Melbourne City’s senior NPL side produced a dogged performance to down cross-conference foes Whittlesea Ranges and keep their top-six hopes alive at Epping Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
A goal in first-half stoppage time from Ramy Najjarine had Head Coach Petr Kratky’s side a goal to the good heading into the second half, with the advantage then doubled thanks to some smart build-up play between goalkeeper Ahmad Taleb and Stefan Colakovksi in the 57th minute.
The Ranges, though, got one back in the 70th minute through Baggio Yousif and threatened to finish over the top of City as the second half wound down; throwing everything they had at Taleb’s goals.
It was not a Ranges player that found the back of the net next, however, as Colakovski popped up in the 90th minute of play to drive a seemingly drive a dagger through the heart of the Western Conference side when he followed in a Luke Duzel free-kick and fired in a deflected save to make it 3-1.
Nonetheless, the Ranges just moments later found themselves within a goal when Jose Ramires converted a penalty in the 93rd minute, and almost brought it back level with what was almost the final kick of the game: defender Nicholas Hatzigeorgiou hurling himself back to clear a shot off the line and secure the three points for City.
Days before he jetted off to camp with Australia’s U17 side, Taleb started in goal for Melbourne City, behind a back four of Idrus Abdulahi, Hatzigeorgiou, Daniel Lucente and Mitch Graham – who made a much-welcomed return from injury.
In front of the defence stood a midfield of Jordi Valadon, Emile Peios and Luke Oresti; the trio tasked with feeding the ball to the front three of Colakovski, Najjarine and Moudi Najjar.
It was the hosts that created the first real chance of note on the chilly, but bright, Saturday afternoon when Michael Santopietro pounced on a shot of former Perth Glory youth Lawrence Shuruma that had been blocked away and fired a cross past the face of goal in the sixth minute of play.
Five minutes later Shuruma would be able to get a shot off without a City player getting in his way; only to drag the resulting effort across the face of goal and out for a goal kick.
City’s first real attack of note came in the 14th minute of play when Colakovski broke down the left flank and tried to dink the ball into the goal with the outside of his right boot, only for Ranges’ goalkeeper Stefan Rankovic to make a straightforward save.
City was further frustrated as they attempted to break through the Ranges’ lines in the 27th minute of play when Ryan Love stuck a leg out to stop a ball, intended to find its way in behind the lines for Najjar, dead in its tracks.
Pushing hard up the other end, Ranges’ captain Ramires came agonizingly close to opening the scoring in the 34th minute when arriving late into the box, he collected a cross looped into the area and hammered an effort in on goal that hammered off the post and back into play.
A minute later Najjarine attempted to fire back with a shot of his own, only to watch on as the effort flew off his boot and just float wide of the uprights. Oresti then tried his luck in the 43rd minute with a long-range shot of his own but Rankovic collected comfortably.
On the precipice of half time, though, City finally made the breakthrough they had been looking for when Colakovski – drifting over from his position on the left – slid a ball into the feet of Najjarine. The Young Socceroos winger had time to look up, compose himself and fire in an effort that well and truly had Rankovic beaten to make it 1-0 to City.
Though the hosts tried to immediately answer back with a long-range effort, Taleb proved more than up the task: leaping across his goal at full stretch to deflect the ball away and ensure City went to the rooms with the lead.
Five minutes after the restart, however, Taleb could do nothing but watch as Ramires fired in a dangerous free-kick but was saved, once again, by the woodwork.
Gifted a reprieve, Taleb then answered back in one of the best ways possible: spotting a run of Colakovski and launching a long ball over the top of the Ranges’ defence and into the path of the winger. Collecting the ball, City’s number 99 made no mistake with the chance afforded to him by his goalkeeper and fired inside the near post to make it 2-0.
Things were getting increasingly anxious for the hosts as they exchanged chances with City but, on 70 minutes, they got the goal they so desperately needed when Yousif made his way in behind the City defence and put an effort past Taleb to make it 2-1.
The goal signalled a shift in the momentum at Epping Stadium: the hosts seizing control of play and launching attack after attack forward.
It was only through desperate defending from the City defence and some fantastic goalkeeping from Taleb that maintained the 2-1 lead.
Despite the pressure, City was able to summon some modicum of resistance and win themselves a free-kick within shooting range of the Ranges’ goal in the 90th minute; Duzel immediately staking his claim to the opportunity.
Although the Australian U17 representative’s shot was ultimately kept out by Rankovic, the save rebounded back into play and Colakovski was waiting for it: hammering home to make it 3-1.
From that point on, madness broke out at Epping Stadium as the hosts threw everything they had forward in a desperate gambit to keep themselves in the race for the NPL2 Western Conference top six.
A soft penalty enabled Ramires to fire in an unsavable effort into the top corner of the net to make it 3-2 before the Ranges won a free kick on the left flank in the 93rd minute of play.
Floated in delicately by Ramires, a heaving mass of bodies threw themselves at the ball in an attempt to direct it in their side’s favour: it eventually poked towards the bottom corner of the City net.
Hatzigeorgiou, though, had other ideas as he hurled himself towards the ball and was able to knock it away to protect City’s lead and ensure that the three points would be returning to Bundoora.
A huge run of games to end the season for City continues next Saturday night as City get set to welcome Manningham United Blues to the Veneto Club.
Just three points behind sixth-placed Goulburn Valley Suns and six behind the fifth-placed Blues, another three points would truly through the cat right amongst the pigeons in the race to say in Victoria’s second tier in 2020.