A-League Finals Preview: Melbourne Victory v Sydney FC
Played: 31, Wins: Victory 9, Sydney 9, Draws: 13
Melbourne Victory 1-1 Sydney FC, Saturday March 29, 2014
Past five matches (in all competitions):
The Big Blue hasn't been this important for quite a while, with the 2009-10 grand final - won by Sydney FC on penalties - the last time these fierce rivals met in a knockout tie. And it's the Sky Blues who have had the edge across three meetings this season, winning the first two and drawing the most recent.
Victory go into the game in better form, having thumped Wellington 4-1 away from home last weekend before beating Chinese Super League and AFC Champions Leaguer holders Guangzhou Evergrande 2-0 on Tuesday night.
Sydney meanwhile enjoyed their own 4-1 victory over the Phoenix two weeks ago, before labouring to an unconvincing 2-1 win against Perth Glory in the final round of the campaign, needing the help of a last-minute goal to do so.
The big issue:
Victory – Kevin Muscat made plenty of changes for the Evergrande game, and will be able to recall Adama Traore and Guilherme Finkler after a full week's rest. Leigh Broxham started on the bench but had to come on in the first half on Tuesday for Adrian Leijer, who will miss the Sydney game due to a foot injury. Archie Thompson will also return to selection contention after missing the ACL match due to a family bereavement.
Key men Mark Milligan, Kosta Barbarouses and James Troisi look set to play their third game in seven days. Will they be able to perform at their best against the well-rested visitors?
Sydney – Frank Farina says the Sky Blues squad and starting XI will be largely unchanged from the Perth game. But how they could do with getting striker Ranko Despotovic back! The Serbian front-man hasn't featured since the 3-1 derby win over the Wanderers on March 8.
In their first three games without him Sydney failed to score more than once in each match, before putting four past the hapless Phoenix, and they had set-pieces to thank in that one. Last weekend they struggled for goals again, highlighting the absence of the man who tormented Victory in Sydney's 5-0 Australia Day win.
The game breaker:
James Troisi has been Melbourne Victory's best player in recent weeks, top-scorer for the club in the A-League with 12 goals and leading the team for shots on and off target, passes in the opposition half and dribbles attempted.
While Finkler is arguably slightly better at picking a killer pass and bringing team-mates into the attack, Troisi has a better work rate than Tom Rogic, is quicker than the aging Thompson and more clinical than Barbarouses.
He has the pace to worry Sebastian Ryall and Matthew Jurman coming from a wide position, and can also worry the sometimes ponderous Sasa Ognenovski if deployed centrally. If Ognenovski or Nikola Petkovic tries to step out to shackle him, that will create space for Finkler to operate in or wide attackers to run into.
Prediction: Melbourne Victory 2-1 Sydney FC
The Sky Blues mounted an excellent defensive performance in the 1-1 draw at AAMI Park last month, but they rode their luck at times and may not be able to restrict Victory to so few clear-cut chances again, particularly with Muscat's men in much better form going into this one. The hosts will also be in high spirits after recording one of the most memorable wins in their recent history at the expense of regional powerhouse Evergrande earlier this week.
Compare that with Sydney, who have stumbled into the finals and are set to say goodbye to Alessandro Del Piero when their playoff campaign ends, with the future of coach Frank Farina also uncertain.
Nevertheless, it's still certain to be tight one, and we're tipping the home team to get the job done by a narrow margin.