A ten-man Melbourne City have survived a late scare to record a narrow win over Western United as late drama unfolded at AAMI Park.
Cruising at 3-0 ahead with 16 minutes left, Melbourne City saw their lead reduced significantly as Western United converted two penalties in the space of four minutes, with Harrison Delbridge sent off for a handball.
With the official call made by club doctors an hour before play to proceed with the match, City dominated proceedings throughout the contest in a baptism of fire for the four Western United starting debutants.
Determined to rectify consecutive defeats over the festive period, Melbourne City landed the first punch through their prolific talisman.
It only took Jamie Maclaren five minutes to open the scoring – toe-poking the ball through a goal-line scramble after Lachlan Wales’ cross bounced off Jonathan Aspropotamitis and caused confusion between the defender and goalkeeper Fillip Kurto – to which Maclaren was the beneficiary.
Wales was nearly rewarded with a goal himself in the 12th minute – momentarily mistiming his slide to meet Florin Berenguer’s cross inside the box.
City would have considered themselves unlucky not to be two up after 20 minutes, with Nathaniel Atkinson crossing into Berenguer whose attempt – headed for the bottom corner – took a deflection out for a corner in the 15th minute.
Before a clever Maclaren flick on the volley set-up Wales – who brought down the ball well bursting inside the box but was unable to drill it past Kurto in the 19th minute.
Spurring his team on during the drinks break, Alessandro Diamanti took it upon himself to get his side back into the game and would have, had Curtis Good not blocked his half-volley from just outside the box on the goal-line.
But City would be rewarded for its persistence – adding a second before the break with Noone finding Adrian Luna with a chipped ball to which the Uruguayan midfielder buried spectacularly in the 36th minute.
As if things could not get any worse for Western United, a calamitous error from Kurto allowed Maclaren to net City’s third on the cusp of half-time.
The Polish goalkeeper stormed off his line to clear a Luna ball to Maclaren, only to collide with Andrew Durante and leave the net open for the Socceroo to roll home his second of the half.
Things did not get much better for the green and black early in the second half, and head coach Mark Rudan handed 20-year-old Burundi born Thiel Iradukunda his debut off the bench in the 54th minute.
Valentino Yuel nearly capped off his starting debut with an assist – finding room on the right-wing before putting a cross in for Besart Berisha, who was unable to get to the low ball into the box in the 68th minute.
Rudan then gave Josh Cavallo – who was on City’s books last season – his first taste of A-League action, coming on for Apostolos Stamatelopoulos in the 71st minute, and it appeared this injection of youth was exactly what Western United needed.
The home fans were forced to watch the last 16 minutes through their fingers as the visitors were awarded two penalties in four minutes.
Cavallo drew the first one after latching on to a long-range pass from Diamanti, and being brought down by the onrushing Bouzanis. Berisha duly converted in the 74th minute, before a Delbridge handball two minutes later gave the referee no choice but to award a second penalty.
But the drama did not stop here as consultation with the VAR saw Delbridge controversially sent off, with Diamanti slotting the second penalty to set up a grandstand finish.
Despite having the extra man, however, Western United were unable to find the equaliser and head into the bye on the back of consecutive defeats.
City, meanwhile, remains in second place ahead of their trip to Suncorp to face the Brisbane Roar next Saturday.
Melbourne City 3 (Maclaren 5’ & 45’, Luna 36’)
Western United 2 (Berisha 74′ (P), Diamanti 78′ (P))
Dean Bouzanis (GK), Scott Jamieson, Josh Brillante, Jamie Maclaren, Florin Berenguer (Rostyn Griffiths 70′), Craig Noone, Nathaniel Atkinson, Lachlan Wales (Scott Galloway 86′), Adrian Luna, Curtis Good, Richard Windbichler (Harrison Delbridge 46’)
Joe Gauci (GK), Moudi Najjar, Yaya Dukuly, Stefan Colakovski
Filip Kurto (GK), Andrew Durante, Valentino Yuel (Dylan Pierias 71′), Apostolos Stamatelopoulos (Josh Cavallo 71′), Connor Pain, Dario Jertec (Thiel Iradukunda 54’), Jonathan Aspropotamitis, Besart Berisha, Sebastian Pasquali, Alessandro Diamanti, Jerry Skotadis
Ryan Scott, Max Burgess, Kwabena Appiah, Oskar Dillon