Sydney v Knights

A-League report by Jeremy Ruane
Sydney FC v New Zealand Knights

The New Zealand Knights scored the biggest upset in the fledgling history of the Hyundai A-League on January 7 when they downed the reigning champions, Sydney FC, 1-0 at Sydney Football Stadium.

Buoyed on by members of the touring Barmy Army - they've found a team which wins games to support at long last!! - the visitors silenced the vast majority of the 16,040 present in the sixteenth minute of this encounter, and as well as threatening on a couple of occasions themselves, survived numerous scares to pinch all three points and, incredibly, give themselves a fighting chance of avoiding a second successive wooden spoon.

Sydney, on the back of a nine-match unbeaten run and having not conceded a goal in almost nine hours heading into this encounter, understandably started on the front foot, and first threatened in the seventh minute. David Carney caught John Tambouras in possession just outside the penalty area and wrong-footed Dean Gordon before the recovering Tambouras thwarted his progress on the edge of the goal area.

The Knights responded through Leilei Gao's left flank foray five minutes later, jinking past two players before two more thwarted his shot on goal, one which Clint Bolton saved easily.

The goalkeeper sparked a counter-attack, Steve Corica racing down the right before cutting inside and linking with Alex Brosque. His flick-on for Carney completely deceived Tambouras, but Knights goalkeeper Mark Paston hurtled off his line to save well at Carney's feet.

Back came the Knights, Neil Emblen slipping Alen Marcina in on the right at pace. The speedster scythed past Iain Fyfe into the penalty area before a despairing tackle from Jacob Timpano - who had already been booked - curtailed Marcina's progress at the expense of a corner.

The relief for Sydney was shortlived, however, as Gao's delivery to the near post was met on the volley by Che Bunce, and the home team's time without having conceded a goal ended in the sixteenth minute of this match, some 547 minutes since Bolton had last had reason to fish the ball out of his net.

The home fans were stunned - this wasn't in the script. But the scoreboard doesn't lie - Sydney FC 0, New Zealand Knights 1 … cue the pursuit of an equaliser from the reigning champions, and the Barmy Army - keen to see a live football match involving a few ex-English professionals and generally quiet up to this point - swiftly getting in behind the underdogs, much to the chagrin of the local faithful.

Sydney took a few minutes to regroup, then began to lay siege to the Knights goal, pressing repeatedly for the remainder of the half. In the 22nd minute, Carney set sail down the right before picking out Brosque. He held the ball up well before inviting the charging Carney to let fly, the winger's low twenty-yarder being smothered by Paston.

Seconds later, Corica sent a first-time effort flashing across the face of goal, while in the 25th minute, Ufuk Talay played the ball into Brosque, who evaded Bunce's challenge but looked on as Paston tipped his low near post shot round the post.

On the half-hour, the home team should have equalised. Talay took a free-kick from out on the left flank, and picked out the unmarked Mark Milligan careering through the throngs.

His header was perfect in every sense but one - he directed it at the one spot in the goal where Paston was standing. The ‘keeper knew little about it as the ball struck him and rebounded to safety, albeit temporarily. For another Talay free-kick, seconds later, this time found Timpano's head, but the defender directed his effort past the post.

Sydney's pressure was growing, but the Knights were defending resolutely, and rare indeed were the moments when the visitors' rearguard was broached by the title-holders. One such moment materialised before the interval, when Talay's corner saw Terry McFlynn direct an unchallenged header over the bar.

Six minutes into the second spell, a concerted period of pressure from Sydney saw them go desperately close to levelling the scores. Corica played the ball wide to McFlynn, who instantly fed Carney racing up inside him.

The winger played a neat one-two with Corica just outside the penalty area before lashing a low eighteen-yarder past the diving figure of Paston. But the inside of the post came to the Knights' rescue - maybe, just maybe, the seemingly inconceivable prospect of the cellar-dwellers humbling the champs on their home patch might yet become a stark reality.

Not if slips like that made by Tambouras in the 55th minute had anything to do with it, however. The Knights defender gifted possession on the edge of the penalty area to half-time substitute Sasho Petrovski, who quickly skipped past two opponents only to be denied by goalscorer Bunce at the optimum moment.

After a rare Knights raid in which Marcina and Milligan had made the acquaintance of referee Simon Przydacz during a period when tempers were beginning to flare on both sides, the home team continued to press for the leveller, Carney's cross picked out Petrovski, whose header, intended for Brosque, was grabbed by Paston on the hour mark, just before the striker could pounce.

The goalkeeper was beaten all ends up sixty seconds later, however, as Carney - easily Sydney's most attack-minded player throughout proceedings - set sail on a mazy run from half-way. Past white shirt after white shirt he scampered before reaching the edge of the penalty area, from where he let fly with an angled drive which rattled the sidenetting mere inches past the post.

The Knights responded with their best spell of the half, one in which they could have killed the game stone dead with a second goal. They came desperately close to scoring it in the 65th minute, Gao sparking the move with a deep cross which Jonas Salley athletically played inside for Emblen - he had a massive game.

The target man played the ball back to his African team-mate, Salley instantly curling a delicious cross into the near post area. Marcina, anticipating it, met it with a full-length diving header, and but for a superb save by Bolton, low to his right, the game would have been up for the champions.

As it was, they survived another scare two minutes later. This time, Noah Hickey was the instigator of the opening, cutting inside before linking with Richard Johnson. He sprayed the ball wide to Gao, who scythed inside across three players before setting himself for a shot … let's just say the corner flag came close to being hit, and we'll leave it at that!!

Time was beginning to become an enemy for Sydney, with the final whistle now less than twenty minutes away. Corica and Petrovski worked a one-two just outside the penalty area in the 73rd minute, the former's twenty-yard drive being smothered well by Paston.

The goalkeeper then used up another of his nine lives seconds later, following a brilliant run by Ruben Zadkovich. Racing up the right, he cut inside and across the Knights penalty area before playing the ball into Brosque and continuing his angled run.

The striker instantly slipped the ball back into the full-back's path, which allowed Zadkovich to get in behind the Knights defence and whip in a driven cross from the left-hand by-line. Paston parried it, but Hickey was on hand to hook the ball to safety as Petrovski moved in for the kill.

Sydney's pressure continued. In the 75th minute, a Zadkovich corner wasn't cleared, which allowed Brosque to unleash a full-blooded volley goalwards. Unfortunately for the striker, he directed his effort straight at a grateful Paston, who looked on seven minutes later as Carney blazed over the bar from the edge of the penalty area, the home team having caught the Knights on the counter-attack as the visitors, with Gordon prominent, mounted a rare attacking foray.

Ricki Herbert's charges weren't done yet, and a raking clearance by Paston was neatly controlled by Emblen for Johnson's benefit. The midfielder played in Gao on the left flank, and the Chinese international was only denied a shooting chance by Zadkovich's timely 83rd minute challenge.

Sydney stormed up the other end of the ground, and it was Bunce's turn to register a well-timed tackle which thwarted Petrovski on the edge of the penalty area seconds later.

The home team knew that this was not going to be their day in the 87th minute, when they failed to turn home either of the two chances they created in it. The first saw Carney on the charge, his lay-off presenting Petrovski with a chance to shoot on the turn. The striker did so, beating Paston all ends up in the process, only to see the post come to the Knights' rescue once again.

Then it was Brosque's turn to let fly, Paston parrying this effort, with Bunce, fittingly, completing the clearance of the home team's last noteworthy attempt to stave off an upset of stunning proportions.