Victory lose aura of invincibility
No longer untouchable, Melbourne Victory heads into next weekend's A-League semi-finals a mere mortal, its invincibility tag ripped up.
In 2007 the minor premier has gone draw-loss-loss, punctuated by a 4-0 degradation at the hands of the resurrected Newcastle Jets on Friday night - the Victory's first loss away from home all season.
Coach Ernie Merrick has continually tinkered with, but "definitely not rotated", his side since wrapping up top spot before Christmas.
The Scotsman rested players with niggling injuries and encouraged others on the verge of suspension to make deliberate fouls, pick up cards, and see out their bans before finals time.
But has it backfired and is all the momentum gone?
"The finals are next week and we've got a full squad in," Merrick said, confident his tapering tactic was the right one.
"We're injury free, we've got no yellow cards and I can select my best team for the first match.
"As the cards fell, we played the Jets who had a great crowd behind them, they were on song, and we gifted a couple of goals.
"I guess it's a bit reminiscent of Sydney. They lost five-nil to us last year and finished up winning the grand final and I hope it's going to be a similar scenario for us."
The difference is Sydney's loss came in round eight and it had more than three months to turn it around.
Melbourne has a week.
"There's no doubt there's a few waiting to give it to us," Merrick said.
"When you're top of the ladder and you go down 4-0, as a coach and as players you have to cop it on the chin.
"But I certainly won't be blasting our players.
"They're obviously feeling terrible about losing like that."
Victory captain Kevin Muscat shared the optimistic view of his boss, saying the team's January form would have no bearing on its chances of holding up the A-League trophy on February 18.
"Obviously it's a massive disappointment for us, but by no means will we be going into next week feeling any repercussions of what's happened over the last two or three weeks," Muscat said.
"The thing we will look at is we've won the league by 15-odd points so we must have done something right."
Melbourne play second on the table in next Sunday's semi-final first leg.
That opponent wont be known until the conclusion of the Adelaide United v Central Coast Mariners match in Gosford on Sunday night.