Victory recruit leads round of quality; Why patience is required for Arzani as he enters ‘crunch time’

Sydney FC v Melbourne Victory highlights

Zinedine Machach’s goal hinted at what he can deliver for Tony Popovic, as key players lay down gauntlet in Round 1.

It might be true, as the old cliché notes, that it only takes a second to score a goal, but the players that coaches crave are those who take a second to change a game.

In a flash they find the magic that changes the course of a match. Maybe they score themselves, or create the chance for someone else, but invariably the passage of history runs through them and they decide which way it will travel.

An hour into Western United’s testing opening assignment of the new season on Saturday, away to the Premiers Melbourne City, Daniel Penha drops deep and demands the ball. With a couple of touches he has understood the moving geometry of City’s defence and pierced it with a through ball for Lachie Wales to score. United are on their way to victory.

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Several hours later, on the treacherously glistening turf of Allianz Stadium, Bruno Fornaroli harries Luke Brattan and sees his Sydney FC opponent slip to the floor. The Victory striker is still outside the box, but instantly sweeps the ball into the bottom corner. In an arm wrestle of a contest, Fornaroli has suddenly found a dagger.

Perhaps most spectacular of all is what happens some 25 minutes later. Zinedine Machach, a French attacker of whom Australian audiences have essentially seen nothing so far, clinches the win by charging through Sydney FC’s defence with a run that is by turns deft and destructive before shooting home.

Marseille-born and 27 now, Machach once played in Ligue 1 for Toulouse and was signed by Napoli but has effectively lived out of a suitcase with a succession of loan moves for the past five years. A goal like the one that marked his debut is the sort to make him feel right at home at his latest club, especially as he is starting from a very low base.

“We like a lot about him,” said Victory coach Tony Popovic afterwards. “He had three months without any training, between clubs, and like all foreigners, some settle quicker than others.

“It’s a demanding league, you have to be physically fit, you have to respect this league. He’s come with a fantastic mindset to work hard to be a team player and ultimately to show his talent and his quality. I think we’ve just touched the surface with what he can do.”

On the A-Leagues’ opening weekend, the decisive moments so far have been lustrous rather than lucky, showcasing the players who can find something special. Ben Halloran’s swerving strike to open the scoring against the Mariners on Friday night spoke of his undoubted quality, but also lobbed up a gentle reminder that Adelaide have more to their arsenal than Nestory Irankunda (blisteringly exciting though their teen sensation is).

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It’s way too early to pass judgement on those who weren’t able to mark the first round with something similar, especially the players who have a track record to point to. In the end the Big Blue was settled by those two moments of quality from Fornaroli and Machach, but Joe Lolley in particular showed the drive of a player whose quality has been evident throughout Sydney FC’s Australia Cup-winning pre-season.

There were cameos of quality from his teammates also that hint at what could be to come. At one point in the first half, Robert Mak pirouetted on the halfway line like the Bolshoi Ballet’s leading light to destroy the spatial awareness of two Victory markers. In the second half, Antony Cacares managed a turn and gambol forward that made the crowd sigh. Sydney need to join these dots of genius and the results could be spectacular.

Then there are those on whom the spotlight shines relentlessly, because we know what they can do, even if recent evidence has been rather less convincing. There’s a suspicion that Daniel Arzani might be in the last-chance saloon in the sense of a coach in Popovic who will ride him hard enough to demand accountability but make him fit enough to meet those expectations like he once did on a World Cup stage.

On the opposite flank, Nishan Velupillay was a fruitful outlet whenever Victory broke forward against Sydney, while Arzani found the marking all too suffocating.

“We need to see more from Daniel Arzani,” said Paramount+ pundit Daniel McBreen afterwards. “We’ve spoken about him for so long. Yes, we’ve talked about his injuries and all that stuff… (but) it feels like this is crunch time for him.

“He’s at that age now, where he really has to break through and start delivering at the top level. Week in, week out.”

Popovic’s teams tend to build through the season so Arzani can be allowed some leeway, underwhelming as this opening appearance was. He will get fitter and he will get better accustomed to Popovic’s system.

“I don’t think he needs to worry about any of the talk,” said Paramount+ expert Alex Brosque. “We scrutinise all his performances, but that’s because of how good he is. 

“I think he just needs to worry about the attitude and making sure that, regardless of tonight (when) he was quiet, he’s just building from week to week and getting back to his best.”