Plenty more than just bragging rights will go on the line when Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory square off in the third and final Melbourne Derby of the regular season at AAMI Park.
Depending on the result of Friday’s game, the teams will either be nearly inseparable on the table or what can be considered a chasm apart at this late stage of the season.
City enter the game on the back of a heartbreaking and ultimately disappointing defeat in the west at Perth Glory’s hands on Saturday, where a 97th-minute Adam Taggart goal proved decisive.
Looking back, City would have been bitterly disappointed not to have done more to have protected the lead from a corner situation, allowing Glory to streak down the other end and score.
Across town, Victory enjoyed a change of fortunes with a 3-0 win over Adelaide United, also on Saturday.
Orchestrated by Leroy George, Kevin Muscat’s team overpowered the 10-man United side to secure a desperately needed three points that saw them climb into fourth on the table.
The win provided Muscat with some much needed breathing space in the hot seat, as well as some healthy headaches at the selection table.
Key Battle – Daniel Arzani vs Leroy George
Just one of the plentiful sub-plots of this contest will be the duel between opposing wingers Arzani and George; at opposite ends of the age spectrum but both in equally impressive form.
Since the turn of the year, Arzani has taken his chance in the senior team with aplomb and has added a spark to City’s attack, as well as a sense of implied nerves through opposing defenders.
The 19-year-old’s biggest strength – self-confessed – is dribbling at stoppers and wreaking havoc, as Perth found out last week and earlier in this season. He is always able to forge a way into the match.
There is enough experience in the Victory defence to deal with Arzani; Rhys Williams and Leigh Broxham will be tasked with keeping the World Cup hopeful quiet and away from the younger Thomas Deng, who, despite being no stranger to the first team, is still learning his craft.
On the other side will be George, who has proven week after week to be Victory’s go-to man, a player able to turn a game with a kick, or a dribble, of the ball.
He started slowly against Adelaide but single-handedly swung the tide in Victory’s favour, playing a vital role in each of their goals.
He will be out to take advantage of countryman Bart Schenkeveld’s absence at the back and unsettle likely replacement Delbridge, as well as City’s young right-back Nathaniel Atkinson.
Warren Joyce must make at least one change to his side with defensive rock Schenkeveld serving a one-game ban. Delbridge is the readymade replacement; he was introduced off the bench against Perth. Bruno Fornaroli too has put his hand up to start for the first time this season, but is he 100% ready? With Osama Malik still injured, former Victory marquee Oliver Bozanic looks set to start the match against his old side. Manny Muscat, Ruon Tongyik and Denis Genreau are also options elsewhere.
Melbourne City Expected XI (4-4-2): Bouzanis (GK); Atkinson, Delbridge, Jakobsen, Jamieson; Brattan, Bozanic, Arzani, Mauk; Vidosic, Budzinski.
Muscat meanwhile has the benefit of maintaining a winning squad following the defeat of Adelaide. His key dilemma lies in midfield, where he must choose between one of captain Carl Valeri or Matias Sanchez. Kenny Athiu and Jai Ingham have also been added to an extended squad.
Melbourne Victory Expected XI (4-2-3-1): Thomas (GK); Geria, Deng, Williams, Broxham; Sanchez, Antonis; Troisi, Barbarouses, George; Berisha.
Victory lead the ledger from 24 A-League matches played, boasting 11 wins to City’s eight, along with five draws.
Since-departed Victory midfielder Mark Milligan was the difference on 23 December, netting in the 96th minute to send the dark blue side of Melbourne home the happier with a 1-0 win.
On paper, form and the table, this fixture is finely poised, hence its unofficial title as ‘The Decider’. That middle word though – form – is about as meaningless as they come on the derby stage. Both City and Victory never fail to find an extra gear when they meet, and that will be the case again on Friday.
Melbourne City 2 Melbourne Victory 2