Marchan returns as Victory looks to make an on-pitch statement against Sydney FC

Rai Marchan’s return and Jake Brimmer’s injury have added new selection headaches for Melbourne Victory coach Tony Popovic ahead of this weekend’s potentially season-defining Big Blue against Sydney, but one thing is less clouded: he believes Victory remains the A-Leagues’ biggest club.

Brimmer had successful surgery on Thursday after suffering a tear to the meniscus in his left knee during Victory’s 1-1 draw with Adelaide United last weekend, a malady that will sideline him for approximately three months. Popovic wouldn’t rule the reigning Johnny Warren Medalist out as a late-season reinforcement but emphasised that it was too early to put definitive timeframes on any kind of return to the pitch.  

After being sidelined since Jan. 14 with a concussion, Marchan was named in Victory’s squad for the Sydney clash, with Popovic confirming that pending how the Spaniard got through one final training session before the team flew out, it was only fitness and not the concussion that would dictate his ability to contribute on Saturday. 

Melbourne Victory coach Tony Popovic

“He’s gone through a process that he’s comfortable with, we are, and the medical staff is,” said the Victory boss. “He’s certainly not been rushed, that’s for sure.

“We’ve missed him, there’s no doubt we’ve missed him. We’ve missed him as a player, we’ve missed him in the changing room, and we’ve missed him as a personality and character. So it’s great to see him happy and training hard, in full contact, and enjoying what he loves doing, which is playing football.”

Marchan’s return, however, in addition to Brimmer’s absence, creates some headaches at the selection table for Popovic just as, in his view, continuity and consistent minutes for senior players were helping the side maintain more fluidity and cohesion. 

Josh Brillante and Connor Chapman have been playing in more deep-lying roles during Marchan’s absence, creating a log jam at the base of the midfield that will need to be addressed, while Victory will likely need to convert a player from their more natural position to cover for Brimmer’s absence in behind the frontline such as wingers Chris Ikonomidis and Nishan Velupillay or attackers Bruno Fornaroli or Jose Romero. 

Alternatively, and amongst other options, a change in formation alongside Marchan’s return could allow Chapman to slide further back and settle in alongside Damien Da Silva and Roderick Miranda in a five-player defensive front. Further forward, new Paraguayan signing Fernando Romero could potentially be deployed alongside Bruno Fornaroli as part of a front two. 

“It’s a good problem to have,” said Popovic. “These things, we haven’t had many of these problems throughout the year. We’ve been short on numbers. 

“We’ve been getting a lot of injuries that are structural, not muscle injuries. So they’re ones that you can’t control and they’re out for longer periods. 

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“It’s nice to have players competing in positions. We feel that that can only benefit the team and benefit our performance.”

Victory and Sydney have to this point split their season series, the Victorians spoiling the Sky Blues’ opening game at their new Sydney Football Stadium home with a 3-2 win in round one and the Harboursiders getting one back by winning the Jan. 26 clash at AAMI Park 2-1. 

Despite the loss, though, Popovic has pinpointed that fixture as the game in which his side’s form began to turn around; Victory taking seven points from a possible twelve on offer in the month since and though still bottom of the league, just six points off sixth-placed Sydney with a game in hand. 

The ‘Big Blue’ one of the league’s bigger fixtures across both the men’s and women’s leagues even without the stakes of this week – Victory has defeated the Sky Blues in back-to-back grand finals  – more fuel was poured on the fire this week when Sydney CEO Adam Santo declared that Sydney had surpassed their rivals as the A-Leagues’ biggest brand. 

“This season we are starting to see Sydney move ahead of Melbourne,” Santo told AAP. “The restrictions at Victory are a caveat, but we saw a trend before that where Sydney was outperforming Melbourne.”

Popovic spent the 2007-08 season just before his retirement from playing with Sydney but as the former inaugural coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers and now the boss of Victory, that stint certainly feels like a long time ago now. 

“It’s nice that he’s honest and acknowledges that Victory were the biggest club. I’m sure that we all know that that still remains,” he said. “If our members can come along and be together then I’m sure with our fans and our members, the atmosphere will be special. Without us there it won’t be the same. 

“Off the field, everyone has their voice and their CEO certainly has his, but for me as a football coach, we just worry about what happens on the pitch. We want to show with our actions on the pitch how good we can be. Let the talking be done off the field by them.

“Every game for us is a crucial match. Nobody expected us to get a result against Melbourne City. We played very well that day and got the win. Against Adelaide, we were the better team and created very good opportunities, giving away nothing in defence. 

“[Nestor Irankunda] scored a wonderful goal and maybe a contender for goal of the year. That can happen. But clearly, our performances have been more consistent. It started against Sydney FC, where for 60-odd minutes I thought we were very good. Those minutes have been extended. 

“Now we go away from home. A big opponent and a big game. If we can match or better our last performance, I’m sure we can get the three points.”

Despite sanctions handed down by Football Australia nominally barring such a move, Victory fans have also been granted permission by authorities to assemble in an away bar for this Saturday’s fixture. 

Though nominally putting them all in one place as opposed to scattering them across the stadium will make security’s job easier for one of the league’s bigger fixtures, it will also enable the travelling fans to make their presence a more audible one. 

“Firstly, it will help Sydney’s crowd,” said Popovic. “Secondly, it’s what our members deserve. They are the best fans in the league, by far. They’ve been through a lot, together. 

“Their support will certainly be appreciated by every person at Melbourne Victory. Certainly, the players and staff that are travelling today, we look forward to seeing them there and we’ll do everything we can to celebrate with them after the game.”

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Image Credits: Melbourne Victory

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