ACL Preview: Yokohama F. Marinos v Melbourne Victory
Played: 1, Wins: Victory 1
Victory 1-0 Marinos, March 18 2014
Past five matches:
After a tough start to Group G, Melbourne Victory could make a big statement on Wednesday when they travel to Japan to play Yokohama F. Marinos. Victory started their 2014 AFC Champions League (ACL) campaign with a disappointing 4-2 loss at title-holders Guangzhou Evergrande and then drew 2-2 at home with Jeonbuk Motors. But after knocking off Marinos 1-0 on Matchday Three, Group G could be opening up for the Big V.
Yokohama have started slowly in both the J. League and in the ACL with five losses and three wins from nine games in all competitions so far this season. With just one point in Group G from three matches and consecutive defeats on the domestic front, the Emperor's Cup champions may see Wednesday's match as an unnecessary distraction. Marinos head coach Yasuhiro Higuchi may be tempted to pick a weakened line-up against Victory ahead of a crucial mid-table clash with Albirex Niigata in the J. League on Sunday.
Although Victory had to defend stoically to overcome Marinos in Melbourne a fortnight ago, the A-League club did put the ball in the back of the net another two times only to see the goals ruled out for offside. While Victory head coach Kevin Muscat will be without up to six first-teamers through injury and suspension, an uninterested home team may provide the Australians with a chance to pick up crucial points on the road as they aim to make the ACL knockout stages for the first time.
The big issue:
Marinos – Will Higuchi select his strongest team? In Marinos' three ACL matches, Higuchi has picked a weakened team for the long trip to Australia, while key players Shunsuke Nakamura, Yuji Nakazawa and Kosuke Nakamachi were involved at home versus Evergrande and for the relatively short trip to South Korea to play Jeonbuk Motors. If Marinos defeat Victory, they would join the Melbourne side - and potentially Jeonbuk - on four points, which would keep them in the hunt for a Round of 16 berth. But if Higuchi considers the ACL too hard, it could play into Victory's hands.
Victory – Has Muscat run out of players? Victory will travel to Japan without Adama Traore, Nick Ansell, Tom Rogic and captain Mark Milligan due to various fitness issues, while Pablo Contreras and Kosta Barbarouses are suspended. With Gui Finkler ineligible due to the ACL's restrictions on foreign players, Victory's squad will be down to the bare bones on Wednesday. It leaves Muscat with a big challenge of finding the right combination to challenge Marinos.
The game breaker:
James Troisi - With plenty of experienced players set to miss the trip to Japan, Victory's chances of avoiding defeat could rest on the shoulders of Troisi. The on-loan attacker from Atalanta struck his 11th goal of the season in the Big V's 1-1 draw with Sydney FC on Saturday but has yet to find the back of the net in the ACL group stage. A fortnight ago against Marinos, Troisi was one of the few Melbourne players to hold onto the ball when the Japanese visitors pushed for an equaliser in the second half, and the 25-year-old's ability to maintain possession could also be crucial on Wednesday.
Prediction: Marinos 1-1 Victory
The opening 15 minutes at Nissan Stadium will most likely define this contest. No matter what line-up Higuchi selects, the visitors from Melbourne will need to start with high intensity to give their inexperienced players some belief that they can get something out of the match.
Since Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka won the ACL in 2007 and 2008, J. League clubs have generally considered continental success as less important than domestic trophies. Based on that and Victory's improving form in the ACL, a strong start could set up Muscat's men for another back-to-the-wall result.
A win could put Victory well on the way to claiming a spot in the next round of the ACL but even a draw could see the Big V end Matchday Four in second position in Group G, as leaders Evergrande will be slight favourites to defeat Jeonbuk in South Korea. Victory's impressive scoring ability should see them hit the back of the net at least once and, with a bit of luck, could be enough to claim a point in Japan.