Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Melbourne on the verge of Victory

Melbourne on the verge of Victory.
With 10 rounds left to play in version two of the Australian A-League, the side already a full nine points clear at the top of the table are going to take some stopping. Marc Fox reports.

The transformation of Melbourne Victory from last season's worst-performing Aussies to premiers-elect has been both a product of a number of factors at club level and a feather in the cap of league administrators Football Federation Australia.

First of all, the statistics make wonderful reading for the runaway Victorians. For starters, they have already amassed eight points greater than defending premiers Adelaide United managed at the corresponding point last season. Moreover, a 10th victory of the season in their 12th outing this week against Perth would almost certainly wrap up a playoff position with the league only just past its halfway mark.

But there's more, much more. They have lost just once - to Adelaide - last month, are averaging almost two-and-a-half goals a game, have the tightest defence, the biggest crowds, the league's three leading goalscorers and, to top it off, somehow managed to fight back from 3-2 down last weekend against the Mariners to draw 3-3 - having played the entire second-half with nine men.

Not known for letting excitement go to his head, Melbourne's Scottish coach Ernie Merrick afterwards beamed, "This team seems to get stronger. After tonight, I think anything's possible."

Privately, he'll likely enjoy a satisfying smile after being written off last season as his side limped to seventh place after briefing leading the league in October. He was reportedly fractions from the axe but instead showed some savvy recruitment nous and rewarded his under-performing stars with a 200-session pre-season marathon starting way back in early April for a late August kick-off.

The understated Merrick obviously meant business.

He points to the longevity of the pre-season as testament to the side's rapid strides but crucially sees Melbourne's superior fitness as a by-product. They are certainly playing a brand of defending-from-the-front football so often discussed in England this year to great effect. But for Merrick, the increased bond between the players, most of who were responsible for last term's lacklustre display, has been the vital ingredient.

Just six players were added in the close season as the Victory management offered its existing squad the opportunity to make amends. Fellow Scotsman Grant Brebner, who spent his formative years with David Beckham and co. at Manchester United in the mid-90s, has added granite to the midfield. Central defender Rodrigo Vargas was plucked from the state league but is already on the cusp of international recognition. Meanwhile, Brazilian Fred, a traditional No.10 with abundant energy, is another impressive acquisition.

Tactically, however, Merrick should be applauded. First year flop Danny Allsopp leads the goalscoring charts with eight goals, as many as any player scored during the entire regular season a year ago. Allsopp puts hours of shooting practice plus an improved playing tempo down to his success. Remarkably, Socceroos Archie Thompson and Kevin Muscat, now a converted, and combustible, midfielder, are tied in joint-second with six apiece.

Consistency has also been a component of Melbourne's betterment. Against a backdrop of Liverpool's much-publicised rotation policy in England, Merrick is the anti-Benitez. After 11 rounds, nine first-choice regulars have played 10 or more times. Some achievement, with greater fitness surely a clue to the Victory's good fortune with injuries.

Finally, then, are the vast crowds. With FFA support, the club gambled on moving their round two blockbuster against arch-rivals Sydney FC to the magnificent surrounds of the Telstra Dome. But could such a switch by justified in the Aussie Rules-crazed city? 39,730 people thought so. A blossoming confidence on and off the field has led all Melbourne's remaining home games to be switched too with the club now averaging over 26,000 for home gates.

Football's fledgling governing body of course deserve praise for retaining a level playing field with regard to squad sizes and investment, a factor which contributes to an unpredictable title race. For the organisation which has certainly gotten more things right than wrong, the turnaround in sports-mad Melbourne has been vindication indeed.

Copyright © Marc Fox and Soccerphile.com

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