The first time the Nix played Sydney FC it was a turning point in their season. They’d won their opening game but then went four straight without even scoring a goal until putting three past SFC in a blistering 45 minutes of brilliant football. Next thing they were on a big old extended run of games without defeat which lasted right up until the next time they played Sydney FC.
The second time the Nix played Sydney FC was a turning point in their season. They’d been on a big old extended run of games without defeat before falling 1-0 at home to last season’s premiers, Roy Krishna missing a late penalty in a game where they Nix had plenty of attacking intent in the second half but not a lot of penetration against a deep and committed SFC defence. Next thing they settled into more of a grinding run of hard-fought games where goals were tougher to come by.
The third time the Nix played Sydney FC we don’t yet know if it was a turning point in their season or not. It was last night, Saturday night, and they lost 1-0 in a game pretty typical of their recent efforts (the 3-0 Perth defeat excluded) where the team rode their luck in defence and it became a matter of which team could be the more clinical in front of goal. Unfortunately we know that clinical goal-scoring has not been a strength of the Nix’s lately. Since that 3-3 draw with Melbourne Victory a little over a month ago, they’ve scored three goals in six games. Goals are getting to be a problem again.
When was the last time you saw Roy Krishna or David Williams gassing in behind the defence, clear through with only the goalkeeper to beat? It was happening all the time when the Nix were in that second phase of their season, the unbeaten phase, and scoring goals for fun. Now it hardly ever happens at all unless there’s a defensive error like a sloppy backpass or some muppet tries to go dribbling out from the back, you know. Sydney FC solved that drama the second time they played the Nix having been ripped to shreds by it the first time – I remember writing then that they’d sorta laid out the blueprint for defending against this Phoenix team and that’s sadly what seems to have happened, other teams are taking note and removing the Nix’s most potent strategy.
It’s a sign of respect from teams around the league that they’re taking the Phoenix seriously but this has been going on for a month now and we’re still not really seeing a solution from Mark Rudan’s team. Three goals in six games and one win from seven games. They’ve been entrenched in the top six for a while now but that’s far from permanent with the Newcastle Jets hanging about. The only bonus is that at least Adelaide and Melbourne City are stuck in that scrap too – three places for four teams, with fourth place still up for grabs, thankfully.
There was a bit of outside the box thinking from Rudes over in Campbelltown when he subbed off Sarpreet Singh to throw on Cillian Sheridan for the last 35 minutes of action. Superstarpreet’s ability is not in any question but his consistency certainly is and without as much space to play in lately he’s only been gliding through games, looking sharp in close possession but not really creating anything. A bit like the Nix as a whole.
Singh’s playing a crucial position as the link between the defensively minded midfield duo and the aggressive forward duo and when he was rested the last time these two teams played the Nix looked utterly toothless until he was subbed on. But he’s not doing enough at the moment and that’s a problem. A few more risks wouldn’t go astray. And that goes for the whole team too, not just Singh. Right now they’re a little too careful in possession which is playing into the hands of opposition defences. Against Sydney there were three or four half-chances which all fell to the wrong foot of the players involved. Burgess, Fenton, Williams and Singh, from what I recall. Little things like that which reflect a team that’s not quite clicking on the attacking end.
As for the defence, mate that was always going to be a struggle from the moment that Steven Taylor was ruled out. Failed a fitness test and he was left watching from the stands – hopefully the lateness of the fitness test means he’s okay for CCM in two weeks when they next play. Dylan Fox started in Taylor’s place. It seemed like Ryan Lowry was the bloke being poised for that RCB role if Taylor was ever out, he played there in the Perth game (with Fox filling in for a suspended Dura), but with Ryan Lowry out of the matchday squad last week for just the second time all season it seems Fox had finally jumped ahead of him on the depth chart.
Perhaps not for long though, what with Reza Ghoochannejhad and Adam Le Fondre picking all kinds of space in behind Fox’s channels in that first half hour. At one stage Durante went into full-on lecture mode and I don’t mean in that gentle university lecturer way… I’m talking underpaid, overstressed high school teacher lecture where you can see the spittle dangling in their mouth as they scream at you.
Fox’s positioning was all over the show and maybe that’s got something to do with him starting three games so far – one in each of the back three positions (plus he played CDM in the FFA Cup, ridiculously). Yeah, it was a grind and Dura wasn’t looking too comfortable having his lack of pace exposed like that. Sadly Fox’s best contribution, a sliding block to deny another Ghooch attempt, was his last contribution. He caught his standing leg beneath himself and looked to do some proper damage to that knee. Might be a season-ender, they reckon. Kia kaha to that fella.
So on came Ryan Lowry after all and he helped close out a first half which could have gone a whole lot worse without some more magic from Filip Kurto – that one-hander early to deny The Ghooch was one of his best – and some reliable placement of the upright. Also, not sure if I’ve mentioned it before but Reza Ghoochannejhad was teammates with Marco Rojas at sc Heerenveen in Holland. Small world, aye?
The Nix did get the ball into the net once only for a pesky offside flag to, correctly, take away what would’ve been Michal Kopczynski’s first A-League goal. It looked like a no-brainer initially but replays proved that Kopa had indeed come back from an offside position. Fair cop. If he’d stayed out of the way then Krishna probably would’ve buried it no dramas… but you can’t expect Kopa to know that. Not with a split-second to react.
The Mr Sherry sub swung things a bit as the Nix now had a direct route to goal. Plus it was just nice to see him given an extended run on his 30th birthday. The Sheriff is still yet to score for the club but you can’t really blame him when he’s only made one start - 198 of his 202 total minutes have come in eight separate subs appearances. But yeah, then Alex Brosque ran in behind Durante and Kurto came charging out to clatter him. No doubt about that one. Adam Le Fondre struck the penalty straight down the middle with the force of an 18-wheeler tumbling down the hillside with the handbrake left off. Kurto held his ground but he’d have broken his wrist if he’d been able to get a hand to it.
One defining moment in the game and there you go. In fairness it was one moment of several great chances that Sydney had – that goal-line clearance from Libby Cacace was magnificent defending (that whole yarn about Sarpreet Singh’s inconsistency earlier? None of it applies to Cacace who at 18 years old already plays like a seasoned veteran) – however with the Nix not scoring enough goals lately, this is what keeps happening. For all their defensive improvements they’ve still only kept four clean sheets in twenty games. They usually let a cheeky one in, it’s all part of a bend-don’t-break strategy where they tend to absorb a lot of pressure in order to be better equipped to deal with that pressure… if that makes sense. Of course this game could have gone either way. Same with most games lately. It’s just that the growing trend is that they’re not going the Phoenix’s way as they fail to dominate those key moments.
Which is okay only because it’s been a tough run of games lately. Damage has been done but it is damage that can be repaired over the rest of the season with the Nix having next week off before playing each of the four teams below them and the two teams directly above them in their next six games (then closing with an away game in Perth so better get it done with a week to spare). They’ve a solid record against all those jokers and there’s time now to reassess for the sprint to the finish. Maybe this game will prove to be the third turning point after all.
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