After two contrasting rebuilds, Victory and City ready to reignite ALW's Melbourne Derby

If sporting competitions could be said to have eras, then the epoch that the A-League Women's competition presently finds itself in would be christened "the post Matildas age."

With the allure of full-time European seasons, and COVID reframing the opportunity cost and logistical challenges associated with bringing in international players, ALW clubs have been forced to rapidly recalibrate for life without swathes of Australia's senior national team, those on its periphery, or large numbers of international stars in recent years -- given an unwilling crash course in finding value and contributors in hitherto underutilised areas.

Some clubs adjusted better than others. In Adelaide, the shift synched perfectly with the maturing of the contingent of young, South Australian talent the club had assembled and they qualified for their first-ever finals campaign in 2021-22. Sydney FC effectively had their entire 2020-21 side signed soon after the previous campaign ended, locking in an NSW core that not only lifted them to back-to-back premierships and a spot in next week's 2021-22 Grand Final.

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In Melbourne, returns differed greatly. In its navy blue half, a local core was brought together, supplemented by some shrewdly recruited "internationals" from the NPLW and a sprinkling of veteran talent, and won an ALW championship. In the light blue half, an exodus in talent and challenges in recruitment led to a fall from near-perfect to near-last.

"Two years ago when we finished that great run and lost all these players we were still hoping that we could bring players in from overseas, we were talking to some really good overseas players," City coach Rado Vidosic told ESPN.

"There was positive feedback. But then COVID hit and stopped all of that.

"Then that plan was pushed aside and we had to scramble. Sydney FC concentrated on their players from the Sydney area, Victory signed a lot of players from Melbourne. Because we were a bit late to get in on the market we were left to sign what was leftover.

"After that season, we sat down and we said we didn't want to be in that situation again so let's start doing it early, let's start identifying players and talking to players."

"I think we copped a bit of criticism in that first year saying that we hadn't planned for it," added City director of football Michael Petrillo. "It's very hard to plan to lose 13 players of that calibre. I doubt any team would have been able to cope."

Of course, while headaches are inevitable when it comes to matters of composition and contracting, the task of roster construction staring down Victory coach Jeff Hopkins heading into 2021-22 was much simpler -- coming off a title and all.

Victory had 10 players signed that had played at least a season's worth of games for the club heading into this campaign and returned seven members from the starting XI that defeated Sydney FC in last year's Grand Final. Of the absent three, goalkeeper Gaby Garton, would have returned if not for her pregnancy.

Things might have gone somewhat pear-shaped once the season began -- Kayla Morrison's ACL injury irreversibly season-altering and Melina Ayres effectively shelved for the entire regular season with a hamstring issue -- but there was enough resilience built into the roster and scope for additions such as Alex Chidiac to ride the storm and qualify for finals.

"There are three things we thought about [heading into 2021-22]," Hopkins told ESPN.

"It was about locking in our key players, looking at our younger players and carrying on the planning for the future -- so we've got continuity of players over the next few years in certain positions -- and then, looking at the end of that, rejuvenating the squad and refreshing it a little bit.

"[2020-21] was a different process

"We weren't really sure what the possibility of getting players over was going to be. We looked and figured we most likely weren't going to be able to bring players in, Matildas and players of that ilk.

"And, truth be said, I think they were being encouraged not to play in the W-League, from what I understood. So it was going to be different.

"I leant back on my knowledge of the local competition and the players playing in the NPLW. Number one in Victoria, and then speaking to people that were seeing games in NSW and Queensland.

"I don't think clubs can afford not to be looking after players on their doorstep. We're very keen on letting players know in Victoria that we want to be the team of choice for local players."

Conversely, at the start of City's 2021-22 campaign, 13 of the 23 players signed had never played a game for the club before, seven hadn't played a senior match at ALW level at all, and only Emma Checker, Rebekah Stott, and Tyla-Jay Vlajnic had played a season's worth of games for City.

Yet flying in the face of the continuity that lifted Victory, Sydney, and Adelaide to the finals, this disparate group of players still managed to come together and perform in a manner that pushed the Sky Blues in the race for the premiers plate until the final game of the season.

"We try to have a specific football style," said Vidosic. "When I look at players, I see what parts of that style do they have, what we believe we can improve and then we communicate with them to explain our performance values and ask if they can meet them.

"If they have been involved in ALW then there's footage we go through. We also get a lot of footage from NPLW -- I scouted Darcey Malone from her games in NPLW NSW.

"Generally it takes up to 10 weeks [to integrate into City's style]. But this was the first time since I joined the club that we had all players signed and we had around six weeks preseason."

Thus, at its core, Sunday afternoon's preliminary final meeting could be said to not only be a battle to determine who will face Sydney in the following week's decider but also a symbolic opening salvo in a new phase of the rivalry between City and Victory.

In 2020-21, City's first attempt to adjust to the new paradigm came up short as Victory surged to a title. In two meetings at the start of this season, both sides were still largely in their formative stages and would argue that the defeats they suffered -- Victory winning 2-1 in round two and City winning 5-1 in round four -- were not indicative of who they are.

Though both will be missing a pillar of their squads this weekend -- Morrison for Victory and McNamara for City -- Sunday finally pits two entities that have now seemingly found their feet in the post-Matildas era; with plans to push on from here to build a consistent base and pipeline for the new paradigm.

"The obvious answer to talent drain is to develop your own players," Victory director of football John Didulica told ESPN of the future.

"The fact that our season starts in December and ends in March means we get a very small window to develop players before they all go away for the next six or seven months. When I talk about policy changes it's about building out a 52-week calendar.

"That then feeds into the squad that Jeff is focusing on, finding players that over time could be 52-week players for the club.

"It will give us a chance to say to players: 'Instead of settling for a sub-standard program in Europe just because it gives you more games, stay in Australia and play in a high-quality environment all year round.'

"There's a myth that programs in Europe are inherently better than Australia, they're not. It's great to see our top players going to top teams in Europe, Asia and America. That's great and we need to encourage it. But when they're going to substandard programs just because they need to piece together a living and piece together a career, we're failing them."

"It's something we need to work on," Petrillo concurred.

"We're both keen to start our own women's academies and have a team in the NPLW. That's the way we'll be able to improve the quality and the depth of Victorian women's football.

"If we're able to have players here for 12 months on the same program working with the best coaches and staff and training and playing with the best players.

"If we want to improve, it has to happen. And the sooner it happens the better off women's football will be in Victoria."