Popovic: Melbourne Victory’s intangible strength growing

After coming from behind to claim a second-straight road win over bitter rivals Adelaide United, Melbourne Victory coach Tony Popovic believes the character of his group is strengthening. 

Almost two months after the Popovic-era properly commenced at Victory and life is going pretty well for the four-time A-League Men (ALM) champions. Top of the table heading into the new year, Melbourne’s navy blue contingent advanced through to the semifinals of the FFA Cup for the first time since the 2016 iteration on Wednesday evening; shrugging of a 33rd minute Craig Goodwin goal to triumph 2-1 thanks to second-half strikes from Josh Brillante and Francesco Margiotta.

Bitter as any defeat is, the unfamiliar nature of Wednesday’s no doubt stung just that little bit more for the Reds; their first in the FFA Cup since its 2017 final. 

Despite the hostile environment of Hindmarsh Stadium being difficult to play in at the best of times – let alone when one comes to town wearing the badge of the hated Victory – it marks the second occasion in which Popovic’s side has headed into South Australia and come away with a win over the Reds this campaign; previously winning 2-1 back in round four of the ALM season.

“It is [pleasing]. The character, I feel, is getting stronger,” Popovic said on Friday. “We went behind and we weren’t great in the first half but we showed some good character, [showed] qualities you want to see from a team. They remained composed and had a belief that they could come back and don’t let the game get away from them. So, that’s pleasing. 

“Away games are always tough and Adelaide, as we know, historically is a difficult game for every opponent. We’re delighted to get the win and make a semifinal but we’ve had to move on quickly and really focus on Saturday – because that’s the most important game at the moment.

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“We only came back yesterday so today is really the first opportunity we have to assess everyone when we get them out on the field. There’s a game tomorrow so today will be an important day to assess everyone closely and make sure that we pick a team that’s fit and ready for tomorrow.”

Wednesday evening’s contest was notably the first time that Popovic had deployed what was close to a full-strength side for the Cup; previously deploying a team heavy on academy prospects and ALM bench players in wins over a similarly youthful Perth Glory and NPL sides Adelaide City and Gold Coast Knights. 

“A few reasons [for the shift in policy],” the gaffer said. “Probably the clearest reason for us was that we hadn’t played for ten days – we didn’t play on the weekend [Victory’s fixture against Roar postponed due to COVID cases amongst the Queenslanders].  

“We felt that with a ten-day gap a lot of the players were ready to play. We felt that, with that gap, they’d be able to back up again. We don’t have any clear injuries from the match, we’re hoping to find today that everyone is unscathed and available for selection tomorrow.”

In an unusual twist – or what perhaps would constitute an unusual twist in any other time period than the one we’re living in – Victory’s Saturday evening fixture will also be against Adelaide: their last game in the early-season conference-style model drawn up by the APL before they begin to play side based in New South Wales. 

See Also: Five A-League Men talking points heading into 2022

The game, however, will be the first occasion in which the South Australians head to Victory’s turf in the 2021-22 campaign, and Popovic is hoping his club’s increasingly up and about faithful provide them with a suitably enthusiastic welcome. 

It’s quite strange, [playing the same side back-to-back] doesn’t happen often, but they’re two different competitions,” Popovic explained. 

“A Cup game is unique because it’s a one-off game, so it’s a different type of match. We know that this will be completely different. Yes, it’s the same set of players but the league’s always a different type of game. We’ve got to focus on the three points at hand. We’re playing at home, we’re playing a rivalry game and hopefully, we get good support behind us and get another three important points.

“That’s what rivalries should be. Now that I’ve experienced it in Adelaide, a couple of games against them, the intensity lifts for both sides and I expect the same tomorrow. But this time, we’re expecting our home fans to help us with the noise that they create – to be our 12th man and help us to get over an opponent that I know will be difficult. 

“As rivalries are, we expect it to be fast and physical and aggressive with a lot of passion and we’re looking forward to that.”

Enjoying Joey’s coverage of Australian sport? Your support helps keep it possible.
You’re seeing this advert because this is an unpaid, self-published piece.

You can support his ongoing work by buying him a coffee: https://ko-fi.com/joeylynchy 

Header Image Credit: Melbourne Victory

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