With 26 regular season games having come and gone, the City boys now face their greatest challenge of the 2020/21 campaign; defying the circumstances of a compromised Finals campaign, a heavy injury toll and poor recent form to defeat Macarthur FC and reach our second Grand Final in two years.
City head into the clash on the back of one point in our past three games, most recently suffering a 2-1 defeat against Newcastle in the final match of the regular season.
Our Semi-Final opposition Macarthur FC rebounded emphatically from their dismal pre-Finals loss against Wellington Phoenix to outlast the Central Coast Mariners in the season’s first Elimination Final, scoring twice in extra time to progress to the Semis.
Nathaniel Atkinson returned from injury against Newcastle and could feature in City’s starting lineup on Sunday, whilst Andrew Nabbout, Craig Noone and Rostyn Griffiths are all a chance of making full returns to fitness in time for the clash.
For Macarthur, James Meredith is a certain ‘out’ following his red card challenge in the Elimination Final.
With all that out the way, here are the biggest talking points (excluding the game’s relocation, because at this point it’s been discussed to death) coming into tomorrow’s blockbuster Semi:
Now it’s personnel
Without doubt the most decisive factor going into this game is which of City’s injured stars will be available to feature from the first whistle.
A City frontline bolstered by the returns of Craig Noone and Andrew Nabbout would be a dangerous one, regardless of Jamie Maclaren’s absence, as it would take the pressure off of Marco Tilio or Stefan Colakovski to play a starring role, with both youngsters shining in games where they can capitalise on defenders’ preoccupations with City’s higher-profile attackers.
At the other end of the pitch, Rostyn Griffiths’ return to the back four in partnership with Nuno Reis would be crucial for City’s chances of shutting out the Macarthur frontline, with fans likely to feel far more reassured with that combination at the back than the likes of Alec Mills or Kerrin Stokes featuring from the start – with respect to the youngsters who’ve been largely impressive in their debut seasons.
A trickier inclusion will be Nathaniel Atkinson, who I’m not entirely certain will start the game at all. If he does, it’ll either be as a result of Scott Galloway copping the short end of the stick and dropping to the bench or appearing as a winger if one of Nabbout or Noone doesn’t start – we don’t see him replacing Tilio if both aforementioned forwards are available.
Finding a new route to goal
Whilst I've already discussed how the double inclusion of Nabbout and Noone would transform our attacking prospects in tomorrow’s clash, an issue that’s remained unsolved for weeks will need to be addressed regardless: How do we score goals without JMac?
The City offense has looked a shadow of itself since Maclaren’s departure, with scoring opportunities drying up and the team only managing to score twice against the league’s bottom two teams in recent weeks, with one of those goals being a fortunate Nick Ansell own-goal.
For me, the keys to rediscovering our best form lies in having the quality of both Noone and Nabbout on the park, as well as Nabbout’s direct approach to goal and willingness to shoot. From here, there are two options, with Noone on the left in both situations:
Colakovski plays the Maclaren role, with additional firepower coming from Nabbout on the wing to split defenders’ attentions away from Cola.
Nabbout fills in as our #9 and Tilio (or perhaps Atkinson) is made far more effective by having an attacking spearhead to service, or to use as a dummy to target the goals himself.
Positive takeaways from our previous clashes with Macarthur
Finally, whilst we don’t exactly boast the head-to-head record against Macarthur as we did against Western United in last year’s Semi, the previous battles between the teams should give City fans confidence as to how we’ll match up against them tactically.
In the inaugural meeting between the teams, it was a burst of three first-half goals that decided the encounter for City. With the business done early, the home team was able to defend its lead and secure a comfortable clean sheet.
In the second meeting, this time at Campbelltown Stadium, City created plenty of opportunities in the first half, but took until the 59th minute to break the deadlock, with Noone crossing in for Metcalfe to volley home.
Whilst the game may have ended 1-1, City fans can take some heart in the fact that Stokes’ poor giveaway that lead to the goal was an unlikely error rather than Macarthur beating City’s defensive system.
With that being the only goal the Bulls have scored against us this year, a more assured defensive partnership of Reis and Griffiths will have fans confident of securing a crucial clean sheet.