Melbourne City have rocketed to the top of the NPL2 Eastern Conference table after a gutsy 2-0 win over a committed Ballarat City FC on Saturday.
Goals on either side of half-time - a Denis Genreau strike in the 5th minute and a Marko Delic tap in in the 64th - secured the win for City, their 6th on the season, in perfect conditions at LaTrobe University.
City entered the game with the knowledge that a win would bring them equal on points with league leaders Dandenong City SC, who lost 2-0 to NPL2 Western Conference leaders Northcote City FC on Friday night, but a loss or draw could perhaps see them slip to third if the Dandenong Thunder were to win their clash with Brunswick City SC in their simultaneous 3pm kick-off.
This knowledge seems to have lit a fire under City’s young squad, who came out determined in the initial stages of the game, the City attack applying enough forward pressure to almost completely contain Ballarat to their own half for much of the opening stanza.
Josh Cavallo, playing in a role that will be familiar to any City fan who has watched Neil Kilkenny ply his trade in the A-League, was immense in his role as City’s midfield general in the opening stages of the game, repeatedly slicing the Ballarat defence with pinpoint passing down both wings and being a constant presence whenever Ballarat attempted to rebound through the middle.
This early period of dominance was capitalised on when, after just five minutes, Lucas Derrick made a run down the left wing to the byline before lacing a ball through the Ballarat defence to find Genreau, completely alone at the top of the penalty area.
The number 8, who spent the game as a central midfielder next to Nathanial Atkinson in front of Cavallo, found the bottom corner with his shot to give City the lead and the best possible start.
City pressed hard for a second after the restart, with Cavallo, Genreau, Derrick and Stefan Colakovski all having chances to double the City advantage.
None came to fruition however - and by the midway point of the second half Ballarat were beginning to press the City defence of Dylan Pierias, Ali Eyigun, Jordan Hall and Jaiden Madafferi with attacks of their own.
Going to the break down one, the visitors emerged for the second half looking like a new team; playing a much higher line and an aggressive passing style.
This change in mindset was very nearly rewarded on 55 minutes when Ballarat won a free kick on the very edge of the City penalty box after a challenge by Madafferi that earned the left back a yellow card.
The subsequent free kick, taken by Ballarat midfielder Shaun Romein, looked destined to sneak in just under the bar until James Delianov, in the first time he had been called into doing something difficult all game, was able to just get his outstretched finger-tips to the ball and deflect it over the bar for a corner.
The yellow to Madafferi signalled a change in tone for the game, both sides being whistled for more infractions and playing a more physical style trying to secure a result.
City spent much of the second half playing on the counter, adapting to the more aggressive Ballarat outfit, and on the 63rd minute their malleability was rewarded when Atkinson and Delic combined with each other beautifully to score City’s second, Delic tapping in an Atkinson half-cross, half-shot chip that may have been destined for the goal regardless.
With a two-goal buffer, City seemed to ease up on the gas pedal a little, content to absorb the pressure of attacks that rarely challenged Delianov.
Frustrations appeared to bubble over for the regional outfit, with Ballarat striker Michael Trigger, who entered the game having scored five goals in the previous round’s win over Bendigo City FC, being handed two yellow cards in a minute for dissent in the 85th.
Speaking after the game, City coach Lachlan Armstrong referenced the motivation that the possibility of going to the top of the table brought to the City side.
“The boys were pretty pumped today because we saw a result come in last night that gave us a chance that, if we won, there was a possibility we would be on top the league tonight.”
“You play football to win games first and foremost and if you continue to win there’s potential there to win leagues and it’s a nice feeling for the boys to be top of the table today.”
Armstrong also singled out Cavallo for praise after his shift in the middle of the park
“He was terrific today. He played a little bit deeper than what he normally does and he was really the catalyst for us building up from the back. Our centre backs were really comfortable playing to him under pressure, getting it back and creating some space”
Top of the table thanks to their goal difference of +11, City will look to stretch the gap at the top when they travel to take on Moreland City FC – who sat second on the Western Conference table entering Round 11 – on April 29.
Earlier in the day, City’s U20 side notched their fourth win in a row, doing all of their scoring in the first half in a 4-1 win over Ballarat’s U20 Side.
Melbourne City FC 2 (Denis Genreau 5’, Marko Delic 64’)
Ballarat City FC 0