Contrary to what the annals of sporting culture tell the fans, second place can be something to aim for.
Melbourne City coach Erick Mombaerts would concur – not just for the reward of a regular season well done, but also for the impact it brings to the club’s growing culture.
Prior to the current season, Melbourne City’s best finish in the A-League came in the 2017-18 season, as Warren Joyce’s club finished third in the regular season before bowing out to Newcastle at the semi-final stage of the finals series.
If Melbourne City can beat Adelaide United on Tuesday night, a best-ever season in its ten-year history would be on the cards, as the three points would be enough to clinch second spot on the A-League’s ladder, with one game remaining.
“We wanted to get results and grow our confidence with our own style of play, and get results, at any part of the season. I think we’ve been able to do that,” said Mombaerts on Monday, as his team prepares for the Reds’ challenge.
“From day one, I always heard of us wanting to be the league’s best and to qualify for the [Asian] Champions League,” said Florin Berenguer, a French midfielder in his second season with Melbourne City.
“We may have achieved that, but we will always want to keep striving to be the best and win competitions,” he added.
And second place possesses benefits.
The most tangible benefit would exist as a week’s break having been earned over 26 league matches.
The second-place finisher can also join A-League minor premiers Sydney FC in sitting back, observing and awaiting the winners of the two elimination finals.
Those elimination finals – pitting the third-place-versus-sixth-place and fourth-place-versus-fifth-place teams – take place on August 22 while both semi-finals occur on August 26.
For Melbourne City to fall back into the group of elimination finalists, they would have to lose its remaining two games, against the Reds and then against Western United, while Wellington Phoenix – currently occupying third spot, two points behind Melbourne City – would have to beat Newcastle in its remaining regular-season game on Thursday and then sweat out the Western United v Melbourne City result.
A Newcastle win over Wellington would thereby consign the Phoenix to that second group where they face an uncertainty of ultimately finishing anywhere from third to fifth.
In essence, for Melbourne City, needing a win in either of its last two regular-season matches, locking up second place would be easier than surrendering it to the Phoenix. Especially given its current form, which has seen the club beating Sydney FC 2-0 on August 1 to maintain its second-place position it had enjoyed prior to the pandemic-induced hiatus to the season having been called in late March.
That form would suggest that a win over Adelaide United would take care of the business at hand.
“We do not want to change our style against them,” Mombaerts said, as he plans to have his team dictate the pace and style of the match.
“We want to do what we do well,” he added, about his team’s wide-open, full-flowing style, “and we also need to be well-organized as well.”
Mombaerts’s tactical angles and intentions have not been lost on his players.
“They’ve already played four games” since the re-start, said Berenguer.
“They look in good shape, with their style and results, and they look ready to face us. We will be ready for them,” added Berenguer.
Whereas going straight into a semifinal allows for tired players to rest, the difference of having a mental edge by finishing in second spot also possesses an invaluable impact.
“We want to finish in the top two. It will give us that advantage of missing [the elimination final] and give us a chance to recover and get ready for the semi’s. That’s the big push to get to that second spot,” Wellington coach Ufuk Talay told Wellington-based news website Stuff in late July.
“If we play the elimination final and go 120 minutes you’ve got to back it up three days later, which is a tough ask. I know the boys can still do it but we’ll push for that second spot so it gives us that advantage of having the break,” Talay added.
And as Mombaerts has previously described his club’s interstate hub experience – ahead of the Sydney FC win – as “more like a preseason cup” than a normal season’s run of events, the single-elimination format of this year’s finals adds another wrinkle into this A-League season’s unique storylines.
“We entered the hub knowing that playing now is like needing to play like we’re in a tournament. Every game is going to be tough,” he said.
And speaking of tournaments, sewing up second spot will also grant Melbourne City a berth in next season’s Asian Champions League.
“That was a goal of ours at the start of the season,” said Mombaerts, a French coach who has previously coached in Asia with the J-League’s Yokohama Flugels-Marinos.
“It is really important to get there, in the [Asian] Champions League, because it is a great reward for us and shows our potential,” he added.
Mombaerts’s side enters the match against Adelaide without any injuries to any player on its squad, and would like to preserve that intangible edge.
“I will need to congratulate all of our staff, and players. Their commitment has been first-class, over this long period” over the season and particularly in the interstate hub, Mombaerts said.