The writing should have been on the wall for Sydney FC.
Reduced to ten men and down a goal after 25 minutes against Melbourne City, their chances of success appeared slim.
But, try as they may, second-placed City proved unable to dispatch the league leaders.
Four-time A-League champions Sydney eventually completed a late comeback to grab a 2-1 win.
Though imposing a larger narrative on a single game is fraught, there is a case to be made that Sunday illustrated just why Sydney FC are perennial title contenders – and perhaps why City are still trying to reach that mark.
Most glaringly obvious, with the likes of Adam Le Fondre, Kosta Barbarouses, Alexander Baumjohann and Miloš Ninković all running, is that Sydney consistently wins because of the shrewdness of their international recruitment.
In a league in which hitting on foreign signings is often the difference between a successful campaign and a poor one – as Melbourne Victory in 2019/20 can attest – the Harboursiders have consistently scored with their international recruits.
The likes of Bobô, Adrian Mierzejewski, Jordy Buijs, Le Fondre and Baumjohann have all pulled on a sky blue shirt in recent years and, when challenged, proved more than capable of sustaining the club’s success.
The capture of Serbian superstar Ninković in 2015 deserves its own special mention.
The 35-year-old is, outside of perhaps Thomas Broich, the best player to ever lace up his boots in the A-League; his ability to serve as a creative force, manipulate opposing defenders and facilitate the play of his teammates is unique in the A-League.
It’s a joy to be able to watch him work.
Nonetheless, recruitment is not just restricted to the playing surface.
There has to be someone in the dugout to marshal the troops and, in Graham Arnold and Steve Corica, Sydney has had two success stories built off the back of stability.
Returning home after a brief and torrid tenure in charge of J-League side Vegalta Sendai in 2014, Arnold and the system he concocted at Moore Park could possibly be said to have clocked the A-League.
While his ethos continues to demonstrate susceptibilities, nobody – in the Australian footballing context – has been able or willing to consistently exploit them since as Sydney marched from success to success.
Retaining trusted Arnold acolyte Corica, therefore, to replace Arnold after his ascension to the Socceroos post has proven a shrewd move.
At the club in a coaching capacity since he ended a five-year playing stint in 2010, ‘Bimbi’ has not attempted to fix something that isn’t broken since he took charge at the beginning of 2018/19. He has lived up to sky-high expectations in his first year and a half in charge.
This continuity in coaching philosophy has been matched by a stretch where the club has been able to skilfully manipulate the league’s salary cap in order to retain their core playing group.
Despite the cap nominally being in place to ensure parity, Sydney’s canny ability to exploit every loophole, allowance and quirk of its wording has enabled the club to maintain unprecedented levels of stability among key contributors in a competition defined by an almost constant rotation of squads.
Ninković, left-back Michael Zullo and Corica all recently signed extensions at the club.
This stability is perhaps one of the biggest contrasts between the haves – in an on-field, not off-field sense – of Sydney and the have-nots of City.
Of the 11 players that started for the Cityzens on Sunday, only two – Nathaniel Atkinson and Harrison Delbridge – played A-League minutes for the club prior to the 2018/19 season.
And while City should be acknowledged for realising that Warren Joyce wasn’t the right fit, it remains true that going from John van ‘t Schip to Michael Valkanis to Joyce and to Erick Mombaerts in recent years means the club has jarringly shifted between playing philosophies.
Then there’s the mental aspect.
Sydney has made winning seemingly routine – able to take results from games where they don’t play well and (mostly) rising to meet the bigger occasions.
City, in contrast, has been defined by a decade-long trend of disappointment and underachievement.
It matters not the players, the coach, the administration, the kit or even the club name: they have almost entirely proven unable to win when it most counts.
Already this season, the club was routed 4-0 by Adelaide United in the FFA Cup Final, lost 2-1 to Melbourne Victory in the Christmas Derby and now 2-1 to Sydney in a top-of-the-table clash.
Is winning a skill? Is it something that can be honed? Refined? Developed?
Or is the seemingly supernatural ability to get result after result at a serendipitous moment in time? A moment when player, coach, club, atmosphere and time come together to create a perfect storm?
Whatever it is, Sydney seems to have it. City, for now, don’t.
A-League Round 13:
Wednesday: Western Sydney Wanderers vs Brisbane Roar, Bankwest Stadium, 7.30pm
Friday: Melbourne City vs Western United, AAMI Park, 7.30pm
Saturday: Wellington Phoenix vs Central Coast Mariners, Sky Stadium, 5.00pm; Sydney FC vs Adelaide United; Jubilee Stadium, 7.30pm
Sunday: Melbourne Victory vs Newcastle Jets, AAMI Park, 6.30pm
W-League Round 8:
Thursday: Brisbane Roar vs Melbourne City, Dolphin Stadium, 7.30pm
Friday: Adelaide United vs Perth Glory, Marden Sports Complex, 7.30pm
Sunday: Melbourne Victory vs Newcastle Jets, AAMI Park, 4.00pm, Canberra United vs Sydney FC, McKeller Park, 4.00pm.