To say it’s one of the most anticipated games of the season would be underselling tomorrow night’s clash at Wanderland between the top two, the Western Sydney Wanderers and Melbourne City.
One can barely wait, with the Wanderers disallowed goal drama when the teams met three weeks ago in Melbourne only adding to the plot.
John van ‘t Schip’s Melbourne City finally look the real deal, and they appear to be getting stronger by the week.
While they might have pushed the A-League regulators in managing to land Anthony Caceres “on loan” from parent Manchester City, there’s little doubt this has strengthened their squad, and even the starting 11.
Add Osama Malik and Nick Fitzgerald, who both came off the bench in the 3-1 win over a very abject Wellington Phoenix on Monday night, and you have to applaud whoever is responsible for managing the City salary cap.
I’ve been guilty for the past few years of labeling van ‘t Schip one of the luckiest and most over-rated coaches in the league, but the reality is he’s managed to somehow survive to the point where, now, he finally looks to have the cattle, and is getting the best out of them.
At the start of the season I suggested the Dutchman had no more excuses, such was the quality of the squad he assembled. Now with Caceres joining Aaron Mooy and Erik Paartalu in midfield, nothing short of a credible run deep into the finals will suffice.
Beat the Wanderers well tomorrow night and they will not only go top, but also make a case for championship favouritism.
The pressure mounts, but the squad now looks better equipped to deal with the expectation than it did at the start of the season.
Then, van ‘t Schip’s 11 still had a very young feel to it, at various times relying on the likes of Wade Dekker, Stefan Zinni, Hernan Espindola, Steve Kuzmanovski, Stefan Mauk, Jacob Melling, Paulo Retre, Jack Clisby and Ben Garrucio.
The likes of Clisby, Melling, Retre and Garrucio, in particular, have become key squad men, while I was surprised van ‘t Schip let Mauk go.
But the trade off is that he now has a starting side oozing with proven experience and quality, and van ‘t Schip appears to have found a formation that suits.
While he used a back four and front three for much of the first three months of the season, in recent times he has reverted to a 3-5-2 with the wingbacks, Ivan Franjic and Michael Zullo, doubling up as both defenders and attackers.
It’s a system that appears to suit both players who prefer to get forward and influence in attack rather than sit in a back four. This system gives them the license.
Their battle tomorrow night with the likes of Scott Jamieson and Scott Neville, who have had the better of their opponents for much of the season, whets the appetite, and will go a long way to deciding who can control proceedings.
By going to a back three, van ‘t Schip has also managed to protect Aaron Hughes a bit. Again, it’s been about adapting to his players, and the defence now has an experienced spine with Thomas Sorensen behind Patrick Kisnorbo and Hughes, while Clisby is nominally the number three while Connor Chapman recovers from a knee injury.
But against the Phoenix, with Clisby suspended, it was the adaptable Melling that stepped into the back three.
The fact Garrucio and Retre, very good in a back four in the early part of the campaign, can only make the bench now, tells you of City’s depth. Add Malik and Fitzgerald to the mix.
Yet, despite that, the Dutchman can ill-afford for anything to happen to his marquee, Mooy, and two visa strikers, Bruno Fornaroli and Harry Novillo, all in irresistible form.
Whereas Novillo played ostensibly as a wide-left player for much of last season and the early part of this, he is now being used a second striker, given license to roam around the front third.
With confidence flowing, he looks every bit the mobile striker, even popping up in the box for one-touch finishes when all he has shown in the past has been dribble and a vicious shot from distance.
Fornaroli relished playing alongside Novillo on Monday, almost getting on the end of a couple of his delightfully whipped crosses from the right. The Uruguayan is also enjoying the license to go wide and drift in, managing to get his goal on Monday by foraging in the space on the left usually reserved for Novillo.
It looked a lethal combination against the Nix and will be fascinating to see if they can make an impression on the league’s second-most stingy defence.
Caceres, if anything, should help take some of the creative burden off Mooy, but it was clear against Wellington that while the former Mariner will share the deepest position in the midfield three with Paartalu, he could still get forward.
While Paartalu spends the most time in the number six role, he took turns with Caceres pushing into the more advanced eight role, giving City a nice little midfield rotation.
Whereas the Wanderers tend to leave Andreu deeper, while Dimas bites around in the eight role and Mitch Nichols in the ten, City are a little less structured.
The midfield will be a fascinating watch tomorrow.
Few, if any, have been able to wrestle control from the Wanderers this season, but for 15 or so minutes after Luis Garcia came on on Saturday, the Mariners had Tony Popovic’s men rocking.
That was until Nick Montgomery went into a challenge a little too pumped-up.
What the Mariners did in that period was drive in numbers, and you can guarantee that Mooy, Fornaroli, Novillo, Caceres and wingbacks Zullo and Franjic will try pull the Wanderers out of shape.
Sydney FC have been guilty of trying to stifle better opponents in the past couple of weeks, resulting in fizzers in both the Sydney Derby last week and Big Blue on Australia Day, but you won’t see that at Wanderland tomorrow.
This promises to be far more expansive, but not out of control.
Popovic won’t allow it to become about reckless, all-out attack. It’s not his way. He will try to control it by pressing up, winning the ball high and stopping City from building up to Fornaroli and Novillo.
If City can break the shackles and get Mooy on the ball high, influencing, and the wingbacks advanced, then Fornaroli and Novillo come into the picture.
For all their recent flow and confidence, City still have a bit to prove on the road against the big sides, so this is a huge test against a very disciplined and organised Wanderers who have been creating plenty.
If they can get control at Wanderland, then City deserve every bit of the hype they’re getting.