Melbourne Victory have maximum points after six games following its solid 4-1 win in the top of the table clash against Queensland Roar in front of 26,000 at Telstra Dome on Sunday afternoon. Victory has now opened up a sizeable gap at the top of the A-League which will be hard for the chasing pack to bridge.
Man of the match Fred opened the scoring for Victory after a solo run barely ten minutes in. Ante Milicic levelled five minutes later, but Kevin Muscat converted a penalty midway through the half to regain the lead for Victory by the break, the goal lifting him to become all-time A-League scorer, infant competition notwithstanding.
Sustained Victory pressure at the start of the second half rattled Roar to the extent that a second penalty was conceded. Once again Muscat converted. Joshua McCloughan - who was to feature in several key deflections - unluckily put past his own goalkeeper for Victory's fourth, diverting Daniel Allsopp's shot and totally wrong-footing Willis.
"Great crowd, great result, and an emphatic win," said a beaming Ernie Merrick after the game. "A great week's work."
Captain Muscat referred to Roar coach Miron Bleiberg's reported comments leading into the game as providing added incentive for Victory. "It certainly backfired on him. It gave us extra motivation. Certain quotes spurred us on," he said.
Bleiberg - being the practised showman that he is - was unrepentant about his pre-game comments. "I don't think players take too much notice. If I can dent (Melbourne's) confidence by one percent (by my comments), it's better that I say what I say."
"We're in the business of entertainment," he said. "If what I said meant Melbourne got an extra thousand people, maybe I should charge commission. (The press) wants to write something - I'm happy to cooperate. I say what I say and that's it."
"There is no arguing about (which) was the better team today," he said. "Full credit to Melbourne - they deserve to be top of the competition - on and off the field."
Fred returned to the team after a three-week lay-off through suspension to make an immediate mark on the game. Grant Brebner and Adrian Caceres hustled Marcus Wedau out of possession at the half-way line from a Roar throw-in. Brebner found Allsopp who quickly passed the ball forward to Fred. As Archie Thompson peeled away to the right he took two defenders with him and opened up space in the central channel. Fred found it with a wiggle of his hips. Now facing only goalkeeper Tom Willis - restored to the side by Bleiberg especially for this game - the advantage was always the Brazilian's.
Despite Fred having been sidelined through suspension, Merrick had no qualms about starting him in this crucial match. "We've seen him at training," he said. "He's devastating. Fred's trained his socks off. He's trained harder than anyone else (during the lay-off)."
Queensland levelled five minutes later. Seo gathered up a partly-cleared corner after Muscat had headed away. Seo is dangerous from distance and it was unsurprising he elected to shoot. But his shot struck McCloughan and diverted wide to Simon Lynch on the right. Lynch's cross was low and hard to where Milicic had made his run, side-footing home and silencing the Victory support.
But the silence was temporary as Victory continued to press, earning a penalty five minutes later when Matt McKay handled as Fred lifted the ball and it rebounded off the midriff of a mesmerised McCloughan. McKay was cautioned, Muscat converted.
Just as the half ended, Caceres outfoxed Andrew Packer on the left before sending in a cross which Fred was able to reach but his header flew over the bar.
Several players previously based in Melbourne were returning in opposition colours. Sturdy central defender Sasa Ognenovski, diminutive midfielder Massimo Murdocca, and wide player Andrew Packer had earlier plied their trade in the southern capital, but now call more northern latitudes home. Murdocca especially loves to do well in games against Victory which declined the opportunity to sign him in the A-League's start-up year. Ognenovski felt his chance to play at national level had passed him by. He was playing in State competition this season before recently being lured to Brisbane. He too had additional motivation to do well in the city which had overlooked his skills.
Ognenovski's battle with Allsopp shook the stadium to its foundations. Both players made their physical presence known to each other from the opening minute. Murdocca came on after the interval for captain Chad Gibson as Roar went three at the back and five in midfield in its attempt to get back into the contest.
"We were completely outplayed in the first half," said Bleiberg. "We went for experience and strength in the first half. We failed completely and miserably. When that didn't work, we went for more pace. (But) we were (still) second best."
The game could have been over within five minutes of the re-start, and was within ten. Firstly Fred hit the post from a metre after latching onto a mis-head by Ognenovski of a long clearance from Victory goalkeeper Michael Theoklitos, and then juggling the ball over the shoulder of an opponent. Willis made a last-ditch save with his feet from a point-blank Allsopp shot as Victory piled on the pressure. Shortly after, Seo made a similar desperate lunge to divert Allsopp's goal-bound shot over the bar as Roar's defence scrambled to cover the gaps Victory seemed to find with every foray.
It was trickery from Thompson which finally posed one problem too much. Stuart McLaren brought down Thompson in the area as Thompson had worked himself into a shooting position.
McLaren was sufficiently aggrieved about the decision to see referee Simon Przydacz's yellow card for dissent. McLaren was still unhappy after the game about whether his tackle should have warranted a penalty. "The short answer is no. (But) the referee is never wrong. The way I saw it is that I got my left foot to the ball first, then there's a tangle of legs."
To Roar's credit, it still sought to get something out of the game and bravely ploughed on. But in pressing, gaps were appearing and Victory moved the ball with speed at every chance. With ten minutes left came the coup de gras. Thompson was played in with Fred and Allsopp in support, and only McCloughan and Ognenovski as cover. Thompson passed to Allsopp on his right allowing Allsopp a shooting opportunity which the burly striker grabbed without hesitation. It was McCloughan's misfortune that his touch completely wrong-footed Willis and the ball trickled over the line.
Lynch and Murdocca had sharp chances late on but they shared McCloughan's poor luck.
Victory's capture by the operators of Telstra Dome on the back of the massive attendance for the game against Sydney FC looked as if it was paying dividends. A larger number of spectators than could have been accommodated at Victory's previous Olympic Park home were in attendance. And with the fade-out of competing sporting attractions, combined with Melbourne's record-setting run, could well mean that this venue too may become a tight one over the coming weeks.