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Opinion

When the opposing fortunes of two sides crash into each other: A-League Women preliminary final review

Alex Chidiac of the Victory runs with the ball during the round two A-League Women's match between Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory at AAMI Park, on December 12, 2021, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mike Owen/Getty Images)
Expert
22nd March, 2022
4

All season, Melbourne City had a relatively stable starting XI. Their squad had good health, barring a COVID outbreak, and Rado Vidosic had the players to execute the back-three system which was so successful two seasons ago.

Melbourne Victory, on the other hand, had to navigate twists from the 39th minute of the first game.

Kayla Morrison’s season-ending ACL injury was followed by a coronavirus outbreak. The luck of the draw meant seven of their matches – half a season – were squeezed into a three-week period.

As the season neared its conclusion, the fates of the two sides began to switch. Victory made it through their hectic period, players overcame injuries, Melina Ayres – last season’s top scorer for the club – made her first appearance all season in Round 14.

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Jeff Hopkins’ side dragged itself into finals before accounting for Adelaide United with football that resembled more of their best in the semis.

The ripples of adversity had calmed and the water had stilled.

Around the same time, City lost one of their most influential players in Holly McNamara to a season-ending ACL injury – a blow not only to the club but the 18-year-old, who was enjoying a breakout season that included a Matildas debut following a torrid injury run.

In the semi-final, City were two goals to the good before Sydney FC fought back to book a place in the grand final. Not only did City lose the lead, but they lost Melissa Barbieri and Tyla-Jay Vlajnic to red cards, ruling them out of the preliminary final.

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Melbourne City goalkeeper Melissa Barbieri

Melbourne City goalkeeper Melissa Barbieri (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Just as Victory’s waters calmed, City’s became rough and choppy.

The opposing fortunes of these two sides crashed into each other in the preliminary final and unsurprisingly it was Victory who won 3-1.

Alex Chidiac was a clear player of the match and in a lot of ways, her own season’s trajectory has resembled that of her team’s.

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A loan signing from JEF United in Japan, Chidiac needed minutes after injury had reduced her playing time. The Victory stint was meant to last until late February and made sense for both parties. But then came the complications.

She was unable to travel to Queensland due to border rules regarding her recent arrival from overseas. The midfielder was then also one of the unlucky squad members to have COVID.

Chidiac made no secret of the difficulty of coming back from illness after playing, describing how hard it was to breathe. But as the season progressed, so too has Chidiac.

She left JEF United and extended her stay until the end of the season. She scored her first goal for Victory and became an influential figure in the centre of the park.

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And on Sunday, no player was in better form.

The 17-time Matilda was everywhere. In single passages of play, she’d be running down the left, cutting inside, laying off a pass, only to be putting in a strong tackle 30 seconds later on the right flank.

She was truly box to box, putting in as much defensive effort through challenges and pressing as she did offensively, finding through ball for teammates or timing her run to be on the receiving end.

Alex Chidiac of the Victory

Alex Chidiac of the Victory runs with the ball during the round two A-League Women’s match between Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory at AAMI Park, on December 12, 2021, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mike Owen/Getty Images)

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Across the pitch, Victory looked stronger and more threatening. The team defended from the front with the likes of Melina Ayres, Catherine Zimmerman, and Lia Privitelli pressing City’s back three as they tried to play out.

It was through this pressure that Ayres opened the scoring, deflecting an attempted pass by Emma Checker before latching onto the ball and slotting it past Sally James in the City goal.

James – to her immense credit – gave a great account of herself in her first start all season. Touted as the number one before the season began, an injury and an in-form Barbieri ensured she was mostly restricted to the bench.

Victory were able to catch City’s defence out on numerous occasions with Ayres, Chidiac and Zimmerman all having gilt-edged chances.

However, Victory grabbed their second through an unlikely source in the form of centre back Claudia Bunge. An inch-perfect delivery from Courtney Nevin and some lax defending from City allowed the Kiwi international to poke out a boot to direct the ball goalward.

City’s best chances came through Rebekah Stott in what was her 100th A-League appearance, an incredible milestone on its own but even more impressive when you remember Stott only found out she was in remission from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in July 2021.

Vidosic’s side used width all season, with wingbacks pushing forward or the likes of McNamara attacking out wide, as well as the combination of Hannah Wilkinson as a classic No.9 and Rhianna Pollicina playing in behind her centrally all season.

With no Vlajnic, Chelsea Blissett was left to play the wingback role and got forward with limited incisiveness. Kaitlyn Torpey on the opposite flank was kept quiet during the first half. Victory also ensured that Wilkinson and Pollicina could not work off each other, marking the Kiwi striker tightly and manning the space in front of her when she had her back to goal to limit Pollicina.

Victory added a third in the 53rd minute, as Chidiac found Zimmerman, whose flick on found Ayres. She was then able to lay off the ball for Privitelli who had another goal to her name.

Tori Tumeth’s header off a stunning Leticia McKenna corner was nothing but consolation as City was unable to stage a comeback. Without the usual attacking prospects and no gifts from the Victory defence, City struggled to create meaningful chances.

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Victory’s win sets up a grand final rematch with Sydney FC. The Sky Blues will be hellbent on ensuring they cap off their season with the double after clearly being the best side all season. A win will also go some way to righting the wrongs of last season’s defeat.

Meanwhile, Victory will feel emboldened by the recent form as they attempt to secure back-to-back championships.

Whether Victory’s upward trajectory will meet Sydney’s lofty heights remains to be seen but with an entertaining 2-2 draw in season and both sides in form, it’s set to be another memorable decider.

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