Unfortunately for the 34,232 loud fans that made their way to the first derby at the new Sydney Football Stadium, the opening 45 minutes were a largely forgettable affair, with neither side able to produce much in the way of talking points or threatening efforts on their opponents' goal -- the story instead the raucous atmosphere in the stands.
But finally, a breakthrough was found in the 70th minute when the visiting Wanderers broke in transition through former Sydney legend Milos Ninkovic, who fed the ball to teammate Kusini Yengi. Cutting inside, the 23-year-old put both James Donachie and Anthony Caceres on skates before hammering the ball into the net and celebrating with a delirious Red and Black Bloc.
1. Ninkovic laughs best
Sydney derbies occupy a special place on the A-League's calendar. There's, of course, a degree of embellishment added by the marketers and writers looking for a narrative, but there's no other contest in the league that carries the same level of authenticity; a game genuinely perceived by those within it as going beyond a simple meeting between two sides that share a city and a clash of ideology and identity.
Saturday evening's meeting, however, saw most of this subsumed by the storyline of Ninkovic coming up against his former side for the first time. The Serbian maestro's move from Moore Park to Rooty Hill had been marked by a war of words and contrasting explanations behind his defection to the Wanderers and it made for a juicy talking point -- especially when it was announced just days prior that he had secured Australian citizenship, supposedly a point of contention between he and his former club.
Sydney fans ceremonially burned one of their former hero's shirts prior to the contest, while a tifo displayed by supporters' group The Cove declared that "Traitors' legacies will perish." All very dramatic stuff. And the hurt feelings continued into the game itself as Ninkovic was booed every time he got on the ball.
When he was played through on Sydney custodian Andrew Redmayne in the 63rd minute the stage appeared set for a famous moment -- only for the 37-year-old to fluff his lines and shoot straight at the keeper. You could almost hear the "whomp, whomp" trombone sound wringing out. Ninkovic, however, was able to make amends and play a pivotal part in his side's win in the build-up to Yengi's winner: leaving with an assist, three points and the last laugh.
2. A pained opening
Of course, there was an actual game of football that took place alongside all this excitement surrounding Ninkovic. Unfortunately, it couldn't quite match the hype.
Neither side appeared all that confident in possession and though it was the visitors that shaded the opening half, it wasn't to the degree or with the kind of style that would suggest they deserved much in the way of credit for it. It took until the 18th minute for Western Sydney's Calem Nieuwenhof to produce the game's first shot in anger and Sydney's Anthony Caceres 42 minutes to provide the contest's first shot on target -- a long-range effort relatively comfortably saved.
The fans of both Sky Blue and Red and Black persuasion were doing their part, but with pragmatism reigning the game desperately needed a goal or something to awaken it from its slumber -- which Yengi belatedly provided in the 70th minute from a moment in transition.
3. Soul-searching Sydney
The pain of a derby defeat now set to accompany them into the World Cup break, Sydney will be forced to recalibrate over the coming weeks and their coach Steve Corica will likely come under more pressure.
By the time of Yengi's opening goal, the Harboursiders attack, which entered the game as the third-most free scoring in the league, had been kept almost entirely blunt by their foes' stout defence and they would end the contest with just 0.57 xG from 11 total shots. It took until the 74th minute for Corica to look to switch things up in his stagnant midfield by bringing in Max Burgess for Caceres and the late chances to Jaiden Kucharski and Adrian Segecic can't obfuscate what was otherwise a poor attacking performance. And Sydney need to be good in attack, because their injury-hit defence has now conceded the second-most goals in the league with 12.
The Ske Blues have only won two games against a draw and three defeats -- two of which have arrived against hated rivals Melbourne Victory and the Wanderers and they're yet to win a game in their spiffy new stadium. The benefits of the switch to the 4-3-3 have largely derived from the individual performances of new signings Robert Mak and Joe Lolley over any sort of new tactical implementation.
Corica's job will not survive another year out of the finals. He now has four weeks to assess and rectify any issues he believes are holding his side back from reaching that mark.
Sydney FC: Redmayne 7, Cabello 6, Gurd 6, Donachie 5.5, Grant 5.5, Brattan 6, Lolley 6.5, Caceres 6, Yazbek 6, Mak 6, Wood 5.5
Western Sydney: Thomas 7, Traore 6.5, Marcelo 7, Mrcela 6, Cleur 6, Ninkovic 6.5, Nieuwenhof 8, Amalfitano 7, Borrello 6.5, Krpic 5.5, Yengi 7
Best and worst performers
BEST: Calem Nieuwenhof
While Ninkovic will get the headlines, the Wanderers' move to sign Nieuwnhof away from the Sky Blues during the offseason may prove to be the move that Sydney regret most in the years ahead. The 21-year-old has been the best young player in ALM so far and he was once again superb in the Wanderers' midfield throughout the contest.
WORST: James Donachie
After being let off the hook by Yengi when he gave away a soft turnover early in the second half, Donachie was one of two defenders that the Wanderers attacker rounded for the goal and was booked very late on as frustrations spilled over in a melee between the two sides.
Highlights and notable moments
It was all set up for the scriptwriters, only for Ninkovic to shoot straight at Redmayne.
A CHANCE GONE BEGGING FOR NINKOVIC!— Paramount+ Australia (@ParamountPlusAU) November 12, 2022
Milos Ninkovic is DENIED from point blank range as Redmayne shuts the door on a huge chance!
📺 #SydneyDerby is LIVE on Paramount+ #SYDvWSW pic.twitter.com/sxZKSg6h5P
In the end, Ninkovic turned provider for Yengi's winner.
ABSOLUTE SCENES AT ALLIANZ!!!! 🚀— Paramount+ Australia (@ParamountPlusAU) November 12, 2022
Kusini Yengi opens his account for the @wswanderersfc in the most stunning fashion with an absolute ROCKET to break the deadlock!
📺 #SydneyDerby is LIVE on Paramount+ #SYDvWSW pic.twitter.com/rBCR7GpnIk
After the match: What the players and managers said
Wanderers attacker Milos Ninkovic to Network Ten: "It's all about the team tonight. I always said I'm going to give everything I can tonight to give my teammates the three points and I think we deserved it. I had a chance [before the assist] that I should have scored. But it doesn't matter. We won the game, that's the most important thing."
Sydney FC midfielder Luke Brattan to Network Ten: "I think we were good defensively but for one or two little slip-ups and obviously they punished us on one of them. We weren't good enough on the ball. First half we didn't really pass the ball well and break them down."
Wanderers coach Marko Rudan to Network Ten: "It's not about me, it's about this playing group, our fans. It's about the West, the story. And the story is strong. The West was created by immigrants, a diverse community and they were looked down upon 50, 60 years ago. All they did was come here to this beautiful country of ours and enjoy freedom and yet they were always hammered from pillar to post. We represented them tonight. That was the story this week. That we needed to give something back to our fans and the story behind that."
Key stats (via ESPN Stats & Info)
Sydney FC now haven't kept a clean sheet in their last 16 matches
Saturday's contest was the 21st Sydney derby for Ninkovic but his first for the Wanderers.
The 1-0 scoreline means that nine of the last 11 meetings between Sydney and the Wanders have produced fewer than two-and-a-half goals.
Sydney FC: Sydney, the Wanderers, and ALM as a whole will now break for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which starts for Australia against defending champions France on the 22nd of November; Redmayne is named in the Socceroos squad for the tournament.
Western Sydney Wanderers: Clubs will now have four weeks to stage an effective mini-preseason while the world's eyes are on Qatar: the Wanderers returning to action away to Wellington on Dec. 10.