Safe to say the ink is dry on the contract City Football Group signed to take up an 80% stake in Melbourne City née Heart back in January 2014 and whilst the $12m investment is showing returns financially, leading to a purchase of the further 20%, tonight at AAMI Park comes the first major opportunity Melbourne City will have to repay the faith CFG placed in them, in a footballing context. It took three years for Manchester City to lift the FA Cup following Sheikh Mansour’s takeover, and the Melbourne club could secure their first trophy in a similar timeframe.
City ‘welcome’ Sydney FC to Melbourne this evening after securing rights to host the FFA Cup Final. The game will effectively be played on home soil, enhancing City’s chances of a first piece of silverware since Heart came to be in 2009. Tim Cahill was the headline signing this summer and whilst fans have been eyeing this date on the football calendar since drawing Florent Athena in the first round of the Cup back in August, the Socceroos legend says the win will be the ‘icing on the cake’. With just seven of the 27 rounds of the season gone, the cake Cahill refers to is unclear. ““I think the whole persona of demanding success and trophies is one thing, but one of the biggest things about our football club this year is changing the culture and also creating a different atmosphere for the fans” Cahill said to the media yesterday.
When you look at the progressions of City’s W-League side (they were Champions of the inaugural season and sit aloft of the ladder with a game in hand) the establishment of the youth team structure and the City Football Academy in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburb of Bundoora, what Cahill refers to becomes crystal clear. All of this is transcending on to the pitch.
City’s start isn’t too comparable to their Mancunian big brother’s; keeping Europe aside Manchester City faltered when defending their League Cup crown during an abject performance in a derby defeat to United during a dismal run of form which lasted a painful six games without a win. Prior to that a new club record of 11 wins in a row was set. Meanwhile Down Under, Melbourne City’s season is arguably in it’s infancy, amassing 17 points in seven matches. The highlight so far was City’s dismantling of Melbourne Victory, where Cahill made his mark with a 40 yard strike in the 4-1 win. To follow this up on the bigger stage of a cup semi-final and secure a place in the club’s first final over their closest rivals shows the magnified belief and resolution of this Melbourne City squad.
That run of good form has been delivered in front of a growing membership base and growing crowds in a style no other A-League side can match. There’s more to City’s success than John van’t Schip perseverating with his lucky brown loafers on the AAMI Park touchline though, the former Dutch international and Ajax winger was schooled, both as a manager and player, under Johan Cruyff’s Total Football syllabus and a more free flowing philosphy is now evident.
On paper, it appeared Melbourne City’s squad was deteriorating during the close season; Stefan Mauk left for Adelaide, going on to win the A-League before securing a move to the Eredivisie, Harry Novillo managed 13 goals in 31 games in City colours, but departed for Manisaspor in Turkey, and most disappointing to the fans was Aaron Mooy’s ‘move’ to Manchester City, easily the A-League’s best player. It’s flippant to suggest the league is so weak anyone can stand out. Mooy, despite Huddersfield Town’s slump in form, has demonstrated his quality on English shores, leaving a large hole that needed filling in City’s midfield. Consider Alex Wilkinson and Patrick Kisnorbo’s departures (Wilkinson, expected to start for Sydney, has captained Australia on occasion and Kisnorbo played almost 200 games for Leicester City and Leeds United) experience around the CFA was arguably lacking going in to this season.
The reshuffle has allowed van’t Schip to bring in new faces and develop shining lights from the last campaign in to a new group of leaders; Bruno Fornarolli now captains and his new found responsibility will keep Chinese suitors at bay for now, Osama Malik (potential groin injury) flourishes in the holding role, occupying territory Manchester City fans would be expect to see Nigel de Jong or Gareth Barry occupying in during years gone by – Malik keeps the back unit in shape and liberates the full backs to press high and offer support keeping the opposition chasing shadows. The carrot of a permanent contract for Nick Fitzgerald, who moved to City last year, provided sufficient motivation during the finals campaign, but the promising winger has his best goals to games ratio as an A-League professional since joining the club.
That Aaron Mooy shaped hole was eventually filled with Cahill, Bruce Kamau, Fernando Brandon and Luke Brattan. Brattan was picked up by Manchester City after a pay dispute with Brisbane Roar but retuned to Melbourne despite being sent to Bolton on loan. Since his return to Australia he’s proved a dynamic addition to JVS’s team, comfortable on the ball with an intense work rate and has the vision to create chances.
Whilst Kamau has made the short trip from Champions Adelaide, Brandon has travelled a lot further; coming from Argentina. Melbourne City fans were excited at the prospect of another South American import after Fornarolli’s impressive maiden campaign and the winger come playmaker has added another dimension to City’s approach; he carries the ball well, moves quickly and is another headache opposition managers need to prepare for.
In terms of how Melbourne City will approach the game; “We want to continue the way we play. We’re not changing things up because it’s a final,” City’s manager said in a joint press conference. With the personnel at his disposal, expect the Dutchman to back this up, who still has Argentine marquee Nicolas Colazo to consider (ear operation), as well as Anthony Caceres, another Manchester City loanee, albeit he’s never travelled to the UK.
This game demonstrates the ascending prestige that surrounds the FFA Cup, being the first time top and second on the domestic table have faced off against each other, but it’s a strange concept to grasp for followers of European leagues where Cup finals traditionally bring the curtain down on the campaign. Regardless, both sides see the opportunity to bring silverware in early and provide a springboard for league success in Autumn 2017.
Expect a near full crowd at AAMI Park, both teams have growing member numbers and with Melbourne City surpassing 10,000 for the first time this yeas, as well as the game being played in their own backyard a win would do the game’s standing in the Aussie Rules heartland plenty of favours.