The Sky Blues host the Reds tonight with one eye on their following two games – high-profile away clashes with Melbourne Victory and Brisbane – with goalkeeper Danny Vukovic saying a massive next few weeks could prove vital to Sydney FC’s push for the Premiers’ Plate.
Second-placed Victory, now five points adrift, gifted leaders Sydney much-needed breathing space by losing to Wellington midweek and now face another tough trip to Perth.
Yet next week’s blockbuster Australia Day Big Blue at Etihad Stadium has the potential to be the undoing of one of the league’s top two teams, depending who reigns.
Sydney then meet the Roar at Suncorp Stadium and, after a home game with Wellington, face Western Sydney (away), Melbourne City (away) and Victory (home) in succession.
Graham Arnold’s side have momentum and unbridled confidence in their corner, and with every win the coach’s early-season ‘Invincibles’ tag appears less grandiose.
The glamour club are on 37 points with a goal difference of 27, and can still rack up another 36 points before the regular season is out.
But Vukovic said unfaltering focus would be key.
“We’ve got some big games,” the in-form gloveman said.
“The Australia Day clash against Victory is huge, then the following week we’ve got Brisbane away.
“So some tough games coming up. But every game is difficult, we just need to be prepared as best as we can.”
But first, Sydney’s record-breaking unbeaten log will go on the line against Adelaide, after the Reds’ drought-breaking win against Melbourne City last week.
But Arnold is adamant the looming Victory clash won’t distract his high-flyers from getting the job done at Allianz Stadium.
The Reds may be second-last on goal difference and lagging 27 points behind, but Guillermo Amor’s defending champions dismantled City 2-1 and played free-flowing football.
And while the Sky Blues were again defensively sturdy in Saturday’s Sydney derby stalemate, they struggled to make headway in the other direction against Western Sydney.
“We just couldn’t penetrate, we couldn’t create too many things in the final third,” said Vukovic, who made a late save to deny Wanderers forward Jaushua Sotirio.
“But a (ninth) clean sheet was a positive for us.”
Midfielder Josh Brillante is set to return to the starting line-up after missing the derby through suspension.
“I’m very keen to get back,” Brillante said.
“Being out suspended definitely sucks – it’s hard watching the boys out there.”
Meanewhile, United are expecting a less troublesome Asian Champions League (ACL) run after the disqualification of their toughest group opponent.
Reigning ACL champions Jeonbuk Motors have been banned from defending their title over the club’s involvement with match-fixing, the Asian Football Confederation announced this week.
It means the Reds no longer have to face the Korean team with whom Socceroos defender Alex Wilkinson had won the 2014 and 2015 K-League titles.
Guillermo Amor’s A-League champions instead will play their Group H replacement Jeju United, who finished third behind second-placed Jeonbuk in the last domestic season.
“It could be easier because they (Jeonbuk) were the last champion,” playmaker Marcelo Carrusca said.
“But nothing changes – it’s another team.”
Jeonbuk’s absence by no means signals a walk in the park for the Reds, who still have to compete with Chinese Super League giants Jiangsu Suning for a top-two spot.
Big spenders Jiangsu, the home of Socceroos centre-back Trent Sainsbury, also have Alex Teixeira and Ramires on their books and have been linked to a mind-boggling bid for fellow Brazilian star Diego Costa.
Adelaide’s campaign will kick off against a yet-to-be-confirmed playoff winner on February 22 at home.
Carrusca still wasn’t sure whether he’d be selected to take part, with only three of the Reds’ five foreigners allowed to be included in the squad.
“We are waiting for the list,” he said.
“We know there just can be three players there and we have five foreigners so we’ll see.
“We fight every day at training to be in the [A-League] first XI; this time we’ll fight to be in the Asian Champions League.”
Domestically, Carrusca is a chance of starting against Sydney tonight following James Holland’s move to China’s Liaoning Whowin.
The star Argentine was left on the bench in last week’s 2-1 upset of Melbourne City, but his experience could be vital against the undefeated Sky Blues at Allianz Stadium.
Defender Tarek Elrich returns from suspension while Iacopo La Rocca and George Mells are also back from injury.
Last night the A-League’s marquee man Tim Cahill headed Melbourne City to a much-needed win, dismissing the challenge of a 10-man Central Coast with a 2-1 result at AAMI Park.
Roy O’Donovan equalised and was dismissed within 23 minutes last night, either side of two first-half Cahill strikes.
The result was the perfect tonic for Michael Valkanis’ men, who desperately needed a response to last week’s loss.
STATS THAT MATTER:
* Sydney are out to snatch consecutive wins against Adelaide for the first time since September 2008
* The Reds are undefeated in their last five regular-season excursions to face the Sky Blues, keeping a clean sheet each time
* Adelaide have hit the woodwork nine times this season, the most of any team though only once more than Sydney
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