Sydney FC has emerged victorious against the Wanderers in the Sydney Derby with new heroes emerging. (Photo: Sydney FC)

Sydney FC have kicked off the 2023-24 A-League Women’s season in the best possible way despite fielding an utterly new-look team that won the 2023 Grand Final less than six months ago.

In their first game since the 4-0 demolition of Western United in the 2023 Grand Final, Sydney FC have claimed the three points in the Sydney Derby against their arch-rivals. The performance was a big difference from the start of their 2022-23 campaign, which saw them lose in their season opener.

Despite claiming the previous league title less than six months ago, coach Ante Juric had to make a plethora of changes to the squad due to the sudden departures of a core group of players. Only six players from the Grand Final remained in the starting line-up for the clash against the Wanderers. While Shay Hollman would be the only player to feature against their inner-state rivals, that was on the reserves against Western United. 

Charlie Rule, Mackenzie Hawkesby, Sarah Hunter, Deborah-Anne De La Harpe, Rola Badawiya, Mary Stanic-Floody, Madison Haley, Katie Offer, Shadeene Evans, Anna Green, Rachel Lowe and Anika Stajcic all exited the Sky Blues, meaning they had to rely on some new players for this season.

The most impressive part of the Sky Blues’ victory was the new midfield trio consisting of 17-year-old rookie Zara Kruger, academy graduate Shay Hollman and new recruit Laura Johnson. One could have easily questioned them heading into the match, as their arrival came at the cost of Sarah Hunter (Paris FC), Mackenzie Hawkesby (Brighton & Hove Albion) and Rachel Lowe (Melbourne Victory).

Three players who are not only leaders and massive losses for the club but take with them nearly 200 games of A-League experience and nearly 50 international caps for the Junior Matildas, Young Matildas and Matildas.

Their elegance with the ball at their feet was able to control possession and provide several opportunities to the team’s star-attacking trio led by Cortnee Vine. However, they were equally efficient when in defence, whether it was tackling at the right moment, applying pressure at the proper stages or knowing when to double-team the Wanderers midfielders.

“I was a little bit nervous in the midfield. Not nervous, just thinking they hadn’t picked up what we were trying to teach them,” Juric explained post-match.

“But, first half, they were exceptional, Zara and Lucy in particular. That’s the hardest job…but the two midfielders, especially what I asked for them to do, they did really well. So, in terms of me being happy, I was really happy, especially first game of the year.

Unlucky to miss out on a move overseas during the transfer window, fullback Kirsty Fenton showed all international clubs what they are missing out on. In her second season at the club and already establishing herself as a leader, Fenton opened the scoring. Coincidently, it would be her first goal for Sydney FC in front of a season-record crowd.

She couldn’t have dreamt of a better first goal for the club. Nailing the ball into the top-right corner with a volley that showed shades of goalkeeper Kaylie Collins’ Orlando Pride teammate Marta.

An ex-teammate at club level and on the international stage at the 2022 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup of future Matildas Charlie Rule and Sarah Hunter, Fenton is a player to watch this season. Appearing in all three games during the Under 20s World Cup, she is equally efficient on both ends of the field – attack and defence.

“Last year…she was tentative, probably not sure of her place,” Juric added on Fenton.

“Start of pre-season, there was a different girl, confident, doing everything without thinking (and) probably thinks she’s one of the leaders now, which she is because she’s one a championship and a double and she’s been excellent in pre-season.

“Today was a really good game until probably the back end when we’re all struggling but the goal was superb. She’s actually not a bad finisher, to be honest. She might have been a striker in her younger days, but she’s been unbelievable.”

As new heroes emerged for Sydney FC, another new recruit would make her stamp on the game. Taking the role left vacant by last season’s Player of the Tournament, Madison Haley, Fiona Worts had some big shoes to fill, and boy, did she do a good job.

Signed from a three-year stint with Adelaide United, Worts is the right player to fill the role that has been held by the likes of Hayley, Remy Siemsen and Maria Jose Rojas, among others. The former Leicester City (36 goals in 54 appearances) star brings flair, technical skill and, most importantly, composure to the club – all of which she showcased against the Wanderers.

Aiming to emulate the success of Haley at Sydney, Worts would get off to a positive beginning, netting her first goal of the campaign. In a superb introductory goal, she delivered a finessed chip from the edge of the 18-yard box over the shoulder of the opposition goalkeeper and into the back of the net.

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While Sydney laments the success of the Sydney Derby, the result creates more bad news for the Western Sydney Wanderers. Predicted to finish near the bottom of the table, Saturday night’s match has created more worrying concerns for them. They failed to get any fluency in attack, looked overdone and tired in the midfield, and their defence seemed scattered. 

However, one couldn’t blame them.

The sacking of coach Kat Smith, just ten days out from the start of the tournament and the departure of Matilda Clare Hunt to Paris Saint-Germain has created significant holes in the team that will take time to fill.

“First half, I just felt like (they may have been) a little bit shell shocked. I don’t know whether it was the stadium, the atmosphere, the intensity of Sydney’s start to the game. We just seemed to be on the back foot,” Wanderers coach Robbie Hooker said.

“We planned to press them a little bit higher up and I said to the girls at halftime, listen, we’ve been working on trying to drop off a little bit and press sort of 20, 30 metres from goal but we never won the ball once in the first half in that area of the field that we’ve planned for.”

At times during the second half of the game, they illustrated shades of brilliance in attack and were able to minimise the work and ability of Sydney’s attacking forwards. Speaking post-match, Hooker was impressed by their second-half performance labelling it their benchmark for the season ahead.

“Basically, from the start of the second half, it was like the start of the game,” he added.

“The second half is now the benchmark for us to build on.

Former Wanderers Kat Smith was sacked in the lead-up to the new A-League Women’s season. (Photo: Western Sydney Wanderers)

As Sydney FC exited the stadium with the three points, they would suffer a dramatic setback. Less than five minutes after the half-time break, Nat Tobin would go down in the penalty box, falling to the ground holding her knee – she would later be seen on crutches coming out of the dressing room and will undergo MRI scans on Sunday.

A vital piece of the Sky Blues back-four, if the injury is confirmed as severe for the veteran centre-back, Ante Juric will likely call upon Margaux Chauvet. Playing as either a defender or midfielder, Chauvet’s previous experience includes time with the Western Sydney Wanderers and Icelandic side KR.

“We don’t know. We’ll need to do scans, but they’re saying it could be just meniscus, which would be a positive rather than ACL, but they don’t know, so they’re going to do scans,” Juric said post-match.

“But at the moment, they’re leaning towards a meniscus.”

“She was crying after it when I saw her, but she seemed a little bit happier when she told me that. She’s the one that told me that because it’s not all lost hope.”

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