Impetus’ Kieran Yap has closely followed Melbourne Victory’s fortunes this season. Ahead of their Grand Final against Sydney FC on Sunday, he reviews a challenging campaign that now looks to have all come good at the right time (24/3/22).
Above: Melbourne Victory celebrate after clinching their Grand Final place with a win over cross-city rivals Melbourne City in last weekend’s Preliminary Final. Photo: Melbourne Victory.
This is exactly where I expected this team to be, but not how I thought the season would go.
As people often remind me, before Round One of the A-League Women, I predicted that Melbourne Victory would navigate the season undefeated.
The great Casey Dumont was back, American superstar Lynn Williams was here for a short time and Courtney Nevin had signed for the season. Victory had strengthened from the previous championship-winning campaign. Melina Ayres was following from a breakout season and there were whispers that Alex Chidiac was possibly signing.
When you put all these facts together, can you blame me for thinking Jeff Hopkins had assembled a team that could manage 14 games without a loss?
Of course, my Melbourne Victory (Women’s team) fandom blinded me to any frailties in the squad. But in my defence on paper, this line-up inspired confidence.
My bold prediction came undone in the first half of the first game. I was standing behind the goal when Kayla Morrison went down. The popular captain and PFA team of the season centre-back was chasing down her own clearance from a corner. The fans were still applauding her perfectly timed leap when she fell while running in a straight line and under no contact.
We all tried to talk ourselves into believing the best-case scenario. She didn’t twist, she walked off without a stretcher, and she was wandering around after the match. To paraphrase the Victory Viking’s mascot, “She’s still good, she’s still good.”
But she wasn’t. The championship-winning defender had torn her ACL, and suddenly Victory had a problem. There was no clear backup centre-back in the squad.
Hopkins had the option of moving Nevin to centre-back. She had excelled there for the Matildas against the USA in a 1-1 draw and it looked the easiest solution. Instead, he opted to keep Nevin wide, not switch formation and shift Amy Jackson to defence.
16-year-old Alana Murphy was trusted with midfield duties, and she became one of the finds of the season. Jackson showed with a matchwinning foul against City that she had the determination and sacrificial nature that could hold the fort even if she was played well out of position.
Kyra Cooney-Cross was shackled into a more disciplined role as an almost defensive midfielder. Her natural, showstopping game was put on hold for the sake of the team for now.
Lynn Williams justified her short contract with essential contributions against Melbourne City and Brisbane Roar. Without her, it is unlikely that Victory would have made the top four in the end.
New captain Lia Privitelli played wherever she was needed, left-back, midfield, or forward. She was in career-best form. Chidiac adjusted instantly and was pivotal in keeping Victory moving forward during games.
Victory had adjusted. Hopes of an undefeated season were dashed by Melbourne City and Brisbane Roar but they had lost against the same opponents in an almost identical sequence last season. They were still going well.
Then COVID hit. Victory had an enforced mid-season break. The whole league did at some point, but when the powers that be made the decision to cram as many matches into February as possible, Victory found themselves playing seven games in 23 days.
They were exhausted. You could tell what they wanted to do, the first 20 minutes of each game showed that they were well drilled and had the talent. But fatigue started to quickly set in as the games piled up. They looked visibly aching as they walked off the field. A 3-0 loss to an Adelaide United side that needed the win to guarantee Finals was the point where they looked physically spent.
Still, they got the points. A new defender has been signed in the form of American Brooke Hendrix, and she made an instant impression. It is to Jeff Hopkins’ and the clubs’ eternal credit that they did not panic without Morrison. They did not rush to replace her with any centre-back. They waited, scouted, and held on until the right option became available.
Personally, I would have loaned a COVID-stranded Claudia Mihocic from Perth Glory. But once she got on the field for them it was obvious that Perth would have been mad to give up the impressive defender to a finals rival, it was simply my dream.
Hendrix was the right choice. She immediately improved the shape of the team and was essential when Claudia Bunge was called away to the New Zealand squad.
Victory entered the Finals with a near full-strength side, with a proper week of recovery and planning for the first time in over a month, and they were about to welcome back Melina Ayres to the starting line-up.
We as fans have been waiting for Ayres return like it was some sort of Biblical fable, “Things will be OK when Melina gets here… just wait and see, when Melina returns everything will change!”
The faithful were not disappointed. Two goals in two finals have justified the reverence the striker is held in behind the AAMI Park goals.
Ayres is back and firing, Jackson is once again roaming her natural habitat and the defence is once again looking pretty solid.
Chidiac has just played the game of her life against City in the preliminary final. They have knocked off many pundits’ and my favourite for the title, Adelaide United and everybody is fit.
They have done things the hard way, but they are ready for this moment. Sydney are a frightening outfit with ridiculous depth. Arguably their fifth choice attacker is Paige Satchell, an Olympian and New Zealand international. In Sarah Hunter and Maria Rojas they have genuine game-changers on the bench.
They are in a better position than they were when they lost to Melbourne Victory in last season’s Grand Final. Courtney Vine did not play that day and Princess Ibini went off injured. They have also had a full weekend to rest and strategize.
Sydney FC has the best defensive record, a dominant midfield, and a killer strike force, but Victory is not here by fluke.
Despite one of the most challenging seasons in their history as a club or individuals, they are right where they planned to be at this moment.
One more win will turn this remarkable season into a legendary success.
This is the second article in our six days of Grand Final coverage on Impetus. Kieran Yap and Kris Goman will be spotlighting both finalists, Ben Gilby will be reporting on the Grand Final, with Kris Goman pitchside providing EXCLUSIVE photos from the game. Next week, don’t miss Kieran Yap’s Grand Final analysis. Yesterday, we brought you the pre- Grand Final media events from both clubs – it can be read here: https://impetusfootball.org/2022/03/23/a-league-grand-final-the-view-from-sydney-fc-melbourne-victory/