Saturday, March 24, 2007

Culina's Sydney: bold and brave

A-League.
Whether Sydney FC have the stamina to outlast their Group E colleagues remains a question for debate after their pulsating 2-2 draw with J-League champions Urawa Reds. But the inaugural A-League champions have already banished the memory of an uninspiring domestic campaign under sacked coach Terry Butcher and made a real statement of intent for this year's Asian Champions League.

"Pleased and disappointed," was interim coach Branko Culina's balanced reaction after only his second match in charge of the club. "Pleased that we played well in the first half and pleased with the result.

"But disappointed that we let slip a two-goal lead."

Sydney's studious manager must feel like Arsene Wenger to Butcher's Sir Alex Ferguson. The technical director of Soccer New South Wales and a regular TV pundit, Culina is a man well versed in doing his pre-match homework. As perhaps Sydney's display in Shanghai a fortnight ago demonstrated, Culina is also patently not fazed by restarting his top-flight management career in the heat of the ACL.

"Tsuboi, Tanaka, Nene, Suzuki, Ono, Abe, Ponte, Washington, Nagai ... do you want me to keep going?" he coolly responded to questions about Sydney's opponents the day before the game.

That's Culina. He exudes a quiet calm in front of the cameras while preaching a classic pass-and-movement philosophy the Sydney squad have taken to like ducks to water. And although he's been spending plenty of his evenings running the rule of his group rivals, he's also been quick to overhaul the club's stagnant style under Butcher and impart an altogether more entertaining system.

"Our game plan worked to perfection in the first 20 minutes," Culina continued confidently after the match. "Our plan was to attack them down the right-hand side in the first 20 minutes where Nene didn't have the pace or the defensive requirements to put up with Brosque.

"We changed Carney and Brosque around for that reason as well - we wanted to confuse them a little bit. But in the end we weren't quite good enough."

Culina, the father of Socceroo midfielder Jason, is certainly tactically astute but he has also inherited the bulk of the 2006 championship-winning squad. There have been a couple of further outgoings following Dwight Yorke's early season move back to the UK, but in essence Sydney's roster - albeit a little thin - has been together for more or less two years.

Of the club's three up-and-comers who will have the caught the eye of neutrals, Culina picked out supplementary striking duo Alex Brosque and David Carney for special mention. The third member of a triumvirate on the fringes of regular Socceroos recognition is midfielder Mark Milligan. National team coach Graham Arnold admitted this week he was planning to look at all three before Australia's scheduled match against Saudi Arabia next Wednesday was scrapped.

Milligan is no stranger to the senior Socceroos after receiving a last-gasp phone call from Guus Hiddink on the eve of last year's World Cup. Having now dropped back to captain the under-23s on their qualifying path to Beijing 2008, the unflappable 21-year-old showed in the opening minutes against Urawa he's more than just a midfield enforcer. It was his slide rule through ball which found Carney who finished with aplomb within 60 seconds of kick-off. Milligan too highlighted his versatility by playing at right-back after half-time

Sydney's second goal was concocted by Carney's individual brilliance with a helping hand from Brosque in the build-up. In between time Brosque, who gave Nene the run around before the Brazilian defender was replaced by Japanese international Makato Hasebe just before the interval, might have had one of his own after shooting wide with the hosts well in the ascendancy.

The Sydneysiders tired after the break and despite gifting the Reds an equaliser ended up holding on for a draw. Still, unbeaten and joint-top of arguably the toughest of this year's seven ACL groups, is a fine achievement. As Culina said, "When you consider it is someone who spends $65million on players against someone who spends $6.5million, the result is not too bad."

Copyright © Marc Fox and Soccerphile.com

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