Looking out across the pristine playing surface at AAMI Park ahead of Sydney FC’s 2-0 win over Melbourne City on Thursday night, it was almost impossible not to think about a similar occasion just under a year ago.
On that March afternoon - the stands emptied of all but friends and family as the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic began to become apparent - Steph Catley’s 15th-minute strike powered City over Sydney and to its fourth W-League title in five seasons; the Matildas’ star captaining an XI that featured ten senior internationals and had set new records for domination in the proceeding season.
Thursday was the first meeting between the two foes since and, with the last-minute determination that the surface of Frank Holohan Soccer Complex was unsafe, proceedings once again took place behind-closed-doors at AAMI Park.
City coach Rado Vidosic and Sydney coach Ante Juric returned to the site of their battle 320 days prior, and Sydney was even wearing the same black short kit option from the decider.
Yet for all the things that were the same, it's also impossible not to draw a contrast between the divergent paths that Sydney and City have taken in 2020-21 following the former’s win.
With the three points, the Sky Blues are now a perfect five wins from five games this season and, for all the talk of chaos and unpredictability around the competition, look almost nailed on as finals competitors and title favorites.
City, conversely, has taken just four points from their opening seven games - two more than any other side in the league - and while not mathematically eliminated, appear all but certain to miss finals for just the second time in their history.
“We’ve lost grand finals to them, lost most mid-season games, so [the win] was nice,” Juric told The World Game.
“We did have a bit of a target on them, we did say ‘why not potentially knock them out of the finals series’ so that’s a positive for us down the track so we don’t have to play them anymore. They’re still capable of playing finals but it makes them tough for them.
“We’re happy in that sense. But to play here and play against them it was a bit of revenge for some girls that lost that Grand Final.”
Although the absence of figures such as Alanna Kennedy, Sofia Huerta and Veronica Latsko can’t be hidden, Sydney’s win over City also hearkened to the differing approaches to 2020-21 that the two clubs took upon the final whistle of the grand final being blown.
In what was later shown to be a league-leading move, the Harboursiders announced 16-members of their 2020-21 W-League squad all the way back in August, including the return of 2019-20 Grand Final squad members Teresa Polias, Taylor Ray, Natalie Tobin, Golden Boot winner Remy Siemsen, Angelique Hristodoulou, and Princess Ibini - all of whom were present in the win over City.
Despite the status of the coming season still being uncertain, they nonetheless also moved to secure the signature of Jada Mathyssen-Whyman, Cortnee Vine and Rachel Lowe from Western Sydney Wanderers.This trio also started in Thursday’s triumph.
“You have to take [the pandemic-affected 2020-21 season] day by day and I think us as a group, we were very fortunate to be together from an early stage in pre-season,” Siemsen, who scored in the 2-0 win, told The World Game.
“I think we all really clicked off the field and that really resonates on the field.
“Pre-season was super important to get that chemistry underway. A lot of us have played U20s national teams and there were a few of us retained from last year, so we’ve a good core that Ante has kept and we’ve brought in some great dynamic players.
“You look at our depth in the team, I think anyone can get in and get the job done.”
While he’s not been afraid to bring in big-name Matildas and internationals over the years - Sydney not exactly one of the W-League’s impecunious outfits - Juric explained to The World Game that future-proofing his squad has been a constant presence in his thinking since he took over ahead of the 2017-18 season.
“[2020-21 is] four years in the making,” he said. “I’ve always had a plan, I don’t know how long I’ll be around, but I’ve had a plan to bring in young ones and certain players.
“The plan is to pick decent players and if they like the environment they’ll stay. We’re hoping that happens next year again. Often coaches approach our girls but they want to stay. It’s a plan, so regardless of the pandemic or not we would have had that in place.
“If we do bring an outsider in they’re going to be top-shelf, they’re not going to be mediocre. It’s always been in place, it’s what we sort of planned and it’s worked thus far.”
But in the opposition dugout, their half a decade of dominance built off the back of bringing in the finest domestic and international talent available to their competition-leading program, City has been hit hard by the shifting sands of women’s football in 2020-21.
Of the eleven players that featured in their Grand Final win over Sydney, only Emma Checker has returned for this season. That, however, came after the defender suffered a stress fracture in her fibula while on the books at French side FC Fleury 91 - an injury that kept her from starting until City’s fifth game of the season.
Facing a complete rebuild and already operating behind the eight-ball because COVID-19 forced the complete abandonment of the 2020 NPLW Victoria season, border restrictions and the shift of the women’s footballing world’s gaze to Europe suddenly cut City off from the vast talent pool it had so effectively recruited from in years gone by.
Options were further reduced when Melbourne Victory rapidly moved to secure experienced Victorian W-League talent such as Melina Ayres, Amy Jackson, MelindaJ Barbieri, Lia Privitelli, and Polly Doran, as well as international NPLW Victoria standouts Kayla Morrison, Catherine Zimmerman and Gaby Garton.
Eventually, City did add Australian representatives Alex Chidiac, Jenna McCormick, Teigan Allen and Teagan Micah to their ranks, as well International talent in Chinatsu Kira and Noor Eckhoff, but, due to the late nature of their arrival and interrupted pre-season, only Micah and McCormick featured in the side’s round one draw with Brisbane.
“We had five or six strikers in the pipeline from October until basically the start of the season and we just couldn’t get them,” Vidošić said on City’s recruiting struggles earlier this season.
“We are well and truly aware of what our needs are.
“We had a striker that just signed another contract somewhere else, and it just fell through. So, those things happen. We had a completely different team when we started to what we ended up with.
“That’s football, and that’s the W-League and that is probably… that’s what you need to pay when you had such a strong team last year and they all left. Sooner or later that is going to happen to strong teams.”
Of course, circumstances haven’t been kind to the defending champions in their efforts to integrate their new arrivals.
Facing Brisbane (twice), Canberra, Victory (twice), a resurgent Adelaide and Sydney in their opening weeks without the benefit of a bye, City has scarcely a moment to breath, let alone find form and fitness, in the season’s opening exchanges - hardly conducive for the finals hopes of a team looking to come good in the second half of the season.
But having spent the past half a decade largely under their boot, sympathy won’t exactly be very forthcoming from the rest of the league - they’re too busy trying to chase down Sydney FC.