Kevin Muscat’s men take breather
Sometimes coaches talk about the performance being far more important than the result.
This was a game, for both Melbourne Victory and the Central Coast Mariners, where the result was all that mattered.
Going into this round 22 fixture the two teams were part of a cluster on 30 points, chasing league leaders Brisbane and Western Sydney Wanderers.
Both were looking nervously over their shoulders at Sydney, Wellington and Melbourne Heart, all of whom are close enough to push them out of the finals race if they win matches and the Mariners and Victory don’t.
When the dust settled it was Victory who took all three points by a rather flattering 3-1 scoreline in a game that had fewer high spots than the winning margin might suggest.
Still Victory boss Kevin Muscat was relieved just to have picked up three points with his team gaining some breathing space on the league table after that 4-0 shellacking against local rivals Melbourne Heart six days earlier.
The opening goal, when it came just on the half hour mark, was against the run of play.
The Mariners should have been in front themselves just moments earlier after a slick build up freed Mitchell Duke on the left. He made space for a cross which gave Nick Fitzgerald a free header, but the Mariners midfielder screwed his effort wide when he should have done better.
From the restart Victory went up the other end and scored almost straight away, when Conor Pain fed Gui Finkler, whose pass found Jimmy Jeggo.
Jeggo doesn’t get many starting opportunities in the navy blue, and he doesn’t score that often either.
But he seized his chance to improve his record on both counts in style, taking a touch to move the ball into space before driving past Liam Reddy.
The Mariners looked purposeful, structured and well organised.
Berni Ibini gave them a big, mobile target, cutting in from the wings, while Duke, a player who was held in such high regard by the former Socceroo boss Holger Osieck, made his presence felt too as the champions took the game to a Victory side that looked nervous and disjointed for much of the opening period.
Kevin Muscat’s men have had a hard road to travel in the past few weeks, with an Asian Champions League trip to China and a derby disaster against Melbourne Heart top of mind.
How they needed three points and, preferably a clean sheet if only to restore some morale after those two losses to Guangzhou and Heart when they shipped four goals in each game.
But they struggled to find any rhythm, and while the fact that they were missing five first choice players is some mitigation, it doesn’t excuse the way they coughed up posession too often.
The Mariners looked more likely for much of that first period, when big central defender Zach Anderson came close when his header from a corner struck the post, Duke unable to capitalise on the rebound.
The game became more adventurous in the second half as the visitors went in search of the leveller they would have felt they deserved, and they got it in the 63rd minute.
After a scramble on the right of the Victory goal referee Ben Williams awarded a free kick, which was slung over by Kim Seung-yong.
Lawrence Thomas, retained by Muscat in goal despite conceding four on his first appearance of the season last weekend, came but could not take the cross, the ball falling to Anderson, who showed dexterity to control it and slam home into an unguarded net.
A draw was not ideal for either side in the circumstances, but a defeat was something neither could contemplate either.
In the end it was a penalty which was to put Victory into the driving seat and give it the chance to consolidate its position in the group chasing a finals berth.
Archie Thompson, made his most telling intervention with a cross which struck Anderson on the arm.
With regular penalty taker Mark Milligan returning from international duty it was James Troisi who stepped up and his powerful spot kick smashed past Liam Reddy after striking the underside of the crossbar.
Substitute Kosta Barbarouses made sure of the win when he tucked home a Thompson cross in stoppage time to make it 3-1, a score that the Mariners will certainly feel they didn’t deserve.