Australia Day clash with Sydney looms as tough test of Melbourne Victory’s form recovery

Is Melbourne Victory’s form slump officially over?


The Australia Day match with Sydney FC should confirm it one way or another, but on recent evidence it’s hard not to think the champions are on the way back.

Victory have netted seven times in the last three halves of soccer they have played, coming back from a 3-0 interval deficit against Central Coast Mariners to draw 3-3, then seeing off A-League leaders Brisbane Roar 4-0 at AAMI Park last Friday night.

Kevin Muscat’s team is averaging a goal every 19 minutes at the moment, a statistic which suggests they have certainly regained their mojo after a disappointing run of five matches where they picked up only one point from a possible 15. In their last three games, however, they have accrued seven points out of a possible nine.

The public holiday clash at Etihad Stadium represents a classic meeting of styles. Victory are the league’s second highest scorers (with 24 goals in 15 games), while Sydney have the tightest defence, having conceded just 13. Still, the titleholders – and everyone else – look blunt-edged compared to the prolific Melbourne City, who have scored 37 so far this season.

A key part of Victory’s recent resurgence has been Kiwi forward Kosta Barbarouses, who netted twice against Brisbane.

The pacy wide man has always been a threat and is confident that Victory can provide Sydney – whom they beat 4-2 at Allianz Stadium the first time the teams met this campaign – with another searching test this time.

“We look forward to Sydney, it’s always a really good game against them. The fans turn up in numbers because they know what’s on the line,” Barbarouses said.

“I don’t think they really change the way they play too much. They are a bit like us, they have their structure, their method of playing. Arnie (coach Graham Arnold) has them playing really tough to break down. It’s just going to come down to our quality in certain areas and how we can break them down. I think we can hurt them.”

He is happy enough to be playing at Etihad, a venue where Victory has a tremendous record. The last time the champions lost at the roofed stadium was two years ago, when Sydney won the corresponding fixture 5-0 – a rare blip on the Victory record.

The ground simply seems to suit Victory, says Barbarouses, that 0-5 reverse aside.

“I’m not sure if that comes down to anything, a lot of the boys are used to playing there by now, it’s quite a big pitch, maybe it makes a difference. A lot of teams this year have tried to sit back against us and Etihad gives us a little more space .”

It’s tempting to see the half-time interval of that game in Geelong, where Victory were three down to the bottom team, as a seasonal turning point.

“I think that was a massive wake up call. Before that the results weren’t going our way, I think we were playing really well in patches, not the full game. Since then, we’ve really woken up and the boys have responded fantastically, in that second half against Brisbane, to put in a full 90 minute performance was really pleasing,” says Barbarouses.

“The scary thing is that’s what the team is capable of … I feel like we were doing ourselves an injustice with the quality we had in the team, hopefully we can continue that going forward.”

The win against Brisbane was particularly pleasing, as were his two goals.

“Everything that we expected to happen happened, we took our chances really well. Personally I think my form has been pretty good over the last few weeks … it’s really good to get on the scoresheet again and I want to get a few more before the season finishes.”

Barbarouses agrees that the return of Nick Ansell to shore up things at the back has contributed to Victory’s change of fortunes.

“Nick was really unlucky, I thought he had an amazing year last year and that (the injury that kept him out until the Mariners match) was a massive setback for him. You can see he’s come back very strongly, he looks very confident.”

With Australia’s elimination from the Olympic qualifying tournament, Victory’s five Olyroo squad members will return home in time to be considered for the Sydney match.

“It’s a massive boost for us to have them back. All the boys who stepped in, Stefan (Nigro) did an amazing job, Rashid (Mahazi) has been doing a great job as well so to have those boys back to give us even more options is really good for us.”

Nevertheless it is an old stager in Archie Thompson who Barbarouses believes could still have a huge role to play in a crowded end-of-season schedule which encompasses the last 12 A-League fixtures, almost certainly a finals campaign, plus half a dozen Asian Champions League games.

“Archie’s a guy that doesn’t age at all. His football remains amazingly consistent – I’m not sure what that’s down to, I’m sure he has a lot of confidence in himself and for good reason, he’s an amazing player.

“The same with this Nick (Ansell) situation, having Archie in the team is a massive boost for us and I’m sure he’s going to help us a lot in the coming months along the way.”