Alou Kuol fired the Central Coast Mariners to the top of the A-League after a stunning yet deserved 2-0 win against defending Premiers and Champions Sydney FC at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium.
Alen Stajcic’s revitalised side bounced back from their first loss of the season against Western Sydney Wanderers 72 hours earlier to clinch a comfortable victory thanks to Ben Warland’s 53rd-minute own goal and teenage substitute Kuol’s second goal of the season in the 74th minute.
In an encounter between the first and last placed clubs from 2019/20, when Sydney almost tripled the points tally of their state rivals, 53 to 18, the Mariners stood firm against a Sky Blues attack lacking creativity, although Kosta Barbarouses spurned a pair of close-range chances either side of half-time.
By the time Sydney FC next take to the pitch, it will be more than a year since Barbarouses last netted in open play, after scoring only two penalties in 24 matches during that time, and the Kiwi forward's struggles seemed to spread through to his teammates, who could not penetrate a defence led by the colossal Ruon Tongyik and assured goalkeeper Mark Birighitti.
On his first A-League start, Olyroos attacker Daniel Bouman's incisive run created the opener as Warland slid the ball into his own net under pressure from Matt Simon, before Tongyik showed his prowess at both ends, surging forward to launch a breakaway that was confidently finished by 19-year-old Kuol, via a deflection, seven minutes after coming off the bench.
Much like their road win against Macarthur FC, Stajcic’s team held a smaller share of possession and executed their counter-attacks to precision to record their first win over Sydney FC in seven years, and only their second triumph over them in 18 attempts. The club that have collected the wooden spoon for three straight years go top of the A-League with three wins from four games in 2020/21.
The Sky Blues made the first advances, winning a corner in the first minute, and shortly afterwards an unmarked Kosta Barbarouses scuffed a volley wide from Anthony Caceres’ delivery. Sydney FC built on their strong start in the 11th minute when Luke Brattan a 25-yard effort over the cross, before the midfielder found Rhyan Grant from another set-piece and Mark Birighitti had to react quickly to save the Socceroos right-back’s close-range attempt.
Both sides were stringing together some slick passing moves but a final pass was lacking, until midway through the half when Oliver Bozanic wriggled free and headed a good chance wide from Jack Clisby’s free-kick. In response, Trent Buhagiar flew forward in the 29th minutes and drilled the ball across the Mariners penalty box. After Ruon Tongyik could only half clear, Barbarouses missed the target again with a gilt-edged chance from 10 yards out.
The defending Premiers dialled up the pressure as half-time drew closer, with Milos Ninkovic’s low drive saved by a diving Birighitti and Caceres slammed a strike over from long-range as the Mariners defence stood firm. Steve Corcia’s side made a fast start to the second-half when Barbarouses picked out Buhagiar to score but the Kiwi had strayed a shade offside before his cross was turned into the net.
Suddenly, it was the Mariners pinning the Sky Blues back as Daniel Bouman weaved through the Sydney defence and Danny De Silva teed up Bozanic, but Alex Wilkinson made a heroic close-range block. Tongyik powered a header wide from the resulting corner and, moments later, Bouman's burst and cross towards Matt Simon was slid into his own net by Ben Warland in the 53rd minute.
Upping the tempo, the hosts went in search of a reply as Barbarouses' cross-come-shot went awry and Grant's hammered delivery was smothered by Birighitti on the hour mark. The Sky Blues committed more players forward as they sought to put the away side's defence under more pressure but the dominant Tongyik surged forward and, after Josh Nisbet and substitute Jordan Smylie combined, Kuol lashed in a strike off the outstretched foot of Wilkinson.
With Central Coast retreating to protect their lead, a pair of Sydney FC substitutes combined when Alex Baumjohann set Jordi Swibel free and the 21-year-old striker was denied his first A-League goal by Birighitti's outstanding block. The away side fended off the danger to seal their third clean sheet in four games and climb to the top of the A-League on nine points.
Next fixtures – Matchweek 6
Macarthur FC v Sydney FC
Saturday, 30 January 2021
Venue: Campbelltown Stadium
Kick-off: 7.10pm AEDT
Central Coast Mariners v Wellington Phoenix
Sunday, 31 January 2021
Venue: Central Coast Stadium
Kick-off: 4.05pm AEDT