Melbourne City’s senior NPL fought to the very end on Saturday, earning a well-deserved 2-2 draw with NPL2 West foes Sunshine George Cross after Yusuf Ahmed spectacularly netted with almost the last kick of the game.
With a significantly undermanned line-up thanks to numerous academy prospects joining Warren Joyce’s senior A-League side on its tour of India, Joe Palatsides’ young outfit had their backs forced to the wall from the get-go of Saturday’s contest; Sunshine scoring in the opening minute of play.
As they would do for much of the opening half, Sunshine played a ball over the top of the City defence for one of their front pairing of Danny Barakat or David Younan to run on to.
Rushing out of his area to meet the speculative pass, City keeper Daniel Smith misjudged the ball’s trajectory and was unable to properly make a clearance, instead forced to weakly head the ball away before turning to scramble back to his goal.
His efforts to get back proved a touch to slow, however, as Sunshine’s Ben Mammone was able to collect Smith’s loose header and shoot into an empty net to give his side a dream start.
Younan would then break through the City lines to have a one-on-one chance with Smith just minutes later, but this time the young goalkeeper proved up to the task as he produced a good save to deny the Sunshine attacker to ensure it stayed 1-0.
Placed under siege by their opponents in the early stages of the contest, it would take until the 19th minute for City to register their first shot in anger when Luke Duzel found himself in space outside the Sunshine penalty area and stung the post with a long-range effort.
That chance was not to signify a reversal in City’s fortunes, nevertheless, with Sunshine doubling their advantage only three minutes later.
Getting the ball to the byline after making their way down the right, Sunshine was able to whip a dangerous cross through a sea of bodies towards the top of the six-yard box.
Younan was there to greet the ball, turning the incoming cross with the side of the foot for his fourth goal of the season.
Placed once again under pressure from Sunshine – who entered the contest knowing full well that anything other than three points could strike a major blow to their chances of avoiding relegation from the NPL2 West – following the restart, it didn’t look it was City’s day.
That was until the 45th minute; when a late piece of fortune completely changed the complexion of the contest.
Working the ball down the left flank, 16-year-old Jordan Bos was somehow able to dribble a ball past a collection of Sunshine defenders into the path of attacker Zach Bates.
Getting a foot on it, Bates was able to poke the ball past Sunshine keeper Barry Devlin and make it 2-1, giving City a glimmer of hope heading into halftime.
That goal, combined with fielding a line-up of players less fatigued by A-League pre-season, gave City the impetus to press their opponents in the second half; working their way back into, and eventually seizing control of, the game as the 90 minutes wound down.
Despite this change in the game’s momentum though, neither City or Sunshine – now looking to work on the counter – were able to produce a clear-cut chance on goal in normal time.
Yet, boosted by the linesman indicating that five minutes of time added on, City found renewed vigour in the final moments of the contest, looking to force a turnover in the midfield and throw themselves forward.
In the 94th minute, with almost the last kick of the game, they were rewarded for their efforts when Ahmed – one of the older heads within the side who had shown great poise and leadership throughout the contest – produced a moment of individual brilliance to snatch a point for his side.
Seizing on an attempted headed clearance from Sunshine, Ahmed was able to deftly flick the ball past an advancing defender before launching a sweetly taken strike on the still bouncing ball from just outside the penalty area.
Unstoppable the second it left Ahmed’s boot, the ball sailed into the top corner; giving City a deserved point and dealing a hammer blow to Sunshine’s chances of avoiding relegation to the State Leagues.
No last-minute heroics had been required for City’s U20s in the curtain-raiser clash prior to the senior contest, with Peter Kratky’s side using a dominant, four-goal second half to run out convincing 5-0 victors.
After heading into the half a goal to the good after Giovanni Stellitano opened the scoring in the 19th minute, three goals in five minutes set the tone for City early in the second half; George Gerondaras hitting paydirt in the 55th and 57th minutes and Lucas Cuschieri striking in the 58th to put any hopes Sunshine may have held for a result to bed.
Stellitano added City’s fifth in the 71st minute to put the cherry on top and complete his brace, the win strengthening City’s hold on third place on the U20 NPL2 Eastern Conference table.
City’s U18 side also had a weekend to remember, snapping their uncharacteristic two-game winless run with the recording of a comprehensive 4-2 win over the U18s of NPL powerhouses Bentleigh Greens on Sunday afternoon.
Thomas Pisani opened the scoring for City in the 10th minute of that contest, before adding a second in the 38th minute to see City go into the halftime break two goals to the good.
A strike from Matthew Andreadis for the Greens in the 70th minute would briefly make things interesting, only for City to quickly respond through Max Branov and Darcy Anastovski – netting his 14th goal of the season – to make it 4-1.
Andreadis was able to add a second in the 82nd minute to make it 4-2, but the Greens were unable to find anything else, with 4-2 how it ended eight minutes later.