Do opposing teams lift their game against Sydney FC because they are the team to beat or because Sydney’Äôs the team they think they can beat?
That over 15,000 fans turned out despite the rain is tribute more to marketing than performance. They were rewarded with an entertaining match and some moments of delicious football, but are opponents and fans learning that the A-League’Äôs glamour team is just a bunch of players with reputations who can no longer produce the goods on the pitch?
Dwight Yorke had a pretty good game but Sydney FC again failed to live up to expectations.
While a draw would have been a fair result, Mariners’Äô freak goal at the death left coach Pierre Littbarski wondering how Sydney could find a way out of ’Äúa difficult point’Äù and stop making ’Äúreally big mistakes’Äù.
Perhaps it’Äôs a measure of how Littbarski rates his current squad that he thinks it could be improved by signing 38-year-old Kazuyoshi Miura, now playing in the Japanese second division with Yokohama FC.
Tonight Yorke showed more glimpses of his talent than usual. Talay shone twice. Petrovski missed his one chance. But it was workhorses like Carney and Ceccoli who did most credit to their pale blue shirts.
Central Coast’Äôs John Crawley had more work to do than Sydney’Äôs Clint Bolton. Noel Spencer and Michael Beauchamp were strong. Wayne O’ÄôSullivan and Tom Pondeljak shone.
Sydney had more possession, more attempts, had nine corners to Mariners’Äô one, and won more free kicks. While Sydney were better at delivering intelligent passes, Mariners were sharper with the short, quick stuff, especially in the final third.
Twice before the game started I was told referee Peter O’ÄôLeary was hopeless. And he probably didn’Äôt disprove that assessment. There were some amazing decisions and non-decisions.
I found cover from the rain with my daughter, 12, who had a ball. Oohed and aahed. Laughed at the growing crowd in the Cove. Wore her new Sydney replica shirt with pride. And was disappointed at the loss.
We were sitting next to familiar faces from Wollongong who had come un-allied ¬‚ just to see the Wolves play. There was almost a full team of them in the evening’Äôs line-ups. And the Wolves fans insisted the former Wolves were just here ’Äúon loan’Äù.
Unfortunately four of them were on the Sydney bench. Which meant Mariners had a Wolves advantage on the pitch. And that is how it panned out until some substitutions were made.
O'Sullivan demonstrated his strength early and Beauchamp fouled David Zdrilic. Hard. Ufuk Talay had the kick and Crawley palmed the ball half clear.
Mark Rudan took down a Mariners player and was lucky not to get a yellow card. It seemed the ref had left his cards at home.
Talay gave the ball away. And several Sydney players then followed his example.
Terry McFlynn got a talking to from O'Leary.
Mariners had a good spell in the Sydney half before Pondeljak hoicked the ball long and wide over the sideline. But again Sydney gave it away. David Carney looked the goods but Yorke had not yet found his touch. Sydney were rubbish.
Under some pressure, Andrew Clark played a clever ¬‚ or was it dangerous? ¬‚ backheel. And Spencer robbed Yorke.
So it was a pleasant surprise (for a Sydney fan) when in the 13th minute Andrew Packer tapped in a cross from Yorke and Sydney were a goal ahead.
The goal was all Yorke's work. Almost in slow motion he took the ball to the goal line in the right of the penalty area, making Clark and then Heffernan look foolish in the process, before skimming the ball into Packer’Äôs path. Maybe it’Äôs in the players' contracts that they are not allowed to whack marquee stars?
Again I noted Carney's contribution, this time on the left.
Yorke brought Ceccoli into the attacking action (Yorke's playing the ball back and drawing other players forward seems one of his key tactics, but his team mates don't always twig in time) but Packer gave the ball away on the left. And Mariners pushed back into the Sydney half.
O'Sullivan started a movement toward the Sydney penalty area and two more quick passes played Pondeljak into the box. Unfortunately for Sydney, Rudan clumsily tangled with Pondeljak from behind and Mariners had a penalty, converted, after several minutes of debate and confusion, by Stewart Petrie.
More quick Mariners footwork around the Sydney penalty area followed but twice the attack was stalled by offside decisions.
The crowd in the Cove cheered on Ceccoli as he broke away down the left, but crossed closer to his supporters than his target on the pitch.
Beauchamp made a saving tackle on Carney after Yorke easily slipped past Clark. Zdrilic headed the resulting corner over the crossbar.
Yorke beat Clark on the left and crossed. Crawley got enough of a finger to the ball to prevent Carney swooping in.
Beauchamp demonstrated how to keep Yorke at bay, but Yorke kept possession long enough until he could deliver an inviting pass back to Packer. O'Sullivan read it better, however, and Packer was robbed.
Sydney were now looking a much more exciting prospect.
Zdrilic put a neat ball inside to Talay, but O'Sullivan fouled him.
Then, as Beauchamp was breaking away, Zdrilic executed a beautiful diving ankle tap, just catching Beauchamp's foot with his extended fingers. Again no yellow.
At 30 minutes Packer played a good ball to Ceccoli down the left and Crawley held onto Ceccoli's low cross.
Then some brilliance from Yorke, running from midfield to the right and tapping the ball into Zdrilic who was dispossessed by Beauchamp.
With Clark in his back, Zdrilic touched on for Ceccoli to whack a shot good and low from 30 metres, straight to Crawley.
In the 34th minute Andre Gumprecht took an easy goal with assurance after losing Talay. More smart Mariners passing, this time on the right of the penalty area, saw the ball drop into the box where another contest between Rudan and Pondeljak favoured the Mariner. The ball bounced off Pondeljak's back and into the path of Gumprecht, who put the visitors back into the lead.
