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Logic says ho-hum Victory can't beat the Phoenix and 34,000 hyped-up Kiwis - but it doesn't matter in the slightest

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Expert
15th May, 2024
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1542 Reads

Sky Stadium is about to witness one of its greatest days. Melbourne Victory are headed east, with ambitions to topple Wellington’s Phoenix and pinch a spot in the A-League grand final, despite being a little on the ordinary side for much of the season.

That might seem a little harsh for a side that finished third on the ladder come the end of the home and away portion of the season, yet the Tony Popovic coached Victory have been far from polished since their impressive unbeaten start to the campaign that extended from October 2023 into February of 2024. While things fell away quite dramatically from there, Victory still held their heads above water and now, heading into the second leg of the semi-finals, the chance for history lies at their feet.

Achieving that against a Phoenix defence that can be as turgid and overwhelming as any we have seen in A-League history is easier said than done. Yet, if there is a team with the potential to produce something on any given day based on the talent at its disposal, I guess it is probably the Victory.

Despite not really seeing the best of them collectively for the majority of the 2023/24 season, the individual parts that form Popovic’s best squad do have the ability to crack Wellington’s defence, and one goal might be all it takes to snatch a win that many would see as an upset on Saturday afternoon Australian time.

Of course, their backs will be somewhat up against the wall without Frenchman Zinedine Machach, the most lethal attacking weapon available to Popovic; still suspended until the final match of the season should Victory qualify for it.

However, with a backline of Jason Geria, Damien Da Silva, Roderick Miranda and Adama Traore, the Victory back half does have the talent to keep out the Phoenix weapons that seek to explode on the counter.

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They managed that well in the opening leg of the semi-final, with Wellington notching just a handful of shots and none on target during the 0-0 draw.

That is a decent building block for Victory, yet it is at the other end of the pitch where their difficulties have been obvious.

The goals scored column saw Popovic’s attack in excess of ten goals down on both the Mariners and Phoenix across the course of the A-League season. Simply, Bruno Fornaroli stopped scoring mid-season and never really got rolling again in the run home to the finals.

As Adam Taggart flew past him in the race for the golden boot and others crept onto his heels in the chase, Fornaroli ended the season as the only Victory player in the top five for either goals scored or assists.

Melbourne Victory’s Zinedine Machach and Bruno Fornaroli. (Photo by Jonathan DiMaggio/Getty Images)

Considering all the great work he did early on, that statistic highlights just how much Victory struggled across the back half of the season. Sure there were good days, yet the Vuck were held scoreless against the semi-finalist Bulls, Melbourne City, Mariners and Phoenix after February 10, and looked a spent force heading into the knock-out phase of the competition.

Still, here they are on the second to last day of the football season, armed with Fornaroli, Daniel Arzani, Chris Ikonomidis, Roly Bonevacia and Nishan Velupillay up front – all players that would normally instil the fear of God into opponents, with a chance to achieve what would be a shock grand final appearance.

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The Phoenix managed those names, as well as Jake Brimmer, Connor Chapman and Ben Folami with ease last Sunday and could well do so again this weekend.

But with such quality in the ranks and obvious talent that has been under-performing in 2024, who dares say the Victory cannot do what they have done before and find their way into a decider that seemed well beyond them heading into the finals?

Champions lift on the big day and even though a few of the men fitting that description in Victory ranks have looked far from it recently, their endeavour in the opening leg was excellent, with Alex Paulsen a thorn in their side and one they must simply find a way past in Wellington.

If everything clicks, Victory will win, yet logic says their 2023/24 body of work will see them come up a little short.

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With a stadium of parochial New Zealanders screaming passionately for the home team, the odds lessen even further. Yet football is a funny game and, after all, the A-League is one of the most unpredictable in the world.

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