Melbourne Victory finally confirmed what had been a foregone conclusion for many weeks, winning the league title with four rounds still to play, following its 4-0 win over a cobbled-together New Zealand Knights at Olympic Park Melbourne on Sunday evening. As well as the Premiers Plate, the win qualifies Melbourne to participate in the 2008 AFC Champions League.
Danny Allsopp netted twice, and Adrian Caceres and Archie Thompson singles, as Melbourne overcame a stuttering first thirty minutes to stamp its authority on the game with a four-goal burst in the last ten minutes of the first half.
For the last quarter-hour of the game the almost capacity attendance sang non-stop in salute of its team, the title, and their own contribution to the Melbourne match-day experience. Each stand in turn created an aural Mexican wave as their occupants joyfully announced their presence across the park.
"I don't think the western stand has ever sung before!" said a beaming Victory coach Ernie Merrick, entering the after-match media conference with a glass of champagne in his hand.
"Stage One is accomplished," said Merrick. "It was a nervous performance, but it was only the result we were interested in. Even though we played badly we won four-nil. Imagine if we play well."
Events had conspired to make this Knights side even less competitive than usual. What had been a terrible season for the Knights turned to disaster when FFA withdrew the licence, handing the club's administrative responsibilities to Soccer New Zealand. When the players became aware of the demise of the Knights, most declined to make the trip. Incoming coach Ricki Herbert, himself a proud international representative for the All Whites, was forced to search every nook and cranny for footballers.
Herbert's players had been drafted in from a variety of sources. The players had to introduce themselves to each other in the dressing rooms before the game. There could certainly have been nothing other than basic strategic directions decided. Set plays would happen the way they happened rather than as repeatedly rehearsed on the training ground. It was this vulnerability which provided two of Victory's four goals.
The quietly spoken Herbert was aware of the difficult decision Knights players had been forced to make given the club had effectively been wound up. Sensitive to how matters may play out in the coming days, he was non-judgemental about his no-shows. Indeed, but for re-arranged flights, he may well have had more of his squad travel.
"Unfortunately there was a cancellation of a Qantas flight," said Herbert. "The one that we managed to get on had (only) nine seats (available) on it. (By) then, all the players wanted to travel (and I needed to decide which) nine players left."
"(Knights has) a commitment to play through to January 26," he said. "There's a lot of emotion around the players. It's been an amazing forty-eight hours. I've let the players have some space. They need the time to work through a number of concerns."
"There'll be more discussions next week in Auckland (involving) the FFA, Soccer New Zealand, and the players. I'm really hopeful that there'll be a resolution about the balance of the season."
But until the first of Melbourne's four goal onslaught, it was New Zealand which had looked to be the settled side, and Victory strangers amongst themselves. Victory passes went too easily astray. It was the Knights which played with the greater fluidity and confidence.
By the half's mid-point, two sharp chances had been created by the visitors, both involving Jonas Salley and Alen Marcina. Sally had provided one of Knights most potent threats until an ankle injury required his replacement late in the game. Sally's first combination with Marcina came after Salley had sent a lobbed ball to the forward edge of the penalty-area. Marcina shot on the turn but too high after escaping the attentions of Adrian Leijer and Steve Pantelidis.
Salley next set up Marcina's overly-high shot three minutes later, being first to a casually-played ball from Rodrigo Vargas and setting up Marcina's strike from 18 yards with Vargas struggling to cover.
There seemed to be a contest. Despite all its difficulties, Knights were declining to play just a supporting role, meekly submitting to what most had assumed to be the inevitable.
Then the scales tipped Melbourne's way.
Pantelidis had been fouled by Richard Johnson just beyond the Knights penalty-area. As Johnson protested, Kevin Muscat had sensed the possibility that the new Knights defence would not be instantly into position and quickly played the ball to Caceres in space up the left. Caceres in turn squared to Allsopp who crashed the ball home from close-range.
Before Knights could gather its thoughts, Caceres made it two after outpacing Jeff Fleming and sending in a net-burster past the hapless Mark Paston. Vargas had played a clever ball into Caceres' feet catching out the Knights defence. Paston had been untroubled for the first half-hour scarcely being called into action. Now two had whistled by in a matter of minutes.
Victory got two more before the break as Knights crumbled. Thompson gathered a ball deep in his own half, then released Allsopp who had made a run behind the Knights defence as he approached the half-way line. Allsopp ran unchallenged into the penalty-area. His unstoppable shot crashed into the net by the near post fending off a challenge by Dustin Wells as he did so.
Then, just to ensure Knights knew just how large a gap existed between the top and bottom of the A-League, Thompson skipped onto another quickly-taken free-kick by Muscat and smashed home from six metres. Paston once again was hopelessly exposed, and the Knights defence caught out by Muscat's sharpness.
"(My) cards are very squarely on the table," said Herbert. "You're looking at a side which had had one forty-minute training session (together). I'm sure there's a lot of relief now. This game's come and gone. We've all done the right thing by being here and having a team on the park representing the club. By Tuesday or Wednesday, things may look a little better for us."
"We knew our set-plays would be good and theirs wouldn't be," said Merrick. "We rehearsed and rehearsed, and that's the first time I think they've ever worked. And to get two in one night is just unbelievable."
Victory's league title, in prospect for many weeks, was now reality. Four weeks of football are still to be played, and twelve championship points are still available for challengers, but Victory had sprinted away from the rest from the beginning of the season. The gap is now unbridgeable even were Victory to lose all its remaining games. Such a scenario is beyond rational thought given Victory had only lost two of the 17 games played to date.
Amazingly, FFA hadn't thought to bring the trophy to Melbourne in anticipation of the title being won, and so no presentation was made at the game's conclusion. This is an oversight ripe for correction next season.