The new Melbourne City was a bit like the old Melbourne Heart as it went down to Sydney FC at Morshead Park in Ballarat on Tuesday evening in the Round of 32 of the FFA Cup by three goals to one after extra time.
On a bitterly cold evening under lights which were literally ‘good but not brilliant’ City fielded a team with only two starters who were not at the club last season. Damian Duff began wide on the left and Aaron Mooy, the energizer bunny and then some, covered the whole ground multiple times from a nominally midfield position. Sydney fielded Bernie Ibini, one of the All Stars against Juventus on Sunday night, along with Corey Gameiro and Terry Antonis in attack while the old firm of Sebastian Ryall, Sasha Ognenovski and Matthew Jurman put up a Graham Arnold wall at the back. You only had to watch for a few minutes to realise that this was an Arnold team, instantly putting ten men behind the ball as soon as it was lost, then rebounding like lightning when it was won back.
Clint Bolton was standing behind me at one point and we talked about football and then he volunteered that City had enjoyed a much-improved pre-season this year and that the future was all about results. ‘In the last couple of years we have had a pretty experienced defence but we have made some silly blunders which you would not expect from players like that. That has cost us several games’. He had hardly finished speaking when Jurman played a ball down the left touchline well ahead of Gameiro who sprinted after it as it curled inward. No one came across to cover and Andrew Redmayne rushed off his line but was always second to the ball and Gameiro tucked it under him and into the net as Patrick Kisnorbo made an unavailing attempt to hack it clear. That goal came in the 23rd minute.
Nine minutes later Nikola Petkovic sent a swinging free kick into the penalty area after Ali Abbas had been fouled but though the ball pinged around the result was a goal kick. City had been struggling for rhythm but Mooy made a good break in midfield and put David Williams away. The striker tried to lay the ball off to Mate Dugandzic in the clear on the left, but the pass clipped Ryall and the chance was gone. Damian Duff followed up with a low drive saved by keeper Vedran Janjetovic and the half ended with a long cross shot by Ryall which drifted wide.
Neither team made changes at half time and Duff set up Ian Ramsay four minutes after the interval but the winger shot wide. Williams then had a shot on the angle but it only found the side netting. But this was City’s best spell of the game and they won a free kick when Ibini impeded Mooy in the 65th minute. Mooy swung the ball across goal and Nick Kalmar got in ahead of the defence to power the ball past the keeper. Damian Duff had already been replaced by James Brown and both sides made changes late in the half but were unable to break the deadlock.
So the match went into extra time as the 2,801 fans shivered on the sidelines. The highlight of the first period came in the last minute when Mooy fired a pile-driver just over the outstretched fingers of Janjetovic and clear of the crossbar. But that was as close as City came to a breakthrough and in the 111th minute (nobody jumped) but Jason Hoffman was adjudged to have tripped Gameiro as he sprinted into the City penalty box. Referee Shaun Evans sent Hoffman off while Ali Abbas stepped up to fire the ball past Redmayne. Three minutes later Antonis seemed to fall over on the edge of the box with Robbie Wielaert closest to him when he dropped to the ground. But a second penalty was given with the same outcome as the first and Sydney were into the Round of 16, while City must somehow learn to eliminate the schoolboy errors of the kind which cruelled their chances in this match.