Leckie and van der Venne return as City eye finals-like intensity against Western United

The A-League Men premiership secured, Melbourne City coach Rado Vidošić expects further improvements from his side as it welcomes back high-powered reinforcements Mat Leckie and Richard van der Venne for a finals dry-run against Western United on Saturday. 

After initially being forced to put the champagne on ice following a 1-1 draw with Central Coast last Saturday, City popped the cork 24 hours later when Western’s upset win over Adelaide United secured them a third-straight Premiership – the first side in ALM history to achieve the feat and just the second in men’s national league history overall after Sydney City’s run from 1980 to 1982. 

Though the neutral-site staging of the grand final had already locked City’s path to the decider into place when they secured a top-two finish, the sealing of the silverware well and truly allows for the heavyweights to take stock and prepare for the finals across the regular season’s last two weeks, honing form and fitness amongst a playing group highly disrupted by injury in 2022-23. 

Chief amongst these concerns will be the re-integration of Leckie and van der Venne, who Vidošić said will both feature in some capacity against Western after being put through a gruelling fitness test last weekend. 

“Maybe they could have played ten or fifteen minutes in Gosford but we decided to train them very, very hard,” explained the City boss. “They had an almost 90-minute hard training session, their hardest training session so far. 

“That puts them in a better position this week. Obviously, the players had a couple of nights of celebrations, so I’m not sure how those two went, but now everyone is back in training and we’ll see how they go. 

“They provided so much attacking power for us. We missed them, we missed their creativity. We missed Richard’s constant forward runs. We missed Leckie’s calmness on the ball. The combination play on that left-hand side. When you take Richard and Leckie from the left-hand side, sometimes you won’t have that cohesion of movement, of penetration and creation of goalscoring opportunities.”

City’s relative luxury at the top of the table and ability to ease difference makers back in, however, stands in stark contrast with the situation confronting Western: the defending A-League Men champions realistically need a win to hold out any hopes of playing finals football. 

Coming up against a physically imposing side that’s desperation levels will be high, the concerns for Vidošić, looking to keep his players fit and healthy, should be obvious. 

However, with a week off in the first week of the playoffs secured, the veteran coach saw the coming fixture as an opportunity to give his side a dress rehearsal for the demands of knockout football. 

“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “Because this is how the finals will be. We know that we’re going to play our first game away from home. Whoever we play away will throw everything at us, will try to press us, will be very aggressive, will defend in numbers, and will play counter-attacking football. 

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“I am looking forward to this game to see how we can contain them, how we can manage the game and how we can overcome that situation. That is what is going to happen in the finals. 

“And keeping in mind that the Grand Final, if we make it, will not be at AAMI Park. So out of three, if we manage to play three games in the finals series, two will be away. 

“We need to have everyone 100% ready mentally with a positive mindset, to be full of energy and keen to perform and run themselves into the ground.”

Regardless of the results of their remaining regular-season games against Western and Western Sydney Wanderers, City is set to record one of their best-ever statistical seasons in 2022-23 despite not always looking like they were in that kind of shape in the actual games. 

Stumbles across the past few months, flirtations with possession for possession’s sake and a lack of a legal edge in front of goal, combined with a 12-game unbeaten run by Adelaide, even threatened to provide the league with something approaching a horse race for the premiership. 

However, with players returning to fitness and finals looming, Vidošić, who took over for Patrick Kisnorbo following the World Cup break as an interim before then being elevated to the permanent role, believes that the side has been improving throughout the season as they adapt to his demands – a trend he sees no reason won’t continue. 

“A big thing for me was to provide them with individual responsibilities, accountability on the field, and to allow them to express themselves,” he said. “Allow them to make their own decisions. 

“We came up with the principles and then the players had to apply those principles the way that they see them fit. It’s still a learning process.

“Are we there yet? Probably not. I’m going to work hard to try to get those as high as we can. 

“But I think everything is much easier when you have good results or when you’re on the top of the table, when you’re winning trophies people can start believing in that more and more and you don’t have to twist someone’s arm to try and implement those things. 

“To be honoured to coach this group of players that have been so successful, you’re kind of thinking that it may probably go south when you first come in but we managed to get some good results. We managed to get some good wins. We managed to increase the points difference between our opponents since I took over. 

“And to win the premiership at the end of it, it just showed me that the old geezer has got something left in him and can probably help these young players. I was very pleased with that and I’m very excited now for the next six or seven weeks that lay ahead of us.”

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Header Image Credit: Melbourne City

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