Talking points preview: WSW vs City
The decisive fixture that would serve to prove our mettle as Premiership hopefuls has finally arrived... but is it still the barometer we thought it would be?
Our high-flying City boys take on Western Sydney Wanderers away from home tomorrow afternoon, when an interstate victory would deliver an important three points that would see us move six points clear atop the Izuzu UTE A-League table.
Rado Vidosic's side will come into the clash high on confidence following a 4-0 thrashing of Western United, but the same can't be said about Marko Rudan's Wanderers side, who recently lost 1-0 to a rejuvenated Perth Glory outfit.
Here are the three biggest talking points ahead of tomorrow's clash:
Does the match carry as much significance with the Wanderers on the slide?
Tomorrow's Round 12 clash away from home had long loomed as the fixture that would truly separate Melbourne City from the chasing pack, once lead by the team in red and black.
Over the opening third of the season, City and Wanderers were the clear standout teams in the ALM. The narrative of the former's scintillating attack and the latter's miserly defence was making for a blockbuster rivalry to contest the 2022/23 Premiership that would have been significantly influenced by tomorrow's heavyweight bout - at least, that's how it was supposed to pan out.
Since the league's post-World Cup resumption, Rudan's Wanderers have lost their clinical edge, dropping points in four out of their past five matches due to the concession of solitary goals which their attacking impotence has made difficult to overcome.
As it has turned out, City's gritty 1-0 victory over now-nearest-rival Central Coast Mariners at home a couple of weeks ago may have been just as significant an achievement as a potential interstate win tomorrow.
The bottom line is that, in the context of our season, a loss tomorrow might mean nothing, but a win could mean everything.
Do you change a winning formula if Berenguer is back?
Making alterations to the team that just thrashed Western United 4-0 would seem illogical to many fans, but the availability of City's much-loved Frenchman is difficult to ignore.
Though Vidosic will likely name an unchanged lineup tomorrow, I believe that the eventual inclusion of Berenguer in our best XI would be one of the very few remaining improvements available to the City head coach to pursue within his league-leading outfit.
Richard van der Venne and Valon Berisha have performed admirably to integrate into the City system, but neither is a particularly creative midfielder to provide a central avenue for service to our forwards. It is the latter, in particular, who I believe could be succeeded by Berenguer, with the Kosovan failing to have the influence that was widely expected of him in pre-season despite spending the early stages of the campaign in an advanced role. Berisha has been far from underwhelming, but has contributed zero goals (two big chances missed) and zero assists (from zero big chances created).
With van der Venne impressing fans with his sheer work rate and midfield doggedness, in addition to three goal involvements, could partnering him with a now-fit Florin Berenguer be the key to unlocking yet another attacking gear for City?
Can Jamie keep it up - and what further glory awaits if he does?
With the ambiguity over Jamie Maclaren's scoring streak in relation to the abandoned Derby (to be completed in April) now cleared up and the Australian National League record broken, the only question that remains is how long can he keep it up?
Scoring in his past 10 competitive fixtures, an 11th-consecutive goalscoring appearance tomorrow afternoon would not only move Maclaren into outright fourth on the all-time National League goalscorers list, but it would also edge him towards a piece of global footballing history; a definitive list is difficult to find, but goals in 11 consecutive games would have Maclaren's record somewhere around equal-10th, matched by Jamie Vardy, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gabriel Batistuta. (Take a look at this list from FootTheBall for an idea of how far he's got to go).
There's good news about our upcoming opposition too: J-Mac has scored seven goals in six appearances against the Wanderers since joining City, failing to find the back of the net just once.
For a man who eats records for breakfast, here's hoping tomorrow night is a full continental buffet.