Melbourne City’s Senior NPL side fell to their second defeat in as many weeks on Saturday; unable to overcome an early deficit as they were defeated 3-2 by NPL2 Western Conference side Ballarat City at the Veneto Club.
Desperate for a win to stay in touch with the top six as the season entered its final straight, City started the game in potentially the worse possible manner; down 2-0 after just five minutes of play when Tristan Romein and Xagai Douhadji struck for the visitors.
Despite City’s dominance of the remaining 85 minutes of play, highlighted when Yaya Dukuly and Raphael Borges Rodrigues combined to bring the game back to 2-1 in the 40th minute, the incredibly young side was unable to bring the game back to level pegging.
Down 3-1 after a long-range effort from Chudiar Tharjiath found an empty net after goalkeeper Ahmad Taleb had been forced off his line to defend a long ball, City did make it slightly interesting when Emile Peios struck from range in the 87th minute but it wasn’t enough; the goldfield's side running out winners on a chilly Saturday night.
With a number of players either unavailable thanks to A-League or international duty, Head Coach Petr Kratky and his staff were faced with a selection headache entering into Saturday evening’s game.
Gianluca Iannucci, Alec Mills and Bradley Chick all missed the game thanks to Young Socceroos call-ups, Connor Metcalfe, Moudi Najjar and Ramy Najjarine all missed due to A-League commitments and captain Mitch Graham was unable to overcome an injury. Having trained with the A-League side that morning, Josh Varga and Luke Duzel also started on the bench.
Starting in front of Taleb stood a makeshift back four of Daniel Lucente, Nick Hatzigeorgiou, Luca Tevere and Harry Politidis. Peios, Jordi Valadon and Luke Oresti started ahead of them, behind a front three of Dukuly, Borges Rodrigues and Stefan Colakovski.
With an average starting age of just 16.5, it was likely the youngest starting line-up in NPL history.
Things started badly for City when, just minutes into the contest, a mistake at the back gifted the visitors a 1-0 lead.
Standing over a free-kick won out on Ballarat’s attacking right flank, Daniel Tinker lofted a ball into the area in the direction of Alex Baker, only for Hatzigeorgiou to rise up and head the ball back towards Taleb.
Unfortunately for the Australian U17 goalkeeper, he was unable to properly hold the ball as it floated back to him, the ball instead uncharacteristically slipping through his fingers, falling to at his feet and allowing T Romein to nip in and poke home to make it 1-0.
Just three minutes later things went from bad to worse for City when a corner routine to work the ball to an unmarked Hatzigeorgiou broke down and enabled Daniel Angeleski to break out into space on the counter.
With Douhadji to his left and Tharjiath on his right the Ballarat number ten had options aplenty as he approached the halfway line; eventually choosing to slide it across to his left and to Douhadji as he passed midfield.
Streaming forward in full flight, Douhadji advanced past the pressure from a furiously backtracking Lucente and slide a shot past an advancing Taleb and into the bottom corner to make it 2-0 to the visitors.
Forced back onto their heels early by the regional side, City was forced to recalibrate but, thankfully for the home fans in attendance, they were able to do so and begin to impose themselves on the contest.
Monopolising possession, City gradually began to string together a series of attacks of their own; the likes of Oresti and Borges Rodrigues both launching speculative efforts from range in an effort to kickstart their side.
Ballarat though, despite ceding control of possession to City, remained an ever-present threat on the counterattack thanks to the speed of Douhadji, Tharjiath and Angeleski.
Eventually, however, City was able to turn their control of the game into a goal when Dukuly produced a piece of individual brilliance to break the game open.
Receiving a bouncing throw-in from deep in his own half in the 40th minute, Dukuly nodded the ball over the head of his maker Baker before turning and running onto the ball.
Leaving the Ballarat defender in his wake with a burst of pure acceleration, the City winger steamed up the left flank before, given an angle to the touchline by the Ballarat defence, he made his way towards the byline and laced a low ball across the face of goal.
Getting there to meet it was Dukuly’s South Australian compatriot Borges Rodrigues, the youngster getting in just ahead of Tinker to guide the ball home for his second goal in as many senior NPL starts and making it 2-1.
City’s control of the game then carried over to the second half; Kratky’s side continuing to grow into the game and increasingly piecing together some nice combination play.
Nevertheless, Ballarat refused to kowtow to the pressure and landed a dagger blow to City in the 58th minute when the speed of Douhadji forced Taleb into a mistake.
Seizing upon a turnover in the midfield, Tharjiath threaded a ball through the City lines for his striker to run onto and, despite Tevere going with him, the threat of Douhadji proved enough to force Taleb to come a long way out of his penalty area to clear the danger.
Taleb’s resulting sliding challenge, however, fell straight at the feet of Tharjiath; the Ballarat winger gratefully directing a side-footed effort into the back of the net to make it 3-1.
City, once again, attempted to rally from their two-goal deficit; Lucente twice hammering in long-range efforts that came agonisingly close to beating Ballarat keeper Ryan Schorback and cutting the deficit, but, eventually, their breakthrough came just too late to capitalize on.
Setting up camp outside the Ballarat penalty area in the 87th minute, Peios found himself in a perfect position to tee up an effort on goal after receiving a cutback from Borges Rodrigues on the byline; perfectly placing a low shot into the bottom left corner.
Nevertheless, it proved too little too late for City as the whistle sounded three minutes later to signify their second straight defeat.
Earlier in the day, goals to Jordy Bos, Thomas Pisani, Nick Kyranakis, Kye DiMarco and a brace from Max Branov powered City’s league-leading U20s side to a 6-2 win over the 20s of Ballarat.
City will next week travel to the Serbian Sport's Centre in Keysborough to complete a catchup fixture from an earlier postponed game against Springvale White Eagles.