Sydney FC coach Steve Corica speaks to Lucy Zelic about why his side has failed to win any of its last five matches, how finals football differs from the regular season and why playing in winter is better.
Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown in March, Sydney FC were in blistering form, losing just twice to their arch-rivals Western Sydney Wanderers all season.
A series of relentless drubbings against the likes of Brisbane Roar, Melbourne Victory and Perth Glory proved that the Premiers elect weren’t short of goals or the steely resolve required to see out a game - something the side became renowned for under predecessor Graham Arnold.
By all accounts, Steve Corica’s men were on track to create history but then the pandemic reared its ugly head, forcing football - and the world - into a frustrating period of hibernation.
115 days on from when the final ball was kicked in the A-League, Sydney emerged from the depths of isolation to prove just why they had been labelled the favourites to go back-to-back and claim the double after they defeated Wellington Phoenix 3-0.
But things have become a lot murkier since that result.
Although the club were able to create history by claiming their fourth historic Premiers Plate - something they waited four weeks to celebrate - a shadow of doubt has now been cast over their grand final potential.
Winless in five matches, with three of them, defeats to Western United, Melbourne City and Newcastle Jets - a series of uncharacteristic traits have emerged within the team but for coach Corica, none of this has had any bearing on his finals series hopes.
"I am going in confident into the semi final. I believe in these boys and even though the results probably aren't showing that, there's other teams similar to that going into preliminary finals as well.” He said.
“My main concern is focusing on our boys, doing the right things, working hard defensively and we need to score more goals at the moment.”
With Corica reluctant to attribute the lacklustre performances to one thing in particular, he did concede that winning the Premier's Plate early on, may have had an impact.
"I think it's a little bit of everything. We can improve in all areas that the moment.”
“After we did win, I think we took the foot off the pedal a little bit and then you just start making bad decisions. The boys are well aware of where we are and the position that they were in and now we're in the semi-final. There's no making mistakes anymore.”
With time on their side until their first semi-final clash against a yet-to-be-decided opponent, Corica is spending this next period working feverishly with the playing group on the paddock.
"We worked on defence and attack last week. Two of the games that we have lost, we've lost in the 90th minute - maybe switching off a little bit. For me, it's more of a mental thing.”
“We're conceding some terrible goals early on in games, so I think they can be fixed these things and we'll get them right for the semi-final, but also it's the mental thing as well - to make sure that they're aware of it and it doesn't keep happening.”
"At the end of the day, the boys have been terrific all year. They have had a bad period, these last three, four games basically so I'm not concerned about the results so much.”
But is it worth reading into their poor form leading-up to their sudden death game?
“You can look at it either way. Go in with good form but at the end of the day, it's a one-off game. I think teams going into the semi-final in good form will be saying that, the teams' not will be saying it's a one-off game and anyone can win.”
“All teams are dangerous in the semi-final, you've got to make sure you put your best foot forward and play well on that day."
An added motivation for the former Sydney FC midfielder lie within his own attributes which intertwine with the club’s culture of striving to be the best at all costs.
"I just like winning. I am at one of the biggest clubs in the country so I know what they expect and they expect to win trophies, which we have done under Arnie and the last couple of years as well.”
“I think it's a great challenge as well to go back-to-back - our club has never done that so it's something I am working towards but that's what the players should be looking at as well.”
“It could be something special that they could do and not too many teams have done that. We've got to get through a semi-final and obviously the results haven't been great so we need to get that right first and then we can look forward to the final if we get there.”
A positive side effect amidst the COVID-19 chaos and what Corica has called “a disastrous year for everyone” is playing in winter.
"The boys have enjoyed it - the results probably not - but they are enjoying it. I think there is better quality, there's a quicker pace to the game, a higher intensity: I think that's just normal with winter football.”
“I played in England for a long time - 10 years - that's just what you can do, you can run more in winter. Playing in 35 degrees is difficult for these players - sometimes at 5pm in the afternoon so of course the pace is going to be a bit slower.”
“You're going to get a higher paced game and a higher tempo - I like it, it's great. Maybe that's the way to go for the future."