It took them 11 years – 7 in these colours – but Melbourne City have scaled the mountain, at long last.
They may have gone behind, to an astonishing Kosta Barbarouses strike from outside the box, but any neutral observer would concede that from the first blow of Chris Beath’s whistle, City’s superiority was never much in doubt.
Buoyed by a 15,000 reduced-capacity crowd at AAMI Park, and a still-hobbling Patrick Kisnorbo living every kick of the ball, City began with purpose and intensity. Their high-tempo passing and immaculately rehearsed rotations were simply too much for a Sydney side shorn of their pressure valve, Milos Ninkovic, who started on the bench due to a calf problem.
Ninkovic’s calming presence and big-game nous was sorely missed, particularly by Luke Brattan, who looked lost without the Serbian as an ever-present passing option. Brattan lost his composure completely, collecting two yellow cards for studs-up challenges inside 35 minutes, and leaving a 10-man Sydney in the lurch. When Ninkovic finally entered the contest for an 18-minute cameo, he was a mere mirage: Milos, in appearance only.
Previous City sides would have wilted in the wake of Kosta’s goal against the run of play: be it the infamous soft underbelly of the John van’t Schip teams, or the rigid lack of imagination of the Warren Joyce era. But this new, hardened City responded immediately, with the dynamic Stefan Colakovski leading a ruthless breakaway, and fullback turned winger Nathaniel Atkinson – superb throughout – finishing with power, high at the near post.
The penalty that followed divided opinion, but it arrived at the tail end of a sustained encampment around the Sydney 18-yard area. Adrian Luna latched onto a glorious outside-of-the-boot pass from Atkinson, and gladly accepted the contact from Adrian Caceres. In the absence of top scorer Jamie Maclaren, in hotel quarantine after returning from Socceroos duty, captain Scott Jamieson stepped up confidently from the spot. He sent Heward-Belle the wrong way, and pointed to his armband in the celebrations – a typically ‘Jamo’ reminder of who’s boss.
The second half was overwhelmingly one-way traffic, with one City fullback stepping inside to further outnumber the already outgunned Sydney midfield, as the backline sat trapped on the edge of their own box. The inspiration for a sealer seemed most likely to come from the irrepressible Marco Tilio, who gave both Sydney right backs – Paolo Retre and substitute Harry van der Saag – cause for a fitful night’s sleep.
City again fielded an entirely reserve front three, with Andrew Nabbout and Craig Noone named on the bench after recovering from injury, and the aforementioned Maclaren. If the CFG head honchos in Manchester or Abu Dhabi were watching for the first time, however, they’d never have pinpointed the absentees. The maverick Tilio provided the crucial spark of invention and unpredictability in an otherwise heavily engineered system, and his acrobatic effort to keep one stray ball in play will no doubt go viral.
In stoppage time, the final flourish came from Scott Galloway, who drifted inside and swept a left-footed shot into the bottom corner from the end of the box. The game was already over as a contest, however, and wild celebrations for Galloway’s late third seemed to roll into the scenes of jubilation at full time.
It’s been a turbulent journey for the City Football Group in this strange southern land and eccentric league, where their millions don’t seem to go as far, and best-laid plans frequently go awry. Finally, belatedly, they can add Australia to their empire of conquered territories.