Melbourne Victory have been eliminated from the Asian Champions League on Wednesday night, suffering a calamitous 6-2 loss against Ulsan Hyundai at the Munsu Football Stadium.
A comedy of first half errors quickly had Victory behind the eightball and three goals behind at the half time interval, rendering the matchday five contest over so soon after it started.
Brazilian Junior Negrao opened the scoring after 12 minutes, rapidly closing down dawdling Victory gloveman Lawrence Thomas to smother his kick and force the ball into the net.
The team sitting at the foot of the domestic table capitalised on more lax defending eight minutes later to double their advantage. Lim Jong-eun crept into the penalty area unmarked and converted.
Mislav Orsic tripled the lead shortly before half time, driving home a curling effort from the top of the box to cap off a swift counter-attack by the hosts.
Ten minutes after the interval, Kim Sueng-jeung made the most of increased space at the back following a formation change to rub some more salt into Victory’s wounds, and Junior piled on more misery by nodding home a delightful cross in the 68th minute.
Kenny Athiu netted soon after – for him, a debut Victory goal and landmark moment – as did Kosta Barbarouses, but in the grander scheme of things they were mere consolation by that point.
Victory switched off again though shortly after and Orsic made sure the door was slammed shut and deadlocked on what would have been an unthinkable comeback.
Lapses prove disastrous
Victory’s Champions League exit is made all the more disappointing by the fact that the first two goals conceded at least were avoidable.
Thomas will be hopeful the tapes of Ulsan’s opener will never see the light of day ever again. The goalkeeper had plenty of time to clear his lines up his sleeve but smashed the ensuing kick into the onrushing Junior.
A poor giveaway in midfield by Josh Hope, making his full Victory debut, kick-started the play that led to Ulsan’s second, with the Koreans maintaining the ball in Victory’s half even after Orsic won a corner.
They worked the ball back into the area and holder Lim was allowed burst into the box and fire home unchecked, and it was only worse for the youngster who frantically closed to no avail.
Ulsan countered on 39 minutes and Orsic made Victory pay full price again. The Australians’ defence was at sixes and sevens with a plethora of space allowed for the attack.
It was clear there something of a leadership void at the back; Rhys Williams was absent through suspension, meaning Thomas Deng moved back into his natural position from right-back.
But to say the miserable defeat is just down to Williams’ absence would be sugarcoating a collectively dreadful performance in a game of such huge importance.
It is made worse by the fact that Ulsan – pointless in their opening four K-League 1 matches – scored just one goal in those games.
Kevin Muscat chances his arm
Victory fans have craved more tactical change and flexibility from Muscat long since the beginning of his tenure; the manager is considerably loyal to his customary 4-2-3-1 setup.
A back three has scarcely been seen from Muscat, but the 44-year-old wasted no time and reverted to that system as the teams re-entered the field for the second half.
Something had to change. Victory were lacking spark in important areas, even with talisman Leroy George struggling to work his way into the game.
Besart Berisha and Stefan Nigro were sacrificed in favour of Athiu and Jai Ingham. The latter took up position up front while Ingham and Barbarouses operated as wing-backs.
The change in structure left Victory wide open at the back and susceptible for more blows, but they at least showed some signs of life at the beginning of the half, and two goals did arrive in quick succession in the last 20 minutes.
Despite a miserable night at the office, and even if the ‘plan B’ did not go exactly as hoped, defensively fans can take some optimism if the coach’s willingness to shuffle the deck chairs before finals.
Given the leakiness at the back though, we may not see exactly the same system in a hurry.
Victory still unable to cure travel sickness
It’s 18 away matches and counting without a win for Victory on the continent, and given Ulsan’s aforementioned poor start to the local season, their chance to snap that hoodoo had never been better.
Victory’s last road trip to Japan on matchday three, where they stole a point late in a 2-2 draw against Kawasaki Frontale, suggested those three illusive away points might have been in the offing.
But that spirited effort was a distant memory when factoring in what was dished up in Korea’s southeast.
The defeat means Group F’s two progressed teams have been confirmed: Shanghai SIPG, who Victory meet on the final matchday at home, and Ulsan, who are guaranteed to advance in the head-to-head basis.