A stunning second half goal from Jamie Maclaren has proved crucial as Melbourne City edged out Melbourne Victory 2-1 in a see-sawing Melbourne derby clash on Friday evening.
With the contest still largely in the balance Socceroos attacker Maclaren combined with Craig Noone and Florin Berenguer in the 71st minute to deliver what proved the decisive blow at AAMI Park to see City win their first Derby since 2018.
City held the lead for over an hour on the back of an eighth minute opener from Berenguer - the Frenchman's first ever Hyundai A-League goal - and were seemingly on track to comfortably see out the contest following Maclaren's strike.
However, an inexplicable fumble from City goalkeeper Thomas Glover gifted Ola Toivonen a reply goal for the Victory to set up an edge-of-the seat conclusion to the contest.
Half-chances mounted in the closing stages, however, Erick Mombaerts’ side held on as his charges delivered the City boss his first ever win in a Melbourne Derby.
Despite City taking the early advantage through Berenguer, the Victory wrested control of the possession and tempo for the bulk of a largely free-flowing first half but only truly threatened the City goal from set pieces.
A corner shortly after the opening goal saw an Ola Toivonen header saved by Glover, before Storm Roux headed wide from a corner in the 25th minute and Tim Hoogland caught the post on the slide from an indirect free-kick in the box on the half hour.
A scrappy end to the half saw defenders snuff out half-chances at both ends, before rash challenges saw the first bookings of the derby for City duo Nathaniel Atkinson and Scott Jamieson immediately before half-time.
The end-to-end nature returned in the second half with the defenders continuing to hold sway, despite Rostyn Griffiths surviving a nervous VAR review for handball in the box in the 52nd minute.
Seeking to find the spark in open play Carlos Salvachua brought Marco Rojas and Robbie Kruse into the contest prior to the hour, and it was Kruse that was the first to find the target in the second stanza after drawing a save from 20 yards.
Momentum seemed with the Victory before the brilliance of Maclaren – set-up by Berenguer's classy back heel - seemingly put paid to Victory’s hopes in the 72nd minute.
However, the Victory refused to cede as Kruse continued to threaten before Rojas won a free-kick on the edge of the box on the back of a dangerous run and the resulting free-kick from Toivonen was then spilled by Glover in his own goal.
The contest opened up further in the closing stages as the Derby intensity came further to the boil, however, the departure of Kruse in the closing stages with injury – and with the Victory without further substitutions – in the end put paid to their fightback.
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Berenguer gives City the early lead
With questions asked pre-game about City’s form - and mettle in the big contests - they took all of eight minutes to silence the doubters.
It came on the back of Adrian Luna's work on the right flank to get free of his marker and break into the space. Using Jamie Maclaren's run as a decoy, he squared for Florin Berenguer just inside the penalty area, who then slotted a composed finish.
The goal is the first ever for for the Frenchman in the Hyundai A-League - the City faithful surely thinking it was worth the wait.
City almost pay for back pass
Clear scoring chances were increasingly hard to come by as the half progressed but City goalkeeper Thomas Glover didn't do himself any favours after conceding a free-kick in the box after picking up a back-pass.
Ola Toivonen's delivery was met on the slide by German defender Tim Hoogland at the near post but somehow the ball wouldn't cross the line - hitting the post before the deflection was claimed by a visibly relieved Glover.
Victory hanging in there
After steadying the ship in the first-half, the Victory were eager to find a leveller in the second stanza - but it saw became vulnerable at the back.
City almost exploited their commitment going forward from broken play but defender Hoogland was having none of it with a crucial clearing header to diffuse a dangerous floated ball from Noone to the back post in the 53rd minute.
A brilliant build-up and Maclaren is in
The result was still well in the balance and there was an increasing sense that it would take something special to deliver the next goal - so up stepped Jamie Maclaren.
City's leading goalscorer combined with Noone and Berenguer in the penalty area with a series of sleek passes - including a back heel - that opened up the increasingly stoic Victory defence.
The goal continues the Socceroos strikers' return of a goal-a-game this season - with 14 to his credit in the Hyundai A-League this campaign.
Glover gifts Victory a lifeline
It looked like City were on track for a trot to the finish line but the Melbourne Derby always produces a twist - and so it was again.
Victory found hope in the final quarter hour as Ola Toivonen seemingly innocuous free-kick was fumbled into the back of the net by Glover in a horror moment for the youngster.
Wellington Phoenix v Melbourne City
Saturday, 15 February
Kick off: 7pm local, 5pm AEDT
- Melbourne Victory have a bye