Melbourne City’s NPL side had their heart’s broken on Saturday afternoon, conceding two goals in the final minutes of their clash with Eastern Lions to go down 3-2 in a game they dominated for large stretches.
Heading into the fixture mired in a six-game losing run, City welcomed back a number of standout performers for the contest: Josh Cavallo returning from suspension, Dylan Pierias from a well earned rest and Ramy Najjarine from shoulder surgery.
While Pierias and Najjarine were minutes restricted coming back from their extended breaks, Cavallo took a place among the starting XI, slotting into his familiar role of the six in the midfield.
City started the game brightly, announcing their attacking intentions when Luke Duzel floated a free kick in the area that eventually fell to Yusuf Ahmed for a tepid shot that went wide in the third minute.
Despite the Lions looking to press high up the field and pressure City’s young defence, Joe Palatsides’ side wasn’t flustered; playing through their opposition on a number of occasions and looking a more settled unit from than in weeks past.
The Lions created their first chance of the contest in the 13th minute of play, Philip Ajao heading a long ball out from the Lions’ defence into the path of striker Cameron Neales, who forced City goalkeeper Daniel Smith to parry his shot out for a corner.
City would then squander a golden opportunity to take the lead in the 19th minute of play; Tristan Patsiotis cheekily threading a pass through a defender’s legs and into the path of Moudi Najjar just outside the penalty area. Clear through on goal, Najjar fluffed his lines, his first touch letting him down and forcing him to let loose with an off-balance effort that never troubled Lions keeper Kile Kennedy.
Gianluca Iannucci and Ahmed would have half-chances of their own in the 29th, 31st and 34th minutes as City pressed for an opener, Iannucci going even closer in the 39th minute when he launched a stinging shot from atop the penalty area that bounced off the post and back into play.
The Lions were able to hold out until halftime, however, both sides going into the break with the score deadlocked at 0-0.
With the heavens beginning to open at a cold La Trobe University as the second half resumed both sides instantly began butting heads as the searched for an opener.
Ultimately, it was the Lions that were able to shrug off an unconvincing first half and finally break the 0-0 statement in the 58th minute, Neales sneaking to the back post unmarked and meeting a cross from to put his side up 1-0.
The 1-0 lead wasn’t long for the world though; Pierias – who had been subbed on following Neales’ opener – immediately bringing the game back to level pegging when he slid in to meet a Dalibor Markovic cross at the back post.
Pierias almost created a goal that would have put City in front just two minutes later, sliding a ball to Duzel on the corner on the penalty area to set the City midfielder with a shot that just flashed wide of the post.
In the 69th minute, Pierias would finally get his assist – although it wasn’t a City player that he set up for the goal.
Breaking down the right wing, Pierias drove a low cross into the area that the assembled Lions defence couldn’t deal with, the ball ricocheting off the body of one the Lions’ centre-backs and into the net to put City ahead.
City should have made it three and four in the following minutes, an Ahmed chip over the keeper somehow cleared off the line by a desperately retreating Lions defender in the 74th minute and Duzel hitting the bar with a peach of a long-range effort in the 77th minute.
However, with the game winding down, a desperate Lions began to turn the tide of the game; launching players forward in an effort to nab an equalizer.
They were rewarded for their efforts in the 87th minute, when fortune, and an asleep at the wheel City defence, smiled upon them.
Taking a Lions free kick about thirty yards out on the right side of the field, William Ellis didn’t get proper contact with his attempted cross, failing to get much height on it as it swung into the City penalty area. Nevertheless, the ball somehow avoided contact with the nigh on 18 men standing in the City penalty area, sneaking inside the far post after sneaking past them and a bewildered Smith.
Seven minutes later, as the clock ticked over into the 94th minute, Ellis would strike again.
Taking advantage of a mix-up on the right side of the City defence, Ellis found himself with enough time to tee up an effort from about 20 yards out.
Beating a diving Smith, the ball slid into the net and sent the Lions’ sideline into raptures – giving them the win in a game that City will feel very hard done by not to at least get a point from.
The news had been much better for City’s U20s in the day's curtain-raiser, Peter Kratky’s side defeating the top of the table 20s of the Eastern Lions 2-0.
After a goalless first half, Giovanni Stellitano opened the scoring for City in the 56th minute, before George Gerondaras sealed the game for City with a 90th-minute strike, his sixth of the season.