There’s a perfect storm brewing in the world of professional sport and the A-League has been one of the first competitions in Australia to feel the full effect.
Melbourne Victory’s fourth A-League title in Saturday’s grand final was achieved by a side that has done it the hard way, coming from fourth place to claim the championship, the first time a team from outside the top two has lifted the A-League trophy.
Their 1-0 victory over the Newcastle Jets in Newcastle in front of a rocking crowd was a prime example of substance over style, with the aid of a head-scratching failure of the much-maligned VAR which should definitely have disallowed Victory’s early goal.
Carl Valeri and Terry Antonis provided much of the cover to an overworked Victory back four in the first half, as the Jets had all of the play following Victory’s goal. Such was Newcastle’s attacking prowess that nominal number ten James Troisi was pushed into a virtual third defensive midfield position in the first 45 minutes.
Lawrence Thomas, man of the match in Victory’s epic semi-final win over Sydney FC, was at it again in the first half, with three outstanding saves, including a double save in the 31st minute which defied belief; first he denied Riley ‘Scorpion King’ McGree and then Jason Hoffman, the two goal scorers from last week’s win over Melbourne City.
As Newcastle’s relentless pressure seemed certain to bear fruit, Ronnie Vargas began to orchestrate more intricate attacking forays, threading passes into channels and switching play to try and stretch the Victory back four.
But Melbourne got to halftime with their disputed lead intact, and set about frustrating the Jets in the second half, swamping their midfield and allowing no space between the lines for Riley McGree to operate in, the worldwide hero of last week hardly sighted in the second half, so thoroughly did the Victory deny space and put pressure on the ball carrier.
[latest_videos_strip category=”football” name=”Football”]
They niggled and time wasted and did everything possible to break up any momentum the Jets tried to engineer. That one of the most vaunted front threes in the competition – Kosta Barbarouses, Leroy George and Besart Berisha – were anonymous for almost all of the second half as an attacking trio spoke volumes for the work the entire team did defensively.
Troisi hit the post with a late shot, the only chance he fashioned for the entire game. But they played their part as a first line of defence and the Jets were unable to manage a shot of any consequence in the second half after such a dominant first 45 minutes.
Was it anti-football? To the neutral, possibly. To Jets fans, dreaming of a fairytale, definitely. But it was winning football, cynical as some of it might have been. The sight of Leroy George taking a full minute walking from one side of the ground to the other to take consecutive corners was galling to Jets fans as the clock wound down.
Set pieces were the products of Victory’s best second-half chances, one of which led to Roy O’Donovan being opened up by a stray Berisha elbow. The Irishman dived straight back into the fray despite his injury, and would eventually provide a talking point of a very different kind late.
Faced with a white wall of compact defence, the Jets began slinging hopeful rather than constructive balls into the penalty area, as the law of diminishing returns began to take effect.
A resolute Victory back four dealt with it all, and as the game went into injury time, O’Donovan launched a challenge on Thomas that was less a foul and more an attempted homicide. His high foot almost took the Victory keeper’s face off and the ensuing red card seemed inadequate for the offence committed.
It would prove to be the final frustration in a night of it for Newcastle, as Victory played the spoiler and dampened the spirits of a crowd who had provided raucous noise and atmosphere prior to and during the game.
It was a fantastic occasion for the city, but on the night they were outpointed by a side who knew what needed to be done to achieve the ultimate outcome.