It’s not only tough at the top. It’s also highly congested. Five clubs separated by four points occupy the spots at the top of the A-League, with the rest some way behind.
With seven rounds to go each of the quintet challenging for the Championship have their destiny in their own hands. Several will clash over the next two months in games that will genuinely meet their market billing as championship-defining six-pointers.
Although they lie fourth after the current round of games, Melbourne Victory, on 34 points, might theoretically be said to have a fractional advantage as they have a game in hand over the other four clubs chasing the Premiers Plate.
If they win that they would leapfrog current second-placed Wellington (36 points) and third-placed Sydney (35 points), drawing level with league leaders Perth (37 points) but going ahead because of a superior goal difference.
It’s a big if though, as at this time of the season most coaches prefer to have the points in hand rather than a potential advantage. As the clock winds down it’s always harder to chase than it is to defend as the psychological pressures from simply having to get a result can weigh down on players and managers.
Are Victory equipped for the task? Do they have the combination of attacking prowess, defensive nous and the strong mentality needed to come out on top in what is one of the tightest A-League title battles in a long time?
There is no doubt that Kevin Muscat’s squad certainly have goals in them.
They are the competition’s current top scorers, having netted 40 times in their 19 games, an average of over two a match.
Players like Besart Berisha (although he has not been as hot recently), Kosta Barbarouses, the explosive Tunisian Fahid Ben Khalfallah and the creative Brazilian Gui Finkler all represent a threat every time they get near the opposition goal. Veteran Archie Thompson is also a handy weapon to have on the bench when the heat has gone out of games.
Defensively Victory have drawn criticism but statistically Muscat’s side is one of the best, having conceded 25 goals. Only Wellington and Adelaide (23) of the teams in and around them have conceded fewer.
The coaching staff at Gosch’s Paddock believe their team have also shipped more goals than they should have on the back of some poor refereeing decisions.
They specifically point to the penalty awarded by Strebre Delovski in the 3-3 draw with Sydney when Seb Ryall, the Sky Blues defender, went to ground after a coming together with Gui Finkler, an incident that many believe did not warrant a spot kick.
They also, with good reason, argue that had referee Kris Griffiths-Jones got his decision right on Saturday night and disallowed Perth forward Andy Keogh’s opening goal for offside, then the result of that game would have been completely different. Replays showed that Keogh was narrowly, but definitely, offside when Michael Thwaite played a lofted pass through to him in the penalty area, which he converted from close range.
The return to fitness of French centre half Matthieu Delpierre could be the difference between going all the way and not for Victory. Several times in the past 72 hours Muscat has referred to the tall, elegant defender as a “clever footballer”, and his admiration for the former captain of German Bundesliga champions Stuttgart is evident.
Delpierre was, of course, rusty on Saturday night. But he still played with a calm assurance and the knowhow that comes from having played at higher level in competitive environments. His knowledge and guidance will be important for young defenders like Scott Galloway, Jason Geria and Nick Ansell over the next pressure-packed couple of months.
And his height means he always offers a threat in the air from set pieces.
Galloway was left out on Saturday by Muscat and Daniel Georgievski, the Macedonian international full back, given his chance.
Georgievski is a combative, committed figure and his presence in the combustible environment of a match against a physical outfit like Perth Glory might have been something of a gamble.
If it was, it paid off in style, as it was the left back who brought Victory level with a quality finish, a right-footed chip from the left past Danny Vukovic. Georgievski is a tough nut who never takes a backward step and that mentality will be essential in the drive to the line come season’s end.
Do Victory have the psychological toughness to go all the way? They haven’t won the Championship since the days that Muscat himself was providing leadership out on the pitch, with experienced men like Grant Brebner alongside him in midfield and hard-nosed professionals like Rody Vargas doing duty at the back.
In Mark Milligan they have a captain who is widely admired as a player and leader: he was, after all, handed the armband by Ange Postecoglou during the Asian Cup when he led the Socceroos in place of the injured Mile Jedinak.
And Carl Valeri, a classic quiet man schooled in the art of defensive midfield play in Italy , definitely knows how to get the job done, a leader more by example than exhortation. He had a tremendous game in the engine room on Saturday night and having spent a decade or more in the demanding Italian game he will lack nothing for mental toughness.
Goalkeeper Nathan Coe can have his flaky moments – he almost gave away a goal with a miscued clearance against Perth – but he is also capable of pulling off fine reaction saves. He needs to concentrate fully from here to the end of the season if Victory are to go all the way.
Muscat’s side remain the author of their own destiny, for now. But they need to be on top form and retain concentration through every game if they are to land their third title.
The coach is right to describe his team – perhaps along with Wellington – as the most exciting attacking ensemble in the league, and they will continue to take the game to their opposition.
“It was an entertaining, attacking game of football. I was extremely happy we put them under a lot of pressure, we got on the front foot,” he said after the game on Saturday.
“There were so many positives to take. I thought the reaction [after going behind to a controversial goal] was outstanding. We felt it was offside. I might be wrong, but I doubt it. After that to play the type of football we did was superb.
“It was evident to me that there was one team trying to win a game tonight. to win any trophies you have to win games. I would rather not rely on not trying to lose a game.”
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