Sydney FC’s ACL dream hangs by a thread
IN the end it was a brave point, but still not enough.
Sydney FC escaped from Japan with a point from a 1-1 draw with Kashima Antlers, their Asian Champions League dreams dwindling to a distant hope.
Despite Matt Simon's second-half equaliser, Sydney have just two points from four games and their chances of qualifying from the group appear forlorn. Though they have two games left, there was little in Kashima to suggest those remaining games will be any more profitable.
Sydney's caution was understandable, with several of their key players missing, but it hardly helped their cause.
With Bobo, Milos Ninkovic and Michael Zullo missing through injury, and Brandan O'Neill suspended, coach Graham Arnold had kept his promise and given the young players a go, with Paulo Retre, Chris Zuvela and Antony Kalik all included.
But there was a disjointed feel to the team, with the right-footed Luke Wilkshire replacing Zullo at leftback.
The one thing Sydney had promised to do was be defensively aware, after the horrible concession of two cheap goals from setpieces in the return fixture a week ago, and yet in the 26th minute they let themselves down again.
This time it was a short corner that caused the pain, as Sydney shot themselves in the foot. First Kalik was slow to close down the ball on the edge of the box, and then when the cross was flighted in, Alex Brosque's leap towards the ball had the effect only of putting off Josh Brillante behind him.
Deceived, Brillante's attempt at a clearing header went towards his own goal, and Mu Kanazaki had the easiest of tasks in opening the scoring at the far post.
For the next 45 minutes Sydney flickered without ever threatening, in a deadlocked tie that offered no one the upper hand. Then, almost out of nothing the Sky Blues were level.
Retre began it, winning the ball on the halfway line and feeding Adrian Mierzejewski. The Pole's angled pass out wide to Luke Wilkshire prompted a looped cross and Matt Simon's header crossed the goal line before it was hacked clear.
The goal emboldened the visitors, and five minutes later they were so nearly ahead. Mierzejewski was again involved, dribbling and then playing in Brosque whose quick shot flashed just wide.
With three minutes left Sydney had an even better chance, as a clever through ball from Mierzejewski slipped Simon into the Antlers box with space to shoot. Hardly able to believe the space he was in, Simon rushed a shot that was easily gathered by goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata.
At the end the visiting heads were slumped, knowing the context of the draw, and Sydney's prospects of making the knockout stages look minimal.