Melbourne City looking the goods, but need to beat top teams

Michael Cockerill: Why Melbourne City is failing to succeed in the A-League
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Fourteen goals in three games, their first clean sheet of the season and a leap up to third spot on the ladder as they approach Saturday night’s Melbourne derby in red hot form.

Record-breaking Melbourne City are starting to look like the real deal and beginning to answer their critics – and there have been plenty queuing up to hammer the club for its lack of success and big-name signings in the season and a half since it was acquired by one of the world’s richest soccer businesses, City Football Group.

Experience teaches us not to get too far ahead of ourselves where this club is concerned, even if it has now set an A-League record by becoming the first club to score four goals in three consecutive matches. Not just yet, anyway, as their coach John Van ‘t Schip acknowledged after the 4-0 win over Newcastle on Sunday.

He knows that tougher tests await and that his side is still far from the finished article.

City may be looking the goods, but they have yet to prove themselves by beating one of the other top teams in the competition.

So far this season City have played Western Sydney Wanderers, Melbourne Victory, Sydney and Brisbane once apiece, and managed only two draws, both away from home in Sydney and Brisbane.

Until they start to beat those sort of sides there will be doubters, given City’s reputation for inconsistency.

But there is no doubt that Van ‘t Schip is starting to find the right blend and the players are beginning to play to the pattern he wants – pressing and defending from the front and moving the ball with pace. They have also discovered a mental strength that they only used to show intermittently.

The Dutch coach had billed Sunday’s trip to Newcastle as an examination of where his team really stood following two easy 5-1 wins. Those victories had come against cellar dwellers Central Coast and Perth Glory, and the trip to the Hunter Valley was expected to provide a much sterner test.

City passed it with flying colours, not only slamming home four goals but keeping their opponents scoreless for the first time this season.

Van ‘t Schip, who a month ago looked to be the next best thing to a dead man walking after an horrific home loss to the Wanderers, now looks an inspirational figure who has his team playing exactly how he wants.

City have taken 10 points out of a possible 12 in the four games that have followed that 0-3 reverse against Western Sydney, and only the league leaders are in a hotter vein of form.

More prosaically, City are getting their act together because the long injury run which dogged them through the first six weeks of the campaign is starting to ease off.

In recent weeks Socceroo full back Ivan Franjic has returned to action, giving City drive and penetration down the right flank, and Harry Novillo, the mercurial French forward, has also been fit enough to start games.

Marquee player Robert Koren, whose two seasons with the City Group have been plagued by setbacks, came back into the squad for the win over the Jets and he can add experience and guile in the forward third should he stay fit.

Still, there do remain injury concerns. Socceroo left back Michael Zullo is still not available, veteran Irish centre back Aaron Hughes has only played a half of soccer in his time at the club, Corey Gameiro is out for the season and on Sunday young centre half Connor Chapman limped off in the first half with a knee injury.

Their key player is Aaron Mooy, who is continuing to show that he is the best player in the competition right now, his two-goal haul against the Jets merely icing the cake on another masterful midfield display.

Bruno Fornaroli, too, is proving the buy of the season. The Uruguayan has hit the ground running in Australia and is showing the sort of talent that brought him spells in the top flight in his native Uruguay, Argentina, Italy’s Serie A and in Spain.

City officials have said that the transfer and scouting report on Fornaroli was the best they have had on a potential acquisition. If that is the sort of due diligence they can expect now they are becoming firmly embedded into the Manchester City-owned group’s scouting system then that augurs well for their future.

The Uruguayan is not big, but he is quick of mind and nimble of foot, capable of bringing his teammates into the game or finishing sharply himself.

With Novillo, Fornaroli and Mooy marauding in the forward third City have a strike force as good as the best in the league.

The club has taken plenty of stick since the City takeover in January 2014, because it hasn’t signed big name marquee players nor built its crowd base to rival cross-city rivals Victory, the A-League champions.

City did bring in the best-credentialed player to play in the A-League, David Villa, for a guest stint, but botched that horrifically and the Spaniard was gone after four games. Strike one against them there.

But they were denied by the FFA and the other A-League clubs when they wanted to bring in former Chelsea and England star Frank Lampard, who was keen to play in Australia before joining up with New York City. In the end Lampard played the season in the EPL for Manchester City, but there is no doubt that had the club been allowed to bring him in he would have been a huge drawcard.

Crowds have been down this season for City, but they have for almost everyone else too: the FFA’s lack of marketing for the competition is a sore point with every A-League club, particularly as the game’s governing body is supposed to be boosting the competition as it negotiates a new TV deal.

City officials point out that just because they have a rich owner it doesn’t mean they have unlimited capital at their disposal.

The club has to work within budget. It cannot simply tear up player contracts, pay them out and then replace them with someone else. And, it will point to the fact that it has invested heavily in a new high quality training headquarters as evidence of the City Football Group’s commitment to its Australian franchise.

City know that the best way to answer the critics is to keep on winning games: next Saturday night’s clash against Victory is a perfect chance to make another statement.

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