Sydney FC's AFC Champions League ambitions have taken another blow with a sobering 1-0 defeat to Kawasaki Frontale, while one of the team's most important players appears to be on his way out.
Midfielder Josh Brillante – a staple of the Sky Blues teams which have dominated the A-League in the last few years – was left out of Wednesday night's Group H clash in Kawasaki and may have played his last game for the club, with an overseas suitor set to pounce for his services.
The 25-year-old was omitted by coach Steve Corica because he "wasn't in the right frame of mind" to play because of transfer interest in him, reportedly from South Korean outfit Pohang Steelers. The K-League transfer window is open for the remainder of the month.
Brillante's usual spot in the middle of the park was taken by Paulo Retre, with the visitors putting in a brave defensive effort at the Todoroki Athletics Stadium before succumbing to what felt like an inevitable late goal.
Kawasaki, the reigning champions of the J.League for the past two seasons, were clearly a class above and the Sky Blues should have no complaints about the final outcome, which serves as another reminder of how relentless Asia's top teams can be. They had a whopping 20 shots to just two from Sydney.
"I thought we defended quite well," Corica said. "Kawasaki had quite a few chances but shots from distance, which our goalkeeper made quite good saves at times.
"We had a very good chance early on in the game, which maybe if we scored this goal the game would have been different ... then we are in front and we can defend a lead.
"I'm pleased, our boys worked very hard. Disappointed not to get at least one point, but I thought Kawasaki were good. They're a good team, we knew this, they played good football."
It leaves Corica's side bottom of the group with just one point from their opening two fixtures in the tournament, needing a major turnaround in fortunes across their remaining four games to have any hope of reaching the knockout phase.
Corica made two changes from the team that played out a scoreless draw with Ulsan Hyundai last week, with skipper Alex Brosque preferred over Reza Ghoochannejhad up front in addition to Brillante's surprise exclusion.
The Sky Blues had the first meaningful shot on goal, although in retrospect Brosque should have made more for it. The veteran had a free header from close range after he was picked out by a cross from Rhyan Grant, who sent the ball back into the area following a corner, but his effort went straight at Kawasaki goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryong.
But as the first half wore on, the hosts became more and more comfortable. Their most dangerous attacking outlet was Leandro Damiao, who nearly put them ahead in the 12th minute – teeing himself up with his first touch before lashing at goal with his second, with his shot flashing just wide of the right post.
Eight minutes later, the Brazilian striker forced a terrific save out of Andrew Redmayne. Surrounded by three Sydney defenders, it looked like Damiao didn't quite know what to do – until he dug the ball out from under him with toe-punch that would have gone in had Redmayne not gotten an outstretched fingertip to it.
It was Kawasaki's best period of the opening stanza. Their pressure forced repeated Sky Blues turnovers, which in turn led to more opportunities – but they couldn't make any of them count.
To their credit, Sydney held on and eventually made their own openings, although none quite as compelling as Kawasaki's. Coach Steve Corica would have been content with the 0-0 scoreline at the break.
But it was more of the same in the second half, with Kawasaki taking little time to reassert their dominance. Were it not for Redmayne's acrobatics, it would have been reflected on the scoreboard.
Redmayne made a spectacular diving save to tip out a curling shot from Tatsuya Hasegawa in the 59th minute, then repelled a point-blank effort from Ao Tanaka in the 75th minute after an eye-catching one-two passing move cut the Sydney defence to shreds. The follow-up shot from Yu Kobayashi was off-target.
However, Kawasaki would not be denied and finally broke through in the 83rd minute. Substitute Manabu Saito was on hand to sweep home a deflected cross, giving them the lead and the victory they wholeheartedly deserved.