Tony Popovic’s Perth Glory have extended their lead at the top of the A-League table – and perhaps put one hand on the Premier’s Plate – after recording a 2-1 win over Melbourne Victory at AAMI Park on Sunday afternoon.
Frantic but uninspiring in its opening half, the game began to open up in the second after Neil Kilkenny and Diego Castro fired Perth 2-0 ahead before Kosta Barbarouses pegged one back for the hosts.
The win means that Perth moves seven points clear atop the A-League table with nine games remaining on the ledger and, with their closest two rivals Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory both set to commence Asian Champions League campaigns in the season’s final weeks, look all but home and hosed as the season’s minor premiers.
A meeting between the A-League’s first and second placed sides, Sunday evening’s first half was definitely one for the purists.
Though the action was intense and fast-paced, it failed to produce a clear chance at either end of the field, the two sides repeatedly ramming into each other but neither buckling under the pressure.
Bararouses and Elvis Kamsoba both created chances for the hosts early, before Ivan Francjic rattled the side netting of the Victory goal in the 16th minute and Jason Davidson put an effort over the bar soon afterwards.
The visitors, coming into the game on a two-game winning run, began to assert themselves to a greater degree as the half unfolded.
Davidson showed a free-wheeling willingness to attack Storm Roux down the Glory’s left flank, while Castro engaged in a battle of the Spaniards with Victory defensive
Without Ola Toivonen – absent for the second straight game after failing to recover from a training injury sustained prior to the Central Coast Mariners game a week prior – Kenny Athiu was given the responsibility of starting for the defending A-League champions.
Though Head Coach Kevin Muscat has continued to praise the transformation of the 26-year-old since he arrived at Victory, Athiu never – in his time at AAMI Park or in NPL Victoria – would never have faced quite the challenge that awaited him on Sunday evening.
In Matt Spiranovic and Dino Djulbic the Glory possessed a duo that was more than capable of not only shutting down attacks but matching the Victory striker for size and speed in a way that he had yet to encounter in his career.
Though he did eventually muster a hint of a chance in the 45th minute when he got on the end of a cross and eventually, after holding off Djulbic with his back to goal, spun and shot; Athiu work rate was unable to mask the creative hole that the lack of Toivonen and Keisuke Honda left in their absence.
Perth continued to flex their muscles after the second half resumed; Davidson finding Ikonomidis in the penalty area and the newly minted Socceroo letting loose with a shot that forced the Victory goalkeeper Lawrence Thomas to make a diving save to his right.
Three minutes later Perth was able to make a deserved breakthrough after they were awarded a penalty when Corey Brown’s hand came between a chipped Kilkenny pass and Castro’s run into space in the penalty area.
Stepping up to take the resulting set-piece, Kilkenny made no mistake: blasting his effort low and just left of the centre of the goal to produce a shot that Thomas – though able to get a hand to it – wasn’t able to keep out.
The hopes of the suddenly despondent 25,071 mostly Victory fans were lifted in the wake of the goal, however, with it serving to harbour the arrival of Honda back onto the first time in ten weeks.
The 32-year-old’s impact was immediately felt after the marquee man kickstarted a move that led to Kamsoba setting up Antonis for a shot that went wide left of the net just seconds after his introduction.
Though Honda’s introduction did allow Victory to regain some sense of ascendency, he was able to do little but watch when in the 69th minute a long ball over the top sprung Chris Ikonomidis down the left.
Shrugging off the attention of Deng, Ikonomidis placed a left-footed cross into the path of an unmarked Castro in the Victory penalty area, who acrobatically adjusted to get a leg on it and directs the ball home.
Victory was not without hope though and found themselves back in at 2-1 after they were able to keep the ball in the Glory half after a failed corner routine in the 78th minute: working the ball from left to right and eventually found acting captain Leigh Broxham just outside the Glory penalty area.
Turning to face the goal, the Victory stalwart spied the run of Babarouses into space behind Perth’s lines and laced a perfectly weighted pass into the path of the New Zealand international who promptly slid a first-time effort across the face of Reddy and inside the far post to make it 2-1.
Frustratingly for the Victory faithful – and much to their fury when Perth began obviously timewasting – Kevin Muscat’s men were unable to muster another in their pursuit of a leveller, even lucky not to concede a third in the 95th minute when substitute Andy Keogh dragged an effort wide of the post.
Honda had a last, fleeting effort at restoring parity with almost the last kick of the game, but could only direct his effort over the bar.