These are strange times at Melbourne Victory. Australia’s biggest and most powerful football team has endured a tumultuous season, yet finds itself in the Round of 16 knockout stage of the AFC Champions League for the first time ever.
The 2014/15 A-League champions began this past season as heavy favourites to win a second consecutive Grand Final, and early on it appeared as though things were going to form.
But three straight wins in November were negated by three consecutive losses in December.
Star midfielder Carl Valeri was sidelined with what was diagnosed as an inflammatory brain condition, and after a brief rally early in the new year, Victory went into a serious late-season slump.
The defending champs won just three of their final 11 matches and were embarrassed 5-0 by Brisbane Roar.
Head coach Kevin Muscat found himself with an injury-depleted squad, as well as some internal drama surrounding the two import players he left off the Asian Champions League roster, Brazilian midfielder Gui Finkler and Tunisian winger Fahid Ben Khalfallah.
To make matters worse, Finkler – and speedster Kosta Barbarouses – announced they had signed to play with Wellington Phoenix next season.
The club did take six points from its last four matches and managed to hold on to the sixth and final playoff spot. They were brutally knocked out in the first round by Brisbane courtesy of a last-second goal.
The season’s end sparked a maelstrom of negativity from Victory fans used to seeing their club at the top of the table.
Online forums and callers to Melbourne radio stations were flush with anti-Muscat sentiment, many suggesting that the longtime club servant had lost the dressing room.
But they didn’t count on a twist of irony that only a scriptwriter could appreciate.
The one thing that had caused Muscat so many headaches – the Asian Champions League – became his saviour.
A triumph in a must-win match against Gamba Osaka earlier this month was everything Victory fans could have hoped for: a rowdy crowd of more than 10,000, an early goal from top scorer Besart Berisha and another from evergreen talisman Archie Thompson, who had announced this season (his 11th with Victory) would be his last.
The 2-1 win assured the club of its first ever spot in the ACL Round of 16.
Those who know Muscat aren’t surprised that he’s managed to find something in this lost season.
“Kevin Muscat is a winner, but his team was not producing its best form in the league,” says former Victory star Grant Brebner, who won two A-League titles alongside Muscat and is now a radio commentator.
“He put the team on notice and asked them to perform in the Champions League. To date, they have.”
Muscat is a ferocious competitor, who as a player was known for his uncompromising tackles and the occasional dose of ‘white line fever.’ He brings the same passion to the sidelines and is a firm believer in dealing with problems when they arise.
“One thing Kevin will never do is throw one of his players under the bus,” says Brebner. “He’ll address any outstanding issues, but he’ll do it privately.”
The newly-invigorated Muscat will be looking to right some ACL wrongs when Victory take on Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors at home on Tuesday.
As a Victory player or coach Muscat has been part of four unsuccessful Champions League campaigns. Jeonbuk was a group opponent in 2014 and both games ended in draws, 2-2 in Melbourne and 0-0 in Korea.
The memories of that 0-0 draw – it kept Victory out of the Round of 16 – are still on the minds of some of the players.
“I think we should have had a penalty near the end there to put ourselves through, which we didn’t get,” Victory goalkeeper Lawrence Thomas told Melbourne’s Daily Football Show.
“I haven’t forgotten that.”
Having the first leg at home may be advantageous to Victory, since their form at AAMI Park has been solid. They’ve beaten Shanghai SIPG and Gamba Osaka and drawn with Samsung Suwon. Getting off to a fast start could also be a key; Victory scored early and took first half leads in both of their wins at AAMI.
Of the club’s seven Group Stage goals, leading scorer Berisha has two. The Albanian striker was the third leading scorer in the A-League this season with 18 and you’d expect he’d need to be on his game if Victory are to advance to the quarter-finals.