“What do you think the result and the score will be tonight?” asks a new acquaintance. “I’m going to guess Sydney 3-1, but I’m unsure.”
I consider the injured: captain Tommy Oar out for the Mariners, Brandon O’Neill and Michael Zullo out for Sydney. I consider the Mariners’ new starter, Brazilian striker Jair, by all reports a bit underwhelming but let’s give him a go. I consider the intrigue surrounding Ninkovic, whether he’s leave or remain for Sydney FC – and whether it’s destabilising camp.
But I’m a Sky Blue. So I tell him Sydney, 4-0, because last week we thrashed Brisbane in the same location, and the Mariners are ranked even below them.
But dammit if the Mariners’ Giancarlo Gallifuoco doesn’t get me in the pre-game interview when he says, “Why can’t it be us? (to beat Sydney). Sometimes hard work beats talent.”
The whistle blows and minutes pass, four of them, and then a “free kick, quickly taken” loops to Rhyan Grant on the right, who feeds the ball to Barbarouses who’s placed directly in front of goal, who needs just one touch to send the ball pummeling straight to the far reaches of the net.
So I change my bet to 8-0. Because I panic like that, and I figure that at five minutes per goal there’s a lot more in this game. But I’m wrong.
It’s not often that Sydney comes at you with underwhelming play. Tactically proficient but motivationally uninspired. It’s sobering, gentle on the nerves, precisely what I need after the work Christmas party the night before.
The Mariners aren’t holding back, though. Relatively close to equalising in the 6th minute, from a Duric corner that finds Danny Da Silva who gets pace and power to the ball and prompts a reaching save from Redmayne.
Jair gets close to a headed goal near the half time whistle. Ninko makes a lunge for the ball in the 50th which goes close to converting but leaves him hobbled on the ground with calf pain. Anthony Caceres comes on in his place.
Meanwhile, across the pitch, Mariners coach Stajcic is making swaps: Miller comes on for Silvera; Ruiz-Diaz and Simon on for Juric and Jair. The pace quickens, finally, and the intensity hardens.
The stars are having quiet games – maybe they’re mistletoed out. Then Trent Buhagiar comes on for Adam le Fondre in the 75th minute. Last week he got a goal and an assist in his first five minutes and this week he nearly does the same. I nod sagely to myself and think that the future of Sydney FC is in pretty safe hands. Speaking of.
Gallifuoco lunges with both force and heart at Ziggy Gordon’s 88” cross in front of the box and his thudding header hurtles directly toward Redmayne but Redders has played this game before.
In the end it comes down to a final minute corner from the Mariners, with Birrighitti joining the fray and heading the ball just clear of the net.
Ultimately, it didn’t feel like a battle between first and last. The Mariners play Adelaide at home next, and with nothing to lose, it feels like they’re starting to rise. In the words of an enthusiastic defender, why not them?
And as for Sydney, they have the Nix in Wellington next week, a few days before Christmas and after, probably, Ninko’s decided his future.
“A win’s a win,” writes my acquaintance, and adds a shrug emoji.
By Kelly Simpson