Victory v Sydney

A-League report by Peter Hummfray
Melbourne Victory v Sydney FC

Melbourne Victory takes the slightest of advantages to Sydney for the second leg of the major semi-final after its two-one first-leg win at Docklands on Thursday evening.

The single-goal advantage Melbourne takes to Sydney became even thinner after Nick Mrdja, who scored Melbourne's opening goal, was later dismissed for an unnecessary off-the-ball incident, making him ineligible for at least that game, and perhaps the rest of Melbourne's Finals series.

The incident between Mrdja and Sydney defender Shannon Cole was so far off the play that referee Peter Green did not see it, although many others of the 18,453 attending did. Tellingly though, far-side assistant referee, FIFA-accredited Hakan Anaz, was amongst them, and after consultation between Anaz and Green, Mrdja was dismissed with about twenty minutes of the game remaining.

By that stage, what proved to be the final score had already been recorded. Melbourne then went into protection mode, defending its lead successfully despite Sydney's player advantage.

Mrdja opened the scoring for Melbourne after a bullocking run between Sydney's central defenders when chasing a through-ball. Carlos Hernandez increased the lead with another solo near the end of the first-half, after he'd comprehensively sprung Sydney's offside attempt on a pass from Nick Ward.

Sydney got back into the game shortly after, when John Aloisi's shot was diverted into his own net by Victory captain Kevin Muscat.

Maybe Sydney too was happy with its dividend: a crucial away goal, which - despite host broadcaster Foxtel's erroneous belief that the away goals rule does not apply in A-League Finals - could well be what splits the sides after full time in the second leg.

Sydney coach Vitezlav Lavicka certainly gave the impression he saw things more in a glass-half-full manner. "The away goal is important for us," he said in the after-match media conference. "(But) I'm disappointed because we wanted a better result."

Victory coach Ernie Merrick however, was unfussed by Sydney's road goal. "The away goal doesn't bother me at all. We'll go up to Sydney to win the game, and I'm convinced we'll score at least one up there which will negate theirs."

"It was a good win, and I thought we deserved it," he said. "More on our first-half performance (where) I thought we created quality football."

Mrdja got his first for the club after his controversial signing just after the quarter-hour after he'd outfought the double coverage of twin centre-backs Stephan Keller and Simon Colosimo on a long route one ball from Muscat. Mrdja took advantage of Colosimo's headed attempt to clear, turning quickly on the loose ball and shooting low into the net beyond Clint Bolton's reach.

Sydney's first chance to level arose ten minutes later when Karol Kisel took advantage of a rebound from a tackle to skip clear down the left. Muscat, who had made the tackle only to see the ball whiz back leaving him stranded, set off in chase. Despite aging legs, Muscat caught up with Kisel at the goal-line, but at a speed which made it easy for Kisel to turn Victory's captain, and open a path to goal.

Mitchell Langerak, barely in the game until that moment, had to react quickly to turn Kisel's shot over the bar.

But it took only another four minutes for Sydney to craft its second. Terry McFlynn, roundly booed by the home support on every touch, aggrieved as they were by his involvement four days before in the incident which resulted in Robbie Kruse's injury, got an effective touch to lay the ball off to Aloisi. Aloisi lined up his shot, seeking to bend it beyond Langerak at the far post, but watched as it flew narrowly wide.

Melbourne's unremitting pressure led to Hernandez doubling Melbourne's advantage five minutes before half-time with a solo run from mid-pitch. Ward had played a defence-splitting pass to the Costa Rican, and Hernandez had time to find his spot beyond Bolton at the far post.

But it took Sydney only two minutes to get back into the contest when Muscat turned a close-range shot from Aloisi into his own net, wrong-footing Langerak. Alex Brosque was able to get his head to a ball played in from wide right, directing it to Aloisi standing about seven metres out. Aloisi had to turn inside to better his angle, then let loose. Langerak seemed to have the shot covered, but Muscat's intervention lifted the ball beyond his reach.

Sydney then pressed and Brosque had a chance to send in the sides level on a lofted forward pass from Kisel, only for Langerak to be swiftly out to block, and Victory to scramble the ball clear.

Hernandez almost set the stadium alight within a few minutes of the game's re-start with an outrageous volleyed attempt from near the right touchline which he struck with the outside of his right boot. Bolton was grateful to see it rebound off the cross-bar as it flew towards the unguarded top corner of the goal. The Costa-Rican was quiet in Sydney, but rampant here.

Inexplicably, as both sides sought to gain the upper-hand in a match where margins were always expected to be slight, Mrdja elbowed Cole in the penalty-area as the ball was elsewhere. Referee Green did not see the incident, but it was obvious to most other onlookers, and captured perfectly by the cameras. Crucially, the far-side assistant quickly got the message to Green who, in turn, showed Mrdja the red card.

It was an unnecessary and momentum-halting self-inflicted wound, not only for this game, but for the return match in Sydney from which Mrdja had just disqualified himself. Had no on-ground official spotted the elbow, Mrdja surely would have been sanctioned subsequently by the match review panel and missed the game anyway.

Melbourne went into survival mode from that point, seeking to retain its narrow advantage. Despite constant Sydney pressure, Victory did not crack, setting the second leg on a knife-edge.

"When we went down to ten men, we showed we can shut up shop as well as anyone," said Ernie Merrick. "We just don't play that style of football week-in, week-out, or we wouldn't have a crowd."

"We didn't capitalise," said Sydney captain John Aloisi. "When they had ten men, we should have done better. We weren't patient enough to get the ball out wide and start getting balls into the box. We should have exploited that a bit more."