As Melbourne City await their semi-final derby day showdown with Western United, coach Erick Mombaerts is confident that he has the team ready for the challenge – an embodiment of spirit circulating through the entire club, as they break from their Hunter Valley hub and into Sydney for a maximum of the next four days.
Melbourne City have beaten their western Melbourne neighbours three times in three meetings during the interrupted regular A-League season, with Golden Boot winner Jamie Maclaren scoring twice in each of those three games.
However, at finals time, even as Melbourne City come into this semi-final completely fit and as favourites, Mombaerts and his players refuse to take anything for granted.
“We’ve played really well every time we’ve played them this season – but at this time, you have to be aware that it is finals, and anything can happen,” says defender Curtis Good.
“The intensity is going to be up, and they will be keeping us on our toes as far as what to expect out of them,” Good adds.
Having seven days in between their final regular-season game – a 3-1 triumph over Western United on August 19 – has equated into a valuable luxury for Melbourne City to prepare for the next Western United challenge.
But luxury does not equate to complacency, and Mombaerts does not need to send a message to his players to warn against complacency.
In fact, the professionalism of Good and his teammates has been on display ever since the club cleared interstate quarantine and hit the Hunter Valley camp, and Good has praised the collective focus among his teammates and the staff.
“From our experience, we have always trained hard, [and] we’ve always done what’s required,” Good says.
“It does drag in a little bit from where we are, and the more time you are here, so we do have to give credit to the boys and the staff to keep doing what they are doing and to the best of their abilities.
“Nothing’s been said so far – and nothing’s needing to be said, really,” Good adds.
Western United have played six games since the A-League’s restart, winning four of them to make the finals in their debut season, while Melbourne City have only played three times in the same span, winning twice.
Amid any perceptions that they have had a more favourable draw by not playing as many games, Mombaerts has previously said that such matters existed beyond the club’s control.
However, while Western United has settled into a rhythm focusing on being match-fit, Melbourne City has enjoyed a slower beat of its own, one which suits their own pace translating into form.
“We get to train more, and [Western United coach] Mark [Rudan] feels it is better for them to play more games. The draw has suited each other’s strengths,” says Mombaerts.
“Our draw has been quite favourable between the time we play and the time that we have to prepare. And we always like to have the time to prepare properly,” says Good.
Yet as Western United present specific challenges of their own – among those qualities consisting of their overall team spirit, an attack being led by the in-form trio of Besart Berisha, Alessandro Diamanti and Max Burgess, and a defensive posture that maintains a good shape in many of the recent matches that they’ve played, Melbourne City still feels the focus and execution on their own game remains the top priority.
“They are very talented, so you have to pay them the respect that they deserve. But we tend to focus on our game – that’s what we’ve done all season, so we’ll concentrate on how we play first, and then keep one eye on what they do,” says Good.
“They are different to face in the sense that if you give Diamanti the time with his left foot in the middle of the park, those three players will work quite well together,” adds Good.
As far as breaking down Western United’s defence, that has Rudan playing with four, five or even six men in the penalty area at any time in front of goalkeeper Filiip Kurto, Mombaerts feels that his team’s natural style is best suited to combat those defensive strategies, with very little variance in tactics.
“We have to play our way, play our way better than theirs, and play faster,” says Mombaerts.
“Also, our positioning has to be better.
“And we have to be ourselves, at the top level,” he adds.
If high-flying Melbourne City do possess any vulnerabilities, then those would point to their tendencies to let in goals in the final half-hours of their matches.
As a team, they know where that weakness lies and how it needs to be shorn up, especially on the eve of the unforgiving nature of a single-elimination final leading to a place in the A-League’s grand final.
“It’s not so much running out or finishing games, but how we react after we score or come in at halftime, because we know that teams come out and change their mentalities towards us,” says Good.
“If other teams lift, we need to look at what they’re doing and how we can react to it,” he adds.
So as the match pits Melbourne City – a team frequently described in A-League circles as “next year’s champions” via their under-achievements – versus a Western United outfit one game away from an A-League grand final in its debut season, Mombaerts has told his team to be at their finest, but to revel in the 90 minutes at hand.
“We’re playing our biggest game,” says Mombaerts.
“We have to be ready for Western United at the right moment. And be ready for them without pressure, and enjoy it, and play at our best,” adds Mombaerts.