Melbourne Heart won the first round of the three-series Melbourne derby against Victory on Friday evening, overcoming the handicap of playing with ten men in its two-one win. A new attendance record was struck for a game between two Melbourne sides. It is unlikely any of those who attended this encounter will cede their seats for the next, such was the high quality of fare on offer.
The foundations have been solidly set for what promises to be a Melbourne sporting highlight. Judicious scheduling by the authorities should ensure capacity attendances at what will be a much-anticipated feature. It was obvious that top-dog status was not just a matter of importance for the two clubs' respective fans as evidenced by the Heart players' joyous celebrations at the game's final whistle.
John Aloisi powered in a tenth-minute header in front of the Victory support to give Heart a deserved early lead.
Robbie Kruse got Victory back on level terms when he ghosted in on Kevin Muscat's free-kick to glide the ball past a hopelessly exposed Heart goalkeeper Clint Bolton.
Alex Terra made an unattended far-post run to convert a left-wing cross from Rutger Worm to put Heart in front again nine minutes after the re-start.
Heart played the last quarter-hour with ten men after defender Aziz Behich was dismissed following receipt of his second yellow card.
The win was well merited, Heart having the better of the contest from the game's first moments, unwilling to bow down to the greater experience of its Victory co-tenants.
Just three minutes before his more productive intervention, Aliosi had already given notice of his aerial threat when he outjumped Adrian Leijer to head goalwards from Michael Marrone's cross from the right. It was a warning not heeded by Victory.
It was another well-worked move which led to Aloisi's decisive strike, ripping through a fragile Victory defence along the way. Terra had been fed a through-ball by Wayne Srhoj after he and Aloisi had mugged Leigh Broxham mid-pitch, forcing the turnover. Terra raced ominously towards goal up the inside-right channel. Rodrigo Vargas sought to intercede and got a foot to the ball, forcing Terra wider, but not sufficiently enough to make the Brazilian's continued chase futile. He was able to look up, see the potential, and then get his cross in, leaving Aloisi the task of heading home under the defensive attentions of the smaller Tom Pondeljak.
Heart had the better of the game to that early stage, and the goal gave it enough lift to allow it to retain its dominance beyond. Just before the half-hour, Surat Sukha had to make a desperate headed clearance over his own crossbar from the edge of the six-yard area with Aloisi breathing down his neck. Josip Skoko swung in a free-kick from the right which eluded all blue and red shirts before Suhka was surprised by its arrival.
Minutes later, Aloisi hit the inside of the near post from a Marrone cross. Vargas was shadowing the ball as it came in, but Aloisi preferred a more active approach. Leijer gratefully hooked the ball over the line for a corner.
Victory was reeling and would surely topple.
But out of nothing, the hopelessly outgunned Victory found itself level. As Victory coach Ernie Merrick prepared to make a change to bolster his shell-shocked midfield by bringing on Grant Brebner for Broxham, Victory was awarded a free-kick wide on the right after Michael Beauchamp fouled Ricardinho. Muscat came up to take it and slipped a quick ball into space at the forward edge of the penalty-area. Neither of Heart's twin centre-backs Matt Thompson and Michael Beauchamp was alert to the danger posed by the slightly-built Kruse, who stole in quietly behind Beauchamp and Srhoj, scrambling to cover for Thompson, and got a gentle touch which sent the ball wide of Bolton.
Until that moment, it had been a desperate struggle by Victory to keep from wilting under pressure of unceasing Heart attacks. Now the game was level, and given Heart's poor return on investment compared to Victory's, it lifted Victory spirits as surely as it dashed Heart's.
If Heart felt things had taken an unjust turn, its disappointments were cast aside nine minutes after the interval. Worm, having one of his better games, crossed from the left after making ground, aiming beyond the far-post to where Terra and Gerald Sibon lurked under minimal defensive attention. It was Terra who made connection, directing the ball low inside the post. Victory goalkeeper Michael Petkovic had no chance to reach it.
Merrick now emptied his bench, bringing on Mate Dugandzic for Suhka hampered after an awkward fall, and shortly after, Geoff Kellaway for the unimpressive Ricardinho. Kellaway was involved immediately, haring towards goal after breaking the Heart offside trap only to be foiled at the last second by a well-timed challenge by Marrone.
Then Carlos Hernandez, from inside the six-yard box, headed over after a perfectly-directed cross by Leijer. It seemed an easier task to score than to miss.
As Victory pressed for the equaliser, Behich felled Kruse, drawing his second yellow from referee Ben Williams. Behich had been cautioned three minutes into the second-half for dissent, and so Williams then produced the red.
That was the signal for Van't Schip to re-arrange his resources, bringing on Nick Kalmar and Adrian Zahra for Skoko and Sibon in a double-change, and Jason Hoffman for Aloisi shortly afterwards.
Heart held tight with these reinforcements, and holds bragging rights until at least December, when a rematch will be played at the same stadium.