THE fans didn’t show up.
But neither did the defensive lines of Melbourne Victory and Ulsan Hyundai.
So for the 5124 that did venture to AAMI Park for Tuesday night’s Asian Champions League opener they were treated to a six-goal thriller.
But while the drunken stupor this game was in at various times may have temporarily numbed the pain Victory fans are feeling at their side’s current plight, this morning there is a harsh hangover to contemplate from the 3-3 draw.
This was an opportunity lost.
The muted reaction from the crowd at full time, despite the entertainment, said it all.
As did the way Victory players en masse slumped their hands to their knees.
Ulsan, fourth in the 12-team K League last year, are Group F’s weak link.
This was the first game of their pre-season as the Korean domestic league doesn’t kick off until March 1.
And while the visitors possessed some killer talent on the ball — none less than man of the match Mislav Orsic — this was a game Victory desperately needed to win to give itself the best possible chance of advancing to the knockout stage.
Particularly given that, in its previous five ACL campaigns, it has never won away from home.
Three times Victory went a goal down and three times they were back level within three minutes in what was a bizarre game.
It started with a cagey opening 20 minutes before the game exploded to life with four goals in 12 minutes.
Croatian attacker Orsic rifled in a 30m bullet free kick in the 25th before the outstanding Leroy George tapped in the first of his two goals barely a minute later from all of three.
Orsic swung in the corner for Richard Windbichler’s header in the 34th minute, before George answered back with a brilliant by-play with Besart Berisha which he finished with aplomb.
And the Orsic-George show continued after half time when Orsic delivered the pick of the six goals with a brilliant curling effort from the top of the box in the 51st minute, before George found Rhys Williams with a pinpoint free kick in the 54th.
Victory fans will be thanking their lucky stars they have George in their line-up, as the Dutchman was at the heart of all things good Victory did.
Kenny Athiu provided a bright spark after replacing Berisha with 20 minutes to go, but too often the former Heidelberg United star’s first touch let him down.
Coach Kevin Muscat says his players restored pride in the Victory jersey in their performance
but the Victory boss said it was too early to say whether failure to take all three points at AAMI Park would significantly dent his side’s chances of advancing to the Asian Champions League knockout stages for the second time in a row.
A 2-1 home loss to Brisbane in the A-League last week was greeted with jeers from Victory supporters. But Muscat said fans would be hard-pressed to have been disappointed with Tuesday night’s output.
“I look at that performance and I see everybody fighting for this football club,” Muscat said.
“I dare say that’s what people will see.
“From my perspective, to see the players fight and work like they did tonight was pleasing.
“We’re all human, it was a difficult game the last one. But if we take this game in isolation, I thought the effort was outstanding.”
Victory won its first home game of its last campaign – in 2016 – as it marched to the Round of 16 for the first time. It ultimately won two and drew one of its three home matches.
Shanghai SIPG defeated Kawasaki Frontale 1-0 in Tokyo in the other Group F game last night.
Victory travels to Shanghai next Tuesday.
“It’s early,” Muscat said when asked about the group permutations. “Who knows what’s going to happen down the track.”
Muscat said Victory would “not shy away” from its defensive lapses suffered last night, but he said he was thrilled with his side’s attacking play.
“The composure that we showed in midfield to play out, to persist, to keep playing out, dominate possession, dominate the ball (was pleasing).”