Contenders or pretenders: City face moment of truth in Hunter Valley

Sunday should tell the soccer world plenty about Melbourne City, the team that has, in the past fortnight, taken the A-League by storm with back-to-back 5-1 wins.
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Those easy successes were over two struggling sides in Perth Glory and Central Coast Mariners. That is why the clash with the Newcastle Jets at Hunter Stadium should provide a much better measuring stick.

If John van ‘t Schip’s side can take at least a point on the road against the Jets, it will be a strong signal they are, at last, starting to find the mental toughness that has been lacking season after season.

City goes there in ebullient mood – understandable since they have taken seven points from the past nine and scored 11 goals in the process – and determined to prove a point.

They won’t, of course, have things their own way. Scott Miller has fashioned a tough, organised and accountable Newcastle side that is difficult to break down and plays with commitment and self-belief not seen in the Hunter Valley for a few seasons now.

The Jets are on the cusp of the top six and can, with a win, leapfrog City.

They will certainly take plenty of heart from their clash earlier in the year at AAMI Park, one of those games that has earned City the reputation it endures for flakiness.

Van ‘t Schip’s side looked terrific in the first half, played some expansive football and raced to a 2-0 half-time lead. The game looked done and dusted, but no one told the Jets.

Miller galvanised his men with some harsh truths at the interval, and it was a reinvigorated Newcastle who came out to score three times in the second half for a 3-2 win.

City is slowly regaining many of the injured stars who were missing in the early part of the season.

Ivan Franjic has given quite a lift at right back and, for this match, Robbie Koren is finally ready to play some part in proceedings.

The former Slovenian international has not played since the round two defeat by Melbourne Victory and is likely to be involved off the bench here after Van ‘t Schip said on Saturday “he is not yet ready for 90 minutes”.

But, as the Dutchman recalled, Koren has fond memories of road trips to Newcastle: on December 30 last year, the coach’s birthday, City ran riot and won 5-2.

“It was Robbie’s comeback game then, on my birthday, and he scored three goals as we won easily,” Van ‘t Schip said. “It is a great memory from that time, but this is another game against a different opponent.

“Newcastle are strong, they are defensive, hard to create chances against. They don’t play an open game like Central Coast, who give you chances.

“Of course, we’re happy that Robbie is available again. It’s coming up on almost two months not playing. He’s made a good impression the last days in the training sessions so he will be travelling up.

“We’ll just have to see how and when we can play him in some minutes.

“It’s now about the competition for places and showing that you really deserve to play. The boys are doing well, it’s now waiting for your chance but that’s only good. We need that competition. If Robbie wants to get into the team, he has to show he’s ready for that.”

Van ‘t Schip wants nothing more than to keep a clean sheet on Sunday. City has not managed to do that all season.

“We’re still working on a lot of things we feel we have to improve,” he said. “We’re very happy with the things we’re doing well, of course, scoring goals and creating chances, going forward, playing some exciting football.

“On the other hand, we also know we have to work hard on other things [defensively] that will make us a stronger team.”

He said it was impossible to forget what happened when these two sides last met.

“We want to make sure we show that was a mistake and there was too much of a difference between the first half and the second half.

“We know they are a very organised team. On the other hand, we have to play and try to dominate and play our own game.

“We will know on Sunday [if City has found much-needed consistency]. Our team has to grow and get results more consecutively. If we have a poor result, it’s all again the same story.

“We just have to make sure we’re prepared. If we want to be a team that is going to go for the top spot, then you have to have a more consistent pathway in your results. That’s why the game against Newcastle is very important to see where we are.”

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