Sydney FC coach Graham Arnold has declared top spot in ACL Group H his goal, thereby avoiding powerhouse FC Seoul in the knockout stage after the Sky Blues defeated Pohang Steelers 1-0 on Tuesday night in Sydney.
It’s been a tough couple of months for Sydney FC but you couldn’t wipe the smile of coach Graham Arnold’s face after the game with his side now on the verge of progression to the knockout stage after matchday 4.
Serbian playmaker Milos Ninkovic’s goal early in the second half handed the Sky Blues a hard-earned 1-0 victory at Allianz Stadium to keep them two points clear at the top of Group H.
The Sky Blues have never progressed out of the group stage in the ACL but now need just a point from their final two games to make the last 16.
It’s just the tonic for the club after what’s been a hugely difficult period in the Hyundai A-League, with the Sky Blues to miss the domestic Finals Series less than 12 months since playing in the grand final and after going 11 games without a win in the A-League.
"I'm very happy for once in 10 weeks," a relieved Arnold told reporters after the game.
"And I'm happy for the players. They've worked so hard and they’ve continued to work hard, done their best every week and they haven't been rewarded - tonight's a reward for them.
"It's also a reward for the fans because they've stuck by us through thick and thin even though they probably don't understand what we've been going through.
“Mentally it's been tough for everyone. But for the players it’s a great reward.”
The Sky Blues last two group matches are against Urawa Red Diamonds (home) in a fortnight followed by a trip to Guangzhou Evergrande.
While a point from the final two matches will probably be enough to get the club through to the last 16, Arnold wants his side to top the group.
Sydney’s group crosses over with Group F, which has Korean giants FC Seoul at the top, a side Arnold is keen to avoid in the knockout stage.
"We're not there yet - I want the players to finish on top of the group," the Sky Blues boss said.
"It gives us a better option in Group H. FC Seoul are a very, very good side.
"At the moment Shandong is in second spot, and that would probably suit us better.
"It was a difficult surface to play on but we adapted very well to it," Arnold added of a pitch ruined by rugby.
“We were very disciplined, good effort and kept to our structures.
"Pohang played with a 5-4-1 and closed the space on us but we stayed patient and got our reward.”
The Sky Blues complete their Hyundai A-League season at home to Perth Glory on Sunday, with their next ACL clash a tasty encounter with Urawa on April 20 at Allianz.