Goals to Socceroos striker Jamie Maclaren on either side of half-time helped the Melbourne City spearhead go equal-top in the Golden Boot race in his side's 2-0 win over Western Sydney Wanderers at Bankwest Stadium on Tuesday night.
The visitors clinched back-to-back A-League victories in an impressive display against a Wanderers outfit tasting defeat for the second time in a row, in what has been a disappointing Matchweek 10 for Carl Robinson's side.
City were disrupted pre-match by the absence of head coach Patrick Kisnorbo and an injury to Florin Berenguer in the warm-up, but with Des Buckingham taking the reins and Naoki Tsubaki replacing the French midfielder the visitors settled the better of the two sides, going ahead on six minutes thanks to Jamie Maclaren's sixth goal of the season.
Craig Noone assisted the opening goal in an impressive first-half display and fellow City wide-man Andrew Nabbout operated to similar effect on the opposite wing, as City capitalised on considerable space left behind Western Sydney's two wing-backs to launch a number of dangerous attacks.
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Robinson replaced Keanu Baccus with Jordon Mutch at the break as the hosts searched for a way back into the game, but the Wanderers' challenge became all the more difficult when a Noone cross struck James Troisi's arm in the box, and a penalty was awarded to City.
The spot-kick was given after a VAR check and Maclaren was presented the chance to strike again - it was a chance he took with aplomb, as the Socceroos marksman lashed the penalty past Daniel Margush to put City two goals to the good.
Robinson's second-half substitutes did well to craft multiple chances for the hosts in the remaining half-hour of play. Bruce Kamau received the best opportunity of the night to score for the Red and Black only for his close-range header off Thomas Aquilina's volleyed cross to be snuffed out by Tom Glover's reactive stop.
Rostyn Griffiths retreated to the centre of defence to cover the injured Nuno Reis but the personnel change did nothing to stop City closing out the contest with the 2-0 advantage intact, to secure a second successive win in style.
Much like City did against Sydney FC in Matchweek 9, the visitors dominated the first half against the Wanderers with Nabbout and Noone causing chaos down either flank.
Maclaren scored his sixth goal of the season after Noone intercepted a loose Baccus pass deep in City's attack to feed a pass to Maclaren behind the Red and Black defensive line.
Maclaren's left-footed strike was hit with precision across goal, beating Margush with ease as the ball lasered into the bottom right corner.
GOAL: City go ahead early after misplaced Baccus pass
Carl Robinson utilised Daniel Wilmering and Aquilina as his two wing-backs for the contest and the youthful pair threatened in attacking areas throughout the first half-hour of play, but City capitalised on the space left behind the two Wanderers to craft a number of first-half chances.
Ranging balls from deep in City's defence regularly found Nabbout and Noone out wide who attacked the Wanderers' three centre-backs with vigour. Nabbout struck the post after collecting an aerial through ball from Scott Jamieson, tying Mark Natta in knots and firing past Margush into the left-hand upright.
CHANCE: Nabbout rattles the post after ruthless City counter
Nabbout was in the City side for the second successive game after a significant lay-off due to a hamstring injury sustained in Matchweek 1, and the Socceroos forward continued to attack after hammering the post, playing Maclaren in behind Natta to shoot over the bar before volleying a Noone cross toward goal which called Ziggy Gordon into a goal-mouth clearance.
Carl Robinson brought Mutch on for Baccus at the half-time break in search of an uplift in performance from his side, but the one-way traffic continued early in the second 45 when Noone won a penalty for City from a cross toward goal which was adjudged to have struck James Troisi's arm in the box.
A VAR check was needed to award City the spot kick which Maclaren stepped forward to rattle into the roof of the net, doubling his side's advantage and going level with Matt Derbyshire at the top of the Golden Boot standings.
GOAL: Maclaren secures his brace from the penalty spot
Troisi showed intent to wrestle his side back into the contest, racing to take a quick throw-in to spark a Wanderers attack before receiving the ball soon after to fire toward Mitch Duke at the front post, who couldn't get a touch on the dangerous cross.
