Melbourne City’s difference makers deliver 2-0 win over Central Coast

Melbourne City: 2 (Jamie Maclaren, ’31 | Nathaniel Atkinson ’56)
Central Coast Mariners: 0

Melbourne City has continued their rich run of form – equalling a club record for consecutive wins – by defeating the A-League table-topping Central Coast Mariners 2-0 at AAMI Park.

Coming into the contest, the meeting between City and the Mariners had shaped not only as a potential grand final preview, but also an example of the rich vein of narratives waiting to be tapped into during the 2020-21 A-League season.

It was a battle of the pre-season favourites versus the season’s Cinderella story, the A-League’s nouveau riche against the team from the poorhouse, a side loaded with international talent and Socceroos against a collection of youngsters, journeymen, misfits and reclamation products. 

David vs Goliath.

But on Monday, at least, it was physically dominant Goliath that clubbed David over the head: Jamie Maclaren’s 31st-minute goal combining with Nathaniel Atkinson’s well-earned second-half strike to propel City to a fifth-consecutive win and fourth on the A-League table. 

The former’s goal was a quintessential example of what makes both he and City so dangerous; Connor Metcalfe’s intense pressure forcing a turnover in the midfield before he slid a pass forward to Florin Berenguer, who in turn allowed play to develop in the penalty area before squaring it for his striker to finish. 

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For Maclaren, that goal not only continued his red-hot start to the 2020-21 season – the Socceroos’ striker now has 11 goals and four assists in just eleven games – but also added another marker in a record-breaking A-League career. 

With his strike, the 27-year-old equalled Melbourne Victory icon Archie Thompson for third on the all-time A-League goalscorers list with 90 and also became the fastest player in Australian national league history to reach the figure – his 136 games eclipsing Besart Berisha’s previous mark of 140. 

In red-hot form, his 15 goal involvements on the season – six clear of next best Matt Derbyshire – almost guarantees that the attacker will be a part of coach Graham Arnold’s extended come June. 

Though not as nailed on as Maclaren, his teammates and hopeful Socceroos Andrew Nabbout and Curtis Good also put in strong performances for their side in the win – the former extending his record of only ever winning when wearing a City shirt. 

The A-League not observing international breaks in 2020-21, the absence of three of his major difference-makers could present a significant conundrum for coach Patrick Kisnorbo should the they earn international call-ups smack bang in the middle of the finals. These absences would be made even more painful should City Olyroos’ contenders such as Tom Glover, Metcalfe and Atkinson be called into camp with the Olympic side ahead of the July Games. 

Right-back Atkinson has quietly become one of the A-League’s form players in recent weeks, with his 56th-minute goal demonstrating the utility that the 21-year-old Tasmanian has in both attack and defence. 

Dispossessing the Mariners’ Jack Clisby in the midfield, he played a pass forward to Nabbout and kept his run going as the attacker advanced into the penalty area and let flew that was blocked by Ruon Tongyik. 

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The deflection subsequently bounced into space and Atkinson’s continued run allowed him to pounce on the loose ball and lift an effort over Mark Birighitti. 

Despite the two-goal defeat, Birighitti was immense for the Mariners’ throughout the 90 minutes; on several occasions producing a miraculous save to deny Maclaren outright third all-time on the A-League’s goalscoring charts or a stinging effort from a returning from injury Adrian Luna. 

But aside from their goalkeeper, it was largely a night to forget for the visitors, who were unable to produce the kind of magic that has so frequently marked their campaign in 2020-21. 

The side from Gosford struggled to produce clear-cut chances that would give Glover pause in the City goal – Danny De Silva’s notable effort in the 43rd-minute sailing wide – and even the addition of young dynamo Alou Kuol in the 67th minute failed to spark them to life – much to the dismay of the two busloads of his former Goulburn Valley Suns’ teammates that had made the trip from Shepparton for the game. 

The youngster did produce one moment of pause for the hosts in the 80th minute, but that came when he and Metcalfe clashed in the City penalty area and spurned the VAR into action, only for the resulting adjudication to side with referee Chris Beath’s original adjudication of no foul – much to the chagrin of Stajcic. 

“I think it was a pen,” the Mariners boss said post-game. “That was my view at the time, straight away as soon as it happened. Chris Beath said he touched it, got a toe on it. I didn’t see the toe. I don’t think you can see the toe on TV.

“And for me it’s irrelevant if he got a toe on the ball or not, he cleaned up Alou. he didn’t mean to, I think Metcalfe slipped. But it doesn’t matter if you slipped or not, if it’s intentional or not, he took Alou out and for me, that’s a pen.”

Stajcic also bristled at suggestions that City had now supplanted his side as the benchmark of the competition.

“How do I rank teams? I rank teams the way we rank teams, according to the ladder,” he said. “They’ve got a couple of games in hand but runs on the board are runs on the board. If they win their catch up games they’ll go on top.

“But the table is there for a reason, that’s how we rank our performance and at the moment we’re still the best team competition. And rightfully so and apart form tonight, even the other games that we lost I think we should have got points out of.”

Still, as Stacjic observered, top of the table, the Mariners will now return to Gosford and prepare to face Melbourne Victory on Saturday. City will prepare for a visit from Western Sydney Wanderers on Friday night, with a win potentially moving them second on the table.

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