Victory v Mariners

A-League report by Alan Clark
Melbourne Victory v Central Coast Mariners

In years to come, the number who'll claim to have been at Melbourne's Docklands stadium last Friday evening to witness the three-three draw between Melbourne Victory and Central Coast Mariners will be greater than the 28,118 actually present.

This was football's Woodstock. It moved into the legendary category even before the final whistle sounded.

Melbourne Victory had played only quarter of the game with equal resources. Central defender Rody Vargas was dismissed for deliberate handball on the line, and the consequent penalty had allowed Mariners to take a three-two lead. When captain Kevin Muscat was also dismissed moments before the interval, it meant Victory would be two players down for all of the second half, and trailing by a goal. The script was set for a second half cave-in. The cave-in transpired, but it was Mariners which was overwhelmed, rather than Victory.

"The way we played in the second half was disgraceful," said Mariners' coach Lawrie McKinna after the game - his dark mood unambiguous. "Giving the ball away, nobody taking any leadership, no talking on the park - I could go on and on if you want."

"We could even have lost the game. (Goalkeeper) Danny Vukovic was outstanding and he'd be the only guy I'd give pass marks to in the second half."

Danny Allsopp's volleyed thunderbolt from Fred's pass to snatch the draw three minutes from time was gratefully accepted and loudly celebrated by yet another marvellous Melbourne attendance, but Victory had created earlier chances which could have meant this goal brought three points as reward, rather than just the one.

"How good was that game?" asked Victory coach Ernie Merrick, still beaming twenty minutes after the game had ended. "What a fantastic performance. Against the Mariners, for goodness sake, who'd given us a beating twice last year. And we made them look pretty average with nine men."

The game had been a whirlwind from start to finish. It'll not be surprising that there'll be those who'll later testify to their attendance who were actually engaged in less exciting activities. Indeed, the support had willed Victory's plucky defiance, and helped make up for the player deficit.

Allsopp put Victory up four minutes into the game. Jamie McMaster equalised two minutes later. Archie Thompson regained the lead for Melbourne after another four minutes, but Stewart Petrie equalised again just a minute afterwards. Mariners went into the lead for the first time in the game when Adam Kwasnik converted the penalty after Vargas' send-off to make it three-two in Central Coast's favour. The first half was not yet at its mid-point.

And then, as if to test just how many more reversals Victory could cope with before buckling, the side was reduced to nine players when Muscat saw his second yellow card in eight minutes followed swiftly by the red.

The game sprang to life with a bang. Firstly Victory took the lead just four minutes in when Fred comprehensively beat Vuko Tomasevic wide on the right and crossed to the far post where Allsopp headed home, with Alex Wilkinson caught out of position.

But before the vociferous Melbourne support could truly rejoice, McMaster equalised from a mirror-image goal two minutes later. Damian Mori was quicker of thought and action than Vargas who ineffectively tracked him and sent in a cross from the right which was headed in by McMaster outjumping Adrian Leijer and Grant Brebner.

The craziness hadn't ended. Barely four minutes later, as Melbourne defended a corner, Adrian Caceres fed Allsopp. With Thompson haring through the middle in support and the Mariners' defence stretched, Allsopp delivered a precise pass just before Thompson crossed the half-way line. Thompson was completely in the clear and faced only a hopelessly exposed Vukovic who was unable to prevent Thompson lifting the ball into the net and retaking the lead.

A minute later, the Victory support once again had its celebrations stilled. A quick exchange of passes beginning in the Mariners' half saw the ball moved at lightening pace from Wayne O'Sullivan to Kwasnik, then Tom Pondeljak on the right wing. Pondeljak's pass ended up with Mori after a deflection from McMaster, but the striker had his back to goal. Mori saw Petrie wider in the inside-left position and laid off. Petrie accepted the invitation, banging the ball into the net to make it 2-2.

Just eleven minutes had gone.

"The first-half game-plan was just to go at them," said McKinna. "Don't give them any time. Don't give them any respect. Just go and physically match them."

It was astoundingly effective as Merrick ruefully conceded. "We had ten minutes of disastrous defence when we conceded three goals, and we've only (previously) conceded six in ten games. But give them a break - (they) had eleven players coming at the nine for the majority of (the) match, and they were rock solid."

