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 kettle 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.