Melbourne Victory go top after seeing off depleted Western United

Melbourne Victory has vaulted to the top of the A-League Men table after defeating a Western United outfit heavily depleted by COVID-19 protocols 3-1 at AAMI Park on Sunday evening.

Coming into the game off the back of a pulsating 2-2 draw with their other Victorian rivals in Melbourne City, Victory rode goals from Jason Geira, Josh Brillante, and Nicholas D’Agostino – all new signings at the club – to make it two from two in the 2021-22 ‘Battle of the Bridge’ series, but they had to withstand a second-half fightback from a United outfit missing several contributors.

United boss John Aloisi confirmed post-game that nine players were unavailable for selection due to various COVID-related matters – be they positive tests, in mandatory close-contact isolation or out of condition due to a previous spell of isolation. For the first time, the gaffer also confirmed that United was without one player due to their unvaccinated status.

These absences reduced the Green and Black portion of Melbourne to just four outfielders on the bench throughout the contest, only one of which – eventual goalscorer Aleksandar Prijović – would actually feature. Those missing included fully-vaccinated club captain Alessandro Diamanti, who confirmed on his Instagram account on Christmas Day that he had tested positive for the virus and was out of the derby.

“If you understood Italian, he said he had COVID,” Aloisi said of his attacker’s social media exploits. “He doesn’t feel sick at all. He feels fine. He couldn’t believe that he had it. But I suppose that the majority of our players, the ones that did get it and have it, they haven’t felt sick at all.

“It’s just unfortunate. This is something that we have to deal with, and we’re not looking for any excuses at all. Because even with the players we had out there we still had that belief that we would get the result.”

In an almost mirror image of the goal his side scored in their round one against United, Geria gave Victory the advantage, and netted his first-ever A-League Men goal, when he met a Jake Brimmer corner with his head in the 18th minute.

Just a minute later Brillante doubled the deficit when Victory forced a turnover from United’s kickoff routine, swanned wanned with ease through United’s midfield, and subsequently found their captain in enough space at the edge of the area to tee up an effort that sailed beyond Jamie Young in the United goal.

But with both sides continuing to exchange chances – United beginning to edge the volume as the game progressed – it was the newcomers that eventually found paydirt when, throwing players forward in the 86th minute, Prijović – making his return to the squad after an injury-enforced absence – gave his side some semblance of hope when he capitalised on an error from Roderick Miranda and turned in a Lachlan Wales cross.

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In their efforts to subsequently find a leveller, however, United found themselves lacking in numbers at the back and were duly punished: second-half substitute Marco Rojas collecting the ball deep his own half before running almost the entire length of the field in transition before laying a ball off for D’Agostino to fire home.

“It’s a good win against a team that won four consecutive games 1-0, so they’re a confident team,” said Victory coach Tony Popovic.

“I thought the first half was very good, we played some great stuff first half. And the second half maybe showed how far we’ve got to go. So the first half was very good, the second half could have been a lot better.

“I think it’s expected in many respects, in terms of where the team is at. It’s a new team. We’re constantly having to chop and change players. But I thought in the first half it was some great football played and in the second half we had to dig deep against a team that kept coming and that’s an area we’ve got to get better at. But I thought we scored a really good goal on the break.”

Combined with Macarthur’s simultaneous 3-0 loss to Sydney FC, it means that Victory return to the top of the ALM table for the first time after at least a month of football for the first time since round eight of the 2015-16 season. They are set to face Brisbane Roar on January 2 in their next ALM fixture, and will potentially travel to Queensland mid-week to face Gold Coast Knights in a postponed FFA Cup clash.

“I hear there’s a possibility it could be this week some time,” said Popovic. “I think we’ll learn a lot more about the chances of that [on Monday] when we come in for recovery. If we have to play the game we’ll prepare to play the game to do whatever we can to make it possible.”

Western, conversely, fell to third after having their club-record four-game winning streak snapped and had their run of six hours and 32 minutes without a goal broken by Geria’s header. Their open-play copybook – previously unblemished this season – was then blotted by Brillante.

Aloisi, however, was taking plenty of plenty of positives from his side’s performance given the tumultuous lead-in the club had experienced.

“We were really good. I couldn’t be prouder of the group,” he said.

“Other than conceding off a set piece and then switching off straight after the set-piece, I thought we were very good. We created a lot of chances. We pressed them well, a couple of times they played through us but a lot of the time we won the ball we defended the ball, we were brave in the way we played.

“I thought we deserved more out of the game but I couldn’t be prouder of the group. Because that for me defined us. Not the four wins in a row. Tonight defined us as a group, the character that we showed.”

The club is next set to return to action on New Year’s Day when they travel to New South Wales to face Western Sydney Wanderers – although their gaffer isn’t sure if it will actually go ahead.

“[The Wanderers game] I’m unsure of. Not so much from our group or from where we’re at, a little bit from Western Sydney Wanderers and the whole situation in Sydney,” Aloisi said. “That’s more for the club and the APL to discuss. My understanding is that Western Sydney Wanderers have quite a few players that are out because of it.”

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Header Image Credit: Melbourne Victory

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