Melbourne Victory has been unable to send Head Coach Kevin Muscat and captain Carl Valeri out with a win after falling 3-1 to Japanese side Sanfrecce Hiroshima in Asian Champion’s League action at AAMI Park.
Knocked back on their heels in just the fifth minute of play when Taishi Matsumoto bundled an effort over the line from a corner, Victory was forced to scratch and claw for over an hour to bring themselves level; Ola Toivonen eventually doing so when he placed a perfectly executed free kick into the back of the net.
Disastrously for those hoping for a fairy-tale ending, the visitors proceeded to then march up the field to near instantaneously retake and then bolster their lead when Yasuke Minagawa and Tsukasa Morishima struck in the 73rd and 75th minute.
Already eliminated from the competition – indeed the defeat ensures that Victory failed to win an ACL fixture for the first time in their history in the competition – Wednesday night’s fixture had loomed as the last act of Victory’s 2018-19 season; a season that, despite at time threatening to ignite, ultimately failed to reach the lofty goals set by the club.
Compounding the dead-rubber nature of the fixture, Hiroshima had already secured their place in the next round of the ACL – Daegu and Guahzhao Evergrande met in the group’s other fixture to duke it out for second place – after two straight wins in the ACL.
It meant that Hiroshima’s lineup was, in the words of the Japanese press in attendance at AAMI Park, “understrength”. Only four players took positions on the bench for the Japanese side, whilst Brazillian star Patric – indeed all their foreign players – were absent for the fixture.
In effect, Wednesday night’s fixture was therefore little more than a chance for the Victory fan base to say farewell to departing club legends Kevin Muscat and Carl Valeri, as well as the confirmed to be departing Keisuke Honda.
Any efforts to farewell them with a win, however, were dealt a significant blow just five minutes into the contest after a poor clearance from Thomas Deng gifted the visitors a corner in the fifth minute of play.
Floating a ball into the near post, Morishima was able to find the head of Hiroya Matsumoto, who promptly flicked the ball across the face of goal. Gifted an open target, an unmarked T Matsumoto promptly bundled the ball over the line to make it 1-0 to the J-League side.
Victory’s first clear chance of the game arrived in the 17th minute when some fancy footwork from Toivonen allowed the Swede to work the ball into Kosta Barbarouses at the top of the area. Making a move to receive the return pass, Toivonen then smartly let the ball roll to an open Raul Baena, who promptly blasted an effort wide.
Another chance came in the 26th minute when, after a driving run down the left flank by Honda, Barbarouses forced a save from Takuto Hayashi with a left-footed effort from outside the area.
Another Honda created chance for the Victory followed just seconds later, Honda scything a ball through the Hiroshima lines for Toivonen to run onto, only for the Swede to uncharacteristically misjudge his one-on-one effort and put his effort just wide.
Nonetheless, after that brief flurry of attack, Victory’s forays began to get bogged down and they were almost down 2-0 in the 36th minute when a breakdown in the Victory defence allowed a Morishima cross to bounce towards H Matsumoto at the back post, with only an incredible sharp reaction save from Lawrence Thomas enough to keep the game at 1-0.
Toivonen had another chance to seize the lead for his side two minutes after the second-half restart when Victory won a free kick just on the edge of the area. Though able to curl his shot around the assembled wall, he was unable to beat Hayashi, who dived to his left to make the save.
Thomas was called into action in the 56th minute when, after a fresh air effort by a Hiroshima attacker on a ball into the area, Kohei Shimizu found himself in space outside the area; driving in an effort that Thomas was forced to get down low to his right to keep out.
Up the other end, it was Toivonen that once again went close to drawing first blood for the hosts when, in the 63rd, he flicked a cross in from Leigh Broxham towards goal only to watch on as Hayashi made another save.
Toivonen again had a chance to drag his side back level in the 70th minute with another free-kick and, this time, wasn’t to be denied.
Stepping up to take a set piece won when substitute James Troisi was fouled by T Matsumoto, Toivonen curled a beautiful effort over the Hiroshima wall and beyond the dive of Hayashi to make it 1-1.
Heartbreakingly for a Victory side that had finally brought the game back to equilibrium after being down for over an hour, Hiroshima was able to restore their lead within moments when they capitalised on a Victory turnover to slice through a sleepwalking Victory defence to set Minagawa up to blast an effort beyond Thomas.
Just moments after that it was three to the Japanese side when Morishima, gifted a pocket of space outside the Victory area, thundered a shot from 25-yards-out over the head of Thomas and into the back of the net.
Defeat all but certain, Muscat then made the decision to close the book on the professional career of his captain in the 80th minute; replacing him with Elvis Kamsoba as Victory players gathered, and the 6035 fans in attendance rose, in appreciation of their departing legend.