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Jan 20, 2009

Melbourne's victory march?

With a slew of suspensions and their own gambling scandal, Melbourne Victory have done their best to shoot themselves in the foot. But Kevin Muscat's side have managed to turn around a sometimes chequered season to be on the brink of their second A-League title in three years.

Melbourne's 3-0 thumping of the Central Coast Mariners in round 20 - with the goals coming in a potent seven minute spell - sets them up for a crucial top-two finish that guarantees them a potentially lucrative stint in the AFC Champions League next season.

The raucous Telstra Dome - where the men in navy blue have won five straight - has been the key to the late Victory march. It was almost as if Melbourne had been counting down to a final quarter of a season that saw them based almost exclusively at their Docklands' home.

They're proving themselves to be almost unbeatable before the championship's biggest fan base and will get only stronger during the finals' series.

So how does the 2009 version of the Victory compare to the 2007 side that memorably thumped Adelaide United 6-0 at the Dome in the Grand Final?

They may no longer have the brilliant Brazilian playmaking skills of Fred but they do have greater depth elsewhere and a strike partnership of Archie Thompson and Danny Allsopp that is arguably better than it was two years ago. The pair has contributed a staggering 69 goals in the four seasons of the A-League and was recognised by national coach Pim Verbeek in his squad for the Asian Cup qualifier in Indonesia.

Allsopp has matured as a striker and has proved that he's far more than just a one-dimensional target man. And his unforgettable shoulder charge on Sydney coach John Kosmina in round-17 showed that the gentle giant also has fire in his belly.

As the years go by, Muscat is getting balder and perhaps uglier, but there's no doubting his leadership qualities. Before the crucial game against the Mariners, the 35-year-old could be seen almost working himself into a lather as he gave a motivational speech on the pitch to his team-mates.

Add his reliable defensive partner Rodrigo Vargas, plus other fringe Socceroos past and present Tom Pondeljak, Billy Celeski, Michael Thwaite and Nick Ward and rising stars like Sebastian Ryall and Evan Berger and you have a nucleus of a squad who are firming as favourites to go all the way.

Queensland Roar fans might disagree, but the odds are on another Melbourne Victory v Adelaide United Grand Final. The Reds proved their quality in the big occasion by advancing all the way to November's AFC Champions League final but their exertions in Asia may be taking a toll. Victory have played far fewer matches and have greater quality on the bench with the likes of Grant Brebner, Ney Fabianao and Jose Luis Lopez to call on.

Against the Mariners, Fabiano was given the start ahead of Carlos Hernandez but Melbourne looked better when the Costa Rican took to the pitch on the hour with all three goals - including his own from a free-kick - following the chunky midfielder's entry.

Melbourne seem to have put behind them the disciplinary problems that saw the likes of Fabiano, Hernandez and even Thompson given costly suspensions. The gambling scandal involved Muscat and Brebner who were both sanctioned - but only former Manchester United apprentice Brebner was banned - for on-line betting of games involving A-League clubs.

Also in Melbourne's favour is their excellent record against the big guns: they've lost just five of their last 29 matches against the other clubs in the top-four.

Central Coast, winners of last season's Premier's Plate, now face a scramble simply to make the finals after dropping their last two matches and leaking seven goals in the process.

Without defensive midfielder Mile Jedinak - who recently departed for Genclerbirligi in the Turkish league - the Mariners have lost their shape, despite having a glut of excellent strikers.

Given Jedinak's absence, coach Lawrie McKinna made a tactical mistake by leaving out Adrian Caceres from the starting side in Melbourne and the result was a disjointed display, despite their traditional spirit that saw Central Coast have the better of the first half.

Things will only get more challenging for the crucial final round match at home to Adelaide with Dean Heffernan and Andrew Clark both suspended.

McKinna and Melbourne manager Ernie Merrick - another Scotsman - are the only two coaches who have survived since the inception of the A-League in 2005.

They should both be in action come finals-time, but Merrick, with the benefit of a more stable and better-balanced squad who are peaking at the right time, has greater chance of doing a Victory lap come February 28th.

•  Australian-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an international broadcaster and corporate host. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.

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