It was tough, energetic, hard fought and keenly contested, as befits a Melbourne A-League derby.
There was passion, commitment and plenty of effort – and in the end it was decided from a penalty in the most dramatic of circumstances. With barely seconds left at the end of stoppage time, Melbourne City goalkeeper Dean Bouzanis bundled into Melbourne Victory substitute Mark Milligan in the penalty area.
Bouzanis had failed to claim a free kick as it drifted towards goal and as he flapped after the ball he brought down the Socceroo veteran. Milligan, so often the man for a big occasion, gleefully accepted the Christmas gift and slammed home, giving Victory a precious three points. Kevin Muscat’s side now has 16 points, just three behind City.
Victory, nominally the away team at this venue both clubs share, began the game at a brisk tempo and continued to accelerate as the opening half progressed.
Unfortunately for them, they could not turn their dominance on the field into dominance on the scoreboard.
The statistics suggested they had enjoyed 56 per cent possession in the first half, but it seemed like much more, as City struggled to find any rhythm or cohesion and were penned back in their own half by a constant flow of forward forays by Victory.
Jason Geria and Kosta Barbarouses were highly effective as they linked up to good effect on the right hand flank, the chief avenue of Victory’s approaches.
City coach Warren Joyce experimented with Bruce Kamau in a central position up front, something of an improvised solution given his injury list and lack of striking options after the departure of Tim Cahill, and with injuries to Ross McCormack and Bruno Fornaroli.
Nathaniel Atkinson, who had played as a wide midfielder on debut a fortnight ago, was deployed deeper in a full-back role.
Victory coach Kevin Muscat also shuffled his pack, leaving Milligan on the bench after his recent return from injury, allowing Argentine import Matias Sanchez to partner Carl Valeri in midfield for the second week in a row.
Stefan Nigro got the chance to start in his first Melbourne derby, taking the left back spot, with Thomas Deng left at the heart of defence to partner Rhys Williams.
Victory looked to exert their influence early, as James Troisi forced Bouzanis in the City goal to dive low to keep out a 13th minute shot, after Valeri and Sanchez combined to set up the change for the Socceroo forward.
Four minutes later Williams, who scored with a header against Brisbane last week, went close with another header from a George corner. Carl Valeri drove an attempt high over the City goal in the 20th minute as Victory continued to push for a breakthrough.
The former Netherlands junior international should have opened the scoring in the 28th minute after an excellent build involving Geria and Barbarouses left him with a clear shot on goal inside the area. He beat Bouzanis, but could only look on in disappointment as his shot thumped off the bar and bounced to safety.
Only four of the 15 goals Victory scored in its 11 games this season had come in the first half, and this match was to be no exception. For all of their pressure they had nothing to show. Although Lawrence Thomas was virtually a spectator, City’s only real threat coming when Iacopo La Rocca headed over a Luke Brattan corner in first half stoppage time.
The hosts had equalled that sorry statistic less than five minutes into the second half when Scott Jamieson set up Kamau for a shot which Williams blocked.
City were worried Ross McCormack might miss the rest of the season after he limped off last week. His dramatic recovery was sealed in the 52nd minute when he replaced the ineffectual Stefan Mauk, and there was little suprise that his leg was tested immediately when Deng upended him on his first touch.
Victory could have gone ahead shortly after when Troisi’s delicate pass set up Besart Berisha for a volley, but Bouzanis did well to keep the striker’s shot out.
Thomas had to scramble to tip over City winger Nick Fitzgerald’s late drive and it looked as though we would get the first ever scoreless stalemate in a Christmas derby – until Bouzanis’ nightmare blunder in the dying moments gave Victory the chance they had been waiting for.