Melbourne City’s youth have marked the NPL2’s first week of cross-conference play in style, handing the Moreland Zebras their first loss of the season with a comfortable 3-0 win at C.B Smith Reserve.
Moudi Najjar was the star for City; the big striker grabbing his second hat-trick of the season as he led his side to what turned into a comfortable victory.
The win marks City’s fifth win of the campaign and, albeit temporarily, vaults them into third place on the NPL2 East conference table ahead of Langwarrin SC, who meet St Albans on Sunday.
Looking to bounce back from a disappointing defeat to Eastern Conference leaders Dandenong City last week, head coach Joe Palatsides ran out a strong side for the clash with the Zebras, only one regular starter missing from the line-up.
The starter that was missing was James Delianov, who travelled with the senior A-League side to Auckland for the clash with the Wellington Phoenix.
Starting in his place was Liam Kennedy, who took up position between the posts behind a back four of Mark Karlic, Lucas Portelli, Anthony Lesiotis and Dylan Pierias.
Starting in front of the defence was the regular midfield pairing of Josh Cavallo and Denis Genreau, with Gianluca Iannucci sliding in front of them in the eight role.
Up front was usual trio of Zac Bates, Najjar and Yusuf Ahmed, who have led to the second healthiest goal difference in the Eastern Conference.
With the weather thankfully clearing after the downpours that had marked the U20s curtain raiser, both sides starting positively, albeit without creating any clear-cut chances.
It would take until the ninth minute of the contest for the first obvious goalscoring opportunity to emerge; and even that was the result of a defensive error rather than a piece of attacking initiative.
It came when Pierias, running back with a Moreland attacker, stuck a leg out in order to deflect away a ball knocked in from the right – only to see it launch skyward off his foot and loop dangerously towards the City goal. Backing up furiously, Kennedy got back to his line in time and headed it away, sparing his right back from embarrassment.
Collecting themselves from the near discomfiture, City pushed forward; and were rewarded for their endeavour when they opened the scoring in the 19th minute.
Collecting the ball in the middle of the park; Najjar turned and advanced confidently towards the Moreland defence, before sliding the ball to an open Ahmed on his right. Ahmed, in turn, would knock the ball in behind the Zebras defence first time for Najjar to run onto, which the big striker did; slotting it underneath advancing Zebras keeper Andre Jannese to make it 1-0.
The Zebras would seek to respond through a long-range effort by Davide Cardamone in the 25th and a double-barrelled effort from Malesh Jadaeile in the 26th minute, but were unable to break down the resolute City defence.
This furious period of action would soon give way to yet more back-and-forth play, with the next good chance of the game not coming until City pressed forward in the 36th minute of the contest.
City made sure to take advantage of this rare chance however, Najjar grabbing his second of the game after some fabulous build-up play from Iannucci and Pierias.
Holding the ball up inside the Zebras half, Genreau spied Pierias steaming down the right wing and lofted a perfectly weighted ball into the path of the City right back. Not breaking stride, Pierias collected the ball, cut back inside and then directed a pass right into the path of Najjar, who dinked it in for his brace.
City would almost collect a third late in the half, desperate defending from the a Zebras back to slide in front of Najjar’s shot the only thing standing between the City number nine and a first-half hat-trick, but City would take a deserved lead into the second half.
Coming out from the break, it was the Zebras who made the best of the initial running, almost scoring twice early in the second stanza.
Ghosting unmarked to the back post, second-half substitute Beau Summers would butcher a golden chance at goal when he could only direct a volleyed shot wide of the target in the 52nd minute and only a superb diving save from Kennedy denied a seemingly goal-bound shot from Goodwin in the 55thminute.
Despite being decidedly second best in the opening stages of the second half, City would have a chance to ice the game in the 62nd minute when Najjar won a spot-kick after being pushed down on the very edge of the penalty area.
Genreau would step up to take it, but his loopy run-up perhaps gave too clear an indication of his intentions to put the ball in the bottom corner, Zebras keeper Jannese making a diving save to his right to keep the game 2-0.
City’s wouldn’t make the same mistake with their next chance however, which once again came against the run of play.
Under pressure from the Zebras attack, City’s defence launched a ball clear, route one style, looking to give themselves some breathing space. It would bounce all the way to the Zebras penalty area, with Zebras centre-back Andrew Kiir marshalling it all the way.
Disaster would strike for the Zebras however, as miscommunication between Kiir and Jannese over who was to collect the ball gave just enough time for Najjar to slip in between the two, grab the ball and slide it into an open goal to stretch City’s lead to three.
That is how it would finish, with City staving off the Zebras desperate search for a goal that could spark an unlikely comeback to run out 3-0 winners.
City will hit the road once again next week, travelling to Campbell Reserve to take on Moreland’s other side, Moreland City.
Moreland City currently sits in the second position on the Eastern Conference table, with their goal difference of +17 far and away the best of the conference.
City last met Moreland City in the 2017 NPL season, when their foes resided in the Western Conference. City took the chocolates in that contest, denying a physical Moreland City outfit tp escape Campbell Reserve with a 1-0 win.