Melbourne City’s senior NPL side’s push for a top-six finish in 2019 fell short on Saturday, as a 1-0 loss to NPL2 Eastern Conference leaders Eastern Lions confirmed that City would finish no higher than seventh in 2019.
Needing at least a point to keep any hopes they had of overhauling sixth-placed Goulburn Valley Suns for a spot in Victoria's second tier next year as they entered 2019’s penultimate fixture, City engaged in a back-and-forth contest with the Eastern Conference promotion favourites deep into the second half at Gardiners Reserve.
With just over 15 minutes remaining, however, disaster struck for the side in City Blue when a mix-up at the back coughed the ball up to the Lions’ Ross Staley with an open goal ahead of him.
Despite goalkeeper Daniel Smith scrambling back in an attempt to close down the resulting shot, he was unable to get across in time as Staley fired home an effort that won the contest for the Lions.
With a number of players jetting off for international duty ahead of the fixture, Head Coach Petr Kratky was forced to reshuffle his XI heading into Saturday’s contest.
Smith started his first senior game of 2019 in goal behind a back four of Mark Karlic, Mitch Graham, Nicholas Hatzigeorgiou and Daniel Lucente.
Emile Peios and Jordi Valadon took up station in the middle of the park, with Luke Oresti slotting in ahead of them.
Up front, Stefan Colakovski, Moudi Najjar and Ramy Najjarine led the City line.
It was the hosts that had the first real chance of the contest on Saturday afternoon when Staley stood over a free-kick won in a dangerous central area and fired into the assembled City wall in the fifth minute.
City looked to respond four minutes later when they worked the ball up and across the field from left to right – Najjar to Najjarine to Oresti – but only able to put the final shot across the face of goal. Up the other end, the Lions’ Cameron Neales put a shot of his own over the bar in the 13th minute.
Both sides whipped dangerous balls into the penalty as the contest ticked over the twenty minute mark but neither side was able to make the other pay; with the next two clear chances not delivered by City until the 34th and 37th minutes when Oresti and Colakovski had efforts fail to find the net.
Replacing Colakovski at half time, Gianluca Iannucci had perhaps City’s best chance of the game thus far when he got on the end of a cross from Najjarine and fired an effort in on goal, only for a defender to get enough of a touch on it to deflect it into the arms of Lions’ keeper Keagan Coulter.
Oresti then dinked a ball over the top of the Lions’ defence for Najjar to run onto in the 53rd minute of play, but the City striker was unable to keep his resulting shot down.
Iannucci then had a shot from range that could only find the arms of Coulter in the 62nd minute, with Neales trying to respond up the other end a few minutes later with a shot that City was just able to throw a body in front of and deflect out for a corner.
Shaun Kenny had a golden chance to put his side ahead when the ball eventually fell at his feet after a Lions’ corner in the 72nd minute, but the league-leaders captain wasn’t able to keep his shot down.
Two minutes later, however, the Lions’ – who had monstered the City defence with a fierce press throughout the second half – were able to take the lead when a pass out from Smith was intercepted by Staley and fired home.
Despite playing for their chances of remaining in the Victorian second-tier in 2020, City was unable to create any clear chances in the game’s final stages; the Lions press and bigger bodies taking their toll on their attempts to try to work the ball up the field.
Despite the disapointment for City's senior side, though, the news had been better for City's U20 side earlier in the day.
The 1-0 win secured by City's 20s over the U20 side of Eastern Lions ensured that City would lift the NPL2 Eastern Conference Premiership once again - the fourth time in five years that City's 20s have won the Premiership in their respective NPL2 conference.
City will end the season next week against third-placed NPL2 Eastern Conference side Northcote City.
With all games across NPL2 set to be simultaneous kick-offs on Saturday afternoon, the game will take place at ABD Stadium in Broadmeadows as the Veneto Club will be occupied by primary tenant FC Bulleen Lions.