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  • Writer's pictureCaydn Foley

The timely boosts setting Melbourne City up for a Wanderers "ding-dong battle"

Heading into their fixture against Perth Glory last Sunday, Melbourne City sat seventh on the A-League Men table, four points behind the Western Sydney Wanderers, who have clung onto the final top six spot throughout the second half of the 2023/24 season. With a looming box office clash today between the two sides, City found some goalscoring form to keep their hopes of maintaining an impressive Finals Series streak alive.

Melbourne City are now only one point outside the top six following their 8-0 drubbing of Perth Glory. (Image: Sourced from Melbourne City FC X)


It only took 14 minutes for the destruction to begin at AAMI Park when Brazilian Leo Natel opened the scoring with a powerful strike. Things went from bad to worse for Perth Glory when Melbourne City scored twice across the next five minutes, all but confirming the win. A further two goals followed before halftime.


To their credit, Perth were able to take back some control of the game in the second half. Unfortunately, they could not put away any of their chances as City slowly wrestled back momentum. Once they switched back on, Aurelio Vidmar's side added three more goals to their tally, setting an A-League Men's record with the biggest win in the competition's history at 8-0.


It was a much-needed victory for Melbourne City, putting them right in the hunt for finals football. Most importantly, City was able to rediscover their good goal-scoring form just in time for a must-win game against the Western Sydney Wanderers today.


Intriguingly, Melbourne City’s last two wins have seen them score at least seven goals, the first of which was against the Wanderers. Despite their previous success against Marko Rudan's side, Vidmar and his team are putting the previous result behind them, not expecting it to happen again.

“I think you have got to wipe that right out of your mind because that's probably not going to happen again. They're coming off of a couple of losses. So them playing at home, it's going to be an absolute ding-dong battle,” Vidmar said following the win over Perth.


“We have to be prepared for it. Sometimes games like these won't be pretty, but it's going to be pretty physical and the teams that stand up to that physicality and are able to put their nose in front generally do well."


It will be a tight battle between Melbourne City and the Western Sydney Wanderers. Both teams have had inconsistent results over the season and, at times, have struggled to score goals. The biggest challenge facing Western Sydney is the absence of their two leading goalscorers, Nicolas Milanovic and Lachlan Brook, who are both currently on international duty with the Olyroos.


Both youngsters have scored eight goals this season and have been crucial in the Wanderers' attacking output. The next highest scorer is foreign striker Marcus Antonsson; the 32-year-old Swede’s first season in red and black has been disappointing and has led to a drop in playing time as the season has progressed. Antonsson last scored on New Year's Day in a 3-1 win over Macarthur. For this reason, Melbourne City may consider themselves slight favourites to get a positive result, being able to call upon more reliable and consistent output from their star-studded attack.

Vidmar will be relieved that Mathew Leckie is beginning to re-emerge into his starting lineup after the talisman put in a 60-minute shift in the 8-0 victory. Since joining City, Leckie has cemented himself as one of the best players in the competition and a crucial part of their attack. Unfortunately for Vidmar, Leckie has been dealing with persistent leg injuries this season, meaning he has only seen the pitch 10 times.

Mathew Leckie has had a stop-start 2023/24 season as a result of a recurring injury. (Image: Dan McAdam/Laughing Bulldog Images)


Vidmar was happy with what he saw when asked about Leckie's performance.


“Really pleased, he has had a bit of a stinker of a season, it’s been tough for him. Coming back, getting injured, coming back again, re-injuring himself,” he said.


“It's been pretty tough for him. But, his last couple of weeks he has been super consistent in training. So we managed him again tonight, just giving him the hour. But we all know what kind of a player he is; he is just a physical animal, gets himself into really nice positions, and makes some great forward runs.


“So I’m really pleased. Hopefully, he recovers well over the next couple of days. It'd be really nice if he could build on this for the rest of the season.”


Leckie has mostly played as an advanced midfielder this season, mainly due to the abundance of wingers that City have on their books. But this positional shift has worked well for Vidmar. Leckie, when fit, is an absolute workhorse of a player who always does the hard yards for his side. He has to be considered one of the strongest players in the league, and his physical traits are evident when opponents try to dispossess him when he has the ball. Out of possession, Leckie can exert himself on his direct opponent to help City win possession higher up the pitch.

Against Western Sydney, Leckie should be able to dominate the midfield. The Wanderers' midfield will likely struggle to handle his physical presence, notably 21-year-old Oscar Priestman. Although Priestman made great progress this season, he still has a long way to go, both physically and technically, to compete with a player like Leckie.


Should Melbourne City beat the Wanderers, Leckie will also be able to build up more minutes as the season concludes. If they sneak into the Finals Series, he can rediscover full fitness just in time to make a decisive difference for his club as they plot an unlikely return to the Grand Final.


Vidmar would have also been happy to see Jamie Maclaren get back on the scoresheet after he was dropped to the bench for the previous two games due to his poor scoring form this season. In the short-term, should Maclaren now kick on and rediscover his goalscoring touch, he could play a significant role in ensuring City edge the Wanderers to the league's final top six spot.


However, long-term is a different story. Talking post-game in an on-pitch interview with Channel 10, Maclaren made some notable comments about his future at the club. When asked about his move to the bench over the previous games, Maclaren implied that 18-year-old Max Caputo would have a much more important role for the club next season, potentially alluding to an exit.

 

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“This is a team sport and I had to help the boys, rally the boys through the good and bad results,” Maclaren said.


“Help young Maxy (Caputo) because at the end of the day, he is probably the guy who is going to be banging in the goals for this club next season."


This situation and countless others, as we recently discussed in great depth, will have to be put on hold as City look to finish a topsy-turvy campaign on a high.


Right now, Vidmar must make the tough call on who he starts up top in the must-win game. It has been difficult for Maclaren, who has had one of his least productive seasons since returning to the A-League Men. Because of this form slump, 18-year-old Max Caputo has been given more opportunities to impress, which he has taken with both hands. But in a game that will most likely decide if Melbourne City qualifies for the Finals Series, Vidmar may stick with Maclaren’s experience rather than trusting young Caputo in such a pivotal fixture.

Another reason Vidmar may select Maclaren is that he would be better suited to dealing with the Wanderers' powerful centre-backs, most notably Marcelo, at least from a mental standpoint. The Brazilian, well known for his mastery of the dark arts, may look to target Caputo's inexperience if he were to start. Marcelo is a crafty player who knows how to throw opposing players off their game, and one would think that a player with Maclaren’s experience would not let such antics affect him. Any red cards either way can have huge ramifications on a do-or-die clash like this one.


Should Melbourne City drop points against Western Sydney, their chances of qualifying for the Finals Series would be taken out of their hands. Vidmar's side would have to rely on other results in the final week of the season to sneak into sixth, a position that no team ever wants to be in. A loss would be fatal, ruling them out of contention altogether.


It makes this Saturday's encounter not just a ding-dong battle, but the decisive one for the fate of the club's 2023/24 season.


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