Victory’s Hopkins embracing selection headaches ahead of Boxing Day derby with City

Melbourne Victory A-League Women coach Jeff Hopkins knows he’s going to disappoint a few of his players at the selection table for Boxing Day’s Melbourne Derby, but he’s keen to at least make his squad’s Christmas a good one. 

Undefeated and sitting second on the ALW table after their opening three games, Victory is experiencing a strong start to their 2021-22 campaign despite not yet truly kicking into gear — in large part due to the continued reshuffling of their starting XI.

Losing standout defender and captain Kayla Morrison to an ACL injury in round one — her absence clearly visible in Victory’s structure and approach in subsequent games — Hopkins was forced to deploy Amy Jackson in the heart of the defence in the round two win over City, only for the veteran to receive a late red card and suspension for the following win over Brisbane Roar. 

Further upfield, the mid-season additions of Alex Chidiac and Lynn Williams, as well as the continued injury absence of Melina Ayres, has forced a number of other changes; Kyra Cooney-Cross’s adjustment the most notable in her shift into a defensive midfield role after previously being mooted as a gamechanger further forward. 

But while Ayres is set to once again miss against City in their Boxing Day re-match at AAMI Park, the rest of the squad is beginning to stabilize: Jackson set to return from suspension, Tiff Eliadis available for the first time this campaign after recovering from injury, and Chidiac able to return after falling afoul of Queensland’s border rules last week. 

Jackson, Eliadis, and Emma Robers will all come into consideration for a starting centreback role next to Claudia Bunge, with Matilda Courtney Nevin kicked back out to her natural position on the left. 

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But with Chidiac back, Hopkins is also having headaches, albeit welcome ones, about the make-up of the midfield. 

“It will be my biggest and my best problem,” he said. “If you think about the team from last week, Mindy [Barbieri] did really well. Young Alanna Murphy came in for her first start and I thought was one of our best players. 

“It’s going to be a difficult decision to make. But it’s one of those nice decisions; with whatever decision you make you know you’re bringing a really good player into the side. You can’t really get it too wrong.

“The only thing, maybe, that’s not happy with is the fact that two of the players will be hard done by because they’ve all been doing really well over the past four games. 

“I like to have a settled side if I can. I like to find players that can do the job that we need in our game style and then keep rewarding them when they’re doing well. If players are maybe not quite hitting the standards that we want or they’re doing exceptionally well in their training I’m definitely one to reward good performances. 

“That’s more the way I have it. I prefer to have a settled side and know what I’m going to get out of the group. But again, the onus is then on those players to keep pushing to get into the side and then when they get in they know if they do well over a consistent period they will more than likely keep going and keep their place.”

Sunday’s fixture coming on Boxing Day, it means that both City and Victory will be spending at least a portion of their Christmas in preparations for the fixture – City boss Rado Vidošić declaring last Sunday and Monday off-days for his side as their ‘Christmas’ following their win over Adelaide United. 

Hopkins, like Vidošić, will be taking training tomorrow, albeit it will look a bit different than normal. 

“The players were in [Friday] morning. We trained well,” he said. “There was quite a strong hint of Christmas socks and jumpers and shirts; lucky we don’t fine people for not having the uniform because there was quite a bit of Christmas gear out! 

“We had a bit of fun but also some really good quality in what we did. We will train tomorrow. We’ll train at 7.30 in the morning, we’ll do our usual gameday -1 and then we’ll get out of there. We’re out of AAMI Park by 8.45 tomorrow. 

“We’ll give the girls as much of the day as we can to enjoy themselves. I know all the girls that are ‘the orphans’ – that are here from interstate or overseas – are getting together for brunch and looking after each other. Make sure everyone is happy over the Christmas period. And then we’re all ready and back to business on Boxing Day.”

For Victory, business doesn’t just mean one of their regular corporate functions, but also avoiding a re-occurrence of the 2020-21 season: in which they won the first Derby meeting between the two sides – a 6-0 thumping in round three – only to subsequently lose 3-2 in the return contest seven days later. 

With this season’s City side looking an improved unit from last year, especially up-front with the addition of the in-form Hannah Wilkinson, Hopkins said that he had made it clear to the group that he did not want to see history repeat. 

“That has definitely been the conversation we’ve had from the beginning of the week and we’ve had that this morning as well,” said the Victory coach. “Last year, exactly the same side went out against exactly the same side and the performance in the first half of the [round four, 3-2 City win] just showed what hard work, determination and a team that’s maybe a bit wounded and hurt can do to raise their game. 

“We’ve definitely talked about making sure that one we have a good Christmas and enjoy ourselves and spend time with our loved ones but that there needs to be some time where we think about the game, our roles and responsibilities and that when we turn up, we’re ready for a real battle. 

“We’ve got to take it to City. There’s not going to be us just going out and seeing what happens, we’re going to be so ready for the game – we’re going to come out of the blocks, I know we will, so quick and so aggressive that I think the rest of the game will then look after itself.”

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Header Image Credit: Melbourne Victory

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