It’s the same old story for Sydney FC who travel down the Pacific Highway with no reward for the eighth time in five years after slumping to a loss to Central Coast Mariners.
‘‘Don’t stop believing’’ was the banner from the home fans but perhaps they didn’t realise how applicable a message it was to both sides and as things transpired, it was one equally adopted.
The Sky Blues were by no means outplayed; if anything, they were unlucky. Unlike in their previous two wins, Sydney were polished in a performance that displayed an unprecedented value for possession. Nevertheless, the graveyard that is Gosford for Sydney remained as such.
‘‘Disappointed. To be fair, I thought we came out in the second half and got ourselves back in the game,’’ Sydney FC coach Frank Farina said. ‘‘When [Mariners goalkeeper] Liam Reddy gets three points [as man of the match], I suppose that says a bit.’’
Arguably the A-League’s two most inconsistent teams began the match with surprisingly strong tactical discipline and composure. Neither was overly willing to break orders and test the opponent but the hosts still found a way through after 26 minutes.
When Korean star Kim Seung-yong was sent crashing to the turf by Sydney defender Aaron Calver on the edge of the box, the import had his chance to open his A-League account in style. He capitalised on poor positioning of Sydney’s defensive wall to bend a right-foot free kick over Ali Abbas and Alessandro Del Piero and into the far corner of the net, leaving Vedran Janjetovic helpless to prevent the inevitable. The Mariners’ hopes of continuing one of the A-League’s longest hoodoos suffered a blow when defender Eddie Bosnar was forced off with a groin injury. The reshuffle gave the visitors some hope of drawing level, then Del Piero entered the frame. The Italian twice tested Reddy with shots from long range as the Sky Blues created a few nervous moments for the hosts.
There was more purpose and movement from the Sky Blues after the break and the Mariners were too inviting of their opponents’ enthusiasm. Del Piero strolled in from the left flank and drew a signature foul in the area he’s most dangerous. A wicked free kick looked certain to level the ledger but Reddy was up to the challenge, acrobatically tipping the ball on to the crossbar and out of play.
The A-League champions had no response to the mounting pressure and their disciplined approach of the first half disappeared as a siege mentality akin to injury time took over by the hour mark. It was no surprise that Sydney were soon level. Nikola Petkovic drove forward to unleash a low drive that was palmed wide by Reddy but Richard Garcia followed through and emphatically slammed home from an acute angle.
It was the wake-up call the travel-weary Mariners required. Lacking the energy to resume their patient and possession-based style of play, they relied on hitting Sydney on the counter. In the 75th minute they were rewarded for their change in system. Mile Sterjovski found Mitchell Duke out left with a clever ball and the under-fire striker responded to recent criticisms by cracking the ball into the back of the net to seal the win.
‘‘Extremely proud, that’s the first emotion that comes to mind,’’ Mariners coach Phil Moss said. ‘‘With every loss, we work harder and I thought tonight was just reward for all the effort that’s been put in and the belief from everyone.’’