Deck the halls with Derby Classics — City and Victory put on a show in “real derby”

When football is good, it’s very good. And when a game is as entertaining as Saturday evening’s traditional Christmas Derby, there are few spectacles that can hope to compare.

Bolstered by a loud and partisan crowd of 19,640, Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory’s thrilling 2-2 draw — in particular its madcap closing half an hour — reminded Melburnians what two years of crowd restrictions and COVID lockdowns have robbed them of in recent years. Splashed across free-to-air television as it was, it also gave the A-League Men (ALM) its first signature game of what has, to this point, been a dour opening to the 2021-22 campaign.

Of course, on the field, it can’t be said that the performances put forth by either side will be making their way into the syllabus of any coaching courses anytime. This was an exercise in chaos and that nebulous concept of ‘passion’ rather than control and precision. It was chaos, however, that left all but the most stone-faced of neutrals satisfied they got their money’s worth; a deluge of thrills and spills rather than a car crash of disorganisation one quickly suffles away from lest there be a taint by association.

Indeed, for the first time in a long time, Saturday’s game was a derby that felt like it mattered. It mattered to the players, it mattered to the coaches, and it mattered to the fans.

It felt bizarre to contemplate that less than 12 months ago, this was a game that was producing 6-0 and 7-0 blowouts; contests in which one departed feeling both a sense of pity and that football should perhaps investigate some sort of mercy rule.

“It was a real derby. We wanted to bring that back,” Victory boss Tony Popovic said post-game.

“Obviously after last year it wasn’t really a contest but we made it a contest today and we brought the passion back on the field. The fans as well felt that.

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“Melbourne Victory was back today and competed well.”

Across the opening hour on Saturday, Popovic’s side looked to be sitting pretty. Up a goal thanks to Francesco Margiotta’s 12th-minute strike, the four-time A-League champions were putting in a performance that, although being out possessed and outshot, suggested they would have little trouble in pragmatically absorbing whatever City threw at them.

But then, as the defending champions are wont to do, weak points were exposed and ruthlessly exploited: Jamie Maclaren equalling Besart Berisha as the all-time leading Melbourne Derby scorer when he turned in an Andrew Nabbout cross on the hour mark and Nabbout, after being booed by the fans of his former club throughout the evening, heading in a Marco Tilio cross three minutes later. After weeks of profligacy from a high-powered attack that had been the subject of so much hype, City’s Socceroos answered back in the only way that really matters.

The second goal would also not have eventuated had it not been for the work of man-of-the-match Nathaniel Atkinson – who started his first game of the season after being curiously unused for much of the opening month and surely earned the right to see the field more in the future. The young Tasmanian dragged Victory’s entire defence from left to right with a galivanting crossfield run that subsequently opened up the space for Nabbout to attack stand-in Victory left-back Leigh Broxham.

“I thought [Atkinson] was fantastic,” said City boss Patrick Kisnorbo. “I think it was a collective performance but when you talk about Nathaniel, he did really well.

“I’m happy to see that, but it comes from hard work so he needs to continue that — it’s not just one game. He needs to continue and build on tonight.”

Having previously had the game played on their terms, Victory was now up against it and desperately searching for an equaliser.

But cometh the moment, cometh the man.

Already beloved for his vibes by the Victory faithful, even if the jury is still out on his actual efficacy as a goalkeeper, Ivan Kelava’s booted clearance from his own penalty area with less than ten minutes remaining somehow bounced its way into the path of the newly introduced Nicholas D’Agostino heading the other way. The ponytailed front man promptly fired home a shot that scooted underneath Tom Glover and, despite the Olyroo custodian’s best efforts, rolled over the line to tie things back up again.

The crowd rising to their feet and neither XI willing to back down, both shades of blue would have their chances to win it across the game’s final moments; players throwing themselves at the ball in both an attacking and defensive context to try and become the hero or avoid being cast as the villain.

It was in one of these closing cacophonies of collisions and challenges that Maclaren received a bizarre red card following what appeared to be a physical, but relatively straightforward, 50-50 contest for a loose ball with defender Jason Geria.

“I don’t know [what it was for]. I know Jamie very well and his character isn’t of any malice or anything like that,” a perplexed Kisnorbo said post-game.

“So you’ll have to ask the referee because he blew his whistle up tonight, I thought.

“All I knew was the player blocked his shot, there was a bit of a scramble and the next thing you know there’s a red card.

“Maybe you should ask the ref. They’ve always got to put a report in, we’ll see. I don’t know.”

City will now have to undergo a quick turnaround and prepare to face Wellington Phoenix in the quarterfinals of the FFA Cup at Casey Fields on Wednesday night, the first game that the club’s men’s side will play in Melbourne’s southeast.

“When I talk about us, I thought we played some really, really good stuff. It’s just the two lapses of maybe concentration that cost us. But I think for the 90 minutes overall we played some really good stuff,” added Kisnorbo.

Victory, too, will have to prepare for a mid-week Cup game; there’s against Gold Coast Knights in the Sunshine state. History, though, suggests that Popovic will send up a heavy contingent of youth players for what might begin to resemble an FFA Cup-themed schoolies trip.

But with the memories of 2020-21’s six and seven-goal spankings against City fading into the background, the fallen ALM heavyweights are beginning to find their feet again.

“It just shows the improvement of the team,” said their coach. “We’re improving, we’re growing, we’re certainly adapting to some of the problems that we’re having on the field and the players that came on once again had a great impact.

“So definitely pleased with the reaction and would have been disappointed if we didn’t get something from the game. And if we won the game I wouldn’t have been surprised.”

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Header Image Credit: Melbourne Victory

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