Talking points preview: City vs Canberra
In the second fixture of tomorrow afternoon's double-header, a stumbling Melbourne City side will come up against an in-form Canberra United in what will be our final game of the 2022/23 regular season.
Last week, the City girls blew Perth away in the first half with a dominant performance, but failed to capitalise on this promising showing, and ultimately collapsed in humiliating fashion as the Glory ran out eventual 4-3 winners.
As for this weekend's opposition, Canberra United were convincing last weekend when they easily accounted for Premiership contenders Western United with a comprehensive 3-0 win away from home.
With so much - and ironically, so little - riding on tomorrow' clash, here are the three biggest talking points coming into it:
Set to play Finals... unless...
It should have been guaranteed by a win that never eventuated last weekend, but City appears to have been gifted a place in the Finals by Victory's 2-2 draw with Wellington earlier today.
With the Victory now on the same amount of points as City but a six-goal-worse goal difference, it would take a seven-goal defeat at the hands of Canberra United for us to drop out of Finals contention (we're superior to the Victory in many tiebreaker statistics). Though a defeat by that margin seems incredibly unlikely, failure for our girls to collect points from tomorrow's contest is far from out of the question.
Canberra will come into the clash with fierce motivation and belief that they can cause an upset, and that confidence would be justified too. The team from the nation's capital are unbeaten in their last seven and have secured victory against Premiership aspirants Sydney FC and Western United in that time. Contrastingly, Melbourne City's woeful record of one win in our past six has been made plenty of recently, particularly after collapsing against Perth Glory as we did.
Ultimately, our final match of the season will prove as a test of our mettle, a barometer of whether we should even be in Finals contention to begin with.
Redeeming ourselves from last weekend
There is, of course, plenty of reason for our own team to come into the clash incredibly motivated, with a comical capitulation away to the Glory serving as cause for redemption.
Poor finishing has plagued City all season, but the weakness came to a head last weekend when a dominant first-half performance wasn't converted into a substantial two-to-three-goal buffer. This only made our second-half defensive collapse all the more costly, with the Glory finding the back of the City net four times in the final 20 minutes to put the three points out of our reach.
In other ways though, last weekend's display was cause for great optimism. Our first-half performance produced some of the best team football we've seen this season, with the type of break-neck, interplaying, transitional football that we saw in the first third of the campaign making a return. This, personally, voids any potential discussion around lineup changes, as the XI that we named is probably the one that will create the most chances.
Tomorrow, it's just a matter of finishing them.
One last pre-Finals hit-out
With only one regular season game remaining before Finals, Canberra United serve as a great challenge for us to use as a warm-up ahead of the knockouts.
Njegosh Popovic's side boasts the best record across the past five games of any team in the league and are equipped with some of the competition's most in-form players, including a rejuvenated, Golden-Boot-leading Michelle Heyman and Serbian revelation Vesna Milivojevic. They have scored 17 goals and conceded just five since the pair of humiliating 5-0 defeats they suffered eight games ago to kickstart their current unbeaten streak.
For City, this calibre of opposition provides a valuable pre-Finals test. It is well-publicised that Dario Vidosic's side has failed to defeat any of the current top four, recording two draws and four losses against Sydney FC, Western United and Melbourne Victory. A win against an in-form Canberra, then, would feel just as validating to our Championship prospects.
With one final hit-out left, we can only hope to see the absolute best that our City girls have got, and that it's enough to make an impact come Finals time.
Bonus talking point: So... should we just tank?
As I write this, Western United have just wrapped up a 2-1 win over Western Sydney Wanderers to move two points clear of Sydney FC, who are just minutes into their clash with Newcastle Jets.
As the Western United squad undoubtedly huddle together to await the result of that match, so too, perhaps, will the Melbourne City squad.
You see, if Sydney fail to collect all three points against a hit-and-miss Newcastle Jets, they would finish in second place, destined to host the third-placed Finalist. That position - at present, and assuming City collects at least a point tomorrow - is occupied by our girls in blue.
Would we be better off, I ask, resting some key players tomorrow and angling for a narrow loss, slipping into fourth place and taking on Western United instead? Whilst we haven't collected a single point from our encounters with the league's other team in green and black (and though we have against Sydney), we have come much closer to beating Western than we have Sydney. In previous encounters this season, City has comprehensively outplayed Mark Torcaso's side, but poor finishing (surprise, surprise) let us down on both occasions.
Ultimately, it seems unlikely that professional players and coaches would even entertain such an idea as tanking a winnable game, but the possibility is at least present in the minds of fans.