The game of musical chairs, says coach John van ‘t Schip, has finally stopped at Melbourne City – and the coach now believes he has a squad with sufficient depth and ability to mount a serious challenge for the A-League title.
City has been the busiest club in the competition during the January transfer window and is set to unveil a new-look match-day squad featuring all four new faces in Monday night’s match at AAMI Park against Wellington Phoenix.
Defensive utility Osama Malik, who has joined from Adelaide United in a straight swap for young Olyroo midfielder Stefan Mauk, Anthony Caceres and his former Central Coast Mariners teammate Nick Fitzgerald and back-up goalkeeper Dean Bouzanis are all likely to figure either in the starting line-up or on the bench for the game against Ernie Merrick’s struggling Phoenix.
The New Zealanders have not won since the first weekend in December (when they saw off Melbourne Victory in a bizarre game on a dreadful pitch when both teams’ strips looked almost identical). They have only taken two points out of the last possible 18 in a sequence which has seen them crash 3-1 to bottom team Central Coast and a Newcastle side that had not scored a goal in 565 minutes before facing the Nix.
City are also likely to feature Socceroos full-back Ivan Franjic, who has been missing for several weeks, although centre back Jack Clisby will be out through suspension.
Van ‘t Schip got rid of failed marquee man Robi Koren last week when a deal for the former Slovenian skipper to leave before his contract expired was brokered.
But the Dutchman says there are no plans to rush in a big-name signing in his place.
“We will not have any more action from our side at this moment. We have got the players in that we wanted. It’s how things work. Other clubs were looking for our players and we are looking to reinforce where we need more cover,” he said.
As well as Mauk and Koren, City have also off-loaded No. 2 goalkeeper Tando Velaphi, who sought a release to move to Japan, and striker David Williams, who has moved to Hungary.
“Tando got a great offer and we didn’t want to hold him back. In Dean we think we have found a good replacement until the end of the season,” van ‘t Schip said.
“With David it was very clear for over a year that there was not much future here for him and that we would help him to find another club.
“Stefan was different, I think he is a young player with a future. But we thought we needed more reinforcements in the defensive area and we had an opportunity to get Osama Malik.”
Mauk had also, said van ‘t Schip, not indicated whether he was prepared to re-sign with the club when his contract expired at the end of the season.
“It wasn’t that we didn’t want to continue with Stefan. It was more that he also felt that it was time to get another experience. Knowing that there was a chance that he wouldn’t sign and we could get Malik , who we all know is a respected defender and midfielder. Adelaide was very keen on getting Mauk.”
Van ‘t Schip stressed that in a salary cap-enforced league signing versatile players who can do a number of jobs, like Malik, is important.
The same went for the ex Mariners duo Caceres and Fitzgerald, he said. “Nick Fitzgerald came in instead of David [Williams]. He is a direct replacement, he can play in midfield or as a winger, or as a second striker [in a front two].
“He has depth and speed in his game. We have him until the end of the season and it’s up to him to show that he wants to stay longer. He is young, but he has played a lot of games and has experience.
“Caceres is a well-respected player, technically he is very good. He can play higher up the pitch as a No. 10, or deeper in a more holding position. We just have to see how we can fit him in. I think he has a bright future.”
Van ‘t Schip said the decision to dump Koren, who was often injured and made little contribution during his 18-month stint at the club, was in the interests of all concerned.
“For both parties it was the best solution. We had no intention of doing it because we had another marquee player ready to jump in. It has to be a player that fits in the club, fits in the culture and is in the position we need. For Robi it didn’t work out the way we wanted, we learn from it and move forward.”
The new signings, says van ‘t Schip, not only give the club a lift across the board but increase competition for places in the starting eleven.
“We are still a team in progress, we have to improve a lot in certain aspects of the game,” he said. “We know we can play three at the back, or a back four. Osama can play higher if we have to. It’s good to have that option we can play in a different way.
“We don’t have to overthrow the whole team. We have only lost one in the last nine. Now the competition is on. The new players have to prove themselves.”
City have a short turnaround between Monday night’s fixture against the Phoenix and Friday night’s clash with league leaders Western Sydney in Parramatta.
Van ‘t Schip will use Franjic in the first game, although he is mindful of juggling his resources given the four-day gap between games.
He is also wary of a Wellington side that needs some points to stay in the hunt for the top six. Ernie Merrick’s men go into this fixture seven points behind sixth-placed Adelaide, and another loss would make it harder to recover the lost ground .
“Wellington have players back. Krishna is not playing, [Louis] Fenton and [Manny] Muscat are back. They are looking strong again. They like to play through the lines, they like to overload the midfield. Roly Bonevacia is an important player and with Michael McGlinchey they can really hurt you.”
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