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Sydney FC shut down Melbourne Victory to begin title defence with a road win

Sydney FC won the A-League championship last year by being tight at the back, relentless in midfield and good enough to take the chances that came their way once they took control of a game.

On Saturday night they began their title defence in the same pragmatic and efficient style, shutting down Melbourne Victory and earning all three points with a second-half own goal from Melbourne Victory's young defender, Thomas Deng.

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Sydney hold firm to win big blue

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Sydney hold firm to win big blue

Sydney's resolute defending was enough to grind out a 1-0 win over the Victory.

It might have been a fortuitous way to score, but handsome is as handsome does, and for Graham Arnold's team a clean sheet and three points on the road in a season opener at Etihad Stadium is a perfect start.

Victory began in positive fashion, as befitted a team which, as coach Kevin Muscat pointed out on Friday, had been in pre-season for 14 weeks.

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Muscat had said that gaining revenge for the penalty shootout grand final defeat his team suffered at the hands of Sydney was not a primary motivation for this game.

But the Victory players, or at least those who had been involved in that game just a few months ago, could hardly have been blamed if flickering memories of the frustration of that evening did not at least cross their minds.

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Not that all that many actually started that night: of the 11 who took the pitch for Victory at Etihad Stadium, only six ran out in the grand final five months ago.

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Such is the off-season flux in the A-League that Victory fielded several debutants against the champions, with former Socceroo centre-back Rhys Williams and Dutch youth international Leroy George making their first starts for Melbourne.

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Sydney celebrates after the own goal which decided the result.

Sydney celebrates after the own goal which decided the result.

International call-ups had hit Muscat's squad hard, with Mark Milligan, the acting Socceroo captain, and James Troisi away on World Cup duty and Kosta Barbarouses absent with the All Whites as they prepare for their World Cup play-off next month.

Victory might have looked depleted on paper, but Muscat had said pre-game that the loss of first-choice players opened the door to fringe men to make a statement, and Mitch Austin, employed wide on the left, certainly sought to do that from the start in a busy opening period for the hosts.

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Leroy George of Victory wins the ball against Adrian Mierzejewski of Sydney.

Leroy George of Victory wins the ball against Adrian Mierzejewski of Sydney.

Austin attracted unwanted headlines earlier in the week after suffering a panic attack during an interview and walking off a television set.

Any nerves he had were clearly confined to the broadcast arena, as he didn't flinch in the first half as he made several driving runs down the flank as Victory sought to find an opening against a Sydney defence which had last season proven itself so difficult to break down.

Williams went close twice early on with headers, while his fellow new boy George looked impressive early on, nutmegging opponents, dribbling and finding space in tight areas and bursting forward, trying to find one-twos with teammates.

It was a bright opening which contrasted starkly with Sydney's sluggish start. The titleholders looked prosaic as they initially struggled to maintain possession and gave the ball away too often, rarely threatening.

But things changed midway through the first half, just after the Sky Blues' new Polish signing Adrian Mierzejewski sprung Victory's defensive line and fired in a shot which Lawrence Thomas blocked for a corner.

That was the trigger for Sydney to wake from their slumber and for star midfielder Milos Ninkovic to become more involved.

Mierzejewski began to spray the ball around as Sydney began to flex their muscles: Besart Berisha, so often Victory's game-breaker, could not stamp his authority as the visitors came back into contention.

Both sides looked to gain the edge in the opening minutes of the second half, Sydney striker Bobo firing over from distance, and eight minutes after the restart the visitors got their noses in front but only in the most fortunate of fashions.

Ex-Socceroo Luke Wilkshire, the veteran full-back, got clear on the left and floated over a cross for Alex Brosque. The ball brushed Brosque's head and then deflected off the boot of Deng to beat Thomas.

Shortly after Mierzejewski produced a delightful outside of the foot cross which Jason Geria managed to scramble to safety before Bobo could head home to double the advantage. Thomas then had to dive to save well from Wilkshire's shot as Sydney looked to get on top.

Jai Ingham headed over at the other end from a Goerge corner, Berisha's shot was blocked and Leigh Broxham's long-range effort was just palmed over by Sydney keeper Andrew Redmayne.

Victory pressed on in search of a leveller, with Muscat, bereft of his internationals, putting his trust in his youthful bench by giving Josh Hope his A-League debut and Christian Theoharous his second appearance. The hosts tried all they knew in a frantic finale, but couldn't find a way through.

Victory will be stronger with their returning internationals for next weekend's blockbuster Melbourne derby.

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