Melbourne City have suffered defeat in the battle of first and third in the NPL2 Eastern Conference, going down 1-0 to a physical Dandenong City SC side at LaTrobe on Saturday.
Having conceded the first goal in their past five games - City came into the contest needing to start strongly if they were to get a result against the league leading Dandenong City side and early signs for the hosts were positive.
Belying their youth and lack of size compared to the visitors, City took the game to Dandenong in the opening, pressing hard and making a contest of every 50-50 ball.
Left back Jaiden Madafferi starred in these early stages – not giving an inch to former Melbourne City player Mate Dugandzic from his left back position and combining well with Gerrie Sylaidos, who started on the left wing for City.
This all proved for naught however, when on 14 minutes City found themselves in familiar territory – trailing one goal to nil.
Running at the City defence after collecting the ball just inside their half, Dandenong’s Jarrod Blackbourn sliced a ball through to Dugandzic running down the right wing.
The former A-League star was able to get to the ball first and beat Madafferi and City centre back Nenad Nikolic – who started in place of Jordan Hall after Hall was granted his release to return to Sydney and take up a scholarship with the West Sydney Wanderers – before cutting the ball back to Shaun Filipovic at the top of the area.
Finding himself with a few meters of space the Dandenong striker took a number of touches to put himself into proper position and blasted a low shot past City goalkeeper Yaren Sozer to put Dandenong up after 14 minutes.
The goal marked a turning point in the first, with Dandenong coming out from the restart and throwing their weight around - seeking to physically dominate and intimidate the younger City side.
Speaking after the game City coach Lachlan Armstrong noted:
“I think that we probably got ourselves bullied during the first half and we expect – even though they’re bigger bodies and adults we expect our boys – given that they want to be professional footballer and be around the A League camp – that they’re able to play against more physical players and adults. It’s another step in the players learning”
It was almost two for the visitors in the 22nd minute, when another former Melbourne City star Nick Kalmar had his shot tipped over the bar by Sozer after being picked out at the top of the penalty area by Daniel Visevic.
Kalmar was outstanding for the visitors throughout much of the second – being an ever-present threat in the midfield and showing off a number of cheeky pieces of skill to put Dandenong into attack.
Whilst neither side could produce a clear-cut chance to grab another goal - with Dandenong taking on a greater share of the play – the physicality continued to ramp up.
It came to its zenith in the 39th minute when – both chasing a low cross to the top of the six yard box – Sozer and Dandenong defender Ljubo Milicevic had a sickening head clash that could be heard around the pitch.
Both players received treatment on the field and frustrations threatened to boil over as both sides exchanged words in a large pack close to their fallen teammates.
The half ended six minutes later, with City limping into the dressing room looking to regroup and figure how way to get back into a contest they were at risk of being bullied out of.
The answer to how appeared to be fighting fire with fire as City came out in the second half playing a much more physical style of play – giving as good as they got to Dandenong and creating several chances of their own through Dylan Pierias, Denis Genreau, Ali Eyigun and Gerrie Sylaidos.
Pierias and Genreau were returning to the side after being given a needed period of rest after the A League season and both were key parts of City’s fightback when they were brought on as second half substitutes.
City also took advantage of Dandenong’s decision to play a deep defensive line in the second, playing their possession based style of football and looking to break down the defensive line anchored by former A League and Swiss Super League veteran Milicevic.
As the game continued onwards the tide swung more in City’s favour, their superior fitness levels coming into show as Dandenong desperately defended their one goal lead.
Despite increasingly dominating from open play, City’s best chance of the game came from a set piece.
Marko Delic - who was tireless in his harassing of the Dandenong defence and making runs for passes - was brought down outside the penalty area attempting to get on the end of a long ball over the top from Eyigun; and it was Eyigun – City’s set piece specialist – that stepped up to take the free kick.
His curling effort had the line – but not the length – as the City defender curled the ball over the Dandenong ball in the direction of the top corner but found himself unable to keep it down enough, instead seeing it bounce off the top of the post and out for a goal kick.
That effort would prove to be City’s best on the day - and despite their dominant display to end the game - they found themselves on the wrong end of the one nil score line when the referee blew full time on the game.
Reflecting on the game, Armstrong was impressed by the effort of his players in the second:
“We upped the ante in terms of our physicality in the second half and I was really, really pleased with the football we played. I thought we totally dominated and I thought we were good for all goal or two as well.”
“Our boy’s fitness is at an amazing level, they’ve put in a great deal of work since the end of the National Youth League season and credit to our staff and credit to the boys and the way they apply themselves in training.”
Coming into the round four points clear of fourth placed Murray United, City will retain third position of the ladder regardless of the results elsewhere in Round 18 but the result does see them slip 11 points behind Dandenong at the top of the table with 10 rounds of the competition to go.
City will look to rebound and get their first since April next week, when they host NPL2 Western Conference cellar dwellers Bendigo City at LaTrobe.
Melbourne City - 0
Dandenong City SC - 1 (Filipovic, 17)