Why this might be the most competitive Sydney Derby we’ve seen yet

Sydney FC and the Western Sydney Wanderers have never gone to the wire in a title race – Saturday night will tell us if that’s about to change, writes Tom Smithies.

No wonder tickets are selling fast. This just might become the most competitive Sydney derby we’ve had in almost 11 years of this feisty fixture.

How long have we waited for – and how rarely have we been granted – a derby that matters to both teams beyond the parochial punch-up of who’s the best team in Sydney that night? This one has huge implications for the rest of the season.

For the vast majority of the derbies since Western Sydney were born, one of the two protagonists has been flying high in the league, while the other languishes; almost taking it in turns to be successful. In fact, only twice has one of Sydney FC and the Wanderers finished less than five places behind the other at the end of the season.

The success of all three Victorian teams last season simply reinforced how rare it has been for the two longest-standing Sydney teams to be in an actual title race. Maybe, just maybe, it’s coming this year.

The clubs’ fortunes in the derby haven’t always reflected the eras at each one, which is why players always talk of form going out the window in these cross-town contests. In the first season of Western Sydney’s existence the honours were even in derby terms – a win apiece and a draw – but Tony Popovic’s side won the Premier’s Plate while Sydney languished outside the finals.

In fact, Western Sydney won only three of the first 14 derbies, but were far more successful overall than the Sky Blues in three of their first four seasons. The Popovic era was a proud one, and the Wanderers have struggled to come anywhere close to emulating it ever since.

Doubling down on that underachievement, the fans in red and black have been forced to watch Sydney win three Premiers’ Plates and three Championships, taking solace from (for instance) inflicting the Sky Blues’ only defeat in the 2016-17 season.

Likewise in 2020-21, Sydney’s successful pursuit of becoming both Premiers and Champions was at least slowed by two defeats and a draw in their three games with the Wanderers that season – the Sky Blues only lost five games all season.

Brendon Santalab of the Wanderers celebrates victory over Sydney FC in February 2017.

The stats back up the sense that derbies are special occasions that often don’t reflect wider form; in the 31 encounters between Sydney FC and the Wanderers in the A-League, one team has been ahead of the other on the ladder in 26 of those (the others either coming in Round 1 or when the teams had identical early-season records). In only 13 of those, the team ahead on the table has prevailed; in the others the lower-ranked team came out on top (seven times) or the end result was a draw (also seven).

In other words, these games are tight, with very few exceptions. In only nine of those 30 games to date has the margin of victory been by more than one goal, and only twice has it been by three goals or more (4-0 and 5-0 to Sydney FC in 2017 and 2018, both times on Wanderers’ turf at Accor Stadium – indisputably painful nights for the Western Sydney faithful).

Even before Saturday night’s game, the league table threatens to be just as tight. Four points separates the teams thanks to Sydney FC winning consecutive games for the first time this season, and an away win would narrow that to just a point. The fans seem to sense this, and Western Sydney say they are on track to beat their ticketing record at CommBank Stadium.

Only twice before have the two teams entered a derby in the second half of the season – when campaigns have fully taken shape – with a narrower gap than the current four points. In March 2014, Sydney’s 3-1 victory at the old Allianz Stadium took them to within three points of the Wanderers, a gap that Popovic’s side would sustain for the rest of the season.

In 2015-16, though, in Round 15 as it is on Saturday, Shane Smeltz’s last-minute winner for the Sky Blues (described at the time as a Great Western Highway Robbery, so great had been the Wanderers’ domination) brought them level on points, separated only by two goals scored.

Parity wouldn’t last though, and Sydney fell away badly from that point and didn’t even make the finals; Western Sydney came second and reached the grand final.

They haven’t been near it since, which is why there is so much riding on the latest instalment of this rivalry. For all that Melbourne City seem to be romping away with the Premier’s Plate for now, they have to play both Sydney FC and the Wanderers in their remaining games.

Sydney boss Steve Corica reckons his side has “turned a corner” and is “thriving”; counterpart Marko Rudan says his team is “flying”. The talk is big, but form means little as we know; everything is up for grabs on Saturday night.

With some sections of the stadium already at capacity, and very limited corporate hospitality left, click here to buy tickets for Saturday’s derby.

Saturday night’s Sydney Derby is on track to break Western Sydney’s ticketing record at CommBank Stadium.

With some sections of the stadium already at capacity, and very limited corporate hospitality left, don’t miss out on the best atmosphere in Australian sport. Click here to buy your tickets.

Safe standing is still available for Sydney Derby XXXII, but the only way to access is by being a member: https://wsw.football/3x5AuPV