Melbourne Victory has kept their chances of a second-placed finish alive with a dramatic 2-1 win over Central Coast Mariners on Sunday evening.
A dominating first half performance capped off by a 21st minute strike from star striker Ola Toivonen appeared to have Victory set for a regulation win over the visitors in front of the 16,158 fans at AAMI Park; only for the Mariners to equalise through a controversial Matt Simon penalty just after the resumption of the second half.
Knowing the importance of the three points a frantic Victory nevertheless continued to press and were rewarded in the 79th minute when Georg Niedermeier, for the first time in a Victory shirt, found the back of the net.
The result means that Kevin Muscat’s men pull to within two points of second-placed Sydney FC with just two rounds remaining on the A-League season: the Sky Blue’s scheduled to finish their campaign against Perth and Newcastle and Victory against Adelaide United and Western Sydney.
For the Mariners, the result mathematically seals their second wooden spoon in as many seasons and leaves them still with ten points less than they possessed in 2018/19.
The Mariners entered Sunday’s meeting with Victory knowing full well that history was against them; having last recorded a triumph over Victory six-years ago to the day when a 42nd minute strike from Daniel McBreen propelled the Graham Arnold led Mariners past Ange Postecoglou’s Victory in the 2012/13 semi-finals.
Matt Millar was just 16-year’s old at the time of that fixture, running around the Victorian Premier League with Dandenong Thunder.
On Sunday, the Mariners right back gave his current side some reason to be optimistic early, capping a clever bit of interplay between himself and Connor Pain in the sixth minute with a shot that just flashed wide of the near post.
Alas for the Mariners faithful, that brief flash of hope would soon prove to be a false dawn as Victory responded with a ferocious 20-minute display that the visitors were lucky to escape only a goal down.
A 12th minute effort from Keisuke Honda marked the beginning of the Victory assault; the Japanese superstar breaking into space between the Mariners’ midfield and defence and letting loose with a shot that Kennedy was just able to get down low and palm away with his left glove.
A follow-up effort from James Troisi then sailed over the crossbar.
Three minutes later Victory’s marquee man would again go close after meeting a ball lofted into the back post by Kosta Barbarouses after the latter had beaten the Mariners’ offside trap to run onto a ball from Raul Baena.
At full stretch, Honda did well to make contact but could only direct the ball into the side netting of the goals.
The blows were raining down thick and fast on the Mariners – and not just on their goal.
A nasty gash was opened up on the head of defender Jonathan Aspropotamitis after the 22-year-old was on the wrong end of Honda’s boot when the two contested a loose ball and Michael McGlinchey was forced to depart minutes later after picking up an injury; replaced by Mario Shabow.
Unfortunately for the Mariners, the next blow would come on the scoresheet after a sublime piece of build-up play from Victory saw Toivonen making it 1-0 in the 21st minute.
Getting his head up in the middle of the park, Troisi slid a ball to the feet of Barbarouses, who in turn played a short ball to Toivonen.
The big Swede then turned goalward and orchestrated a clever one-two with Elvis Kamsoba to bypass the Mariners defence before slipping a low shot past Kennedy for his 12th goal of the season.
It was almost two goals just four minutes later when Barbarouses cut a ball back to a waiting Kamsoba atop the area only for a desperate Millar – who staged an enthralling battle with Kamsoba all night – to get a desperate lunging touch on the ball to send his shot just wide.
Mercifully having seen off Victory’s onslaught the Mariners were able to slow the game down for the remainder of the first 45 and were even able to create a few half-chances of their own.
Only a 41st minute effort by Troisi would serve to give them major pause, but the Victory number ten was unable to direct his open shot on goal past Kennedy.
Escaping to halftime with only a single goal deficit to overcome, the Mariners then started the second stanza brightly when Matthew Acton was forced to tap away a Millar cross before a waiting Matt Simon could get his head on it.
In the 51st minute, though, the Mariners would find themselves level in the most fortunate of circumstances.
Running onto a ball through Victory’s lines by Jacob Melling, Simon would go down just inside the Victory penalty area and successfully appeal to referee Chris Beath that he had been clipped by Thomas Deng.
Replays appeared to show that it was Simon’s own right leg that had made contact with his left foot and not Deng but the VAR failed to overturn the decision and Simon hammered home – promptly wheeling away to celebrate in the faces of the Victory fans in the stands.
Probably in a position where they should have been up by two or three goals after their dominating first half a furious Victory responded by renewing the intensity of their attacks.
Yet another fine piece of interplay between Toivonen, Troisi and Kamsoba would set the diminutive winger up for yet another shot, only for this effort to just be deflected away for a corner by Jem Karacan in the 61st minute.
Filling in as captain in the absence of Carl Valeri, Leigh Broxham attempted to take matters into his own hands six minutes later when he cut out an attempted Mariners’ clearance and steamed into the penalty area only for his off-balance shot to go wide of the post.
The Victory pressure was rewarded in the 79th minute when the game, and perhaps their quest for second place on the A-League table, was saved from the most unlikely of sources: Niedermeier.
The big German defender was found himself in just the right space at just the right time to redirect a desperate, pirouetting shot from Barbarouses past Kennedy and into the back of the net.
Though decidedly outplayed throughout the fixture, the Mariners still found themselves down only a goal nonetheless and almost added yet more drama in the 87th minute when substitute Stephen Mallon let loose with a scintillating strike that Acton did fantastically well to tip over the bar.
Melbourne Victory: 1. Mathew Acton (GK), 4. Keisuke Honda, 5. Georg Niedermeier, 6. Leigh Broxham (C), 9. Kosta Barbarouses, 10. James Troisi, 11. Ola Toivonen, 14. Thomas Deng (Roux 58′), 15. Raul Baena, 17. James Donachie, 24. Elvis Kamsoba (Lesiotis 63′)
Victory Sub: 2. Storm Roux, 7. Kenjok Athiu, 16. Josh Hope, 25. Anthony Lesiotis, 30. Mathew Sutton (GK)
Central Coast Mariners: 1. Ben Kennedy (GK), 2. Jonathan Aspropotamitis, 3. Jack Clisby, 7. Andrew Hoole (Mallon 78′), 8. Michael McGlinchey (Shabow 22), 11. Connor Pain (Murray 69′), 18. Mathew Millar, 19. Mathew Simon, 22. Jacob Melling, 28. Samuel Graham, 68. Jem Karacan
Mariners Sub: 12. Adam Pearce (GK), 23. Mario Shabow, 25. Jordan Murray, 29. Stephen Mallon, 33. Lewis Miller