Melbourne Victory stormed to the top of the Hyundai A-League table at North Harbour Stadium on September 10, squelching their way to a 3-0 triumph over the NZ Knights before a paltry rain-affected crowd numbering 2,071.
The clash of two of the league’s unbeaten teams going into this third round encounter was overshadowed by the playing conditions, the inclement weather contributing greatly to the low turn-out. And the much maligned playing surface had the added element of being waterlogged to further lessen the quality of the spectacle.
The visitors adapted far better to the conditions than their hosts, who carved out the first chance of the game five minutes in. Richard Johnson and Malik Buari combined to create an opening for Jonti Richter, the cross just too far in front of the last-mentioned to allow him to capitalise.
Sadly for the Knights, that was as good as it got for them in the remainder of the half, their cause dealt a savage blow by Jonas Salley picking up an ankle ligament injury before fifteen minutes of the match had passed.
The visitors were already a goal to the good by this time, opening the scoring with their first attack, in the ninth minute. Kevin Muscat played the ball forward from half-way, and Kristian Sarries, cutting in from the left flank, controlled it neatly before touching on to Archie Thompson.
The Kiwi-born Socceroo had a whale of a game, and on this occasion completely wrong-footed Knights defender Che Bunce before playing the ball into the path of his partner in crime, Daniel Allsopp. The league’s leading scorer made no mistake with a clinical finish - 1-0 Melbourne.
After Sarkies had scythed inside off the left flank and forced Danny Milosevic into a good smothering save, the visitors doubled their lead in the 22nd minute with another well-crafted goal, despite the conditions.
Simon Storey and Grant Brebner combined on the right, with the latter slipping the ball inside for Allsopp. His first-time pass sent the dashing figure of Thompson careering into the penalty area, where he side-stepped the committed figure of Milosevic before steering the ball home from the tightest of angles.
2-0 became 3-0 ten minutes before half-time, Melbourne again making light of the conditions to effectively clinch victory prior to the interval. A foul by Salley’s replacement, Michael White, on Brebner was punished mercilessly by the visitors, Sarkies’ free-kick picking out the completely unmarked Muscat as he arrived in the penalty area … a gift goal.
Any hopes the Knights held of getting back into the match were being snuffed out at source virtually every time they stepped into Melbourne’s half by a three-strong posse of grey-clad Melbournians, who converged on the threat as if moths to a flame.
The Knights, meanwhile, have work aplenty to do, and without the hugely influential Salley to marshal the threats in front of the back four for at least a fortnight, not to mention the limited strike power at manager Paul Nevin’s disposal, challenging times lie ahead for a team which faces its first road trip of the season this week. It was not uncommon to see the likes of Allsopp and Thompson tracking back to aid the cause - the work ethic the visitors displayed, particularly given the conditions, was highly commendable.
The home team clearly took stock at half-time, because they emerged a more cohesive unit for the second spell. However, the horse had long since bolted, meaning it was really a forty-five minute damage limitation exercise for Paul Nevin’s men.
Pushing more players forward clearly aided their cause, but opened the way for Thompson, in particular, to exploit the gaps which doing so created. In the 53rd minute, the goalscorer latched onto possession before taking on and getting the better of Neil Emblen as he dribbled into the penalty area. Bunce came across to avert the danger on this occasion, but it wouldn’t be the last time Thompson caused problems.
He repeated the dose in the 62nd minute, barrelling downfield upon being picked out on half-way by Storey’s ball forward. With opponents drawn towards Thompson, Allsopp swiftly sized up the situation and made an angled diagonal run from right to left across the defence.
Thompson duly provided his front-running partner with a made-to-measure pass into the inside left channel, Allsopp taking the ball in his stride and shooting past the advancing Milosevic. Unfortunately for the striker, his effort crept narrowly past the far post - it deserved better fate.
Seconds later, Thompson was again in the thick of things, taking on Knights defenders before picking out substitute Vince Lia on the left. The newcomer evaded two more challengers before crossing from the by-line to the far post, where Brebner only just failed to get on the end of his cross to turn the ball home.
After this incident, Melbourne effectively decided to shut up shop, and this allowed the Knights to press on in search of a goal. Richter was the first to chance his arm, his twenty yard effort flying high, wide and handsome in the 67th minute.
Twelve minutes later, a Buari corner was headed clear by Storey to Scot Gemmill, lurking just outside the penalty area. His twenty yard drive was deflected goalwards by Bunce, but straight into the hands of Michael Theoklitos, Melbourne’s ‘keeper having had little to do up to this point.
His interest in the game wasn’t allowed to wane, for four minutes later, he was racing off his line quickly to counteract the danger posed by Richter’s pursuit of a Gregory Duruz through ball. The goalkeeper saved well at the striker’s feet.
A stoppage time effort summed up the Knights’ day. Johnson and Buari combined, the latter finding space from which to unleash a goalbound effort from twenty-five yards. But the ball struck the hitherto unsighted figure of Sean Devine - he wasn’t the only Knights player to perform anonymously, mind - and ricocheted to safety.
Referee Matthew Breeze’s final whistle sounded soon afterwards, confirming Melbourne’s rise to the top of the A-League standings, and a good week ahead for Victoria’s bakeries - due to all the humble pie to be eaten by the critics of coach Ernie Merrick!!
The Knights, meanwhile, have work aplenty to do, and without the hugely influential Salley to marshal the threats in front of the back four for at least a fortnight, not to mention the limited strike power at manager Paul Nevin’s disposal, challenging times lie ahead for a team which faces its first road trip of the season this week.