Sydney FC’s grand final victory confirms what we already knew — this Sydney FC team are the best in the A-League era.
After a terrifically entertaining grand final between the two best teams in the competition this year, Sydney overcame a slow start, clawing their way back into the contest and breaking the hearts of Melbourne City in extra time with Rhyan Grant’s strike in the 100th minute.
Granted, Sydney’s status had been significantly clouded by some decidedly patchy form since the COVID break, but when it counted most, Steve Corica’s side stepped up and delivered.
Overall, this club now has a record five championships — three of them in the last four years.
The Sky Blues have now matched Brisbane Roar’s effort of winning back-to-back grand finals.
For long periods of an exceptional grand final though, it looked like they would fall short.
Melbourne City were on top in every possible metric in the opening phase of the match, dominating to the tune of 66 per cent of possession, 62 per cent of territory and 76 completed passes to 28 in a dominant first quarter of an hour.
Craig Noone and Lachlan Wales exploited the space on the flanks left vacant by Sydney’s propensity to force their full backs high.
That was particularly true of Wales, who repeatedly drove at Joel King on the left edge of Sydney’s defence, only for the teenager to stand firm and repel his efforts.
City outnumbered Sydney in midfield not through weight of numbers, but through an unsustainably intense press that restricted Luke Brattan and Paulo Retre’s space to operate and ensured ball-players Milos Ninkovic and Anthony Caceras were bystanders.
Every time Sydney’s midfield picked up possession, red and white shirts hounded the Sky Blues into coughing it back up.
Having earned that possession, City were unafraid to launch the ball forward and wide with raking, diagonal balls from Harrison Delbridge and Curtis Good onto the chest of Jamie Maclaren.
Such was City’s dominance that when Delbridge’s crisp strike looked to have given them the lead in the 17th minute, it was their eighth shot of the match.
Erick Mombaerts’ statuesque indifference to his team’s goal, the subsequent VAR intervention and eventual overturning of it came in stark contrast to that of his counterpart Corica.
His parental advisory-rated observation of Sydney’s efforts in the opening exchanges outlined what he felt was wrong, that Sydney simply were not at the races yet and that they needed to wake up.
Wake up they did, but the no goal decision undoubtedly made for a turning point in the contest.
Grant, Brattan’s combination the perfect formula for Sydney
For all the flamboyance and style that Caceras and Ninkovic have brought to Sydney, for all the goals that Adam Le Fondre has scored, there are no two players more important to Sydney than Grant and midfielder Luke Brattan.
Grant in particular is instrumental in the way Sydney play, and his value was perfectly encapsulated by his determined performance and improvised finish in the final.
Right back is not the most traditionally fashionable position on the pitch, but Grant’s dominance showed just how important a role the full back can and should play.
His chested effort might not have looked too tidy at first glance, but on closer inspection illustrated the quick thinking and improvisation that has made him the first name on the Socceroos team sheet at right back.
With his mullet flying behind him, Grant relentlessly tore up and down the field throughout the contest, a willing defender as much as a pivotal attacking weapon, his defensive virtues proven when his block denied Good a late equaliser.
Corica described Grant as the “energiser bunny” post-match.
“He’s energetic, leads by example by doing all the running and the pressing and being aggressive, that’s a big part of the game these days and he leads by example.
“You could see when he was out [for] a couple of games we really missed him … He’s the best right back in the country.”
Grant touched the ball 103 times in the grand final, more than any other Sydney player.
With one of those touches coming from an inventive thrust of his chest, Grant scored a second career grand final goal to go with his effort in the 2017 decider.
It came from a sublime pass from Brattan, the only player to have touched the ball more than Grant in a Sydney FC shirt this year, who was pivotal in Sydney gaining a foothold in the game.
“He’s a joke,” Brattan said of Grant.
“He runs all day … I knew he was going to get on the end of [my cross]. He never stops.”
But there are questions over the use of VAR
As much as Sydney deserves all the plaudits coming its way, is this even an A-League piece without some mention of the failings of VAR?
Well, as churlish as it may seem to bring the conversation back to VAR after such an entertaining final, there are questions to be answered over its use in this game.
For sure, under the letter of the law, Wales was in an offside position when Dellbridge found the back of the net and, according to the referee at least, got in the eye line of Andrew Redmayne enough to distract him.
At half-time, Jamie Maclaren argued it was not the right call, although opinion was mixed amongst pundits.
However, that such a conclusion could only be determined after VAR’s forensic analysis instantly demands that the same scrutiny be applied to other aspects of the game as well.
For example, Adam Le Fondre could have had a penalty awarded later in the first half. There was contact. the VAR looked, but did not overturn the no call from referee Chris Beath.
Then there are the multiple instances of incorrectly awarded goal kicks when a corner should have been awarded. Insignificant perhaps, but potentially momentum-swinging instances as pressure builds.
That last instance should have seen Grant sent off.
Under the letter of the law, celebrating a goal by covering your face with your shirt is a yellow card offence. Grant, who had already been booked, should have gone off.
It’s not a popular rule (Law 12, Section 3, if you’re playing along at home), but it is an infringement that, at the top level, should have been picked up and could have played a huge role in whether Melbourne could have got an equaliser.
In the quest for perfection that the use of VAR seems to demand, those discrepancies are glaring.