Friday, November 03, 2006

The thriller at the Dome

Match analysis, round 11, Melbourne Victory 3 v Central Coast Mariners 3

DOES it get any better than this?

An absolute thriller tonight at the Telstra Dome, one of the best A-League games yet, proved, as if there was any doubt, that the Melbourne Victory are the real deal. Yet, they are by no means a sure thing of winning the title. The minor premiership? Yes. The title? well, we'll have to wait and see.

One thing's for sure. If they can keep their front three of Thompson, Allsopp and Fred injury free and in form, there are few defenses going around that can keep up with them, let alone keep them out.

Down to nine men for all the second half after the sending off of Vargas and Muscat in an amazing first period that yielded five goals, the Victory demonstrated they have the requisite desire to go with the quality.

While the Mariners had the odd half bite, the reality is that only one team looked likely to score in the second period, and eventually the Victory got their reward after some brilliant tee-up work from the Brazilian magician Fred.

Earlier in the day I'd woken up to the usual misinformed banter from the hosts of Sydney's Big Sports Breakfast, pleading with Andy Paschalidis for the 'real' Fred, he of Lyon and the goal in Munich, essentially trying to put down the A-League as second rate.

While it's not the Champions League, there was nothing second rate about this game, and nothing second rate about the masterful performance from Fred and his fellow front-men. While there was plenty of naivety about the Mariners defending at times, there was method behind the madness. More on that later, but back to Fred for now.

Within a few minutes he was weaving his flair, teeing up Simon Storey with neat flick, the shot not living up to the lay-off. Picking out Tomasevic, Fred soon had him for skill and pace, drifting in a delightful ball for Allsopp to monster home. It looked like Melbourne were on their merry way.

But the Mariners were here to play, and compete. Lawrie McKinna, speaking to Fox Sports before kick off, had clearly spelt out the game plan - defend high, push up on the Victory down the flanks through Petrie and Pondeljak (to pin back Melbourne), compete physically in midfield and have a go at them.

Defending deep, as the Mariners had done for much of the year, he reasoned, would invite the Victory on, and give their front trio space in front of the Mariners back four, which might spell disaster.

It was a gamble, for defending high against the Victory is also fraught with danger because they have speed to kill up front.

But the idea was to take the game to Melbourne, and some gaps at the back would be the sacrifice. It seemed to work. Soon enough the Mariners had an equaliser, when Mori found space in behind Piorkowski, drew Vargas and planted a first time cross onto the head of McMaster.

Back came the Victory, burning the Mariners on the counter, Allsopp feeding Thompson, who gallopped clear and clipped it over Vukovic for a sublime finish. The Mariners stuck to the game plan, pushed on and had a second equaliser when Pondeljak clipped a ball in behind Vargas, McMaster and Mori combining to tee-up Petrie for a neatly placed finish. Mori the finisher had turned provider.

Four goals in 11 minutes. Breathtaking stuff.

Back came the Victory, seemingly busting the Mariners rearguard at will. But it was the visitors who grabbed the go-ahead, Kwasnik profiting from some sloppy defending at a set piece to head towards goal, where Vargas handled on the line.

Red card, penalty, and Kwasnik was fortunate to get away with one that Theoklitos reached but couldn't keep out. 2-3, all within the first quarter of the game. Surely it would settle down?

Not if Muscat had his way. Already he'd picked a couple of arguments with Mori and Kwasnik. Now it was McMaster's turn, the Mariners seemingly intent on matching him in the intimidation stakes. It worked, Muscat snapping after one off the ball incident too many.

Down two men, Ernie Merrick reshaped by withdrawing Allsopp into midfield (Caceres had earlier been sacrificed for defender Pantelidis when Vargas was sent off), leaving Thompson up front and asking Allsopp and Fred to spring forward and support. The Mariners allowed it to happen, and Vukovic had a react sharply to keep out the Brazilian's sharp volley.

What would McKinna do in the second half? Surely he held all the aces? Not so, Melbourne driving forward on the counter, working incredibly hard all over the pitch and asking questions of a Mariners defence that has looked slow and square all season.

Twice they should have grabbed an equaliser, first Thompson denied by Vukovic's right foot after he'd burnt Wilkinson, before Fred went one way and then the other, danced past a few defenders, rounded the keeper, only the turn it wide. The mind flicked back a day or so to the Cesc Fabregas miss against CSKA.

A lesser team may have given up, a lesser player may have dropped his head. Not this bloke, not this team. From a throw-in that might have been pulled-up if the strict 'foul-throw' interpretation applied, he received a back-heel from Sarkies, danced inside Petrie and, out of the corner of his eye, saw an Allsopp run in behind O'Sullivan.

The vision was supreme, the weight on the ball even better, Allsopp volleying past Vukovic with the instep, sound technique from a bloke finally fulfilling the potential he showed as a teenager at South Melbourne in the NSL.

Another brilliant crowd of 28,000 plus went potty. It was a point, Melbourne's first draw of the season, but it was much more. Melbourne Victory? Try Moral Victory.

The visitors looked guttered, but they needn't have been. Few teams have the guts to come to Melbourne and play so expansively, and the Mariners proved damage can be done if you have a go at them.

Two points in two weeks, both on the road, to the competition's top two, Queensland and Melbourne. Hardly a disaster.

This was just about as good as it gets, a brilliant advertisement for a league that has rarely been this good. Well may it continue.


Blogger Hamish said...

Tony, I didn't see the game, but you have made it live for me. You are a very, very fine sports writer.

Sat. Nov. 04, 08:56:00 am AEDT  
Blogger john said...

Hi Tony

The heroes for Central Coast were Mori for his early chop that got Muscat fired up and out of control, and McMaster who went down and stayed down after the 'unseen' Muscat punch and finally master-minded the second yellow soon after. Oh yes and the two combined to score to boot. McMaster hasn't forgotten his Leeds United training.

Sat. Nov. 04, 09:13:00 am AEDT  
Blogger The Round Ball Analyst said...

Thanks Hamish, glad you enjoyed the read. What a game. If you get a chance to watch it, do so. I know it's on now (9am syd time, Fox 3).

Sat. Nov. 04, 09:14:00 am AEDT  
Blogger The Round Ball Analyst said...

John, thanks for the comment. I thought Mori started really well. In truth, I expected the solid Melb defence to shut him out (so much so I left him out of my Fantasy team this week), but perhaps that was underselling the strength of Mori. He causes most defender headaches simply becuase of his physical strength.

And he's also very mentally tough, which is why he and Muscat clashed It was a meeting of the minds and I remember thinking at the time that it was good to see someone stand up to Muscat. Too often he has his own way, teams and officials letting him get away with a bit too much in my mind.

It seemed to me the Mariners were intent on matching him in the mental stakes, and Mori led the way.

Mori standing up to him brought the likes of Kwasnik and McMaster along for the ride. I thought the drive from McMaster was excellent in the first half, but he was very disappointing in the second.

In the end, it was Muscat and his Melbourne outfit who had the last laugh, simply too potent for the Mariners who I feel have some structural issues at the back. For me that has been their major issue all year.

Sat. Nov. 04, 09:26:00 am AEDT  
Blogger The Round Ball Analyst said...

Wayne O'Sullivan, I did you a bit of a diservice...

The ball by Fred to set up Allsopp's equaliser was actually played in behind Paul O'Grady, the big number three, not O'Sullivan.

Sat. Nov. 04, 07:04:00 pm AEDT  

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