We're entering the stage of the Liberty A-League season where mathematical qualification for Finals is just on the horizon, and with Melbourne City only 2-3 wins away from that marker, our upcoming clash against fellow Finals contender Perth Glory bears even more importance.
Last time out, the City girls were able to secure a solid 2-1 win at home against the Western Sydney Wanderers in a contest that we dominated in the stats but not in the final scoreline, demonstrating room for improvement in terms of our finishing.
Sunday's opposition, Perth Glory, most recently secured a big win in the context of their season by knocking off third-placed Adelaide United in a narrow 1-0 affair. The win will have given Alex Epakis' side a huge confidence boost, so our City girls will need to be wary of keeping them at a distance with a solid goal buffer throughout Sunday's clash.
Speaking of, here's the major storylines heading into it:
It mightn't seem like it, but this is a must-win.
There's a reason that securing mathematical qualification early was mentioned in the intro: we may very well need it given the personnel we're going to be missing after this weekend's game.
Set to compete in the SheBelieves Cup later this month, the Football Ferns have called up Hannah Wilkinson and Rebekah Stott for the competition to be held from the 17th to the 23rd. Allowing for additional days either side of this window, the veteran pair - two of our most influential players - will likely miss two, potentially three (depending on fitness/recovery) of City's final four matches after Perth.
Not to write us off early, but when one of the games that they'll miss is against Sydney FC, there is certainly an emphasis placed on gaining maximum points tomorrow against Perth before they jet off rather than leaving ourselves with it all to do in just one or two games upon their return.
So, how good IS Melbourne City?
City's 2021/22 season has been a strange one. Few could have expected us to be in the position that we are currently after the disappointment of last season, but a combination of Sydney FC being so dominant and Melbourne Victory, Brisbane Roar and Canberra United underperforming feels as if it relegates City's second-place position to a case of being the 'best of the rest', rather than a great side in our own right.
In media around the league, City seems to be considered the outright second-best team, as if by a distance, yet, aside from a three-week period of dominant wins against Adelaide, Victory and Wellington, we've really only been scraping three-point results with narrow one-goal wins - the margin of four of our seven victories.
The issue, if we want to nitpick, is that whilst that kind of form should see us make a return to Finals - probably enough for a big tick for the season if nothing further was achieved, given how far we set ourselves back in 2020/21 - we haven't shown any kind of form since that Wellington win that would suggest we'll be a major player come the pointy end of the season.
If we were to accept that only adequate level of performance, then we open ourselves up to a shock loss to a quality Perth Glory side tomorrow, followed by an absolute trouncing against Sydney FC the following week.
Instead, this is our chance to finally reach our potential, keep the clean sheet that our underappreciated backline deserves, bag two or three goals via the avenues that they're supposed to be coming through and show that we're not just a top two side as a beneficiary of circumstance.
Fix the leak
This point is a short one, and it can be summarised as follows: if nothing else, we need to stop leaking needless goals just for the sake of Melissa Barbieri still being a gun just over a week out from her 42nd birthday.
City have conceded the second-fewest goals this season overall, likely as a result of our concession of a league-second-lowest 7.9 shots per game and Bubs' respectable 77.1% save percentage (fourth in the league), and we've deserved a lot more than our mere three clean sheets in 2021/22.
The cheap goals conceded at seemingly inconsequential stages of victories need to stop; just do it for Bubs.