Melbourne Victory did enough on Saturday night, securing their second A-League Championship in four seasons with a controversial 1-0 triumph over the Newcastle Jets..
The controversy centred around James Donachie’s positioning prior to a downward header directed into the path of Kosta Barbarouses in the game’s ninth minute – a header which allowed the Victory attacker to open the scoring.
Donachie appeared to have come from a marginal position in live action, and replays showed that the defender was a body length offside when Leroy George floated his free-kick into the area.
Despite the evidence being seemingly clear, however, a conference between referee Jarred Gillett and VAR official Craig Zetter did not result in the decision being overturned.
The Jets and their fans would reawaken when Roy O’Donovan suffered a facial injury during a mad scramble to clear a Victory cross in the 69th minute, bravely returning to the field with a large welt on his face to loud cheers.
Newcastle’s frustrations would boil over in injury time, as O’Donovan launched a cynical studs up challenge into the head of Thomas, earning a straight red and what should be a heavy suspension to be served in 2018-19.
VAR again the story
These A-League finals had been one of the most scintillating ever in the history of the competition. Fantastically entertaining games had restored a sense of goodwill towards the local domestic competition, and the favourite punching bag – the VAR – had nary been sighted.
That all changed on Saturday night.
Donachie’s ninth-minute assist was a clear error from the assistant referee, supposedly the exact type of incident the VAR was introduced to prevent.
Replays were clear – Donachie was offside at the free kick and the goal should have been disallowed.
The failure to properly bring the play back calls into question exactly why the technology has been implemented the first place. If it cannot correct a goal that should have been clearly disallowed in a grand final, what is it good for?
A team that dominated the game was robbed of their chance to lift the championship because of the VAR.
It is not a story that is going to go away any time soon.
Lawrence ‘the Wall’ Thomas
Thomas was, in no uncertain terms, the difference between the Victory winning or losing the grand final.
The 25-year-old, who has been linked with a move to Saudi Arabia, put in his second Man of the Match performance in as many weeks on Saturday night, producing numerous world-class saves to deny the Jets’ high-powered attack.
A fantastic full-stretch save to stop O’Donovan in the 16th minute, and a miraculous double save from Riley McGree and Jason Hoffman’s respective efforts were just some of the highlights that summed up his night.
The challenge he absorbed from O’Donovan was one of the worst ever seen in A-League history, but it means that the image of a bandaged and bruised Thomas – unbowed as he took a beating to keep his side in the game – will go down in A-League folklore.
Kosta Barbarouses brings the Jets down once again
Barbarouses has been the Jets’ bogeyman this season. The Victory’s dynamic winger netted his third goal in four showings on Saturday night, scoring the fastest goal in A-League grand final history when his ninth minute effort deflected into the net.
Barbarouses has been a vital cog in the push to a grand final this year, laying in the cross that set up Besart Berisha’s spectacular bicycle kick in the Victory’s elimination final triumph over Adelaide United and opening the scoring in their semi-final defeat of Sydney FC.
While Donachie’s assist – for the reasons stated above – will be the subject of Jets ire for many a year, the history books will only record Barbarouses’ name on the scoresheet.
Apprentice becomes the master
Ernie Merrick is intrinsically linked to the career of Kevin Muscat.
The Scotsman gave Muscat his first taste of professional football at Sunshine George Cross in 1989 and made his signing a priority when he was unveiled as the inaugural Victory boss at the A-League’s launch.
Merrick bestowed upon Muscat unparalleled freedom on the park during their time together, allowing Muscat to serve as a player and also as assistant coach from his holding-midfield position.
Merrick’s exit in 2011 would sour the relationship between the two parties – rightly or wrongly believing that his former protégé played some role in his dismissal.
However, vanquishing his mentor on the A-League’s biggest stage (albeit in highly controversial circumstances), in a hostile McDonald Jones Stadium full of Jets fans – Muscat has now exorcised the ghosts that lingered at AAMI Park.
He has well and truly validated the decision of the then incoming administration of Anthony Di Pietro – removing Merrick and beginning the transition to the Muscat era.
A fairy tale denied
The Jets had been the feelgood story of the 2017- 18 A-League season coming into Saturday night. After a year in which they finished bottom of the A-League table, nobody expected the Jets to even make the finals this time around, let alone set records in terms of wins and goals scored.
Their relentless, attacking style of play won the hearts and minds of many a neutral observer, with the likes of Dimi Petratos, Steven Ugarkovic and the now departed Andrew Nabbout all putting themselves firmly in contention for the Socceroos squad.
On Saturday night, however, the cruel reality that football can deliver came to the fore.
The Jets’ Cinderella story was left holding the pumpkin – with Melbourne Victory using a large assist from the VAR to deny a storybook ending.
ACL campaign hits an early exit
Victory’s triumph means that as well as tasting yet more championship glory, they will receive automatic qualification from the Asian Football Confederation for next year’s Asian Champions League (ACL).
With Sydney FC already securing the other full bid afforded to the premiers of the A-League, the grand final result relegates the second-placed Jets into the final half-bid afforded to Australia – while removing City from the competition completely.
It is a disastrous blow to a City side that has made no qualms of their desire to reach the ACL. With an ownership that demands regional representation, City now face the prospect of yet another year outside of Asia’s premiere club competition, with the seat under Warren Joyce no doubt set to be at a boiling point from the beginning of next season.
It is especially cruel for City that it was Victory, their biggest rivals, that ripped the slot from grasp.
So desperate for an identity – a success to rally around – that the ACL offered City a chance to flex their muscles on a bigger stage and rally a fanbase around them in the same way the Wanderers did in their fairy tale run to Asian glory.
Instead, the chance has been stolen by their biggest rivals. Stolen by a club they so desperately need a differentiating point from, a club that has clearly demonstrated that the ACL is not a priority and a club that continues to haunt City with their sustained success.