By Joey Lynch
After the VAR-infused drama of Sydney FC and Adelaide United’s A-League opener, and the Western Sydney Wanderers’ controversial win over a promising-looking Central Coast Mariners side, the on-field action in Saturday evening’s Melbourne Derby represented something of a comedown.
The first game of the 2019/20 season to end both in a draw and without goals, the frustration of both sides became evident as Harrison Delbridge and Ola Toivonen exchanged handbags as the game ticked over to extra time. Toivonen only minutes before had looked seemingly intent on emulating Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts in a tussle with Scott Jamieson, leaving the City captain in prime position for a DDT.
Ultimately, the value of the campaign’s first Melbourne Derby will likely lie not in its worth as a standalone footballing contest, but as more of a reference point; providing a baseline to compare the growth, adaptability and reinforcement that occurs in Victory and City throughout the season.
Missing first-choice striker Jamie Maclaren and playmaker Florin Berenguer – who suffered a hamstring injury on Thursday – Melbourne City flashed the potential of bringing something new to the competition in 2018/19, only to fail to fire in the final third.
While nobody could have mistaken this City side from one under the guidance of former gaffer Warren Joyce, new Head Coach Erick Mombaerts more progressive, attack-minded style of play broke down in the final phase of possession as fill-in striker Lachlan Wales and Uruguayan’s Javier Cabrera and Adrian Luna found themselves lacking that final, killer touch.
A first-half chance to Wales in which the youngster was played through one-on-one with Victory goalkeeper Lawrence Thomas – only to send his resulting shot wide – represented perhaps City’s best chance of the game. It begged the question: if Socceroo Jamie Maclaren is in that position, does the net bulge?
Having lost defender Tim Hoogland to injury with the final kick in the final session before Saturday evening’s contest, Melbourne Victory’s centre-back pairing of James Donachie and Thomas Deng struggled to kickstart Victory when they were entrusted with playing out from the back.
When Victory did manage to get the ball up the field, a combination of a lack of familiarity between the attackers and the absence of Socceroos attacker Robbie Kruse nonetheless left the four-time A-League champions looking disjointed.
Eventually, though, Victory did find a breakthrough – forcing a turnover in City’s defensive third and setting up Toivonen to lace a perfectly weighted pass in behind the defence for Elvis Kamsoba to then send home – but the omnipresent VAR came to the fore; revealing that the Burundi international had commenced his run a split-second too soon.
Normally a disruptive presence – both on and off the ball – for any defence he comes across, Toivonen found himself frustrated by the sterling defensive work of Delbridge throughout the 90 minutes.
Beyond his work curtailing his Swedish opponent – showing a willingness to follow him into the pocket between attack and midfield to deny him any time to maneuver – the City centre-back was the clear man of the match; a force of nature in winning balls played towards his backline.
With the struggles of both sides were added together, it led to a game that served more like a preview of things to come than a marquee opening of your biggest star; a Captain America: The First Avenger to the next game’s Captain America Winter Soldier.
Between now and the Christmas Derby, both sides will, in theory, have time to both become more familiar with each other in a competitive format, and welcome back to the fold a number of key contributors that should facilitate their ability to both realise chances (Maclaren and Kruse) and dictate play (Berenguer and Hoogland).
This season, the newly independent A-League will be banking on its marquee fixtures to springboard them into a positive new era. In theory, and in time, this match-up should deliver.