City look to deny the odds against Sydney FC

After a season that surpassed most external expectations, Melbourne City and their coach Rado Vidošić believe they have the quality to continue the surprises and upset Sydney FC in their A-League Women’s semi-final. 

Belying assumptions that the 2021-22 ALW season was a two-horse race between Sydney and Melbourne Victory, City stormed past the latter and pushed the former all the way throughout the regular season – forcing the Sky Blues into a position where they had to defeat Adelaide United on the final day of the season in order to secure the premiership. 

Ultimately, Paige Satchell’s lone goal would secure Sydney a record-setting fourth premiers’ plate and, with it, home-field advantage in the first week of the finals against City. 

Under the competition’s new playoff format, the winner of that game will progress straight through to the Grand Final as hosts, while the loser will play the winner of third-placed Adelaide’s meeting with fourth-placed Victory for the right to meet them there. 

After finishing seventh and missing the finals by nine points in 2020-21 – the first in which the club was absent its Matildicos collection of international talent – City’s turnaround in 2021-22 has largely been built around a combination of breakout seasons from unheralded figures shrewdly recruited from around the country and strong campaigns from a core of veteran, mostly internationally capped talent.

Representing the former group, Holly McNamara went from uncapped ALW player to Matilda before she suffered an ACL injury, while the latter’s Hannah Wilkinson set a new City record for most goals in a single season in her first ALW campaign. 

“I am so pleased with what we have achieved with the players,” Vidošić said. 

“We helped Stotty in their journey [back from cancer]. Someone like [Wilkinson] has played one of the best seasons in her career. Tori [Tumeth] has had her best season in her career. Mini [Rhianna Pollicina] has had the best season in her career. Suddenly everyone knows about Holly McNamara. Wini [Winonah Heatley], everyone is talking about her. 

“There’s so much more for us to show but I’m so happy with what we have achieved and what the girls have done for themselves and for us.”

“[Low external expectations] helps you to motivate people, so you don’t mind. 

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“In the past, we were ‘untouchable’ with a lot of Matildas and good foreign players. Then there was the challenge to maintain that level. This year we had to adjust to what we have. 

“A lot of these girls that came in haven’t been part of big teams. They’ve been part of teams that are always finishing mid-table. So, for us to be able to help them to reach their full potential has been fantastic. 

“Regardless of what people are judging us or planning where we’re going to finish, we’ve still got a job to do. You have to come up with a style that’s going to allow them to express themselves and I think we have achieved that. Several of them have had seasons of their lives. 

“It’s a compliment to them but also a compliment to us that we’ve been able to gel them all together and show them that there is a belief and they can do the best they can. And they’ve done that.”

Hinted at through various oblique statements made by her coach throughout the season, City captain Emma Checker confirmed that, especially early in the season, the low expectations placed on the group had been used as bulletin board material. 

“It’s not our driver, obviously, at the end of the day we’re not out there solely to prove people wrong but I’d be lying in there wasn’t any added motivator to it,” she explained. 

“I don’t know who wrote the article but one pushed us in the early rounds, it was the one that put us to finish eight. So to whoever that was, look at us now. 

“But, again, we understand that we were coming off a poor season last year. I think the disappointing thing for me was that we had one poor season and we were tipped to be right down the bottom. 

“I’m really proud of the girls and the way they took on seeing those things because as much as you try and avoid reading those things sometimes they’re right in your face. It definitely didn’t break any of the girls and we did come out strong in the early rounds knowing that was how we were being seen by some.”

Having, in the fine athlete tradition, already been able to use a manufactured underdog mentality to fuel success this season, City will get another opportunity to embrace their inner David against the Sydney goliath on Friday. 

The Harboursiders soundly dispatched City in their previous meeting in Sydney this season, Satchell combining with a Rachel Lowe brace to propel the hosts to a 3-0 win. The Citizens, though, can take heart from their most recent meeting in which they handed Sydney their lone defeat of the season at AAMI Park. 

Outside of McNamara, who injured her ACL in that 2-1 win over the Sky Blues on February 22, Vidošić expects to have a full squad to chose from on Friday.

“ I think a lot of things have changed since we beat them and since we lost to them,” he said. 

“Our win against them is closer to today so we’re going to draw a lot of things from that one but we also need to be aware we are playing away and that the first game against them they were excellent, they were top of their game. 

“Both teams missed Matildas [in their first meeting] but I think in the second game we were missing the New Zealand girls. We’ll see now that we’re missing holly and I think they’ve got a full compliment. 

“Whoever makes fewer mistakes will probably win the game. 

“They have been the best team in the league. They’ve been coached by arguably the best coach in the league. They have so much power and so many attacking threats. 

“They have [María José] Rojas on the bench, you can see just how much power they’ve got in that front line. I think their backline has been very solid. Their goalkeeper has been selected as the goalkeeper for a team of the year in some circles. Their midfield has been fantastic.

“They are a very good team.”

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Header Image Credit: Melbourne City

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