MELBOURNE, Australia -- Melbourne City started their A-League Men season with a bang and gained a bit of revenge for last season's grand final, after sailing past Western United 2-1 in the first game of the Australian top flight's 2022-23 campaign.
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Following a back-and-forth opening ten minutes and a very early scare from James Troisi, City's high-powered attack and aggressive defending soon put them in the ascendency at AAMI Park. After having a goal somewhat controversially disallowed by VAR in the 13th minute, they took a deserved lead when United defensive pairing Leo Lacroix and Tomiki Imai inadvertently bundled the ball into their own net in the 38th minute.
Jamie Maclaren subsequently pounced upon and stole the ball away from an all-too-casual Lacroix deep in his own half in the 59th minute to make it 2-0; a sequence of play reflective of the difference in level between the two sides on the evening, even if Nicholas Milanovic did add a late consolation for United.
ESPN's Joey Lynch has reaction and analysis from AAMI Park.
JUMP TO: Player ratings | Best/worst performers | Highlights and notable moments | Postmatch quotes | Key stats | Upcoming fixtures
1. City get some retribution
Despite winning the premiership, City failed to defeat a single opponent that finished in the top four across the 2021-22 regular season, a stat which, combined with their loss to United in the Grand Final, led to coach Patrick Kisnorbo declaring on the eve of Friday's fixture that his side had targeted improvements in "the one-off games." And while Friday's win certainly won't have soothed the pain of that defeat, it at least represents some form of retribution.
But perhaps even more importantly for Kisnorbo heading into a new campaign, his side looked comfortable as they secured their victory and reinforced their status as one of the favourites for this year's championship. Showing little signs of rust, City's press and consistent control of the territory and possession battle gave United's defence fits on their way to coughing up a 2-0 lead in an uncharacteristically cack handed fashion. Their backline, despite the late loss of Nuno Reis and Curtis Good and the exit of Thomas Lam in the 65th minute, was largely able to absorb what their foes threw at them outside of a few shaky moments at set pieces and in transition.
In the other dugout, however, there are a few concerns. Not alarm bells at such an early stage of the season, but a bit of a heads up. With Lacroix at fault for both the goals that his side conceded and perhaps not fortunate to have given away one or two more, coach John Aloisi will be hoping that the towering defender's bad night at the office represented a one-off and not the start of a sophomore slide. This will count doubly so after the underrated Tomoki Imai now potentially set for a long stint on the sidelines after suffering an AC joint injury.
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2. Valon d'Or
Former United attacker Besart Berisha was quick to encourage his namesake and fellow Kosovo international Valon Berisha to move to the ALM when he discovered that a move was in the offing, but his former teammates in Tarneit probably wish he didn't.
Started as a No. 10 by Kisnorbo in his City debut, the 29-year-old attacker looked a constant threat every time he got on the ball across the first half on Friday evening, and was incredibly unlucky to be pinged by the VAR for a foul in the build-up to Maclaren's would-be 13th-minute opener. He eased off as the game went on, as did his teammates, but at that point, City had the game in the bag.
Looking at his resume, Berisha is the type of player that absolutely should be dominating the A-Leagues. On loan from Ligue 1 side Reims, the attacker has over 50 international appearances to his name between Norway and Kosovo and has played across the French, German, and Italian top flights across the past three seasons.
3. World Cup watch
Inevitably, every ALM fixture that takes place before Graham Arnold names his squad for the Socceroos' World Cup campaign in six weeks will be analysed with this selection process in mind. And with Arnold in attendance, Friday's contest provided plenty of food for thought.
Despite an injury to Florin Berenguer, a hamstring ailment he will have scans for on Saturday, fringe Socceroo Marco Tilio still found himself relegated to City's bench and was not introduced until the contest was well in hand in the 73rd minute. A late chance to add a cherry on City's sundae when he was played in by Maclaren was also fluffed.
Beyond the obvious developmental needs for minutes that a 21-year-old has, the young City attacker needs to play as many minutes as possible to reinforce his case for selection over the likes of Garang Kuol and Daniel Arzani. If things continue this way for the next five weeks, he won't and he likely won't be on the plane.
City's other Socceroos in Arnold's most recent squad, Leckie and Maclaren, however, both started and did their cases for a ticket to Qatar no harm, albeit they already looked pretty secure. Maclaren got his goal and another disallowed in trademark fox-in-the-box fashion and Leckie created a series of chances for himself and others.
