City and Victory reshuffle their decks ahead of crucial derby clash

Both Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory will be forced to reshuffle their decks in Monday’s Melbourne Derby thanks to a wave of injuries and player departures, preparing for a contest in which the defending champions will be challenged by a fluid and dynamic City attack.

Melbourne’s two different shades of blue last met back in January, a 1-1 draw at Casey Fields, and will take the field at AAMI Park this afternoon both engaged in races for table positioning. 

City could close to within two points of the league-leading Sky Blues with a win, setting the table to potentially go top when they host Ante Juric’s side next week (albeit Sydney retains a game in hand). Victory, conversely, enters the game just two points clear of Canberra United in the race for the top four and, with a trip to the nation’s capital looming next week, needs to take something from today’s game to retain any sort of margin for error. 

Jeff Hopkins’ side, though, will go about this task missing a few heavy hitters. 

Already having lost star midfielder Alex Chidiac back to NWSL side Racing Louisville at the end of her loan deal, Victory lost their other Matilda in the centre of the park last week when Elise Kellond-Knight suffered a rupture to her left Achilles tendon. Combined with midfielders Ava Breidis and Alana Murphy and defender Jessika Nash all likely being unable to take part on Monday, only due back from Young Matildas in the Kyrgyz Republic on Sunday, Victory will be forced to delve into their depth. 

Opposite them, City is in an even greater bind: set to be without Tori Tumeth, Karly Restbakken, Leah Davidson, Caitlin Karic, Naomi Chinnama, and Mellissa Barbieri, with only the latter two anywhere close to a return. Daniela Galic was also in the Kyrgyz Republic and, at best, will be highly limited if she is named to fill a seat on the bench. 

“We are a little bit thin at the minute,” said City boss Dario Vidosic. 

“Hopefully we can look after every one to the end of the season. Not just us, but the whole league. You never like to see players get injured. KK as well, from Victory, as a player you don’t want to see anyone get injured. 

“We’ve got good quality and we’ve got good young players that are ready if required. Everyone that came on [in last week’s 4-0 win over the Jets] made a good impact. Sometimes it is what it is. There are going to be injuries, and there are going to be challenges thrown at you. 

“But the way we work, everyone understands what’s required, what we need to do in every specific moment. 

“Everyone will be ready, everyone will know their roles. So if anything does happen again… we’ve got people that ready to come in, slot in and play their part.”

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Potentially the league’s best player before she returned to Kentucky, the hole that Chdiac left in Victory’s midfield represented a significant conundrum for Hopkins, even before Kellond-Knight’s injury increased his headaches. Though Canberra’s points deduction for fielding an ineligible player against Sydney has helped, they, Brisbane, and Perth Glory all remain within striking distance heading into the season’s final rounds. 

Further, the side from the nation’s capital is confident that its sanction will be overturned on appeal. 

“We had some pretty strong depth in that midfield area, with Paige [Zois], with Murph [Alana Murphy], with Tiff [Eliadis],” Hopkins said. “All of them were pushing and making their case for being able to play and every few weeks it was obviously a hard conversation that I would have with them. 

“When your midfield is playing well it is quite tough then to have that type of quality players sitting out and not playing every week. Now the depth of the squad is really going to be tested and there will be opportunities and there have been opportunities.

“For me, it’s about finding a way to maybe just fit where these players might fit into the side and maybe just to tinker a little bit with the way that we play and the way that we use these players. Because they have different strengths to KK and to Chids. So try and set us up a little differently to try and take advantage of the qualities that they bring as individuals to the side.”

Fortunately for both belligerents in the derby, their forward lines have been bolstered in recent weeks by the return and the rediscovery of form and fitness from several key contributors: Maria Cote Rojas and Holly McNamara returning from international duty and injury for City last week and Melina Ayres and Catherine Zimmerman getting more miles in the legs for Victory. 

For Vidosic, this means figuring out a way to deploy his Chilean international and budding Matildas star in the same lineup as Kiwi international and reigning club golden boot winner Hannah Wilkinson. 

All three have their different qualities,” he said. “Sometimes [deployment] will depend on the opponent, maybe where we want to target, what side we maybe want to go on. That could alter how we do it and where maybe the positioning of other players around that if we’re targeting a specific side or where we look to attack. 

“Then also, how we want to defend. Where their strengths and weaknesses are. We look at how we want to approach a game and then obviously with the quality of those players we want to put them in positions to be most effective. 

“ We’re comfortable with what we’ve got, we can cause a lot of headaches and it’s just depending on which four are up front or three are up front, how we can give them the best chance to be successful.”

Already reaching for the panadol to deal with his selection headaches, this level of adaptability from his foes represents another conundrum for Hopkins. 

“The City front five are quite fluid,” the Victory boss said. “You often see Wilkinson dropping into the ten or playing out wide. McNamara is back into the side now. Rojas will drop deep.

“It’s more of a structural thing that we’ve got make sure that our back four, plus our six, maybe two sixes, do a really good job defensively and when players drop off into pockets and rotate, that we’re well aware of that and the player in those areas is really switched onto it. 

“It’s not quite as simple as [one on one battles] and if you come out on top, great. The way that they play there’s a lot of rotation and movement in their front five, which makes them a little bit more dangerous.”

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