Champions in waiting: Victory primed to challenge Roar's dominance
The moment came far quicker than many would have imagined, (and probably for the man himself), but Kevin Muscat took the reins early last season. Despite the trials and the doubts in a rollercoaster season, Muscat led his side to the A-League semi-final while coming desperately close to progression in the Asian Champions League.
Muscat grew into the job as the season went on, all the while dealing with weeks and months without key players due to injuries and international duties. Continuing what Ange Postecoglou started, there were plenty of positives to take from the campaign. Now with a full pre-season to make the necessary and overdue squad changes, Muscat takes Victory into season 10 in fine shape.
Talk of a big money transfer overseas has followed Mark Milligan for the last two seasons. Instead, Victory’s skipper re-signed with the club on a bigger contract as its Australian marquee.
Milligan, who was closely linked to Crystal Palace prior to the 2013/14 season only for the deal to fall through, could have been forgiven for having his mind elsewhere. The opposite was true for the No .5 and, despite a knee injury that required minor surgery, he ended the season strongly and was rewarded with World Cup selection.
The 29-year-old will be just as important this season. As a leader and part of Victory’s midfield shield, Milligan’s role at the club can’t be understated and it was heartwarming to see him rewarded with his new deal.
IN: Besart Berisha (Brisbane Roar), Daniel Georgievski (Romania-Steaua Bucharest), Carl Valeri (Serie B-Ternana), Fahid Ben Khalfallah (Ligue 2-Troyes)
OUT: Francesco Stella (released), Jimmy Jeggo (Adelaide United), James Troisi (Belgian Pro League-Zulte Waregem), Adama Traore (Portuguese Primera Liga-Vitoria de Guimares) Tom Rogic (loan expired-Celtic)
Muscat has seen the need to add key position players and depth to his squad, while continuing to develop the youth who gained valuable experience last season like Rashid Mahazi, Dylan Murnane, Connor Pain, Jason Geria, Andrew Nabbout.
The much-maligned defence looks the strongest it’s ever been with the arrivals of Matthieu Delpierre and Daniel Georgievski, while Muscat has added another defensive midfielder in the form of returning Socceroo, Carl Valeri.
Traore’s departure is a blow but Delpierre and Giorgievski are capable of offsetting that. Nick Ansell, who should be the club’s first choice centre-back, will have a disrupted start to the season after injury plagued his pre-season, perhaps giving Adrian Leijer another chance to set himself up as a first-teamer.
Former Ligue 1 winger Fahid Ben Khalfallah adds depth to the attacking stocks after becoming the club’s fifth and final international signing, and is likely to line up alongside Besart Berisha and club stalwart Archie Thompson. Boasting over 300 French Ligue 1 and 2 appearances, and now 31, Khalfallah should be able to offer plenty for this season.
Overseas recruits carry obvious risks and at 33 the age of Delpierre is of some concern. Victory have a reputation for signing ageing defenders who fail to perform, but the Frenchman has the experience the side has been crying out for to lead the back four.
Changes in set up
A slight formation change has been made with the formerly striker-less Victory now accommodating Berisha - the best striker in the A-League.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Looking set to change to a 4-3-3 that can revert to whatever formation a situation calls for, the same exciting attacking philosophy will remain. How Berisha fits in and gels with Gui Finkler, in particular, will be a key factor in determining how far Victory will go.
Although heavily preferred in midfield by Muscat, Milligan’s ability to play centre-back adds flexibility, particularly when chasing a game. It was desperately clear last season that Victory needed a holding midfielder as the skipper went box-to-box. With Valeri in there as an extra cover, Milligan becomes that little more dangerous going forward.
Without a striker last season, Victory often looked wide through Thompson and James Troisi, darting low crosses in or working their way into the box. What let them down was the lack of a focal point and the maddening inability of a creative team to put away their chances.
In Berisha they have a target who can hold up the ball and run at opposition defences.
Champions. The last two years have been about change and progressing to the point where they are a real challenger to Brisbane Roar’s dominance. They are at that stage now. Muscat has adapted the squad and appears to have identified the clear holes in it, and the side could not have come into the season in better shape.
Victory have proven they were two or three players away from a championship over the past two seasons and over this summer, they went out and got those players. If they are to fall short of a third crown this season, it won’t be for lack of preparation.