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Kevin Muscat and Victory take A-League spoils

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Melbourne Victory dominated proceedings from start to finish on a colourful A-League grand final day where Kevin Muscat was invariably front and centre.

What a hectic finale to the A-League season. It was, at times, a strange day. “If this is not the best club in Australia, then people should I don’t know… shut up, seriously.” So said the craziest of them all, Besart Berisha. The Melbourne Victory striker and goalscorer might sometimes seem just one career-ending injury from being a bus-stop ranter, but it was impossible to argue with his post-match assertion.

This match was surely one that would be decided by fine margins. No one in the week-long build-up to the match could construct a convincing argument as to why one team would come out on top. It was on paper as finely balanced as any decider in the A-League’s 10-year history.

Yet the Victory were streets ahead on the day, completely out-pacing their well-regarded rivals for energy, verve and sheer will-to-win. It is one thing to do that against Melbourne City and their notoriously soft underbelly, as they did in the penultimate weekend of the season. But it is quite another to do so against Sydney FC, a team who have been highly driven and focussed, and with a football department meticulous in their preparation under Graham Arnold.

In many ways the Victory are a side forged in the mould of coach Muscat. They can be as pragmatic and combative as anyone when they need to be. On Sunday they played with rare level of zest and hunger, but without pushing the envelope too far.

Sydney FC were harassed and closed down at every opportunity, their most influential personnel starved of possession, time and space. At times it seemed like the Victory were playing with a 12th man. Indeed in many ways they were. There can be no denying the value and energy provided by a wildly raucous home crowd. And this was that, and then some. Still no interstate team has won an A-League grand final other than on penalties, as Sydney did in Melbourne five years ago.

Muscat spent the match, as he does, appealing for everything regardless of how ludicrous, berating the fourth official simply because he represented officialdom, and spitting vitriol at the referee. One wonders if Kris Griffiths-Jones was appointed fourth official for simply being the best suited to the role of beratee. Muscat’s sideshow was, as always, an unappealing spectacle that does little credit to the game.

But get used to it. Because, despite raised eyebrows in some quarters following his appointment, Muscat has more than proven himself in a sometimes harsh and unforgiving spotlight. In just his first full season at the helm, Muscat has become the first to win the A-League both as a player and as a coach.

There can be few tougher tasks than filling the void left by Ange Postecoglou. And it is a challenge that increases with the size and pressure of the respective club, and there are no clubs with bigger expectations than Melbourne Victory. Muscat, however, got his recruitment perfect. It is harder to do than it sounds, as proven by many a flopped imported star boasting a spectacular YouTube highlights reel and a fast-talking agent.

In came the likes of Fahid Ben Khalfallah, one-time Bundesliga winner Matthieu Delpierre and the idiosyncratic Berisha. There was plenty of man management to be done, aside of course from fashioning the disparate components into a highly cohesive unit.

Perhaps his most under-rated signing was former Socceroo defensive midfielder Carl Valeri. Valeri’s partnership with Joe Marston Medal winner Mark Milligan is surely the envy of every coach in the competition.

The pair were outstanding in denying oxygen to Sydney FC’s creative talents. The sweeping range of passes delivered by Milligan, often an underrated part of his game, was a joy to behold. The silky skilled Kosta Barbarouses, who seems to improve with every passing month, was the beneficiary on several occasions. He is one New Zealander that Ange Postecoglou would dearly love to have in his Socceroo squad.

The notion of attacking Sydney’s full-backs was surely front and centre on the Victory’s dressing-room whiteboard. Defence is one area where the Victory seem superior to their Big Blue rivals. When Sydney’s Jacques Faty succumbed to injury early on, the gulf increased further.

Barbarouses was rewarded by deservedly getting his name on the scoresheet. The third and final goal was nailed by an even more deserving recipient, albeit an unlikely goalscorer. It may not seem like it but Leigh Broxham was there on day one for Melbourne Victory. Broxham debuted as a raw 17-year-old in the long-forgotten ‘Club World Cup challenge’, a few months prior to the first A-League ball was kicked in anger. He even served as the team’s gear steward between then and his A-League debut.

It was a rare off-day for Sydney who statistically have been the best side since January. So while the Victory were the best side over the course of the season, it is the Sky Blues who went into the match boasting marginally better form, not to mention their much talked about unbeaten away record.

It’s easy to forget that just a year has passed since Sydney FC were a basket case under Frank Farina. Ironically, of course, Arnold was Farina’s national team assistant for many years. Arnold, however, credits much of his football awakening to six months under Guus Hiddink rather than the best part of six years under Farina. It would have been interesting to see Arnold manage Alessandro Del Piero, or, to put it another way, it would have been fascinating to see Il Pinturicchio perform in a non-dysfunctional side.

Both Melbourne and Sydney are on a clear path of upward progression meaning that for the first time in many years, possibly ever, Australia’s two automatic qualifiers to the Asian Champions League are likely to be maintaining their standard when they finally take the field in 10 months’ time. The long lag has invariably proven problematic for A-League clubs given their propensity for rapid change in personnel. Both clubs will harbour high hopes in Asia, although often it takes a full season before one can start to enjoy success given the continent’s football nuances.

There was Frank Lowy falling off the stage. There are few more disturbing sights than seeing an 84-year-old fall over. The FFA chairman has undoubtedly been toughened up by a lifetime in the byzantine world of Australian football politics.

Then there was the obligatory pre-match “on-brand” indie act, whose presence to a disinterested audience almost always seems out of place. There was Victory players donning those caps with the sticker on them. There was Fox Sports’ brave move to put Bozza and co amid the pre and post-match maelstrom outside the stadium, and equally the potential for chaos offered by having the Victory players marching out of the stadium to the live site stage. You know things are on the edge when Archie Thompson seems the most mature person on stage. It was a colourful day indeed.

© 2015 The Guardian | This article was written by Pete Smith and first appeared in The Guardian on 18 May 2015.

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