strike that will definitely be recorded as one of the goals of the round. (Worse luck for the kid is the fact that Goran Lozanovski bettered this effort with an awesome swerving strike from well outside the box on Staurday night in Brisbane).
The reaction from Olympic coach Geoff Harcombe as young Nick Carle scored in the last minute of the match was something that will perhaps convey a message of passion to a TV adience but, in truth, is more a reflection of the quality of the strike than it was a release of any tension built up through a match failing to reach sustained excitement. At the prompt of the roar from the crowd as Carle's blistering volley crashed into the top left hand corner of the net, Harcombe slumped to his knees as if in praise of a higher being, clearly (or perhaps theatrically??) exhaulted in the fact that his job was safe for another week.:) (Hey, they start early at Olympic!!:) ).
Given that the match day programme could barely list all of the onfield (let alone substitute) players, it was no mean feat trying to identify all of the new and youthful players on the park. Of the veterans, it was almost as if there was a pre-requisite that any fielded player had to come from one of last year's opposition squads. Catlin, De Marigny and Hristodoulou were all wearing the blue of Olympic (not to mention the return of Chris Kalantzis and Kimon Taliadoros(not listed to play)).
Significantly, none of Mark Babic, Longo or new import Mario Ansaldi made the field for whatever reason for the Stallions.
All this aside, it seems as though the night was more about the "new breed" than it was the "old gaurd" - without question an indictment of the player drain to the leagues of other countries. And it showed. Too often passes just weren't going to the intended receiver, and furthermore, there were too few genuine opportunities created throughout the match. To me, clearly a function of the "established" defences (notwithstanding Marconi's Darren McDonald) dominating the inexperienced oppoosing attacking units. Again, however, it's only fair that due recognition be made by all of the fact that the surface was sub-standard (literally!). (It made me wonder as to the wisdom of fielding the "touch" players such as Vlado Zoric in favour for the more "industrious" Peter Tsekenis or Brad Maloney types).
It was telling that the bulk of the chances created on goal came from opportunistic long distance strikes rather than by means of purposeful build ups. In the opening minutes, Manis Lamond almost* lobbed the keeper for a goal after the aforementioned "established" Olympic defence saw fit to allow an aimless Marconi clearance to agonisingly bounce it's way to Bob Catlin - a not too-confident start by the Blues. (* if Dave Marshall recommends the Cranney count, then equally, a prize to the person who can track the number of times that by season's end I have included the words "Manis" or "Lamond" and "almost" in the one sentence - the Manis count :))).
Not long after, Poimer sent a long volley over the bar at the other end. It was apparent that the goal wasn't to come from a series of short passes. If it wasn't to be a long bomb, then the only other alternative was to head in (not always) speculative crosses. Francis heads just wide of the top right hand corner from a strong Renaud cross to the far post.
And so, on it went. Both keepers, and debutant Ante Covic in the Stallions goal in particular, putting in strong and courageous efforts to keep their respective teams in the hunt. Covic, a recruit from the Leichhardt Tigers (NSW State League), showing particular bravery to fall at the feet of a fast- (but not as fast as times gone by) advancing Chris Kalantzis who had bustled his way through an indecisive defence trying to deal with yet another of those awkwardly bouncing balls. Kalantzis came off the worse for wear from the ensuing contact and inadvertenetly, Covic may have effectively snuffed his opponent out of the game with that clearly innocent collision. Kalantzis didn't really seem to do much after it. From the spillage, Kalantzis did manage to fumble a cross to Tome in the middle of a barely-tended goal, but the ball was placed marginally too far in front of him to poke it goalward.
Paul Souris was lucky to have received only a yellow when he dragged Peter Tsekenis down en-route to goal. My initial reaction was that Souris could have no argument if he was sent off as it was clearly a professional foul (no risk), but it would not be infeasible if he copped only a yellow given that, whislt there was only the keeper directly between the Tsekenis and the goal, there was more than one other defender "there or thereabouts" and as such it was not (to me) a given that Tsekenis was necessarily deprived of a clear strike on goal....Too close to call, and I respect referee Eugene Brazzale's decision to allow Souris another chance....again, however, he was lucky his gamble paid off. (The ensuing Hristodoulou free kick was lucky not to have gone for a throw in).
One moment of pure football was provided by Zjelko (Sean) Babic, who, I'm sure, very reminiscent of a move he put on Olympic last season at their then home ground (Belmore), received the ball with his back to Catlin's goal on or near the half way line. With an exquisite turn (apparently second nature) and unbelievable acceleration scorched the Olympic defence to carry the ball all the way for chance on goal. A mixture of good fundamental keeping (in Catlin narrowing the angle) and a hint of bad luck (Babic *just* failed to pick the hole under Catlin's diving body) conspired to rob the young speedster of a just reward.
And so, 0-0 at halftime.
Halftime afforeded me the opportunity to observe a couple of things:
(a) Not a sausage in Bay23 - how weird
(b) make of it what you will, but...there was an ad for Channel 9 ("Who's who of News...") played on the scoreboard! (Bear in mind that the SFS is also the home of the ARL, and the ad could simply be a spill over from a generaic Channel9/SFS deal..but....),
(c) The following quote from the match day program....again your own discretion is required: regarding the supposedly long line of potential Olympic merger/sponsor partners..."...At this time, details of the offers are a closely guarded secret, however, don't be surprised if the Sydney City Roosters change their name next year to Sydney Olympic."
(d) Not a sausage in Bay23.
The second half doesn't bear mentioning really. Of the more notable incidents:
Within the opening minutes, Tome was unlucky not to score, and in fact hit the base of Covic's left post after well controlling a through ball down the left hand side of the box. Seconds, later, a harsher judge could tender that Francis should have converted a difficult cross at the other end.
Later in the half, it took an opportunity in general play for Eric Hristodoulou to do what he couldn't from a set piece when he wound up a ridiculously audacious drive from right on the 30 yard line (the rugby markings were still there!!) which required a commensurate display of brilliance from Covic. That the shot was hit with such force was merit enough for a goal, but that it was destined for Covic's top right corner was an assurance for the first goal of the game. So what does that say for Covic's save?
Why both coaches decided to blood so many young debutants in the genuine Sydney derby is none too clear to me. Matic saw fit to introduce Luke Tomich into the fray toward the latter stages of the match. Typically, the youngster had a hard time of it and perhaps will be persecuted for a poor first touch which robbed him of a strike on goal from within the box. Again, my first reaction was a reference to the poor surface - but from the other end of the pitch, it was hard to be certain that it was a case of "what the earth giveth, the earth taketh away".
Cruelly, Tomich, himself a substitute, was dragged about 15 minutes after his appearance - I'm guessing he won't quickly forget the harsh lesson from the Master Matic.
In the same vein, it would be a short odds-on bet that another of the match's newbies will be able to recount his contribution to one of the more forgettable Sydney derby matches at any stage of his career. With all and sundry marking the game down as a justifiable draw, the 15 year old super sub for Olympic, Nick Carle (plucked from the youth team) registered the winning goal with a searing volley from near enough to the point of the penalty box. Despite Ante Covic's man of the match efforts, he nor any other keeper was going to stop the shot which was hit truly and could not have been placed much closer to the top left hand corner. My heart went out to Covic, as I could hear him moderately chastise one of his defenders immediately before the goal for not clearing a "clearable" ball. In the next instant, we had tomorrow's headline. And thank god! beacause the mainstream media would have to be showing something on the highlights packages.
Nevertheless, the season has arrived!