As Melbourne City will tell you, there’s nothing quite like having a striker in red-hot form in your squad.
Making his first appearance for the 2019/20 A-League season after returning from international duty with the Socceroos, Jamie Maclaren was at his irrepressible best for City in his 78-minute appearance against Adelaide United on Sunday afternoon: firing in a brace to make it twelve goals in seven competitive matches and secure his side a 2:1 win.
When he is on his game, Maclaren’s ability to run and run and then run some more provides constant headaches for opposing defences; both when they are called upon to chase the City number nine down and when they come in for attention looking to work the ball out from the back.
When the ball then falls to him inside the penalty area – be it as a result of his work rate, thanks to his teammate's execution of Mombaerts new “City Football” style game plan or a combination of the two – the 26-year-old’s poaching instincts might be unmatched in the A-League.
Faced with the unusual prospect of having to back-up and do it all again in the final of the FFA Cup on Wednesday night as well as react to the opening round of the A-League season, both City gaffer Erick Mombaerts and Reds boss Gertjan Verbeek were forced to improvise for Sunday’s fixture.
There were four changes made to the City XI that drew 0-0 with Melbourne Victory the week prior, while Verbeek made five modifications to the team that lost 3-2 to Sydney FC.
Playing together for the first time in an A-League fixture after combining for ten goals in the FFA Cup, the combination of Maclaren and Craig Noone gave a glimpse of its tantalising promise early on when the two combined smoothly in the seventh minute to spring City forward and set up Ramy Najjarine to almost come within inches of breaking the deadlock.
City had struggled to capitalise on their control of the game against Victory; their makeshift front three of Noone, Lachlan Wales and Javier Cabrera disjointed and wasteful in the few clear chances they were able to create.
Wasteful, however, is not a descriptor that can be used to describe the run of form that Maclaren is in.
Twice in the first half on Sunday was Maclaren in just the right place at just the right time to turn City’s attacking moves forward into goals on the scoreboard.
The first arrived in the 24th minute when he seized upon a Metcalfe shot deflected into his path and poked around Izzo with his right foot and the second in the 28th minute when he was waiting to pounce on a Scott Jamieson cross that fell to the turf after neither side could get a clear head on it and fire home with his left.
Two further chances then followed early in the second half.
The first came in the 56th minute when – demonstrating his lung-busting instincts – a tenacious pursuit of a long ball over the top forced a scrambling Michael Jakobsen to pop up ball up into the air and create a chance he just sent over.
In the 59th minute, he forced a save from Izzo after chesting down a cross into the area, opening up an angle around Ryan Kitto and firing off with his left.
For Adelaide, Sunday evening was always going to be a difficult contest to get a result in even before Maclaren turned it on.
Forced to travel and with perhaps a greater eye on the cup then their opponents, their woes were compounded when talisman Ben Halloran was withdrawn with illness just hours before the contest was set to kick-off.
In his absence, the Reds were left with just three players on the bench for part one of their doubleheader with the Citizens – all three of whom were under 23.
Butting up against a solid City defence for much of the opening stages, the Reds were able to give themselves a sniff when former City man Riley McGree fired home a ball loose in the area after City failed to clear a corner in the 67th minute but when the Olyroo failed to find the back of the net from a golden chance just four minutes later one could sense that it wasn’t the Reds day.
The pressure is now on the Reds to get a result on Wednesday night to provide their season with a much-needed kickstart.
Bottom of the table after two defeats to start the season, a second-straight defeat against City in the FFA Cup final would heap pressure on Verbeek’s side ahead of their visit to Newcastle Jets next week.
Step one in that task of getting a result?