Given the state of the SFS surface and the dominance of Sydney FC’s season, it was perhaps no great surprise that Kevin Muscat decided put the ball away and turn yesterday’s grand final into a 120 minute arm-wrestle.

Far from an epic football match in terms of quality, it was epic for its combativeness and intensity and, to that effect, Muscat and his coaching staff can take credit for coming up with a plan that turned the grand final into a contest, even if they fell so agonisingly short in the end.

Make no mistake, Muscat was the one who had to come up with the game plan to give his team a chance. In the end he and his coaching staff decided that trying to play football against the powerful and dominant reactor that is Sydney wasn’t the brightest way to approach the game.

No doubt the state of the pitch – such a talking point in recent times – played a significant part in the Victory’s thinking. They knew that Sydney FC were familiar with the surface, and if it came down to ‘playing’ would likely have the quality to handle the conditions better.

So they came with a plan to get on the front foot, batter and bully the Sky Blues with their attack of man and ball, and go long and early to try and expose Sydney in transition, especially on the right side where Marco Rojas was up against Michael Zullo.

The commitment to their defensive duties from the back six in the first half was exceptional. Leigh Broxham set the tone in the centre of the park, picking up every loose ball, driving forward to try and trigger rapid counters using Rojas, Fahid Ben Khalfallah and Besart Berisha.

Behind him, the Victory’s back four were as good as they’ve been all season, peaking at just the right time. Much maligned throughout the campaign, the fullbacks Daniel Georgievski and Jason Geria were immense, not only shutting down their respective opponents Filip Holosko and Milos Ninkovic on the ground and in the air, but often rebounding by driving through their opponents.

The Victory managed to get right in the heads of Sydney and you could see the frustration and concern etched on Graham Arnold as he started to contemplate it all going so horribly wrong at the final hurdle.

This was great grand final mentality from the Victory, if not the greatest football.

In many ways it reminded me of the old South Melbourne and Melbourne Knights teams of the 1990s where you could almost bank on the experienced players turning up on grand final day to produce the goods.

The Victory knew that if they didn’t compete physically and mentally with Sydney they would be over-run and outgunned by perhaps the most ruthless side the A-League has seen.

But they also knew that doing it for 45 minutes wouldn’t be enough. They would have to show they could sustain it for at least 90 minutes.

While they dropped off a little in their intensity after the half-time break and Sydney were able to get back into the game, it was a credit to the Victory’s focus on the gameplan that they were able to get to full-time, without a substitution, on equal terms.

The big problem for Muscat’s team in the second half wasn’t a lack of defensive discipline. It was still a mighty defensive effort, despite conceding the equaliser. The issue was that when they did win the ball they gave it away so regularly to Sydney. 

Some of the pin-point diagonal balls to Rojas that were such a feature of the opening half were replaced by misdirected straight balls that either went to Danny Vukovic or were comfortably handled by Alex Wilkinson and Jordy Buijs.

The succession of turnovers meant the ball was constantly coming back and there was little relief.

In extra time the Victory were better at relieving pressure by sustaining some possession, and this certainly helped them take it to penalties, even with only one substitution made. The lack of substitutions highlighted that the Victory got there using every stretch of the resource available to them. 

Clearly Muscat and John Paul de Marigny didn’t feel that the introduction of speedster Mitch Austin was a sub worth making, even with Rojas clearly on his last legs in extra time.

It showed the limited quality available beyond the starters, but also the limits of the Victory’s squad this season.

While they had come up with and executed a gameplan that gave them a shot on the big occasion, they were always just behind the eight-ball, even when they got in front of the Sky Blues, as they did during the game, during penalties – and during the season. 

Sydney, meanwhile, had a significant contribution off the bench from David Carney, while Matt Simon and Seb Ryall also made it onto the pitch. Their depth was highlighted by the fact that Milos Dimitrijevic didn’t get on, while Bernie Ibini didn’t make the grand final squad after limping off in last week’s semi.

In the end the football gods looked out for the team that had set the pace the whole season. Even when they went behind in the game and in penalties, you always sensed they had the calm and belief to get out of a mess.

Categories: Analysis | A-League

a-league, sydney fc, melbourne victory, a-league grand final

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