Melbourne City is the first team in Australian history to remain undefeated in its opening three games at the AFC Champions League following a hard-fought and scrappy 2-1 win over a dogged and determined Jeonnam Dragons.
Here are three things we learned:
Grit, if nothing else
Football is a funny old game and our third game in the ACL Group Stage was no exception. Despite the three points, City never felt assured and settled in the game, second-best to Jeonnam in most key areas. Whilst happy with the three points, City will need to find it within themselves to do it all again in three days against Jeonnam once more and, having seen how willing they are to leave nothing on the pitch, Kisnorbo will need to improve tactics to ensure we win on merit and strategy, rather than ride our luck.
This will include better service to Maclaren who looked frustrated, if nothing else, by his involvement in the game last night. Whilst Jamie is altruistic in his nature and will be happy with the win, it was clear to see his frustrations on the pitch last night as very little fell at his feet. Tightly marked by two defenders, Jamie made many excellent runs that went unnoticed or got into excellent areas without being able to be found. He feels like a player that needs one to open the floodgate and we need the floodgate to open so we can really stamp our authority in games, rather than rely on individual brilliance to find the back of the net.
As tensions heightened in the final quarter of the game, City players' determination to succeed in this campaign was on show with several heated exchanges that left the ref keen to blow the whistle at full time. Whilst far from a farce, several players likely let the emotions get the better of them. Passion for the club aside, we will need all players in the team to be available for all ACL games and we cannot afford to accumulate too many avoidable cards where possible. I am sure this opinion will divide fans. Nevertheless, a pragmatist knows that it needs to be our football that does the talking and anything that may undermine our campaign, of our own volition, is worthy of reflection.
A standout display from Glover
In contrast to recent form, Tom Glover had an outstanding game with his hands and made several crucial reflex saves that prevented Jeonnam from gaining the win they probably deserved. It was a performance that he will need to recreate going forward as we simply afforded Jeonnam far too many opportunities in behind our defence and switched off in key moments in dangerous areas; this included in the opening minute of the game despite a City kick-off. Glover was almost certainly the difference on the night and, despite two excellent individual goals from Nabbout and Jenkinson, it was his work between the sticks that ultimately earned us the three points and prevented Jeonnam from winning the game.
We hope this marks a change in fortune for Glover between the sticks for this season and campaign as he is a crucial element that will allow us to progress through the Champions League and be competitive in the closing stages and Finals campaign of the A-League domestic season. We are all behind you lad!
Group stage football is tough
The beautiful nature of this game is that any team, on their day, can beat anyone. Fine margins and moments set this game apart and upsets are almost too commonplace that no one should ever entertain the notion that wins are granted and outcomes predetermined.
Yet we constantly hear comparisons about how easily a team should beat another; we readily make assumptions based on little evidence to assess the difficulty of opponents and where two teams sit in relation to one another. Despite knowing that football is not won and lost on paper, commentary almost always reflects these sentiments, particularly when last season’s Australian winners play second division, sixth-placed Jeonnam. Anyone who knew nothing of the teams and watched last night would be forgiven in mistaking which team were the domestic champions from their country.
Let’s face it – group stage football is tough. Tough conditions, tight turnarounds, fatigue, homesickness, climate: there are so many factors that influence how a game plays out.
We have now seen all three of our opponents in Group G. City will need to finish first in the group to guarantee progression to the Round of 16. If not, we will need to finish as one of the three best second-placed teams to keep progressing through the campaign – not something we should aim for or rely on at all.
We currently sit in second place on goal difference to BG Pathum United, making winning our game against them vital.
We face another tough test in Jeonnam again on Sunday evening knowing full well the threat they pose, especially when they have everything to play for.
We should take stock at this juncture to recognise how well we have done so far, but know full well that we will need to do better if we are to secure a spot in the Round of 16. Nothing is granted; everything is earnt.