In one of the higher-profile fixtures of the FFA Cup's Round of 32, reigning A-League Champions Melbourne City are set to take on South Melbourne FC at Lakeside Stadium later this week.
Giants of the Australian game prior to football’s revamping in the mid-2000s, South Melbourne maintains a sizeable community following as the club battles in the Victorian NPL 1 competition.
The state’s premier football competition suffered at the hands of COVID-enforced lockdowns, with teams only playing 18 games before the season was called off. South made a strong start to the campaign, going undefeated in their opening 10 games, but later slumped to 9th place in the 14-team competition.
Recent bottom-half finishes in the competition have been a sheer departure from the club’s post-NSL peak between 2014 and 2017, a period which included two NPL Victoria titles and a historic run to the FFA Cup semi-finals in 2017.
South’s recent underperformance was reflected in a revolving door of managers following Chris Taylor’s departure in 2018, though current gaffer Estaban Quintas remains at the helm after joining in 2019.
The Argentinian is South’s first South American manager and brings with him a football ideology that was moulded by his years within Spanish football. The 42-year-old demands a style predicated on hard work and coordination, with defence starting from the front.
“My coaching style is strikers working defence, wingers working defence, number 10 working defence; all people work,” he told Neos Kosmos in 2019, “In my style, if one player doesn’t work, it breaks the team.”
This whole-team-oriented approach to defence paid dividends in the 2021 season, with South boasting the league’s second-best defensive record despite their lowly table position.
It was also a gritty defensive display that saw South into the 2021 FFA Cup Round of 32, progressing after a penalty shootout victory over Oakleigh Cannons in a 7th qualifying round fixture that ended 0-0.
Turning an eye towards our upcoming opposition’s squad, South Melbourne have a host of players with previous A-League experience on the books.
Former Wellington Phoenix and 5-time All White Luke Adams has been a stalwart in the heart of South’s defence, whilst ex-Brisbane Roar man Luke Pavlou has similarly been a mainstay in midfield, appearing in 16 of his side’s 18 NPL1 fixtures this season. Club captain Brad Norton also has A-League experience with Adelaide United having made his debut for the Reds back in 2010.
In regard to South’s key personnel, it’s Harry Sawyer who was most lethal for his side in front of goal last NPL campaign, recording four goals and one assist in 10 games (per SoRare). The towering 6’5” striker battled with a foot injury that sidelined him further during an already COVID-disrupted season but returned to competitive action in late July. A former Newcastle Jets man, Sawyer had more recently been plying his trade in Hong Kong and the Phillippines, before a 15-goals-in-19-games season with Gold Coast Knights in 2020 saw him secure a Victorian move for the new campaign. Sawyer’s imposing frame makes him a prolific aerial threat, both in front of goal and when bringing his teammates into play, whilst the striker is also renowned for his capabilities from long-range.
Marco Jankovic – son of former Real Madrid and Red Star Belgrade title-winner Milan – also recorded four goals in 2021 (though in 18 games played) despite historically playing as a central defender. With plenty of title-winning experience with Bentleigh Greens in 2017 and 2019, Jankovic brings composure and leadership that have contributed to South’s incredible defensive record this campaign.
A significant loss for South Melbourne heading into the fixture is the departure of Henry Hore, who was included as one of South's key players in the first draft of this article two months ago, with the Queensland-native joining Brisbane Roar in late September. In Hore, South are losing a livewire in the final third who provided four goal contributions in 2021.
Kept afloat only by their defensive resoluteness, South have struggled immensely for goals this season, but will be buoyed by the return of Sawyer to the starting lineup.
As long as our experienced back four can ensure the continuation of South’s poor offensive form, it’ll be up to City’s second-string front line of Marco Tilio, Stefan Colakovski and Nathaniel Atkinson - aided by Manuel Pucciarelli in midfield - to pick Estaban Quintas’ defensive lock; an outcome that would seem inevitable if the highly touted group can live up to its potential.