Sydney FC push A-League premiers all the way to set up second-leg thriller

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Sydney FC will need to produce their first away win over Melbourne City in almost five years to reach the A-League grand final after a controversial 1-1 draw in the first leg of their semi set up a tantalising return fixture.

Socceroo Mathew Leckie’s 18th-minute header put City in front, but the Sky Blues produced another thrilling second-half surge in front of 15,322 fans at Allianz Stadium on Friday night that almost led to a second upset finals win in as many weeks.

Goalkeeper Tom Glover was superb for City.Credit: Getty

The contest was enthralling – albeit slightly undermined by an awful, uneven pitch – and not without high drama. Two VAR interventions forced a saved Sydney penalty to be retaken, and a goal that would have put them in front was disallowed for offside.

Anthony Caceres earned, and then took, a spot kick in the 62nd minute that was brilliantly batted away by Tom Glover, who also produced an incredible double save just before half-time to keep the hosts at bay.

But video assistant referee Shaun Evans ordered it to be retaken due to encroachment in the box by former Sydney academy product Callum Talbot, who had cleared the ball after Glover’s low one-handed save. Adam Le Fondre confidently converted the second penalty to make it 1-1.

Ten minutes later, the Sydney faithful were in raptures after Rhyan Grant tapped home Le Fondre’s cutback to seemingly take the lead – only for Evans to step in once again because the veteran English striker was in offside when he received Max Burgess’ pass.

Adam Le Fondre celebrates his goal.Credit: Getty

The Sky Blues had an earlier strike by Le Fondre chalked out for offside and, across the 90 minutes, were comfortably the better team, dominating possession and generating more high-quality chances to demonstrate there is still plenty of life in this team of A-League warhorses.

City were a long way from their best – perhaps a fraction rusty after a week off – and missed the controlling presence of midfielder Aiden O’Neill, who did not travel due to soreness but is expected to return for the next match.

With the away goals rule no longer in use, both teams have it all to play for in the second leg on Friday night at AAMI Park – but the Sky Blues have not beaten City there since November 2018, when coach Steve Corica was only a few weeks into his role. They will need to take their late-season revival to a new level to be any chance.

Sydney picked up where they left off in last weekend’s 2-1 win over Western Sydney Wanderers, starting the match with serious attacking intent and troubling City with their high press, but failed to take advantage of their early momentum.

Robert Mak is challenged by Callum Talbot.Credit: Getty

That was always going to spell danger against such crafty opponents, and so it proved when the sucker-punch reply from City arrived. From a free kick earned by Jordan Bos on the edge of the penalty area, Valon Berisha delivered an inch-perfect ball for a leaping Leckie to nod home. Andrew Redmayne could do little about it– and neither could referee Adam Kersey, who was summoned to the VAR booth and had a long look for a potential offside before eventually allowing the goal to stand.

The pendulum then swung the other way, and Sydney were lucky not to be three goals down at half-time. Richard van der Venne dispossessed Jack Rodwell in the box and fluffed a one-on-one chance, and a header from Curtis Good rattled the crossbar three minutes later.

There were plenty of twists and turns to come and, in the end, City will be grateful for the safe hands of Glover, who made five stops to avert what would have been a total disaster for the newly crowned premiers.

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