A late winner from Georg Niedermeier helped Melbourne Victory down a sturdy Central Coast Mariners outfit 2-1 at AAMI Park on Sunday night.
It was a vital win for Victory, who ensured they remained within touching distance of Sydney FC to keep their hopes of second place alive.
Victory got on the front foot early and came close to the opener twice in the opening 15 minutes as Keisuke Honda had a long-ranger saved and a lunging shot at the back post ripple the side netting.
The hosts found the equaliser within the first quarter of the match, created via some gorgeous one-touch football between Kosta Barbarouses, Elvis Kamsoba and Ola Toivonen allowing the Swede to score past Ben Kennedy.
Kamsoba very nearly had his first A-League goal minutes later as only a desperate block from Matt Millar stopped his shot from hitting the back of the net.
Central Coast began the second half brightly and were level within 10 minutes of the restart as Thomas Deng clipped Matt Simon in the box, allowing the Mariners captain to dust himself off and stroke the ball home from 12 yards.
Elvis was again inches away from scoring when a blistering Victory counter attack on the hour mark ended in him picking up the ball in the box before hitting the side netting.
Kevin Muscat’s side pushed relentlessly to regain the lead and finally had a deserved goal with 10 minutes to play. A neatly worked set-piece routine culminated in Barbarouses firing the ball across the box allowing for a flying Georg Niedermeier to poke the ball home and claim the win for the hosts.
Niedermeier a worthy match winner
It has been a difficult first season in the A-League for Niedermeier, but this could be the turning point in his fortunes down under after what was probably his best performance in a Victory shirt.
Niedermeier has been much maligned for perhaps not quite making the impact at Victory it was hoped he would which was not helped by a string of injuries early on in the campaign.
It felt as though every time he stepped out on the pitch he was picking up a knock or involved in a nasty head clash in what was a period of real rotten luck for the big centre half.
This was the German’s fourth start in a row, his longest sustained run of starts bar the first five games of the season, two of which he came off prematurely in.
Excluded from Muscat’s Asian Champions League squad, the 33-year-old was able to rest during the week while his teammates were humbled by Guangzhou Evergrande and come back to the side ready to make an impact.
In this match, Niedermeier showed the quality that saw him picked up by Bayern Munich as a youth prospect before he made over 100 Bundesliga appearances with Stuttgart.
Calm on the ball and commanding in the tackle, Muscat will be delighted with this form and hope it can continue into the finals.
Closing on Sydney
Defeat for the Victory against their bitter rivals Sydney FC seemed to consign them to a third placed finish and a missed opportunity for a week off come finals time. But the Sky Blues’ slip up against Western Sydney Wanderers have just kept the door to second place slightly ajar.
The home side needed to take advantage and keep the pressure on Sydney with a win here, and whilst it was not the most convincing on the scoreboard, the performance merited the three points and proved that the Victory are up for a fight to finish in the top two.
Muscat’s side have at times let inconsistency creep into their play and subsequently lost pace with runaway league leaders Perth Glory, but testament to the quality in their squad they remain firmly in the hunt to finish runners-up.
Any momentum is a positive heading into the finals, and the opportunity to leapfrog their rivals could just be the catalyst for an assault on the post-season for Melbourne.
Mariners go down fighting
During the very short tenure of Alen Stajcic, Central Coast have continued to grow from strength to strength in their play.
The former Matildas boss has instilled in the side a spirit to not lie down and allow themselves to be beaten as they have taken games to their opponents and looked for ways to win rather than to limit the score by which they lose.
Millar gave the visitors width and positive running from full-back and linked well with Jordan Murray down the right hand side, while former Reading captain Jem Karacan impressed through the middle.
The Mariners have been perennial cellar dwellers in recent years following a period of success with Graham Arnold at the helm and each season have been forced to rebuild and aim to shoot up the table in the next campaign.
Brisbane Roar’s shock win over Wellington Phoenix on Friday coupled with this defeat seal Central Coast’s fate as wooden spooner’s for the second season running, and there is a risk of potentially having their license removed should they fail to avoid a three-peat.
Under Stajcic, however, it appears that the club is destined for better things on and off the pitch, and with an off season of smart transfer business and good preparation, the Mariners should be in position to move up the table next season.