Melbourne Victory retained leadership of the A-League after a narrow 1-0 win over Central Coast Mariners at Olympic Park on Sunday evening. Archie Thompson got the only goal of the game in the early moments of the second half. Mariners pressed resources into its forward line for a sustained period following the goal in an attempt to get back into the game, and will consider itself hard-done by that it obtained no reward for its endeavour.
"I thought the boys could have scored four and I could relax," said Victory coach Ernie Merrick after the game. "But it went right until the end and made it difficult for ourselves, but (the win) was fantastic."
"(Victory) deserved its lead," said Mariners' coach Lawrie McKinna. "We got caught at the back a few times at the end because we were pushing on. A couple of mistakes and we lose a goal."
"(Confidence) obviously has to be down after one point from four games. But it's up to the boys and the coaching staff to pull together and make it happen," said Mariners' captain Noel Spencer. "We should have got something out of the game (tonight, so) we've just got to find that extra."
Thompson gave Victory the win after Danny Allsopp had been first to react to a Mariners' defensive error and looped the ball over the hapless Danny Vukovic where Thompson nodded in from close-range.
Thompson had only seconds before spurned a solid opportunity after speeding away from a square Mariners' defence but was unable to repeat his acute-angle goal from the previous week after being pushed wide by Vukovic, and shooting past the far-post.
Olympic Park was again at capacity, with general admission seating all sold half-an-hour before kick-off, and many prospective patrons turned away as a result. It's becoming clear that if you want to be assured of seeing top level football in Melbourne, you'll need to become a Victory member, or book tickets well in advance. The situation may still exist after the imminent rebuilding of the famous stadium which will increase capacity only marginally at least to begin with, until contractual arrangements with the Docklands stadium have expired.
Mariners' plans needed an early re-think following the substitution of midfield general Andre Gumprecht by Jamie McMaster just after the quarter-hour. Gumprecht had been fouled by Adrian Leijer who clattered into the big German from behind and was cautioned by referee Angelo Nardi as a consequence. Although Gumprecht returned to the field following treatment, and was reluctant to remain still for the examination, he was obviously still feeling the effects and barely able to run upon his return to action. He quickly changed and returned to the bench where he cut a particularly forlorn figure. The nature of the injury was made clear after the game.
"Gumprecht's done his medial ligament," said McKinna. "I don't need to say anything about the tackle, because we've seen it on TV. But he'll be out for at least six weeks because it's a tear."
Merrick was of a different opinion. "It was a perfectly fair tackle," he said.
Although the balance of play was overwhelmingly in Victory's favour in the first half-hour, it was McMaster who had the best chance to break the deadlock. Breaking through a square back-line, McMaster faced only Michael Theoklitos as he bore down at speed. Theoklitos' positioning was perfect though and he was able to block McMaster's shot.
Almost immediately, Victory had a swift break of its own. Thompson was fed a ball on the halfway line up the right, and cut inside, leaving his marker trailing in his wake. Allsopp made a clever diagonal run to the right and exchanged passes with Thompson who by now had reached the edge of the penalty-area. Thompson's shot needed a bright save from an alert Vukovic.
Thompson was to have better reward with his header early in the second half. Following a quick through-ball from Steve Pantelidis which completely split the Mariners' defence, Thompson hared towards goal. Only the combined efforts of Paul O'Grady who had scampered across to cover, and Vukovic, forced Thompson too wide to capitalise. However, O'Grady was to find his heroic efforts on that occasion negated by a wild swing at a ball crossed by Pantelidis from the right just seconds later. The ball sliced off O'Grady's foot into space where Allsopp lurked. Allsopp's looped kick went over Vukovic and would surely have crossed the line for the score, but Thompson decided to take no chances, and bundled it over the line from close-range with a header.
It was cruel for O'Grady who had defended well up to and after that blunder. On several occasions during the game it was he who'd made the final desperate defensive block to deny a rampant Victory.
"This year (Thompson and Allsopp) are combining really well," said Merrick. "I think they're going to be a handful for any defence. (Their) combination has gone to a different level."
Mariners pushed forward in numbers and was the dominant team for a solid period after the goal, at one time earning a number of corners in succession as the Victory defence tottered under the pressure. Tellingly though, it did not fall, ably marshalled by Leijer and his colleagues Roddy Vargas and Daniel Piorkowski who each had outstanding games.
"I'd say (Vargas) was pretty close to man of the match," said Merrick. "His organisation (and) timing (are) very good. The quality of his distribution out of the back. He organises the whole of the back-line and midfield really well."
Committing resources to attack left Mariners vulnerable elsewhere and Victory had opportunities to score again on the break.
Mariners' Adam Kwasnik will rue Leijer's block with his head which diverted a goal-bound header from a Spencer free-kick when it seemed certain Central Coast would gain the equaliser. And it was Kwasnik again ten minutes from time who had beaten Leijer down the left to cut inside only for his shot to be blocked.
As Central Coast committed to the attack, a quick Victory break saw a ball played to Sarkies wide on the left. Sarkies squared the ball for Allsopp in a more central position, but O'Grady had caught up to block as Allsopp pulled the trigger.
Kevin Muscat, operating in this game without his defensive midfield partner Grant Brebner, managed to put a header from a corner into and off the post after he was allowed space in the penalty-area, but Victory was unable to extend the lead.