Melbourne City – playing their first competitive game in 132 days and being the last A-League team to hit the pitch out of quarantine and training – solidified their grip on second spot on the A-League ladder with a 2-0 win over Premiers Plate holders Sydney FC on Saturday evening at ANZ Stadium.
Goals from Craig Noone and Jamie Maclaren scored in eleven second-half minutes, combined with a bend-but-don’t-break approach in defense to limit Sydney FC’s chances, led to Melbourne City’s win.
“I am happy that we can play so well, maintain our focus to what we needed to do. We really want to play in a manner that we did today,” Melbourne City coach Erick Mombaerts said afterwards.
Maclaren’s goal not only gave Melbourne City a bit of valuable insurance towards the three points, but also allowed him to break the deadlock at the top of the A-League’s race for the Golden Boot.
But personal accomplishments aside, Maclaren felt it was all about him and his Melbourne City teammates unified together, giving an impression that the long layoff has not affected their quality of play.
“We waited such a long time to get out here, and we’ve been chomping at the bit to play,” said Maclaren.
While the match was not just a matter of the A-League’s top two teams on display, but also its top two goalscorers. With Maclaren looking to pad to his tally of 18 goals scored, Sydney FC counterpart Adam Le Fondre looked to be equal to the task as well as being equal to Maclaren’s output at this late stage of the stop-start campaign.
But in the opening 45 minutes, Maclaren enjoyed a greater quantity and quality of chances to break the deadlock, while Le Fondre found his opportunities limited by comparison.
Melbourne City dominated the attacking play in the game’s first half-hour, with Maclaren having missed a couple of early chances, benefitting from a solid structure in attack, featuring some sterling wide play from Lachlan Wales and Florin Berenguer on the flanks and Craig Noone slotting in behind Maclaren.
But Sydney FC had goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne to thank for keeping the game scoreless, denying Maclaren and Berenguer with a pair of stunning saves, and minutes later off the boot of Adrian Luna.
Meanwhile, Tom Glover in between City’s posts, by contrast, had a pair of easy saves to make, as Ryan McGowan and Alexander Baumjohann surged forward. In truth, City’s defensive structure kept Anthony Caceres honest in Sydney FC’s midfield, to limit any potential chances Le Fondre and Kosta Barbarouses might have otherwise seized.
The breakthrough came eleven minutes into the second half via a miscue in the Sydney FC rearguard. Luna floated a 40-yard ball from his own path which Noone did well to time his run to latch onto the long ball and strike it past Redmayne, but McGowan aided and abetted the Englishman to score by failing to come up with a clearance cleanly.
The goal opened the game up, and Sydney FC were unlucky not to have equalized on the hour. Barbarouses, via quality flank service from Le Fondre, forced a point-blank save from Glover.
But the human comedy was yet to come within a moment or two – characteristic of any performance art seen at the Sydney Opera House, provided that the artists there would be receiving the JobKeeper subsidy – as the goalkeeper’s teammates combined to clear away Sydney FC’s best chance on the night to that point.
The effort to clear the ball away was accentuated by Wales making virtual snow angels while prone in the penalty area to avoid committing a hand ball which would have given away a sure penalty kick.
Maclaren doubled City’s lead in the 67th minute as McGowan appeared to be the villain again, speeding past him as a hopeful ball from Berenguer bounced over the defender’s head, and Maclaren was left with an easy finish to not only double City’s lead but take the lead in the A-League’s Golden Boot race over Le Fondre.
In truth, Maclaren – a striker whose great form on either side of the pandemic-enforced hiatus suggests that he doesn’t need the help from opponents’ mental and physical lapses – played a great first touch with the back of his heel to get a step on McGowan, and then lob his shot past Redmayne.
As Mombaerts removed Maclaren with 16 minutes to go to cap a series of substitutions geared towards further suffocating the Sydney FC attack and making the three points safe, chances were few and far between for the remainder of the affair.
“We had quite a few quality chances in the first half, and I knew the boys were bound to get a goal in the second half, and we just saw it out from there,” said Maclaren.
As Melbourne City gained the valuable points that could go some way at earning them a bye when the A-League’s finals series starts on August 22, the 65-year-old French coach was left to give a couple of fist-pumps just after the full-time whistle went.
“At halftime, I knew we just had to continue playing like we were. Worries about fatigue, because we hadn’t played for such a long time, was also a factor, but after we scored the goals, we finished the match very well,” Mombaerts said.