Match Preview: Is this our Finals audition?
Whilst City fans have been made to wait a long time to see their boys out on the pitch again, there’s no denying that we’ve been thrown straight into the deep end with our upcoming fixture against Sydney FC; whether we like it or not – whether we’re ready for it or not – this might just be the game that proves whether we’re a legitimate contender come Finals time.
Sydney’s claim to the Championship isn’t a certainty yet and the closing stages of this season provide an opportunity for other teams to emerge as potential Finals dark horses.
Wellington did it when they pushed the Sky Blues all the way during the recommenced season’s opening fixture, with the teams almost inseparable on the stats sheet.
Though wildly inconsistent, Perth Glory have also proven that they can beat just about any team in the league on their day, so the spotlight now falls upon Melbourne City in our clash against the almighty – though not infallible – Sydney FC on Saturday, August 1.
With only three regular-season games remaining for City, and with such an immense test afoot, there’s no time for players to gradually bring themselves up to speed – they need to be at their very best from the first minute on Saturday evening.
Looking inwards first as we preview the clash against Sydney, City’s defensive stocks have been bolstered by the full recovery of Richard Windbichler over the lockdown period, who has been injured since late 2019. Similarly, Curtis Good appears to have just about gotten past his own soft-tissue setbacks, seen participating in full group training from last Thursday.
The ‘outs’ for City most notably include Markel Susaeta, who departed the club over the lockdown period for family reasons; Rostyn Griffiths, who is currently undertaking a 14-day self-isolation having arrived late to the NSW training hub; and most recently Dean Bouzanis and Denis Genreau, who were both announced as departing the club on Saturday.
Susaeta’s absence creates a seemingly unfillable void on the right-wing, with no notable names on the current playing list likely to truly fill the boots of the prolific Spaniard, though multiple options do exist.
Lachlan Wales is the most obvious like-for-like replacement, though his form throughout the 2019/20 season hasn’t been convincing. Nathaniel Atkinson has been touted for a potential move onto the wing, with the promising right-back well-equipped with the skills required to achieve success in that position. Stefan Colakovski has made quite the impression on fans since debuting against Central Coast early in the season, whilst Ramy Najjarine also looms as a potential starting candidate.
With all four aforementioned players aged 22 or under, a more experienced option may be Adrián Luna, who is familiar with playing in wider positions and has had a largely impressive debut campaign in Australia.
With a gluttony of promising young talent to choose from, the newly-introduced five substitute rule will be welcomed by Erick Mombaerts – and fans alike – as youngsters like Colakovski are given more opportunity to provide a late-game injection of pace and energy.
Looking towards the opposition now and Sydney FC have hardly been their usual dominant selves in their two fixtures since the season restart. The Sky Blues were made to fight until the very end against Wellington, who were denied two 50-50 penalty calls in the absence of VAR, before Trent Buhagiar scored two of the most pace-reliant, FIFA-esque goals you’ll ever see to put the game to bed in the dying minutes.
Just a handful of days later, Sydney were even worse against then-ninth placed Newcastle Jets, who dominated the game statistically, claiming the lion’s share of possession and absolutely peppering the Sydney goal face with 15 shots to 1 (6 on-target to 1).
Interestingly, it hasn’t been the usual suspects who’ve been getting it done for Sydney in the previous two games, with Milos Ninkovic and Adam Le Fondre relatively quiet against Wellington and Newcastle, whilst Luke Brattan and Anthony Caceres (ironically two former City players) have stepped up as most creative players for the Sky Blues in these fixtures.
Ultimately, it’s near impossible to read into how this game will play out on Saturday night. Whilst A-League fans have had two games to analyse Sydney’s post-lockdown form, the same can’t be said for our own Melbourne City, whose true Championship-candidacy can’t be known until the final whistle, and that’s one of the few things that does feel certain…
How City perform against the impending Premiers will likely set the bar for what can be expected for the side come Finals time.
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