“We want a derby not just on the field” – Popovic embracing Christmas Derby sense of occasion

Melbourne Victory coach Tony Popovic hopes that the derby intensity of his side’s meeting with Melbourne City will be felt on and off the field on Saturday evening. 

A veteran of numerous Sydney Derbies from his time as Western Sydney Wanderers boss – albeit in losing efforts more than winning ones – Popovic will get his first taste of Melbourne’s version on Saturday evening when his new club takes on Melbourne City in the traditional Christmas Derby. 

Always one of the marquee events on the A-League Men calendar, it is hoped that a crowd of at least 20,000 will attend the fixture at AAMI Park, which wasn’t staged in 2020-21 due to the league’s COVID-delayed start. 

The Citizens, nonetheless, hold fond memories of the meetings that were staged between they and their darker-hued rivals that campaign: a 6-0 win at Marvel Stadium in early March and a thumping 7-0 triumph at AAMI Park in April — the latter defeat ending the tenure of Grant Brebner as coach at the four-time ALM champions. 

And Popovic, who oversaw a 2-1 win over fierce rivals Adelaide United last week, acknowledged that City’s recent dominance in the fixture couldn’t simply be ignored. 

“In one sense, it’s three points – you don’t get more or less for a derby game, but it is a special game,” Popovic said. “We have to embrace that and we know that the history of the derby in Melbourne – it goes a long way back. 

“Obviously, the recent history is very much in Melbourne City’s favour. 

“We had a taste of a rivalry last week in Adelaide, we saw our great fans come to support us in big numbers but that was probably the warm-up to what we want to see tomorrow from our players and our fans. 

“It’s a special game and derbies should be full of all the passion on and off the field. That’s what I’m looking forward to. 

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“I’m sure [members of the squad that were involved in the heavy defeats] were in a lot of pain at that time and rightly so – that’s two heavy defeats. We’re looking at those individuals now, players that are very happy with their football, and as individuals and I’m sure it would have a special place – three points tomorrow – for a lot of reasons.”

Despite the excitement over the fixture, however, a point of contention has emerged less than 48 hours in the form of City, according to Victory fans, using their status as the game’s home team to block the deployment of a tifo by their rivals. 

In a social media post, APL Managing Director Danny Townsend said that he had encouraged the two club’s CEOs to “work it out” and that encouragement of active support was integral to his organisation. 

When asked for his views on the stoush, Popovic was diplomatic but did declare his belief that tifo or no tifo, Victory fans would make their voices heard loud and clear during the fixture.

“Look, I don’t know what the rules are behind what you’re allowed to do and not allowed to bring to a game,” he said. “But look, we want our fans to embrace these matches. We want our fans to enjoy the game – all fans to enjoy it. 

“We want passion, we want noise, we want a derby not just on the field but also off the field. We know that our fans will bring that to the game and what they’re allowed to do is out of my hands, I can’t control that, but I know that nothing will stop the passion from our fans tomorrow.”

Under the guidance of Popovic, Victory, based upon early-season signs, look to have quickly rebounded from their wooden-spoon ‘winning’ season of a year ago that their heavy derby defeats were the lowlights of. 

2020-21 marked the first time in its history that Victory had ended the season at the foot of the ALM table but, for stalwart figure Leigh Broxham, that they hadn’t just been able to scrape past the Newcastle Jets and into 11th in the final weeks of the season may have, in its own way, a blessing in disguise. 

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“At the end of last year, maybe hitting rock bottom was the best thing that could have happened. We didn’t scrape second-bottom or something like that,” he said.

“I think the penny dropped a little bit.

“We’ve still gone about things how Melbourne Victory would but maybe just made some little changes here and there. It’s definitely on a good trajectory at the moment and the way we’re doing things is really positive.”

Victory is set to welcome back holding midfielder Rai Marchan for Saturday’s fixture after his one-match suspension, as well as winger Chris Ikonomidis. With Brandan Hamill “touch and go”, Roderick Miranda and Matthew Spiranovic will likely feature again at the heart of the Victory defence that will be without Socceroo left-back Jason Davidson after his red card against the Reds — Stefan Nigro and Broxham the contenders to take up his place against City’s strongly-resumed attack. 

Socceroos winger Chris Ikonomidis was a full participant in training this week
Image Credit: Melbourne Victory

The recipients of significant fanfare during the lead in to the 2021-22 season, the vaunted Socceroo front three of Andrew Nabbout, Mat Leckie, and Jamie Maclaren have yet to fire across their side’s opening four fixtures, combining for just two goals between them. It’s a stark departure from the free-scoring escapades of City’s attack the year prior, in which Maclaren alone accounted for more than a goal a game and outscored the Newcastle Jets. 

Following his side’s latest blunt display, a 1-0 win over Perth Glory in which Nathaniel Atkinson snatched an 88th-minute winner, Kisnorbo declared that his team wouldn’t change the way they play despite the early-season profligacy of his attack and that the embedded defences his side was increasingly crashing against served as a “compliment”. 

Taking the City gaffer at his word, it means that there will be little in the way of surprises for Popovic heading into Saturday evening’s contest but the Victory gaffer doesn’t see that as too great an advantage. 

“I think we always make a little bit too much of that in football,” he explained. “If you watch the best teams in the world, we can all sit and analyse and know what they’re going to do but you have to, first, try and stop it and, secondly, find a way that your own game style can hurt the opponent. 

“They’ll play their way, we’ll play our way and we’ll see how it goes tomorrow. 

“The threat’s always there. Quality players at any moment can make a difference in a match.

“We expect those three, amongst the other players they have in their strong line-up, to play a very good game. We don’t expect them to play poorly, we expect them to play well, but we also expect that we’ll be able to match them with their intensity and quality, and play our part.”

For his part, City captain Scott Jamieson has zero doubts that his attacking teammates will eventually put their run of lean form behind them. 

“It’d be a different story if they weren’t three Socceroos, if they were three young boys who hadn’t gone through it,” he said.

“I’m sure each and every one of them has gone through experiences where they haven’t been on top of their game or they haven’t been scoring goals, or they’ve had 11 players of opposition behind the ball and congesting that space.

“[We are ] very confident that whatever we are faced with this weekend, we’ll be able to answer any questions asked and hopefully three of them can get on the scoresheet, that’d be great.”

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Header Image Credit: Melbourne Victory

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