The drama was well from over. Vargas was dismissed on the recommendation of the near-side assistant referee who'd spotted a handball as Vargas sought to prevent a header from Kwasnik from crossing the line. Victory had failed to clear a Mariners' free-kick which was played across the face of goal to an unmarked Kwasnik. Kwasnik himself converted the spot kick after Vargas had left the arena.

There was already an edge to this game. Muscat had off-the-ball clashes with both Kwasnik and McMaster, the former resulting in Kwasnik being booked by referee Peter Green, the latter in Muscat's first caution.

Merrick was compelled to rearrange his resources after Vargas' departure, withdrawing Caceres on the right for Steve Pantelidis who took up a position in the spine. Despite being a man down, Muscat played a more adventurous role, with one such foray winning the ball against two opponents mid-pitch and taking it out to the wing. Muscat's fine cross almost allowed Fred to convert with a toe-poked volley from close-range. Vukovic was down smartly to make a reaction save when it seemed certain the Brazilian would score.

If Victory looked capable of getting back into the game despite being one man down, Muscat's dismissal as the break beckoned surely put paid to that thought. Muscat was given his second yellow card after bringing down McMaster in another off-the-ball incident. Muscat could claim simply to have run into McMaster's legs as they both chased a ball played over the top, but it was just one more incident with the ball elsewhere which tipped Green's patience.

"You don't want to see anyone getting sent off," said Mariners' Jamie McMaster after the game. "I was really looking forward to playing against Kevin tonight. But (in) his whole career he's being doing (things) like that."

Victory would play the second half with just eight outfield players.

McKinna gave his players their second-half instructions at the break. " 'Use the width. Keep the ball, and kill them off. Get another goal. Get three, four or five. Smash them.' That's what I told them."

The reality was different. "That was the worst (second-half) performance we've put in," said McKinna. "We didn't live up to our (first-half) standards. We had two extra - we didn't use them. We didn't drag anybody out - we didn't penetrate."

From the start of the second half it was clear Merrick did not intend a damage-limitation excersise by accepting a loss and seeking to minimise its extent in the light of being so outmanned. As the half wore on, any late-arriving observer on being advised one of the teams was playing short would have assumed it was Mariners, such was Victory's relentless endeavour.

"I felt the minimum we were going to get was a point," said Merrick. "The boys were up. How many chances did we create with nine men?"

Alex Wilkinson had to send the ball over his own bar in the first moments of the second half as Thompson once again broke an offside attempt and crossed to Allsopp. But playing two men light was always going to cause gaps for Central Coast to exploit.

Michael Galekovic needed to be at his best on a number of occasions as Mariners found space out wide allowing time for the cross in to be well aimed and the defence to be spread. However, too little was made of the opportunities. Victory continued to hassle and compete as if it still had a full complement on the park.

"We seemed to switch off at half-time," said a bemused McMaster after the game. "Maybe we were taking it easy. We were taking too many touches. We just weren't doing the things we should have been doing."

Sensing Victory's chutzpa, the team was urged on by the support which commonly regards itself as Victory's twelfth man. This time it would have to be the tenth and the eleventh as well.

"It really inspires you," said burly striker Allsopp of the crowd after the game. "It helps all the boys just keep going. We're going to be tired for the next few days after (all that) running, but (the crowd) keeps you going. It's fantastic playing out there."

Merrick too must have sensed the momentum change. He withdrew defender Simon Storey for Alessandro, and Grant Brebner for Kristian Sarkies. Sarkies' first action was to take a free-kick from a threatening position which hit Petrie square in the face sending the Mariners' veteran to the canvas.

Fred gave notice of Victory's intent with just eight minutes left. Sarkies threaded a ball to the forward edge of the penalty-area. Fred rounded substitute Tony Vidmar and then Vukovic, but found the side-netting from an acute angle.

Allsopp's volley into the net with just three minutes to go concluded a most remarkable match and underlined just how far ahead of the pack this year's Melbourne Victory is.

"We had nothing to lose really," said Allsopp. "We just (went) out and (gave) one-hundred percent. (The) team's got really good belief and thought that if we hang in there we'll create a chance. I was determined to get something out of the game."

"I sorta thought during the game, that this must be exciting to watch."