MELBOURNE Victory impressed everyone with their intensity against Brisbane Roar in the A-League semi-final.
The question was: could they use the same blueprint against the Premiers, Sydney FC, and could they maintain it for 90 minutes?
Well, they were asked to do it for 120 minutes.
Although Sydney FC looked to have the greater momentum from half-time onwards, after two hours of titillating grand final theatre, the most successful Premiership side the A-League has seen could not be split from their bitter Big Blue rivals.
That speaks volumes for the performance that almost sparked one of the biggest boilovers the A-League has seen, which included a first-half Fox Sports’ Mark Rudan described as “perfect”.
Kevin Muscat unleashed a side up for an almighty upset and his XI executed the plan to perfection.
It was an ambush on a ground that hadn’t seen a defeat this season, upon which just four goals had been conceded before Besart Berisha continued his phenomenal grand final scoring record.
Melbourne Victory pressed and harried and hassled like their lives depended on it. It was eerily reminiscent of the decider two years ago. In the first 45 minutes, the Premiers’ Plate winners we all knew cracked under the pressure.
How intense was it? Sky Blues skipper Alex Brosque declared afterwards: “The first half was the quickest 45 minutes I’ve ever played in, it was incredible.”
“Just one of those games you know we knew it was going to be hard, it was going to be fast and no one really got time to settle on the ball but that’s what finals are like.
“They’re tough, they’re hard and you’ve got to be able to find a way to come back if you go down and this group has proven all year that when times get tough we’ve got what it takes to come back and tonight was no different.”
Muscat added after the game: “You can analyse the result, or the performance, I think it was far different to what everyone was expecting.
“First half there was one team and one team alone.
The tone was set in the first minute, with Alex Brosque caught by Leigh Broxham in the middle of the park, and no one let up after that.
The problem was, as Sydney tried time and time again to assert the influence the way we were so used to seeing this season, they ran into a Victory side as up for a game as you’ll ever see, with Messrs Broxham and Valeri especially leading the way, without the ball, with a ruthlessly focused rear guard behind them.
With Fahid Ben Khalfallah, Marco Rojas and Daniel Georgievski – named Joe Marston Medal winner giving Sydney plenty to think about as well.
“Yes they are (in their heads),” Fox Sports football expert Mark Bosnich said at the break.
“They’ve forced Sydney to out battle them … if Sydney try play that game they will lose.
“Victory have been first to every ball … they’re running for each other.”
But when you hitherto concede 12 goals all season, and four at home, while losing just once, you have a reservoir of belief that few others have.
After that exhausting output from Victory, Sydney came out and were able to exert their influence in the second period as they chased an equaliser.
Importantly, they earned a share of territory further up the pitch, Victory struggled to retain possession and as David Carney, a critical change on for Filip Holosko, Brosque and Ninkovic, and then Matt Simon in extra-time, swarmed on every loose ball, the weight of pressure finally told when Grant bundled home Lawrence Thomas’s spill after Carney’s tasty strike from the edge of the area.
Sydney FC’s strength and conditioning boss Andrew Clark has been hailed for his role in re-building this side, and every loose ball won by Josh Brillante and Brandon O’Neill, or lung busting surge by Rhyan Grant as the minutes ticked by, was testament to that.
However, Melbourne’s engines were similarly impressive.
“We showed last week, even tonight, we can work and work at an intensity no one else can because – saying you’re aggressive by dropping to halfway to wait for the opposition team – compared to how we press and press,” Muscat concluded.
“We showed it again in injury time showing our fitness levels…”
Ultimately, it would have been a cruel twist had a side that lost once all season lost the decider.
Fox Sports football expert Mark Bosnich declared “I don’t think either side deserved to lose”.
But one had to.
“That’s the gut wrenching thing,” Muscat said in the post match press conference.
“Somehow I have to try to explain to them how they lost tonight, it was an unbelievable effort.
“Ball comes off the post at one end, tap in, other end, hits the post and goes away.
“That’s life and that’s football.
“Gut wrenching to find the words to explain how they lost…”
The fact Victory got that close left us with as thrilling a decider as the competition has seen since the Brisbane Roar double of 2011 and 2012.
“I still believed justice would happen,” Arnie declared.
They say you make your own luck, and after the season Sydney FC have just had, they deserved that stroke of fortune with the help of the crossbar and Danny Vukovic’s giant mit.