Second-half substitute Mutch had his first sight on goal after a Graham Dorrans free-kick deflected into his path. His resulting shot was wide but the former English Premier League midfielder went closer with a first-time lobbed attempt from outside the box which drifted past the top-right corner of Tom Glover's goal.
The hosts went on to enjoy their best spell of attacking pressure in the following ten minutes of play.
Aquilina hit a magnificent volleyed cross toward the back post for substitute Kamau to head on goal, but Glover's reflex save kept Kamau's close-range attempt away from the back of the net.
SAVE: Glover denies Kamau from close-range
Mutch provided Aquilina with similar service minutes later but the defender couldn't convert from his own header which drifted over the bar.
Curtis Good missed the chance to put City 3-0 up when he thundered a well-placed Noone corner off the mark, which gave the Wanderers one more chance to threaten down the other end, but the hosts saw two quick-fire strikes repelled in the 85th minute as City desperately defended their clean sheet.
The opportunities presented to Nicolai Müller and Dorrans after Glover spilled the ball in the box. Müller struck toward a vacant net but Good deflected the ball away, then Dorrans lashed a similar effort on goal only for Taras Gomulka to send the ball far from danger.
Melbourne City assistant coach Des Buckingham says the significant effort Jamie Maclaren has put into developing his link-up play is helping the Socceroos spearhead become a more complete player in the 2020/21 A-League campaign.
Buckingham lauded Maclaren's commitment to improving his game after the striker netted his sixth and seventh goals of the campaign to go level at the top of the Golden Boot charts.
The off-season recruitment of Andrew Nabbout has changed the face of City's frontline, with less of a dependance on Maclaren's darting runs in behind helping diversify the attacking ventures of Kisnorbo's side.
With Nabbout operating to great effect off the right flank in City's past two games, Maclaren has been able to drop deeper to collect the ball and help his side link defence into attack, spreading the ball to great effect down either wing where Nabbout and Craig Noone have wreaked havoc in successive A-League victories.
It's a facet of Maclaren's play Buckingham has seen go from strength to strength since the conclusion of the 2019/20 campaign.
"We know he can go in behind, we know he can score goals - (link-up play) is an area to his game he’s hugely developed through pre-season until now," Buckingham told FOX Sports post-match.
"Again, he’s shown it really well tonight. That’s another dimension which puts us in good stead and allows us to create chances for others."
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Buckingham expanded on Maclaren's development in his post-match press conference, explaining how City's spread of attacking talent is helping bear the load often heaped squarely on Maclaren's shoulders.
"(Nabbout) causes a problem, because before maybe Maclaren was looking to run in behind, we’ve now got Andrew, we’ve got Jamie, we’ve got Connor (Metcalfe), we’ve got (Adrián) Luna when he’s fit.
"We’ve got more than one threat in behind. It keeps defences guessing, so it gives us a different dimension and way of playing.
"Jamie continues to deliver for this football club wherever he plays, whether it’s scoring goals or (being used) in a different way that he also is able to link play.
"He’s been really working at developing that side of his game, so not only can he go in behind and cause a problem in terms of scoring goals, but he’s really developed that link up play.
"That was so important to us tonight, to be able to move up the pitch."
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Maclaren drew level with Macarthur FC's Matt Derbyshire at the top of the Golden Boot standings on seven goals with his two goals scored against the Wanderers.
Back-to-back braces have helped Maclaren rifle into top-scorer contention, after the City ace netted twice against Sydney FC in Matchweek 9.
The 27-year-old's rich scoring form has coincided with City's resurgence, as successive wins followed a three-game losing stretch.
City's form and Maclaren's red-hot scoring streak have both benefited from Nabbout's return from a hamstring injury in Matchweek 1; he's yet to get off the mark in City colours but he's sparkled in the pair of consecutive wins, offering Maclaren much-needed help in the final third.
"We’ve got Andy back, he’s going to make runs in behind so I can afford to come short and try and drag a man," Maclaren told FOX Sports after securing his brace against the Red and Black.
"We watched Wanderers, we know that they drop deep and allow space for myself to come in.
"It's not my usual game, but you have to adapt."