Melbourne Victory had a narrow three-two win over Champions Sydney FC in front of a new record A-League attendance of nearly 40,000 at Melbourne's Telstra Dome on Saturday evening, outdrawing what many had previously assumed to be the Melbourne sporting public's favourite game played at the MCG earlier that day.
Danny Allsopp grabbed two, and Kevin Muscat converted a penalty for Victory. Iain Fyfe and Dave Carney got Sydney's replies' although the official record has Sydney's second listed as a Roddy Vargas own goal.
Sydney captain Mark Rudan was dismissed just thirteen minutes in with Victory already two goals up after he kicked out at Alessandro after he'd fouled the Brazilian and earnt a yellow card. Fred was lucky to escape a similar fate after a nasty off-the-ball incident which sent Mark Milligan to the sidelines clutching his throat. [Fred was later cited to appear before the disciplinary tribunal to explain his elbow to Milligan's throat. He was handed a 3 match suspension on the 6th of September ruling him out until round 6 - TE]
Two goals in a minute, and Rudan's send-off meant the game seemed pretty-well wrapped up by the quarter-hour mark. But it took Sydney only another few minutes from Rudan's sad solo walk to the dressing rooms to get on the scoreboard itself, and wrestle a way back into the contest. It was an exhilarating opening.
"(The game) had everything, didn't it?" said Victory coach Ernie Merrick after the match. "Excitement, five goals, send-offs, it had controversy, end-to-end stuff. It was fantastic for football tonight."
"Two wins from two matches against two of the best sides in Australia, with a crowd of 40,000 - I'm very happy," he said. "I thought we deserved to get something for the character and the spirit of the players," said Sydney coach Terry Butcher. "Teams want to beat us. Every game we play is a cup final. My players worked, and scrapped, and just ran themselves into the ground."
The scoring began after just eight minutes' play. Allsopp converted from a corner his endeavour had earlier won. Wriggling clear of two challenges at the edge of the penalty-area he forced a deflected save from Clint Bolton. As the corner came in, Adrian Leijer ran into Robbie Middleby who sustained a serious shoulder injury, later believed to be a broken collar-bone. Muscat got a touch which pushed the ball into Allsopp's path and the burly striker gleefully rammed home from point-blank range.
The Sydney players protested the felling of Middleby who left the field in obvious distress before the re-start. But Victory quickly turned the ball over and Alessandro was sent on a chase from Archie Thompson's through-ball. Bolton spotted the danger and ran out to meet it, but was adjudged to have fouled Alessandro as they converged. Muscat converted his second Victory penalty in a week to double the lead.
Alessandro's trickery was at the heart of Sydney's third reversal when Rudan was dragged wide to deal with the nippy winger after Fyffe had been rounded. Rudan's rash tackle earnt him a yellow card for his troubles. Perhaps still stung by the manner of Alessandro's reaction to the tackle and his cautioning by referee Mark Shield, Rudan seemed to lash out with a kick at still prone Brazilian and picked up an immediate red card for violent conduct.
"It's very difficult when you play ten men against fourteen for eighty minutes," said Butcher clearly riled at a number of incidents which counted against Sydney. "I'll let the TV pictures speak for themselves."
Not even a quarter-hour had elapsed, and thoughts were already turning to whether this would be a repeat of last year's Melbourne meeting of the two, when Victory had scored five without reply.
But Sydney took advantage of some poor marking at a corner to get a toe-hold and put itself back in the game. Fyffe's header from Ufuk Talay's well-flighted cross to the penalty-spot arrowed into the Victory net low to goalkeeper Michael Theoklitos' left.
From what had seemed an unassailable position, Melbourne started rocking and Sydney began to make light of its man disadvantage. The half-time break couldn't come soon enough for Melbourne.
"It was mayhem in the first ten or fifteen minutes," said Butcher. "But after that, we settled down and played good football. Alvin Ceccoli said to me that the worse thing which happened was the half-time interval, because we were going pretty well."
"When you're down two goals in the first ten minutes or so, you've got nothing to lose," said Merrick, explaining why the balance was tipped. "You can play high-risk football, you can throw numbers forward. Even thought they did that, they didn't really get a shot in from open play."
The break perhaps allowed Melbourne to regroup, well marshalled by captain Muscat, and within five minutes, Allsopp had scored again. Muscat had spotted the spaces behind a sparse Sydney back line and sent a 40-yard pass up the middle. Milligan sought to reach it but his touch only succeeded in helping it on. Allsopp was now 25 metres out and Bolton was hopelessly stranded. Allsopp's lob was true, bouncing once before it hit the net.
"I (would have been) happy with one," said Allsopp. "Last year, (if) I'd lobbed it over the goalkeeper, it probably would have bounced up and hit the cross-bar. This year, it went in."
Shortly after, Fred was lucky to remain on the park after he'd raised his elbow and struck Milligan in his Adam's apple as he passed by. His act was unseen and so unpunished by the four officials, but Merrick wisely and immediately withdrew him for Claudinho. By now, the momentum was completely in Melbourne's favour.
"It was a stiff arm to the throat," said Butcher. "We saw it very clearly, the officials didn't. Had they seen it they would have taken action, but they didn't see it. (Milligan) nearly swallowed his tongue - we were very worried about it."
"I hopefully the TV have got good coverage. I hope then that the authorities take steps. There were lots of things in the game that we thought we were hard done by," said Butcher. "I'm not using that as an excuse (for the loss). If the police were watching the game tonight, there might be one or two cases (warranting) an assault charge." Butcher has had direct knowledge of such circumstances, having been convicted himself as a player.
It was Claudinho who spurned a marvellous opportunity to bring up Victory's fourth with just ten minutes remaining, but he delayed, then his shot was deflected wide. What should have put the game beyond Sydney's reach however spurred it into its own effort which brought about its second, and the game was again on a knife-edge.
From a swift break after a Victory corner, Carney had spread the ball wide to Ceccoli whose ball into the box was headed clear by Vargas. It fell handily for Carney who hit it from 20 metres, taking a slight deflection from the unlucky Vargas on its way into the net.
Lengthy second-half stoppages meant there were still five minutes to play after the ninety. Although Melbourne nerves were scrambled, Sydney could not gain the equaliser its hard work may well have merited.