If this week is to be the defining period of Melbourne City’s season, then it’s unlikely to have a happy ending if the start is anything to go by.
City – their long-suffering supporters would say all too predictably – crashed 1-0 to Central Coast Mariners in Gosford on Sunday in a match that, for once, justified its must-win status.
It was the first of three games in a six-day period against the bottom three teams in the league. Seven points would have been the minimum that coach John van ‘t Schip and his coaching team would have been aiming at.
Now the best they can manage is six – and that’s only if they beat Western Sydney Wanderers on Wednesday night in Sydney and Newcastle Jets on Saturday evening in Melbourne.
That City is still in the hunt for a top-six berth given its inconsistency speaks volumes about how poor, disorganised or out of form the bottom half of the A-League table has been all year rather than of any particular merit by Melbourne’s most recently established club.
Despite the massive advantage of being owned by the Premiership plutocrats Manchester City, van ‘t Schip’s side have rarely looked like establishing themselves as leading contenders this season.
The hype that saw the bookies install them as A-League favourites last winter had more to do with the identity of their owners and the fact they had just announced David Villa as a guest signing rather than their inherent ability.
After all, this was the team that had finished bottom last season, and while it had been strengthened by a few key additions – Damien Duff, Erik Paartalu, Robbie Koren and, although not until recently, Josh Kennedy – the bulk of the squad was the same as that which had struggled the season before.
There have been days when City have looked good in patches, the odd game where they have produced memorable performances: the first half in the opening round against Sydney, the derby triumph over Victory, the come-from-behind win over Adelaide a week ago.
But they have been too few and far between and all too often false harbingers of hope.
Soon enough van ‘t Schip’s side falls back into its old habits, failing to deliver on the opportunities it gets, playing without the intensity and adventure that the top five teams – who look so much better than the rest – produce.
If the expectations prove correct and their best player, Aaron Mooy, does receive a Socceroo call-up for the forthcoming friendlies against Germany and Macedonia at the end of the month, then their task will get even harder. Mooy has been far and away a shining light for a club that still looks as though it is struggling for an identity and self-belief.
Much, of course, depends on Brisbane’s results over the next few weeks too. But if City don’t take maximum points from their next two fixtures, then prospects of post-season action will evaporate – presumably with major consequences for players’ and perhaps coaches’ short-term careers.
City Football Group official Brian Marwood said last week that whether or not the team made the finals would not impact on van ‘t Schip’s immediate future.
But if they don’t make it, there will, at the very least, surely be an extensive examination of the entire football department: not just van ‘t Schip and his assistants, but also football manager John Didulica and anyone else involved in the choice and recruitment of players. One finals appearance in five seasons in a 10-club competition where 60 per cent of the teams make the play-offs is not what anyone expected.
There is a lot at stake over the next seven weeks and City’s small but passionate band of fans will expect much better than what they got on Sunday.
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