INSIDE A-LEAGUE

Inside Sport - - Contents - BY FOX SPORTS’ SI­MON HILL

In horse-rac­ing terms, the A-League is about to round the bend and head down the fin­ish­ing straight. As is the case ev­ery year, there is still plenty to play for – the Premier­ship, Asian Cham­pi­ons League spots, a home fi­nal, or just be­ing in the end-of-sea­son play-offs in their own right.

Reign­ing cham­pi­ons Mel­bourne Vic­tory face a cru­cial month of Fe­bru­ary, and one that may de­ter­mine whether they win the Premier­ship and give them­selves the best pos­si­ble chance of adding what would be a record fifth ti­tle.

Af­ter the top-of-the-ta­ble clash with Perth Glory on Fe­bru­ary 10, Vic­tory jour­neys across the Tas­man to Welling­ton in round 19 – a trip that brings mixed for­tunes for Kevin Mus­cat’s team. In their last eight vis­its, Vic­tory have won four, lost four.

A week later, it’s the Mel­bourne Derby against City, an­other match-up where form can some­times be a poor guide as to the out­come. In the last eight in this fix­ture, Vic­tory has won four and lost three, with the other match hav­ing ended in a draw.

In round 21, it’s New­cas­tle Jets for the navy blue – an­other team that has had a de­cent record of suc­cess against Vic­tory. This game will be played in Gee­long, where Vic­tory once again have en­dured a mixed bag of re­sults.

Ri­vals Perth Glory don’t have it much eas­ier, with trips to Western Syd­ney and Mel­bourne City on their sched­ule. Glory, with­out a tro­phy since the days of the old Na­tional Soc­cer League, will need to draw on all their re­solve to head off a tal­ented Vic­tory squad, if they are to se­cure their first-ever A-League Premier­ship.

The fi­nals, of course, are a very dif­fer­ent kett”le of fish.

It’s here that Vic­tory have come into their own in the A-League era – win­ning 14, draw­ing four and los­ing just four of their 22 play-off matches. Should Vic­tory emerge tri­umphant come May, they will be­come the most suc­cess­ful team in the his­tory of Aus­tralia’s na­tional com­pe­ti­tions.

Back in the semi-pro NSL days, Syd­ney City, South Mel­bourne and Mar­coni Stal­lions each claimed four cham­pi­onships, be­fore the change to the fully pro­fes­sional A-League in 2005.

Since then, Vic­tory have been the dom­i­nant force, win­ning ti­tles in 2007, ’09,’15 and ’18. Their lat­est suc­cess (over New­cas­tle last May) drew them level with those his­toric clubs, and was also un­prece­dented in that they be­came the first team in the A-League era to win the cham­pi­onship af­ter fin­ish­ing out­side the top-two in the reg­u­lar sea­son.

This year, Kevin Mus­cat ap­pears to have put to­gether an even more for­mi­da­ble squad, with mar­quee im­ports Keisuke Honda (pic­tured below) and Ola Toivo­nen adding qual­ity and lead­er­ship to an al­ready-strong squad.

At the time of writ­ing, only Perth would ap­pear ca­pa­ble of mount­ing a se­ri­ous chal­lenge to Vic­tory’s dom­i­nance. Glory’s new coach, Tony Popovic, re­vamped his squad very early in the off-sea­son, and that ex­tra time to work on the new 3-4-3 shape paid div­i­dends in the early part of the cam­paign.

The old say­ing is, how­ever, that the league is a marathon, not a sprint. Do Perth have the stay­ing power, the know-how, the qual­ity, to head off the thor­ough­breds?

The month of Fe­bru­ary will no doubt tell us a whole lot more about the likely out­come.

Should Vic­tory emerge tri­umphant come May, they will be­come the most suc­cess­ful team in the his­tory of Aus­tralia’s na­tional com­pe­ti­tions.

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