To escape horror season, Victory must build on Champions League opportunities

Full story first published on SBS’ The World Game:

As Melbourne Victory prepare to recommence their 2020 Asian Champions League campaign, progression beyond the group stage, let alone an assault on silverware, is looking like an increasingly difficult task.

But even if they taste defeat, the upcoming games have the potential to point towards a light at the end of the tunnel – or augur further darkness to come.

Victory resume their much delayed continental campaign on Tuesday evening when they compete in the first of back-to-back games against Beijing Guoan.

With the Chinese side, as well as Group E foes FC Seoul and Chiangrai United, headed to Doha with question marks, the four-time A-League champions’ road appears less perilous than years past – and Grant Brebner’s squad can’t be discounted from jamming the necessary results to earn progression to the knockout stages.

But ultimately, while it does fly against the clear need for Australian clubs to greater embrace the opportunities afforded to them by competing in Asia, the unique circumstances wrought by COVID-19 means Victory’s upcoming games are effectively pre-season hit-outs as they prepare for the December 27 commencement of the A-League.

Thus, one needs to foster a mindset that takes into account more than just what goes on the scoresheet – where has the club come from and, more importantly, where is it going?

Victory limps into Tuesday night off the back of their worst ever league finish of tenth, on their third coach in 12 months and fielding a squad in a state of significant transition.

Compounding this, their lockdown-interrupted pre-season has meant that most players lack fitness – Brebner has indicated Jacob Butterfield will only see sporadic minutes due to conditioning – and others didn’t even meet their new teammates before they assembled in Doha.

Continuing on the trend that began when he took over as caretaker last season, and without Socceroo Robbie Kruse, Brebner has also brought seven players under the age of 20 with him to Doha, compared to just three over the age of 30.

Ahead of a compacted A-League season in which games are likely to come thick and fast, it’s an excellent opportunity for these kids to prove to the Scotsman that they have what it takes, but such a young group also necessitates a tempering of expectations: youngsters thrown into the breach will invariably make errors – their response to which is an important part of their development.

So what do Victory fans have to look for? Should they simply hope that their side dodge injuries and COVID-19 ahead of their safe return? Well… yes. But there’s more to watch for than just that.

As tempting as it will be to abandon nuance and declare that Victory remain a basket case if they crash out in Doha, scope exists for positives to be found.

Conversely, wins ground out against the run of play, while looking good on paper, can still augur warning signs for the domestic season to come.

Especially in pre-season, it’s not just about wins or losses; but how they are delivered.

“We can’t just put a finger on one area,” Brebner told The World Game on Monday.

“We’re going to have to be defensively sound, we’re going to have to work together as a unit, we’re going to have to move around the pitch, narrow gaps, force them one way, win it in tight areas and then keep it in tight areas – because when we win the ball, there’s no point giving it straight back.

“Of course, we want to get a brand of football, a style of football which starts implementing how we want to play in the A-League, but this will be dictated by the opposition as well – we’re the underdogs in this game.

“For us to say we’re going to do this and we’re going to do that, it will be dedicated by our opposition as well.

“We’re talking internally about… we’re not coming here just to make up the numbers, we desperately want to get out of the group, but we want to be smart with that because we haven’t played a game yet.

“We are literally coming together in these games and that work together is probably going to be the biggest part of it.”

Though their fitness and cohesion will require much improvement, should Brebner’s teams show a clarity of purpose, coherent game plan and a level of commitment that indicates they have bought into their gaffer’s message, omens for the A-League season ahead will improve.

“It’s a major competition and, ultimately, we will be judged on results,” he added.

“While I’m competitive and want to win games, I’ve got remove myself from it a little bit and say where we’re at is a little bit behind where we would like to be with players arriving so late, not having any games in the build-up.

“These genuinely aren’t excuses it’s just an unfortunate reality.

“But what we can do, is we can really work hard as a group in this hotel environment in Qatar and in Sydney when we get back, and build.

“A lot of teams talk about culture, but for me, it’s about building a real togetherness.

“We cannot finish tenth again, and we understand that whether we’re playing well or playing badly, we’re going to have a squad of players that desperately want to win football games for the benefit of everyone else, not just themselves.”

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