Melbourne Victory have booked their place in next weekend’s FFA Cup Final after a four goal second half flurry saw them sweep aside the Wellington Phoenix at GMHBA Stadium.
A cagey opening to proceedings saw Victory hold the line share of ball possession as they struggled to penetrate Wellington’s last line who were duly protected by Alex Rufer and young Australian Nicholas Pennington who was awarded with a rare start.
Ben Folami emerged as Victory’s creative fulcrum in the early parts of the game as he continued his rich vein of form by calmly evading pressure and using his close control dribbling to easily leave his direct marker biting dust. Through Folami’s effectiveness, Victory directed the majority of their attacks down the left hand side in what has emerged as somewhat of a trend under Tony Popović this season.
Despite their early discomfort out of possession, Wellington gradually grew into the game as they began to stretch the Melbourne-side with sharp passing interchanges and directness in the channel. Their opening chance of the first half came in the 29th minute when David Ball made a crisp run into the box before Gary Hooper failed to connect with Ball’s well-timed cut-back which would have handed the early advantage to the Phoenix.
The away side eventually made the most of their growing confidence when Hooper struck after an incisive interchange in the 39th minute. Hooper timed his run to perfection as he was released by a threaded pass from Reno Piscopo beyond Victory’s last line with just Ivan Kelava bearing down upon him. Victory’s stopper managed to get a foot to the ball but it was not enough to deny the Englishman’s side-footed effort from caressing the back of the net.
As a sense of lethargy and predictability began to pervade Victory’s general play, Wellington thought they had capitalised in the 60th minute when Josh Sotirio thumped a rebounded shot into the back of the net after a save from Kelava before the linesman flagged for offside.
Shortly after the disallowed goal, Victory hit the Phoenix with a swift reply as captain Josh Brillante struck a characteristically powerful shot from outside the box past Alex Paulsen to level the scoreline after 65 minutes. The equaliser seemed to spark a light inside of Popović’s men as they became noticeably more cohesive and fluid as the second half continued.
Reward for their efforts came in the 79th minute as Robbie Kruse slalomed his way into the box before laying the ball on a platter for substitute Nick D’Agostino who added another goal to an ever-growing tally this season. As Wellington became tired and Victory’s substitutions began to shine, Chris Ikonomidis and Ben Folami were noticeably dangerous and caused problems in wide areas.
Victory capitalised on this deficiency in the Phoenix defence with a late flurry of chances which yielded two goals – including a second from D’Agostino and a well-taken finish from Folami who was met with a large cheer from the Victory faithful after being substituted late in the game.
INTENSITY NOTICEABLY LACKING GIVEN THE OCCASION
Perhaps the most striking facet of this FFA Cup Semi-Final was that it did not seem to resemble a cup semi-final in any way shape or form. Both sides were somewhat lethargic in possession and struggled to generate meaningful chances. With the winner of the match qualifying for the FFA Cup Final, which gives the winner a chance at participating in the Asian Champions League, the importance of the game did not match the intensity on the pitch.
This is largely owing to the fact that – due to matters outside of the club’s hands – Victory were forced to play their home Semi-Final in Geelong, over an hour away by car from AAMI Park. While a small section of Victory fans made their voices heard in the stadium’s main stand, the cauldron-like structure of the oval-shaped GMHBA Stadium as well as the distance between these fans and the playing surface ensured that the atmosphere remained largely nondescript throughout the encounter.
With the footballing product in recent fixtures at AAMI Park arguably being amplified by the cacophonous atmosphere produced by the fans, Saturday evening’s Semi-Final should rekindle conversations about needing to play in boutique stadiums.
OTHER SOLUTIONS FOR MARCHÁN ABSENCE?
With Spanish midfield conductor Rai Marchán sidelined due to a facial injury suffered against Sydney FC, Popović opted with the pairing of Leigh Broxham and Josh Brillante at the base of midfield. While both possess sharp determination and an ability to win the ball back with ease, neither are particularly adept at progressing the ball from deep.
Both were largely uninspiring for the majority of proceedings as they made countless safe passes that did not seem to place the Phoenix under any semblance of defensive pressure. The predictability of their passing was easy to cover with compact and resolute defending. It was not until Birkan Kirdar was instated in midfield and Broxham moved to centre-half in the second half when Victory gained dominance on the encounter.
With Marchán set to be on the sidelines for a long period, Popović may have to turn to other combinations to negotiate his way through the Spaniard’s injury lay-off period.
SUBS MAKE THE DIFFERENCE FOR VICTORY
With his side struggling to carve out many meaningful opportunities, Tony Popović called upon Kruse, D’Agostino and Chris Ikonomidis to make a tangible difference on the game and they did so with aplomb.
D’Agostino’s pressing and work rate up top filled a massive hole from the first half while Kruse was indefatigable and clean in attack while demonstrating a level of imperviousness to remain level-headed amid imminent pressure from all angles when receiving the ball. The speed and power of the substitutions allowed Victory to stretch the Phoenix in transition and cause numerous problems through wide overloads and cutbacks. D’Agostino’s finish after a sublime delivery from Kruse was the cherry on top in this respect.
FFA Cup Semi-Final: GMHBA Stadium
Melbourne Victory 4 (Brillante 65m, D’Agostino 80m, Folami 85m, D’Agostino 90+1m)
Wellington Phoenix 1 (Hooper 39m)
HOW DID THE MANAGERS REACT?
Melbourne Victory: Tony Popović
Wellington Phoenix: Ufuk Talay
“Very disappointing, but still very proud of the boys to go on a cup run.”
“The difference between the teams was the depth of the squad.”
Image Source – Melbourne Victory