Melbourne City have suffered their fourth loss of the campaign, going down 4-2 to the Dandenong Thunder on a frosty Saturday night in Dandenong.
Entering the game in third place on the NPL2 Eastern conference table, City’s young side came under intense pressure early from a Thunder side sitting one position above them on the table, and found themselves down one goal to nil after only seven minutes when Brendan Barnes put Dandenong ahead.
Barnes, who lacking an offer from A-League sides has turned down offers from first division NPL sides to stay at George Andrews Reserve, got on the end of a ball over the top from Thunder winger Nicholas Modafferi - who had beaten City winger Lucas Derrick to collect an incoming throw on the half way line.
Shrugging off City captain Ali Eyigun, the imposing Barnes was able to power his shot to the right of City goalkeeper Yaren Sozer to put the Thunder up by one and bring his season goals tally to 20.
Two minute later it was Barnes again who caused problems for the visiting City, once again beating Eyigun to put in a cross for Alon Blumgart, whose shot was turned away for a Thunder corner.
City’s first chance of the game came in the 13th minute.
Josh Cavallo, playing in a central midfield role, collected the ball on the left wing and drove to the byline. His low cross looked to be a dangerous one, but it skipped past both the City attackers and Thunder defenders in the goal-face before being cleared by the Thunder defence.
City’s hopes of building on this chance however, were dashed when on 17 minutes Blumgart’s long ranged right foot shot was deflected straight into the path of the Thunder’s Samuel Catherine on the edge of the penalty area.
Catherine was able to control the ball, before launching a thunderbolt on the half volley into the left of the goal to put the Thunder up by two.
City continued to struggle through much of the first half to create chances. The Thunder’s experienced backline of former A league stalwarts Rodrigo Vargas and Simon Colosimo proving a tough nut for the City attack to crack.
Their best chance of the first came in the 26th minute, when Anthony Theodoropolous launched a through ball into the path of Nathanial Atkinson.
Atkinson found himself one on one with Thunder goalkeeper Fraser Maclaran, but in attempting to get the ball onto his right foot was forced wide enough by the Thunder keeper’s pressure that his shot could only sail wide and high of the goal.
Captain Eyigun attempted to inspire his side with several long-range shots as the second half wound down, looking to - in his own words - provide “a spark in the team to get the morale back up after conceding those goals”, but the senior capped central defender was unable to seriously threaten the Thunder goal as City went into the breakdown 2-0.
City came out in the second looking keen, keeping the ball mostly in the Thunder half as they applied pressure without creating any serious chances.
This attacking play came back to bite them however, when on 54 minutes a ball was looped over the top to Barnes as the Thunder broke on the counter.
Jostling with City defenders as they chased the ball, the NPL’s leading scorer was able to muscle his way into possession about 35 yards out before looking up in time to spy a charging Sozer coming to meet him.
The English born Barnes coolly flicked the ball beyond the City keeper and the ball slowly tickled over the line, teasing a desperate Kobe Timms in pursuit, to give the Thunder a three goal cushion.
It was four goals 13 minutes later, when goal scorer Barnes turned playmaker.
Knocking a ball into the box, Barnes was able to find Colosimo, who had 63 appearances plying his trade for the Melbourne Heart, who calmly knocked it in to compound City’s misery and make it a four-goal deficit.
It wasn't a goal that isn't likely to go viral like his last effort for the Thunder did, but the 38 year old will take it all the same.
Despite staring down a four foal deficit, the City coaching staff, led by coach Lachlan Armstrong, continued their machinations of the sideline, and this plotting heralded the introduction of a returning Gerrie Sylaidos to the game in the break following the Thunder’s fourth goal.
Slotting into his familiar position on the right wing, the winger who has had the nickname “Speedy Gonzalez” bestowed upon him by his teammates, provided an immediate spark to the City side.
An attack that saw a long ball launched into the box in the 82nd minute found the head of Jordan Hall, who is quickly turning into a headed ball specialist for City’s NPL side, and pegged one back for City.
This was followed four minutes later by Austin Wong, who stepped up admirably after being handed a rare start, who struck to bring City back to a two-goal deficit and send a shudder down the spines of the home crowd.
The running was all City’s and a blasted free kick from Eyigun on the 87th minute would have been City’s third had it not been for a fingertip save from MacLaran, diving towards the top right corner to turn the ball away for a corner.
The Thunder dug in, perhaps wishing they hadn’t subbed off Barnes in the 75th minute, and defended hard they rewarded when three minutes later the referee’s whistle blew to end extra time and give the Thunder the 4-2 win.
Speaking after the game, coach Armstrong acknowledged the work of Barnes and City’s failure to properly contain the striker:
“We knew what a threat he was in transition so we needed to execute better with the ball, which we didn’t and they got the ball to him early and they punished him twice.”
Despite conceding four, Armstrong was also able to take some positives from the game.
“I was very happy to have Gerrie back and I though it was no coincidence that when Gerrie was on the field we looked a little bit more dangerous. I was pleased with his little 20 minute cameo, that’s all we were allowed to play him today and I am pleased that he’s back in action”
The round 14 game marks the half way point of the season, and Armstrong is pleased with the performance of his side through the campaign so far.
“I think there’s been some great positives for us to be in touch. To be able to step in week in week out and step up to some of the challenges we’ve had over the past few weeks against other top sides in the division. To be up there and pushing these sides, I think it [the seasons] been a great success so far.
The loss today sees City retain third place on the ladder, whilst falling 5 points behind the league leading Thunder and Dandenong City, who won 6-2 in their game away to the Eastern Lions.
They will look to get back in the winner’s circle when they return home to LaTrobe University when the play host to Box Hill SC.
Dandenong Thunder 4 (Barnes 7,54 - Catherine 17 - Colosimo 67)
Melbourne City 2 (Hall 82 -Wong 86)