Have we just seen the definitive performance of this A-League season?
Melbourne City were just awesome in their dismantling of the Mariners last night, which demonstrated hugely the impact of two players.
The first was Andrew Nabbout. He is back in the sort of form he showed for Newcastle in his break-out year and then went on to be first choice up front for the Socceroos in Russia. He was utterly magnificent against France in Kazan but then tragedy struck in the second match and he's been trying to come back from injury ever since.
Now he's the personification of pace and power and terrorised the Mariners' left side. He was a main reason the Central Coast midfield was so pulled out of shape.
The other relevant player from last night was more conspicuous in his absence. Gianni Stensness is so important to the Mariners and there's been a huge hole in their midfield since he's been out injured.
Alen Stajcic has tried all sorts of combinations ever since but it's not working. Only guts, resilience and the performances of Birrighitti, Tongyik and Rowles have kept the points rolling in but that has only papered over the cracks. Cracks which were wrenched open last night by a team approaching its peak.
My god they were good. Melbourne City are a team who seem to play with just one brain. All eleven players are so tuned into the team shape and philosophy that they all know what is going to happen two or three passes ahead and move early to implement. Add the pace across the park and the precision of their passing, that's a lethal combination. When you finally add the surgical precision of Jamie MacLaren in career best form, well, it's just not fair.
They tore Victory apart recently and might have done the same to the ladder leaders if not for the outstanding performances of Birrighitti and Rowles. The normally outstanding Tongyik had a bit of an off day. The first goal came as a direct result of him charging out of shape to attempt a tackle way upfield. A tackle he missed, allowing City to march into the gap he'd left with Berenguer having all the time in the world to pick out the deadly MacLaren.
He tried it again shortly after, then later copped a yellow card for misjudging the pace of MacLaren. But he's too good not to recover from that.
The Mariners need a reset. Their early season form has evaporated in the absence of Stensness so they need him back and they need to think about a few other things. Their movement in midfield and in the final third was either non-existent or way too slow. I don't think they can afford both Simon and Urena on at once at the moment - they looked tired. How often was Danny De Silva running across the park looking for an option with his team mates standing staring?
Bozanic was effectively shut down last night (again showing how much he needs Stensness at his side) so was unable to play his usual forward passes. Other teams will have taken note which is further reason to be trying something different.
Clisby and Nigro out wide also looked ineffective but, to be fair, they were confronted with two excellent players in Nabbout and Noone. They were unable to cope with the constant press and had few options going forward, leading to a lot of wayward passes.
Most frustrating for Mariners fans was when Alou Kuol finally came on - presumably to constitute an attacking threat (or at least provide an outlet) - not once did he get the ball in a dangerous place. As I said last week, if you have a player like Kuol then Plan A must be to get him in behind. I didn't see a scrap of evidence that they were trying to do that.
The only good news for the Mariners is that they're still top of the league and to only lose by two after playing so badly against such a good team tells you something about their refusal to be beaten. They might even have staged a late comeback had they been awarded a penalty. Where are Ams and Fielding when you need them?
But the final word must go to City. IMHO, they are the best team in the A-League for years - maybe since Arnie's Sydney FC. Patrick Kisnorbo has created something really special and the way they're going, it's hard to see anyone getting close to them.
Adrian's books can be purchased at any good bookstore or through ebook alchemy. His new novel, Welcome to Ord City, is now available.