With just a point separating Melbourne Victory and Adelaide United after six rounds, Saturday night’s meeting at Marvel Stadium could shape a tight tussle at the top of the table.
Victory have emerged as early title favourites, despite Perth Glory’s unbeaten form. Kevin Muscat’s deployment of a midfield diamond headlined by Keisuke Honda has the league abuzz, as does the intelligent and selfless play of Swedish striker Ola Toivonen.
A demolition of Western Sydney Wanderers last weekend was ominous, as was Honda’s visible disappointment in a post-match interview that the winning margin did not exceed four goals.
Marco Kurz’s side is gathering steam with consecutive wins over Wellington Phoenix and Brisbane Roar. Adelaide in recent seasons have generated a myriad of low percentage opportunities to score, but a newly rounded and interchangeable attacking setup has made the Reds unpredictable.
Ben Halloran has rewarded Kurz’s faith in a central role and Ken Ilso has caused headaches with his movement, but it all revolves around Craig Goodwin. The rangy midfielder has the vision and touch to reward his teammates’ constant runs into wide areas and the box, and leads the competition for assists with Honda and Sydney FC’s Milos Ninkovic.
Key Battle – Keisuke Honda vs Isaias
Honda has transformed a Victory side that for so long had two defensive midfielders parked in front of the back four.
Along with Terry Antonis, his intelligent runs and passing range have made for a more dynamic and dangerous Melbourne outfit.
— Daily Football Show (@DFS_AUS) December 5, 2018
The responsibility of protecting the back four from Honda’s movement and passing will fall to Isaias, the Adelaide skipper renowned for his clean, hard tackling and composure in possession.
If the Reds are to take three points home, the Spaniard must also find Goodwin and Halloran in transition.
James Troisi will make his return from illness, posing Muscat a dilemma as to how best to organise his midfield. Honda and Antonis are locks, but will he opt for Raul Baena or skipper Carl Valeri at the base?
German defender Georg Niedermeier is back after taking a week off with concussion, and may slot straight into the side with a shoulder injury ruling Nick Ansell out.
Melbourne Victory Expected XI (4-4-2): Thomas (GK); Roux, Niedermeier, Deng, Brown; Baena, Antonis, Honda, Troisi; Barbarouses, Toivonen.
Reds defender Michael Jakobsen returns in time to replace Taylor Regan, who will miss a week for gouging the face of Brisbane midfielder Stefan Mauk.
Adelaide United Expected XI (4-3-3): Izzo (GK); Marrone, Elsey, Jakobsen, Galloway; Isaias, Lia, Kitto; Goodwin, Halloran, Ilso.
Victory and Adelaide have clashed on 46 occasions in the A-League, and the fixture is decidedly navy blue – Victory have won 24 matches, the Reds just 12.
A storied rivalry in the competition’s formative years, the clubs have twice met in the grand final. Ernie Merrick’s Victory crushed John Kosmina’s side 6-0 in the 2007 decider, and added a second championship with a 1-0 win over the Reds in 2009.
Besart Berisha’s stunning 89th-minute bicycle kick gave the Victory a 2-1 win over the Reds in an elimination final last season, after Marco Kurz’s side took the lead through Nikola Mileusnic just before the hour mark.
Melbourne are vulnerable at the base of their diamond when Carl Valeri starts, so there is the room for Halloran and Goodwin to drift into the centre and wreak some havoc. Having said that, the Reds may find it more difficult to run wide and cut in, with Muscat preferring his full-backs to sit deep. The matchup should suit the hosts. Honda and Antonis are in sublime touch, Troisi will add another dimension to the midfield that crushed the (admittedly hapless) Wanderers, and the Reds may not have the capacity to combat their fluidity. Do not count out their own potential to confound the Victory, however.
Melbourne Victory 2 Adelaide United 1