An under-manned Melbourne City FC lead twice to register a 2-2 draw against Sydney FC in a pulsating encounter at AAMI Park on Saturday night.
In an entertaining contest littered with goalscoring opportunities, it was City who absorbed a wave of pressure from Sydney before taking the lead in the 37th minute, when veteran central defender Aaron Hughes rose highest from Harry Novillo's corner to head home his first ever Hyundai A-League goal.
The visitors continued to threaten in attack and drew level only nine minutes after the half-time break, as Milos Ninkovic produced a clever back-heel to divert home Filip Holosko’s driven cross.
The lively Novillo was instrumental in the final third and was the architect as City regained the lead with half-an-hour to play, whipping in an inch-perfect cross which star striker Bruno Fornaroli headed home with aplomb to register his 11th goal of the season.
But just as City appeared to be heading towards a valuable three points, Ninkovic completed his double only twelve minutes from time, nodding home a cushioned header from Holosko to ensure both sides earned a share of the spoils.
The result means that John van’t Schip’s side remain in third position on the Hyundai A-League table, ahead of Sydney FC on goal difference.
In the Club’s first league match of the New Year, Head Coach van’t Schip was forced to make four changes to the starting XI which faced Brisbane Roar in Round 12.
The trio of Aaron Mooy, Erik Paartalu and Paulo Retre were absent from midfield, seeing Robi Koren, Jacob Melling and debutant Ali Eyigun all line up in the centre of the park. Young defender Matthew Millar also made a return to first team action, replacing the injured Ivan Franjic on the right side of defence.
With leading scorer Alex Brosque sidelined with a hamstring injury, the pressure was on Sydney FC marquee Filip Holosko to produce the goods in-front of goal. The Slovakian was a studs length away from giving his side an early lead, narrowly missing a drilled cross from winger Andrew Hoole which fizzed across the six-yard area.
Hoole was in the thick of the action during the visitor’s frenetic start to the match and nearly produced a moment of magic only seconds later, threading the ball through the legs of Jack Clisby before prodding a shot just wide of Thomas Sorensen’s right hand post.
It took a sensational last-ditch clearance from Clisby to prevent Sydney from taking the lead after only ten minutes, before Ninkovic forced Sorensen into a smart save with his feet at the near post as the visitors continued to pressure City in the final third.
The pace of Hoole continued to cause problems in-behind the City defence and the winger had two golden opportunies to open the scoring, first dinking an effort over Sorensen’s bar after finding himself clean through on goal, before forcing the Danish goalkeeper into a superb reaction save at his near post.
City were firmly under the pump and needed a spark to influence the contest, and it duly came through the energetic Harry Novillo. The Frenchman split open the Sydney defence with a barnstorming run down the centre of the pitch, forcing ‘keeper Vedran Janjetovic to magnificently tip over a rasping drive that was destined for the top corner.
And it was from the resulting corner in which City took the lead, as veteran defender Hughes rose highest to head home his first ever Hyundai A-League goal past a stranded Janjetovic to give City a precious advantage at the interval.
In similar fashion to the first-half, Sydney FC started the second period brightly and levelled the scores only nine minutes after the restart, with Ninkovic nipping in at the front post to direct a driven cross from Holosko past Sorensen with a clever back-heel.
Sorensen had to be alert only seconds later to prevent Blackwood from finding the back of the net, timing his sliding challenge perfectly to deny the striker a clear opportunity on goal.
But just as the visitors looked to be regaining the ascendency, City re-took the lead with a blistering counter attack. Novillo left Alex Gersbach chasing shadows with a bursting run down the left, before drilling a teasing cross into the path of Fornaroli.
The Uruguayan showed immense skill to direct the fizzing ball past the outstretched Janjetovic and into the bottom corner, firing City into the lead and continuing his excellent start to the season with another well-taken goal.
Koren then missed a golden opportunity to give City a crucial two goal cushion when he fired an effort into the side netting with only Janjetovic left to beat, while substitute Michael Zullo also came close to finding the back of the net with a near-identical effort.
And City would pay for those missed opportunities in the 78th minute as Sydney fought back once again to level the scores. A teasing cross from Gersbach was headed across goal by Holosko, with Ninkovic completing his double with a well-placed header past Sorensen..
Both sides had chances galore to snatch all three points in the last ten minutes, with Janjetovic standing tall to beat away a stinging drive from Novillo at the near post, before a mad goalmouth scramble nearly saw City fall to defeat in the dying seconds.
It was panic in the penalty area as Sorensen produced a superb reflex save to deny substitute Christopher Naumoff’s effort at the back post, before Smeltz’s effort was diverted over the crossbar by a desperate City defence, to ensure both sides registered a hard-fought point.
Hyundai A-League 2015/16, Round 13
Melbourne City FC 2 (Aaron HUGHES 37', Bruno FORNAROLI 60')
Sydney FC 2 (Milos NINKOVIC 54' 78')
Venue: AAMI Park, Melbourne
Referee: Strebre Delovski
Melbourne City FC line-up: 1. Thomas SORENSEN (GK), 3. Aaron HUGHES, 9. Harry NOVILLO, 10. Robert KOREN, 21. Stefan MAUK, 22. Jack CLISBY, 23. Bruno FORNAROLI, 24. Patrick KISNORBO (C), 25. Jacob MELLING (Jason TRIFIRO 80'), 36. Matthew MILLAR 39. Ali EYIGUN (Michael ZULLO 39')
Substitutes not used: Tando VELAPHI (GK), 19. Benjamin GARUCCIO, 30. Hernan ESPINDOLA
Yellow cards: Millar 47'
Red cards: nil
Sydney FC line-up: 1. Vedran JANJETOVIC, 2. Sebastian RYALL, 3. Alexander GERSBACH, 5. Matthew JURMAN, 7.Andrew HOOLE (Christopher NAUMOFF 89'), 10. Milos NINKOVIC, 13. Brandon O'NEILL (Milos DIMITRIJEVIC 73'), 21. Filip HOLOSKO, 23. Rhyan GRANT, 24. George BLACKWOOD (Shane SMELTZ 73'), 27. Mickael TAVARES
Subtitutes not-used: 20. Ivan NECEVSKI, 19. Jacques FATY
Yellow cards: Ninkovic 20'
Red cards: nil