MELBOURNE, Australia -- Just under an hour before the start of Melbourne Victory's 2-1 A-League Men loss to Sydney FC, on the outskirts of AAMI Park, riot and mounted police had looked out over Swan Street, waiting for any sign of trouble that would merit both their presence.
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With the Australian Open taking place just across the road at Olympic Park, they might have been there anyway, but in truth these mounted lawmen, clad in their high visibility fluro, were there in anticipation of trouble.
Thursday was the first time Victory were able to have something resembling a normal crowd since the scenes of violence that gripped last month's Melbourne derby and, while there were added risks that came with that, it also presented what their coach Tony Popovic styled as an opportunity for renewal. With Football Australia's final sanctions handed down the players, fans and club knew what they would have to deal with for the rest of the season now rather than wait in trepidation.
New restrictions meant that it wasn't a matchday they had come to know but an example of the new normal that they will now have to come to grips with throughout the rest of the campaign. But, inadvertently, perhaps that's the best descriptor of the latest edition of the bitter Big Blue rivalry: a date of in-betweens.
The sound of drums welcomed the sides on to the pitch, rhythmic beating doing its bit to add to the tension of a fixture in a manner that only all-encompassing percussion can. Only, this soundtrack didn't come from the stands surrounding the pitch. It couldn't, musical instruments are amongst the various external props banned in the throng of sanctions. Instead, it emanated from Japanese Taiko drummers, flanking the player's emergence from the tunnel.
The drummers weren't there because of any kind of specific celebration of Japanese culture (Keisuke Honda's stint at Victory wasn't that notable), but in celebration of multiculturalism and the U-Nite Cup; Victory's attempt to figure out some way of staging a game on the Australia Day public holiday without actually wading into the debate that will inevitably and rightly see it moved to another point on the calendar. A commemoration of a game being played on the Jan. 26 public holiday... but not really.
As the percussionists departed and the game kicked off, both sets of players threw themselves about to create chances, but not recklessly. While neither side was displaying the level of haphazardness or torpor that had characterised their slow and agonising descent to the foot of the table, there was still an air of caution present, a knowledge of what repercussions may lie in wait for the loser and a desire to avoid being the one that made the costly error that opened the door to them.
But when Jake Brimmer stood over a free kick near the left-hand touchline in the 26th minute, Andrew Redmayne then provided such an occasion anyway. Caught somewhere in between his near post and some goalkeeping vortex of his creation between the penalty spot and the far post, he could only desperately try but ultimately fail to get back and across before the set piece deposited the ball inside his near post.
Fortunately for Redmayne, he was bailed out by goals from Max Burgess and Adam Le Fondre as the Sky Blues took control of the contest and nailed their bitter rivals to the foot of the table with their eighth loss of the season.
They weren't amazing, definitely not superior enough to declare that their season-long malaise had been arrested, but they were closer to good than their opponents. Both the eye test and the stats bear out such a conclusion: Sydney produced more shots, more shots on target, more shots in the box and expected goals than the hosts.
And when they needed it, their difference makers, this time, counted. Finally getting an extended run of starts, Burgess' fancy footwork to set up his shot was indicative of the quality he brings. Joe Lolley's ball to set up Le Fondre's goal wasn't on the level of a Lionel Messi's surgically squared ball to Nahuel Molina against Netherlands at the World Cup, but the perfectly weighted slice through the defence was good enough to at least be considered a decent tribute act.
The win, depending on who you ask, also means that coach Steve Corica has ungraciously gotten in the way of his sacking. Sydney's fan base and numerous pundits had effectively replaced him with Dwight Yorke almost as soon as the latter left Macarthur last week, but here he was, adding more salt into Victory's wounds as his side moved into a position on the table where they are only being kept out of the playoff places on goal difference. The coach is hopeful that the win represents a foundation to build upon, some kind of momentum that can lift them up the table.
And even without taking into account the win, the Harboursiders probably do have a more promising outlook in front of them than Victory anyway. For one, the club doesn't have a series of sanctions hanging over their head that could potentially kick in and deduct 10 points between now and the end 2025-26 season. Secondly, in backing Corica to see out this season, they opted for rejuvenation rather than outright renewal, meaning that even if everything goes pear-shaped as this campaign progresses they still can hit the reset button.
Victory, however, don't have that luxury. They have already done their rebuild, sacking Grant Brebner midway through the 2020-21 season, appointing Tony Popovic as a coach and doing an almost total clear-out of their football department. Last season it worked, but now they're falling further and further behind the top six. And while the league's insidious parity means they're still not too far out of things to recover, they're also not looking like they're capable of finding a footballing way to do so.
This is a side that has been built to compete for silverware, not to be engaged in a scrap to avoid the wooden spoon. It's loaded with players that returned from a second-place finish and who have pulled on a Socceroo shirt. Luis Nani, a former European champion at both a club and international level, was brought in to serve as the cherry on the sundae.
Yet it's all not working. Nani is now lost for the season with an ACL injury. They can hardly buy a goal from open play and, as the season progresses, the defensive foundation that has at least kept them in games is having holes blown into it by brain fades and errors. Popovic isn't supposed to be the coach that falls down the table and manages a rebuild, he's meant to be the guy that comes in and gets you winning. He did it at Western Sydney and Perth Glory and, though his two-year stint in Western Australia had diminishing returns, it was nothing like this second year in Melbourne.
His side are bottom of the ladder despite investing heavily in their squad, they haven't won in seven games and haven't scored more than one goal in a game since last October. The 49-year-old has been around the game long enough as both a player and a coach to know that any such run of form, regardless of being at the league's biggest side or not, is going to put you under pressure. Prevailing circumstances can provide some mitigation or level of job security, but that can be exhausted very quickly. He's acknowledged as much, stepping up to take his lumps and accept responsibility.
Yet, at the same time, they're also nominally just two wins off the playoffs and have talent on the books with the promise of more on the way via the January transfer window. On the evidence they're coming nowhere near Melbourne City in a big game but, beyond maybe Central Coast, there are also no other teams in the league one would be shocked to see them beat.
That, perhaps, encapsulates Victory right now. Are they standing on the brink of disaster, eyeing the lever that will wipe the slate clean once more? Or are they biding their time and lying in wait, calibrating and plotting their rise up the table? Of those answers, one looks more likely. But there is a third possibility. For Victory right now, it might be both. A season neither dying nor surviving but caught in an in-between.