Melbourne City need ACL spot to keep City Football Group plans on track
It was only four weeks ago, in Round 23 of the A-League season, that Melbourne City's classy display brought the 11 match unbeaten run of Adelaide United to a screeching halt. Head coach John van 't Schip hailed it as "the best team performance overall this season."
With a solid shot stopper in place -- Thomas Sorensen -- defensive frailties seemingly sorted, arguably the best striker-midfielder combination in the league in Bruno Fornaroli and Aaron Mooy, City looked to be true title contenders.
However, over the next month -- though the Premier's Plate was within touching distance, fans watched with furrowed brows as their club put on a series of Jekyll and Hyde performances which saw City not only relinquish an opportunity to cement top spot but also bow out of the battle with barely a whimper, almost losing the right to a home elimination final in the process.
This time Van 't Schip called it a "loss of momentum" and in the final match of a largely successful regular season it certainly looked like the wheels had fallen off, with goalkeeping coach Joey Didulica sent to the stands and winger Harry Novillo facing a two-match ban following a half-time fracas.
The finals fight is certainly not over and City may yet lift the trophy as champions -- they certainly have the talent. To achieve that though, they need to build on the incremental improvements of this season and dig in like they did on that Friday night in Adelaide in March.
Ahead of the visit by Perth Glory in the first elimination final, there is sure to be some close scrutiny. Melbourne City pride themselves on everyone being accountable on and off the field.
There is nowhere to hide at the club's La Trobe home. The dressing room at the state-of-the-art City Football Academy is round. Identical to the rooms at Manchester City and new MLS franchise New York City FC, it is built on the ethos of a team environment -- the attackers sit together, the defenders, the midfielders and so on. Teams within a team, they must all look each other in the eye.
The shape of the room is no accident. The City Football Group plan everything they do down to the last detail. The blueprint is their flagship club in Manchester and that model is replicated in their other interests around the world, with each being given the same access to technology, research and facilities.
For example, incoming Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola will have smart cameras installed at the training facilities at Eastlands next season -- cameras which track each player and each session via GPS and give valuable feedback as to output, work rate and loading.
As a result of that initiative, New York and Melbourne will also have that available, allowing all three clubs to see footage in real time, centralise analysis and share ideas from combined collated data.
Even though Melbourne City is obviously a very different animal to their parent club, the entry into the Australian market is a sound investment for the City Football Group. The A-League is a stable, salary-capped set-up on the doorstep of Asia, acquired for comparably minimal (for these owners) financial output.
Yet in a world where football sits third behind the more popular sports of Aussie Rules and Rugby League, it hasn't all been smooth sailing, starting with the rumblings of discontent when the all-too-brief visit of David Villa left many fans disillusioned, disappointed and distrusting of their new powerful owners.
But football is now big business, and the City Football Group are experts in their field.
They have pushed the boundaries this season in Australia when feathers were ruffled over the signing of Central Coast Mariner Anthony Caceres to the Manchester club, only to have him appear on the park for Melbourne City a short time later.
While the transaction itself was legal, it burrowed through a loophole just wide enough to skirt the law forbidding paid transfers between A-League clubs. That loophole is likely to be firmly closed in the off-season, however in the meantime, City has a quality midfielder to help their tilt for the title, the cash-strapped Central Coast Mariners benefitted financially and for the player the opportunities are seemingly endless.
While Manchester City FC is the pinnacle, New York City, Melbourne City, Yokohama F. Marinos and Al Jazeera are all within the City family and beyond that, more subtle links with clubs all over the planet mean that for a player in the City family, the world is literally their oyster.
City has 50 scouts worldwide and for their Melbourne club the benefits are finally starting to bear fruit after a somewhat shaky start in their first year under the new ownership.
Fornaroli has been a revelation for the Melbourne side this season. With 23 goals in 27 appearances, his impact is obvious. Sorensen likewise, despite playing for weeks with a broken bone in his hand, was integral in stemming the tide as Van 't Schip addressed City's historically leaky defence.
However starring for the Melbourne branch does not mean an automatic promotion within the City family.
The City Football Group may like some cross pollination for publicity purposes or to fill injury gaps (Frank Lampard to Manchester City), but by and large they like to sign players who not only give a good football return, but fit into the bigger picture for each particular set-up.
Since new owner Sheik Mansour acquired the parent club and subsequently others, City's aim has been to sign the best available player for every single position on each team. They follow up by searching for the next best player available in that same position, in a bid to keep first team players in contested situations. The integral aspect is finding players who can thrive in that competitive environment.
Sometimes it works and the player lifts, such as Jack Clisby has done to keep Ben Garuccio and Michael Zullo on their toes, other times it doesn't, for players such as Aaron Hughes at Melbourne or James Milner who left Manchester in search of more first team football. Some have the football skill but not the City mentality and players who don't fit the mold or can't conform are moved on.
City Football Group has plans of global domination and while they are happy to take the time, effort and resources to achieve that, incremental success is a must.
Off the field they continue to challenge the limits of the rules, though in Australia their intentions seem by and large to be for the good of the whole league in their fight for a better deal for clubs and their owners. They are leading the push for a more self-sustaining model, while engineering lateral movement inside the restrictions of the salary cap to create stronger teams and a more robust league.
The end goal as far as Melbourne City is concerned is surely conquering Asia, thus a place in the Asian Champion's League is the next important target. While they've dabbled around the edges with Yokohama F. Marinos and have investment from China, to have a successful side in the Asian Champion's League would generate publicity in the region that money can't buy.
If Melbourne City is to make that leap in 2016, success in the A-League Finals Series is absolutely crucial.
ESPN Australia/New Zealand columnist Stephanie Brantz has spent the past 20 years excelling in the coverage of football and women's sport.