Three minutes later McFlynn, coming into the right side of the Mariners penalty area, hit a soft shot to Crawley.
Then Petrie missed with a volley to the left of the Sydney goal. Iain Fyfe got a talking to after pushing Petrie in the back off the ball.
A Ceccoli-Packer-Yorke combination ended with Ceccoli crossing longer than intended but still Sydney got the ball back in to Yorke from the right. Yorke was blocked by Clark and, after two Sydney corners, Packer shot to the left of goal.
At 45 minutes Yorke touched back for McFlynn who took a long shot just to the left of goal.
More Yorke action ended up with Matthew Bingley checking John Hutchinson and a free kick to Mariners. The crowd called the ref a wanker and, after more confrontation, and chants of "fight, fight, fight", the crowd decided that the ref had lost control.
Five minutes into the second half Adam Kwasnik replaced Petrie.
Carney was fouled up in the right corner and Sydney continued to put pressure on the Mariners penalty area. There was an appeal for a penalty and a shot high over.
Yorke put another long ball back to Ceccoli who in return fed Yorke in the box. Yorke took the ball to the line and won a corner but was hurt in the process. Sydney appealed for a penalty, again unsuccessfully, but Gumprecht copped a yellow card.
Ceccoli, covering right back, stopped a through ball and then forced a Mariners error.
Pondeljak had some good touches before the Mariners swarmed the Sydney penalty area. Heffernan did some good work but couldn't find Kwasnik.
Saso Petrovski came on in the 64th minute and almost immediately scored. He made an anticipatory run into the Mariners box and received perfect service. But for Crawley shutting him down ’Ä¶
Pondeljak made a slicing run through the guts onto a through ball. He took it right and crossed in to Kwasnik who hit a poor shot into Fyfe.
In the 66th minute a Carney shot was saved by Crawley.
Then came my favourite Yorke performance of the evening. He beat three Mariners in midfield and held off a couple more until pushing the ball right for Bingley.
There were more Sydney shots and balls into the box until a Ceccoli shot was deflected for a corner.
In the 72nd minute came some Talay brilliance. Not only did he start the movement that led to the second Sydney goal, but passing inside to Carney, he ran ’Ä¶ a good 40 metres to get the return pass before delivering into Yorke who finished.
Four minutes later Bingley shot just wide after a half clearance by Crawley. McFlynn shot just over with several Sydney players queuing for shots on a Carney cross from the right.
A great tackle by Bingley won Sydney more possession. Sydney thronged forward, again looking for Carney whose cross let the team down.
Ten minutes to go, Ceccoli played through to Petrovski who pushed on to Yorke who won another corner.
Sydney sustained the pressure until a Talay shot was held by Crawley.
Sydney replaced Packer with Middleby, Carney won a corner off Clark, and a good ball through found Yorke who was just beaten by Heffernan.
Rudan, hurt, was replaced by Jacob Timpano, Hutchinson ran onto a chip and was just beaten by Bolton, and Kwasnik put a rubbish ball through for Pondeljak when a decent touch would have seen Pondeljak in a one-on-one with Bolton. Pondeljak made another run between the Sydney fullbacks but the service again was poor and Pondeljak, eventually offside, was furious with his team mates.
Then Fyfe brought down Kwasnik, right on the edge of the Sydney penalty area. Spencer's shot, struck low, hit the back of Ceccoli who had broken away from the wall and slipped over. The ball looped high, over Bolton caught in no man's land, and under the crossbar.
Mariners were ahead with the game almost over.
Sydney came again, a long ball from Ceccoli finding Yorke in front of goal. A stunning equaliser seemed on the cards but the striker's first touch failed him. And the linesman's flag was up in any case.
Entertaining for the impartial observer. More disappointment for the Sydney fans. But Mariners' grit and skill rewarded.
Littbarski criticised his team for giving too much room to their opponents. He said as a coach he could not accept conceding three goals at home. They had also fallen down with their last pass, lost cross and set plays, he said.
Sydney did not provide Central Coast with enough competition in the first half, he said. He did not blame Bolton for the goals. The keeper made none of his usual super saves, but he made no mistakes either.
Sydney lost the game because of mistakes, he said. And they missed good opportunities.
David Zdrilic said the players knew they were not playing as well as they could. They had to defend better and be more compact, he said.
Neither Zdrilic nor Littbarski were happy about the hype surrounding Sydney, particularly Littbarski who said he never considered his team favourites for the competition.
Littbarski said Mariners were well organised. Gumprecht and Spencer were active in the middle, the defence was "quite good", and Alex Wilkinson and Heffernan closed the sides better than they did against New Zealand the week before.
Central Coast Mariners coach Lawrie McKinna said he always felt on the break his team would be dangerous, but he gave credit to Sydney for coming at them in the second half.
"I thought we defended reasonably well."
He thought the first ten minutes were pretty average, following from the game against New Zealand. Then Sydney's first goal resulted from poor defensive work by Heffernan.
The first goal lifted Mariners spirits and Gumprecht came up with a great second goal. They knew Sydney would come at them ¬‚ "It was Charge of the Light Brigade for a while there" ¬‚ but they hung on and Spencer picked up the winner.
He said Mariners were playing straight 4-4-2 with O'Sullivan on the right, but, with so much ball, they brought him in off the line to get him involved. They did the same with Hutchinson to get more players in the box.
He expressed appreciation for the Mariners' travelling supporters. He said Mariners were going to be competitive. "We have a great will to win ’Ä¶ We want to win every game ’Ä¶ We wear passion on our sleeve; if it's wrong we are not going to stop it, we're just going to keep on doing it because we think it's infectious to the crowd and to players."