A brave Melbourne City withstood an intense second-half onslaught from Western Conference foes Moreland City FC to claim a 1-0 win and keep pace with their promotion rivals atop the NPL2 Eastern Conference table on Saturday.
A 38th minute own-goal was enough for City on the day, who spent much of contest in the unfamiliar territory of being on the back foot.
City’s back four: Dylan Pierias, captain Ali Eyigun, Jordan Hall and Jaiden Madafferi, got a taste of what was to come early on in the contest when on nine minutes Moreland floated what would be the first of many crosses into the City box.
Moreland’s Felix Rosman rose to meet the ball first, only for him to see his header go straight into the waiting arms of City goalkeeper James Delianov.
Moreland’s strike pairing of former NPL Golden Boot winner Trent Rixon and South Sudanese International Apai Ukuno looked particularly dangerous throughout the contest, providing the biggest test that the young City defence has seen all year.
And it was Rixon who was the next to go close for Moreland, the 32-year-old getting his head on another looping free kick only for it to sail just over the crossbar in the 15th minute.
While Moreland would have drawn encouragment from these half chances, they would have likely been ruing their poor fortunes when on 21 minutes Ukuno created a piece of individual brilliance that should have had them go up one-nil.
Collecting the ball on the half-way line, the number 11 rounded three City defenders as he made his way goalward, only to see the touch that took him around Delianov get away from him and run toward the touchline, making the angle too acute and ensuring his desperate diving shot could only go wide.
The move summed up Moreland’s day, with the Coburg-based outfit continuously looking dangerous and creating chances, only to see their last touch either go wide or not challenge Delianov.
City’s first shot in anger came in the 22nd minute of the contest when Daniel Arzani, who was an unused substitute in Melbourne City’s elimination final loss to Perth Glory last week, blasted a shot wide-left of the goal.
Arzani played a full 90 minutes on both wings over the course of the game, often switching sides with City’s other winger, Lucas Derick.
City’s most promising attacking moves often went through one of their two wingers, with Marko Delic finding himself constantly stymied by the Moreland defence in his role as City’s lone striker whenever a move was mounted through the middle.
It was in the 28th minute, in a move few would argue was against the run of play, that City’s wing combination bore fruit.
Attacking down the left flank, Arzani threaded a low ball across the Moreland 6-yard box that somehow neither side could get a foot on. Collecting on the other edge of the area, Derrick put back in another low cross and, in the ensuing goalmouth scramble, the ball looked careen off three different Moreland defenders before finding the back of the net.
The goal seemed to deflate the hosts, and when Arzani again went near with a shot that was deflected for a corner by Moreland goalkeeper Kieran McDowell in the 34th minute, City would have been forgiven for going into the half time break thinking they had weathered the early storm.
These hopes would have been dashed however, when Moreland came out strong to open the second half, with Ukuno intercepting an attempted clearance and going through one on one with Delianov early in the 51st only for the young goalkeeper to bravely charge down the striker and smother his attack.
Three minutes later it was Rixon who went near for the hosts, his outside of the foot tap from a cross being turned away for a corner by Delianov.
Moreland’s play in the second was marked by a more physical style of play, with both Ukuno and Rixon - both larger and stronger than any of the players lining up for City - physically dominating the smaller City defenders as they chased an equalizer.
City’s best chance to add to their lead came when Arzani, showing why he has been a frequent presence in the senior squad all year, collected the ball on the left wing and beat two Moreland defenders before setting up Delic for an open shot on goal, only for the effort to be turned away by McDowell.
The move proved to be a brief respite for the City defence though, who soon found themselves under siege once again from an increasingly desperate Moreland City, who played many long balls into City’s penalty area hoping to hit one of their two target men.
Moreland best last chance came in 88th minute when it was neither striker, but instead Osman Kose who had another headed chance, this time from a corner kick.
His effort floated over the bar however, and five minutes later extra time ended and City had their 7th win of the season.
Speaking after the game, City coach Lachlan Armstrong acknowledged the performance of Moreland, but also praised his own side.
“They certainly had us pegged back there, in terms of having lots chances in and around the box.”
“I can’t recall them having an open chance though, everything was being thrown into the box and I think our boys handled it really well”
“Coming here today we knew it was going to be about aggression and courage and the boys really showed great character today and dealt with everything that was thrown at them.”
“At times, we defended a little bit too deep and allowed them those opportunities to throw balls into the box.”
“It was more about what we did when we won the ball back, we probably did panic a little bit and got sucked in to play it long.”
“We didn’t really play our possession style of play at all today”
Asked about the returning Arzani, Armstrong was full of praise for the winger.
“It was great to see him get through 90 minutes and I thought he was always a constant threat for us going forward.”
With both Dandenong sides still playing at time of writing, City will have to wait to see where their goal difference of +12 will see them sit on the Eastern Conference table, with the possibility that they could remain in first or slip to third.
City will next host Moreland’s other side, the Moreland Zebra’s, in lucky round number 13 of the PS4 NPL season at LaTrobe university at 3pm.
Earlier in the day, City’s U20 side scored their fifth win in a row when they recorded a 5-1 win over Moreland City’s U20 side in the day’s curtain raiser.
Melbourne City FC 1 (Moreland City Own Goal 28')
Moreland City FC 0