Melbourne City entered the Asian Champions League with what loomed as our greatest threat of the group stage. Not only are BG Pathum our highest rated opponent, they also have a unique advantage in the group with all games set to be played at their home ground BG Stadium, where it was 37 degrees at the time of kick off. And while our Thai hosts had the advantage of fans in the stands, Patrick Kisnorbo had a unique disadvantage on his hands with all three of his starting midfielders missing due to injury (Florin Berenguer & Aiden O'Neill) and COVID (Connor Metcalfe).
The characteristically stubborn gaffer predictably opted to roll out a conservative midfield of Rostyn Griffiths, Taras Gomulka and Marco Tilio. A clear mark of respect for our tough opponents, the manager also rolled out our Socceroos front three in Jamie Maclaren, Mathew Leckie and Andrew Nabbout. But he won't be able to do that game in, game out with a busy schedule of six games in 17 days. Though if Tilio is next in line to start out wide he'll need to recover quickly, as Kisnorbo persevered with the youngster as an attacking midfielder despite mixed results playing there in the A-League. Nevertheless, it was to be an all-star affair for our first foray into the prestigious continental competition.
History was written in style in the 22nd minute when Nabbout became our first ever goal-scorer in the ACL. Scott Jamieson found himself with the ball deep in the opposition half, shifting it to Tilio at the top of the box who in turn quickly found Nabbout on the right, he characteristically drove towards the box before flashing an absolute stunner into the top left of the goal where no 'keeper could ever find it. Cue Melbourne City fans leaping off their couches back home.
The next chance (if you could call that Nabbout special a 'chance') came at the other end of the field, with the Rabbits tearing us open with speed. An expert tackle from Nuno Reis wasn't enough to stop the attack as the opposition winger managed to escape with the ball and cross it to a wide-open teammate who somehow managed to send the ball over an equally open goal.
Despite the scoreline - and, of course, City having the majority of possession - BG Pathum looked the more dangerous of the two as our long diagonal balls and offside runs continued.
A sign of our dysfunctional midfield, Tilio was caught napping with the ball and our opponents made sure to capitalise on our error. A cross was whipped in and Tom Glover's bad form in the air continued as he failed to claim the ball and disappointingly allowed Teerasil Dangda to lamely nod the ball home, bringing City fans back onto the couch with heads in hands.
Our gloveman had seemed to secure his starting position in the lineup in recent weeks, but his questionable decisions and ability to win the ball in the air has not improved. A shame considering he saved our skin with sharp decision-making earlier on as a BG ball over the top had our defenders beat, requiring our number one to make the call early and rush out to narrowly beat the attacker to the ball just outside the box.
We headed into the sheds somewhat deflated as BG Pathum were the livelier side with a Griffiths header from a corner presenting itself as our only other chance for the rest of the half. The leveling goal was surely a wake-up call to Paddy and the boys, a clear tactical change needed for the midfield or else we faced being sliced up even further through the center of the park. Gomulka had so far proven to lack the positional nous, passing range and situational awareness of Metcalfe which ensured we were doomed to watch long diagonal balls over the top for the first 45 minutes. While it seems certain the 20-year-old would make a better fill-in for O'Neill than our usual number 8, our stocks for that position are somewhat lacking.
The energy ratcheted up another level once the teams emerged for the second half with chances up each end, a yellow for an over-eager Tilio and yet another fumble from Tommy had adrenaline running high.
BG Pathum once again seemed the better of the two sides, our initial domination of the game had worn off as the opposition players stopped respecting our space and started applying some serious pressure without the ball - not to mention passing with aplomb when they did have it. Chances continued to rack up for both sides with Leckie knocking on the door every time we went forward.
A rare double substitution took place in the 66th minute with Jordan Bos and City debutant Jordi Valadon coming on for Jamieson and Griffiths, albeit via a dodgy electronic board from the official. It was a welcomed bold adjustment that showed we wouldn't be happy to accept a draw. A fresh pair of legs and some attacking intent was much-needed from Bos, whilst Valadon was looking to progress the ball much more than Griffiths. Though, if we really wanted to take the game on, one wonders why PK didn't opt to shift Gomulka deeper and bring on either Tsubasa Endoh or Manuel Pucciarelli instead.
Late substitutes Stefan Colakovski and Raphael Borges Rodrigues couldn't change the complexion of the game, even if the latter managed to fashion a chance out of nowhere with some classy touches and a pass through the eye of the needle that found Maclaren before some desperate goalkeeping managed to deny our striker right at the death. Raphael certainly made his claim for the number 10 spot with the limited minutes he saw, so no doubt we'll see more of him throughout the group stage after that.
While it could be argued we were lucky to escape with a share of the points, a draw was a fair result from the mostly even contest, though City fans will be left to rue that near chance at the death that could've stolen a win.
Valadon may be one answer to our midfield woes, but there are two other positions clearly unsolved.
The pace of the game, especially in the heat and humidity seemed to catch us unaware time and time again. We'll take our hard-won single point against our toughest opposition at their home ground on our first appearance in the ACL as an acceptable result, but we must aim higher in the games to come.
The boys in City blue have three days rest til we return to the same ground against Filipino side United City; let's hope we've shaken our debutant nerves by then.