Old enemies Sydney FC stand in the way of Melbourne Victory’s quest to make back-to-back Hyundai A-League Semi-Finals.
A year on from 2017/18’s epic extra-time win over the Sky Blues, Kevin Muscat’s side would love to pile on the misery again by consigning Sydney to another Semi-Final departure in this Sunday's Big Blue.
It is likely to be decided by the finest of margins, and here’s four things Victory need to do to ensure they are in the big dance yet again.
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PREVIEW: Sydney FC v Melbourne Victory
Consider changing approach from Phoenix match
Victory boss Muscat braced his side for a first-half onslaught in last Friday’s Elimination Final win over Wellington Phoenix, but perhaps the former Caltex Socceroo defender will drop a more streetwise approach and send his side out swinging on Sunday.
Muscat left a host of stars – including Ola Toivonen, Keisuke Honda and Kosta Barbarouses – at home for the club’s 4-0 defeat to Daegu in Wednesday’s AFC Champions League dead rubber.
So, after leaving all his most potent attacking weapons on charge at home during that sapping trip to Korea, Victory could be poised to inflict a fatal blow if they come out all guns blazing.
Although it hasn't been Victory’s style to try to blow teams away from the opening whistle this season, it was a strategy which paid dividends in their 2-1 win over the Sky Blues at AAMI Park on Australia Day, rewarded by Ola Toivonen's spectacular 20th-minute free-kick.
Whoever has scored first has gone on to win the Big Blue in each of the three meetings in 2018/19. Will it be the same fourth-time around?
Don’t lose track of Rhyan Grant
A strong contender for 'fullback of the Hyundai A-League season', Victory must ensure Sydney FC flyer Rhyan Grant does not have the run of the right flank in Sunday’s Semi-Final.
Grant played an absolute blinder when the two sides last met (a 2-1 win at the Sydney Cricket Ground in April) and it was his relentless optimism which saw him win possession in the build up to Milos Ninkovic’s stoppage-time winner.
Grant missed his side's 2-1 loss to Victory in January, but on the other two occasions the teams have met this season he has caused Muscat's side real problems: creating four chances in total, and enjoying eight touches in the Melbourne club's penalty area.
Victory’s left side, which could comprise of midfielder Terry Antonis and forward Elvis Kamsoba, must limit the thrust of the Sydney FC man.
Bank on Toivonen and Barbarouses
The combination between Ola Toivonen and Kosta Barbarouses has been a reliably winning formula for Melbourne Victory this season, especially in matches against Sydney FC.
Toivonen’s supreme movement and understanding of Barbarouses’ inside runs caught Sydney cold in their 2-1 loss at the SCG in April.
In essence, it was a glimpse of the movement which has allowed Barbarouses to capitalise on space in behind defences this season, and a huge slice of his personal-record of 15 goals have arrived because of it.
Silence Milos Ninkovic
It’s easier said than done, but if Victory are unable to limit the influence of Sydney’s Serbian maestro – who dispatched the winning penalty kick in the 2016/17 final between the clubs – their title defence could very well unravel in Kogarah.
Muscat's men have to some extent succeeded in this venture so far in 2018/19, with Ninkovic creating just one chance against Victory this season.
But that hasn't stopped him from popping up with crucial pieces of brilliance, including that late match-winner in April.
Each of his two goals this season have come against Victory, and whoever is assigned to keep him under wraps – likely to be either Raul Baena or Carl Valeri – cannot afford to drop their concentration for a moment.