Saturday, August 18, 2007

Juninho's still got it....

......otherwise it was a Long night for Sydney

Penrith Nepean United 2 v Sydney FC 1

IF the first impression is any indication, then Sydney will soon fall in love with Juninho Paulista, if it hasn't already.

Sydney's marquee for version 3 made his debut last night in a pre-season scratch match against Penrith Nepean United at the CUA Stadium in Penrith, and it was a wonderful 45 minute contribution.

Walking towards the stadium, half an hour before kick-off, there he was, warming up with the "first 10" outfield players, playing keep-ball.

Watching it from a couple of metres away was great viewing. While you could barely hear him ask for the ball, when he got it the touches were crisp and his ability to recycle it was excellent. Indeed, his presence appeared to lift those around him, for the quality of the warm-up was high.

When the team broke from the warm-up for a s spot of long-and-short passing, a quick word with Steve Corica confirmed that Juninho would be playing in behind Alex Brosque, with Corica consigned to the left wing and new signing Adam Biddle given a chance to make an impression on the right.

Warming up with the reserves was David Zdrilic, a sign perhaps that Branko Culina is running out of patience with the big man.

On to the game, and while Juninho felt his way into the opening 10 or 15 minutes, hardly getting a touch, he soon sprang to life. Moving around the midfield, trying to shake off the attentions of Penrith's central midfield duo of Javier Manchino and Jack Long, he soon started getting on the ball. The class was obvious. Juninho still had it.

Soon he was turning and facing the goal, splitting the United defence with two wonderful through balls, each played with immaculate timing and just the right amount of weight. Both recipients, Brosque and Corica, could rarely have recieved better service, but were each deined by some wonderful reactions from goalkepper Chad Taylor, impressive throughout.

Regardless, it was splendid stuff from the little Brazilian.

The other pleasing aspect for Culina will have been the understanding between Juninho and Corica. No doubt these two quality performers were on the same wavelength throughout their 45 minute so-journ.

Whenever Corica drifted central, Juninho instantly pulled out the left. When Juninho cut in from the left, there was Corica, driving into the box from a central position, recognising that there were opportunities to get on the end of his quality service. And there is was, the ball played right on cue.

On this occasion Corica's touch was a little heavy, but the understanding was obviously there, as it so often is whenever quality players are put on the same team.

Elsewhere Sydney looked solid without every really providing a cutting-edge. Worryingly, it has been lacking throughout the pre-season, and the battle will be to find goals when the A-League kicks-off next week.

One of Culina's biggest headaches will be to find a solution on the flanks. Biddle is raw and promising but will need time. Down the left there was a clear lack of width. Corica always wanted to drift infield, while Iain Fyfe, solid defensively, was always more inclined to cut-back onto his right peg, whenever he ventured forward from left back.

At the back Mark Rudan and Tony Popovic looked solid whenever the ball was aimed at Penrith's target-man Brad Boardman, but less so when the ball was on the ground, at the feet of the mobile and hard-working Mitchell Long.

While Juninho drew much of the attention, there is little doubt that most of the impressing on this brisk night in Sydney's west was being done by the hosts, especially the younger of the two Long's.

While they finished bottom of the NSW premier league in their first attempt, this team coached by former Sydney Olympic great Abbas Saad is a far cry from the robust one I watched so often throughout the 2006 Winter Super League.

That team was coached by former NSL defender Claudio Canosa, known for his rugged and committed approach. His team was certainly in the mould, experienced, uncomprising and competitive.

Saad's young team is far more prepared to keep the ball on the deck and build out from the back, and against a team like Sydney, who let you play, they gave a wonderful account of themsleves.

After Mark Milligan scored a headed goal to open proceedings, Penrith came back well. Their equaliser came from a set-piece corner, but owed much to a wonderful build-up out of the back that led to the corner. Not surprisingly it coincided with the replacement of Boardman about 10 minutes from the break.

Up until then Penrith had been guilty of looking for it's target man far too often, and when he did get it he was unable to hold it up. When he was replaced, Penrith had to play, and play they did.

Mitchell Long was the fulcrum, buzzing all over the place, defending from the front and dropping back into central midfield whenever Saad asked him to. On this evidence, the wrap from his manager in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald isn't far off.

After the break, with Sydney fielding a 'fresh 10' of reserves and trialists, it was Long who stood-out, setting up Penrith's winner with a superb dribble and cross, which pressured FC's right-back into a hand ball.

Ben Gough, Penrith's adaptable right back, capped off an impressive night with a neat spot-kick.

He wasn't the only defender shining for hosts. Captain Ryan O'Shea, marshalling the centre of defence, was excellent, while a host of youngsters caught the eye, outplaying their more illustrious opponents, proving there is plenty of talent in these parts.

Certainly, a the club with plenty of ambition, did the cause of a western Sydney A-League club no harm whatsoever.

For now though attention turns to the original Sydney club, and on the evidence of this performance, Juninho will certainly excite. Whether it's enough to help Sydney re-find the glory of the inaugural season, the jury is still out.


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