I am very far from a Melbourne Victory fan, but I am a huge Australian football fan. Accordingly, I always support the Aussies, no matter who, in the ACL and boy was I cheering loudly for Victory tonight.
Let’s put this in perspective. Kawasaki Frontale are the current J-League champions and (I think) sitting second after three rounds of the new season. They are a really strong, technically gifted, expensively curated and maintained football team. A strong contender for the ACL title.
In contrast, Melbourne Victory are sitting fourth in the A-League – miles behind leaders Sydney FC. Kawasaki were able to rest six players from the last tie, whereas Victory had lost their captain (Carl Valeri – suspended) and needed to bring in young Stefan Nigro for his ACL starting bow and rely on other youngsters from the bench.
Beyond a couple of outrider seasons (the Wanderers winning the ACL and Adelaide making the final) A-League teams have mainly done it fairly tough. We find it hard to compete against the cashed up sides from Japan, China and Korea and don’t often get to play against the even more fiscally buoyant teams from the Middle East. And tonight, for the first 20 minutes or so, it was looking more or less business as usual.
Kawasaki were all over Melbourne, who relied on several world class saves from Lawrence Thomas to keep them in the game. One save in particular (a full stretch tip onto the bar) will be shown around the world and it would not surprise at all if Thomas’s CV was suddenly in demand in back offices across Asia. He’s a good keeper.
But Victory worked their way into the game by halftime and I found myself totally gripped by the encounter unfolding. Besides Thomas, the entire defence was outstandingly resilient. Deng, Donachie, Williams and Nigro were all just brilliant and in the second half the rest of the team started to have an impact.
Mind you, there was a lot more work to do first. The way Kawasaki kept the ball on the edge of the final third was mesmerising – touch, balance, timing, short runs and sleight of foot. It was pretty incredible that Victory managed to prevent any clear cut chances and, as the game wore on, started to make a few chances of their own.
The turning point truly came when Berisha was replaced. He’s had an impressive career but a player so frequently offside has lost his edge. He’s lost that metre that matters and that’s why he keeps getting found out. His reaction at being substituted probably says more about his frustration at his own performance than anything else.
Kenny Athiu came on and looked a far better player than what we’ve seen so far. His touch was excellent tonight and he figured strongly in several opportunities. Troisi and Barbarouses were outstanding, and Leroy George is always good.
The last 15 minutes were all Victory and when Hope and Theoharous came on they both found something extra to help create the pressure, and then the chance that decided the contest, an excellent interchange of short passes which saw Barbarouses beat the Korean national keeper at his near post.
The point that most needs to be made is this: this was a great result not just for Victory, but for Australian football. With everything that’s been going wrong recently it’s been easy to believe that another South African curse must have been put on us. But wow! This was an epic football match and a huge result for Australian football. One of the best matches I've seen in the ACL.
Of course, after beating the J-League champions, Victory are now odds on to lose to the Mariners on the weekend.
Adrian’s latest book The Fighting Man is in the shops right now or available through Booktopia. Adrian also wrote Mr Cleansheets.