Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Pressure tells as favourites flounder

A-League.
It's not exactly been the start Juninho-led Sydney FC had anticipated with under-fire coach Branko Culina wasting little opportunity to continue his war of words with the Sydney media after the 2005/06 champions finally recorded their first win under his charge.

It took a classic backs to the wall away effort, a goal from Brazilian substitute Patrick with his first touch and an outstanding display in central defence from Socceroos defender Mark Milligan to snatch a 1-0 victory in Brisbane over the unfortunate Queensland Roar.

Before the round had begun, Sydney were propping up the eight-team table following two draws and two losses and mischievous hacks had started to circle the embattled club like vultures around road kill.

The depressing scenario was a million miles from Culina's first game in charge when in March he guided his new side to a shock 2-1 win over Shanghai Shenhua in the opening round of the AFC Champions League.

Barely six months later, Culina has this season been forced to defend himself like a boxer caught on the ropes - and over the weekend he wasn't about to spurn an opportunity for some counterpunching.

The primary accusation thrown in the Sydney coach's direction has been one of arrogance as rivals have gleefully turned on the team which proclaimed itself the 'glamour club' of the league two short years ago.

With 'all night' Dwight Yorke and, briefly, Kazu among their ranks, Sydney certainly did dominate column inches, generated the largest crowds and at times played some delightful football under German Pierre Littbarski.

But that was then.

Littbarski is now a distant memory, crowds in the harbour city are down and represent only half what reigning champions Melbourne Victory regularly draw since their move to the Telstra Dome and the omnipotent front and back page presence of Yorke is long gone.

Away from football, Sydneysiders are often on the receiving end of claims of arrogance so perhaps there's nothing new in Culina's confident swagger.

But snipers, chiefly comprising the Melbourne football fraternity, have happily leapt on his comparisons between Sydney and Manchester United with boardroom unrest, a shoulder injury to Juninho and an under-funded pre-season recruitment drive also under the microscope.

Sydney were lucky to beat Queensland over the weekend, the visitors pouncing on home hesitancy in defence to somehow scrape a victory after a lacklustre first-half.

What then, one Brisbane-based reporter from tabloid The Courier Mail quizzed, was the content of Culina's half-time rally cry.

"I said let's be arrogant," the FC coach mocked theatrically. "Isn't that what you guys wanted to hear?

"After all didn't I do a half-an-hour interview with you yesterday and all you wanted to write was about how arrogant we were," he continued. "There's a bit of a difference between being confident and arrogant."

A fired up Culina maintained he could handle the heat of coaching under the spotlight but cunningly distanced himself from references to the English champions, saying they were only made to underline the constant media interest in the club based in Australia's most populous city.

"It's being sarcastic or arrogant when we say it is important that Sydney does well - or at least it is for us - because of what it represents in population," he backtracked.

"I didn't say we were Manchester United or all of that, I simply said the pressure is on Sydney. I mean which other state would have been writing about getting rid of a coach other than Sydney."

It doesn’t much help that New South Wales rivals the Central Coast Mariners lead the league by four points.

By contrast former coach-of-the-year Lawrie McKinna rarely comes a cropper in the tabloids and the club are engaged with the local community in a way no other franchise has yet managed.

The Mariners boardroom is united, corporate funding is flooding in and the side boast a strike force to rival Melbourne's after former Sydney attacker Sasho Petrovski swapped the frenetic atmosphere of the NSW capital for a laidback lifestyle on the Coast.

In truth, Petrovski has not been the only person turning his back on Sydney of late.

Copyright © Marc Fox and Soccerphile.com

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