Melbourne City: Glover 7, Jamieson 7, O'Neill 7, Lam 6, Talbot 6, Gomulka 6, Bos 6, Berisha 8, Leckie 7, Nabbout 7, Maclaren 7.5
Western United: Young 7, Garuccio 6, Lacroix 4, Imai 6, Risdon 5, Pain 6, Kilkenny 6, Lustica 6, Wales 6, Troisi 7, Wenzel-Halls 5
Best and worst performers
BEST: Besart Berisha (Melbourne City)
Given that they have scored the most goals in the league for the last three seasons, City adding Berisha to their attack feels decidedly like the rich getting richer. But given that they're an outpost of the CFG, that's probably fitting. The 36-time Kosovo international put in a head-turning performance in his first competitive fixture on Australian soil but, in his trademark understated fashion, Kisnorbo declared that he'd "done ok".
WORST: Leo Lacroix (Western United)
Given the high standards that he set in his first season in the ALM, it's not hyperbole to declare that Lacroix played his worst-ever game since arriving in Australia on Friday night. Aloisi appeared flummoxed after the game when asked the reason why his star defender was so out of sorts but said he didn't expect it to be a continuing trend. For United's sake, it can't be.
Highlights and notable moments
Jamie Maclaren thought he'd grabbed the first goal of the 2022-23 ALM season, only to be denied by VAR.
The 2021-22 Golden Winner is 𝐃𝐄𝐍𝐈𝐄𝐃 ❌— Isuzu UTE A-League (@aleaguemen) October 7, 2022
Ben Garuccio was deemed to be fouled in the build-up!
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Lacroix and Imai's miscommunication gave City the lead eight minutes out from half-time.
The Premiers lead the Champions heading to the break🔥@wufcofficial's Leo Lacroix turns the ball into his own net!— Isuzu UTE A-League (@aleaguemen) October 7, 2022
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After earlier being denied by the VAR, Maclaren took advantage of a Lacroix error to open his account for the season.
The Golden Boot winner opens his account for the campaign 🔥@MelbourneCity double their advantage!— Isuzu UTE A-League (@aleaguemen) October 7, 2022
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After the match: What the players and managers said
Aloisi on the defeat and potential championship hangover: "We believe that [we'll bounce back] because of the way that we performed in pre-season. We know that every game's tough and it wasn't our best performance. I wouldn't think or call it a hangover. It was just that the opposition was better than us tonight. They physically were way better than us I felt. So we'll look at it. we'll look where we can improve and we'll keep on improving. You know, we showed again, good signs that we're a team that won't stop, even if we're not playing at our best, we'll still create our chances and try to get something out of the game."
Kisnorbo on Tilio's bench role: "I go on my feel and players that have done well in the pre-season and I thought [Nabbout] deserved to play. Just because Marco got picked for the Socceroos doesn't mean anyone's an automatic starter. You need to work hard to get into the team and he got his chance today. I was happy for him when he came on. I picked the best XI that I think going into a game. Just because you represent Australia doesn't mean you're an automatic starter in this team."
Valon Berisha to Parmount+: "I wanted to win, I wanted that revenge for the team. Because they were talking about it, all the team and I said f---ing hell, this is a big game for us and I want to win it. Every game is a big game, of course, but when you think about it, for them, when they think about [last] season and losing the grand final, I wanted to help the team win. I think we played a really good game. We just need to keep on pushing now."
Deputising as a centre-back, City captain Jamieson became just the sixth player in ALM history to reach 300 appearances in the win.
Ten of the 11 starters from United's 2-0 win in the 2021-22 grand final started the contest with new signing Troisi, in place of the injured Aleksander Prijovic, the only change.
The win means that City has snapped a run of five straight games without success against United, a stretch of four defeats and a draw that included the 2021-22 grand final. United, meanwhile, became the first reigning champion since Melbourne Victory in 2018 to lose their opening game of the following season.
Friday evening was the first time that United had gone into the halftime break trailing in their last 10 ALM games and Maclaren has now scored ten goals in his last ten games against United.
Melbourne City: Round two will see City hit the road to take on Brisbane Roar on Friday evening at Suncorp Stadium. Another derby, this time against bitter rivals Melbourne Victory, will follow on the subsequent Saturday.
Western United: Technically the away side on Friday evening, United will now settle in for a two-game home stand at AAMI Park: welcoming Sydney FC to Victoria in round two and then Macarthur in round three.