A BREATH of fresh air.
In the midst of an A-League season that’s been frustrating and at times almost stale in nature, the Asian Champions League provided just that on Tuesday night.
The ACL has often struggled to attract fans or attention within Australia – and there were still limited numbers at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium (AAMI Park).
But few who either attended or watched on TV could argue they weren’t captivated by a brilliant contest between Melbourne Victory and Ulsan Hyundai.
The game had the additional plotline of Kevin Muscat’s struggling Melbourne Victory — who arguably desperately needed their own breath of fresh air.
But in the opening minutes, the match was largely a cagey affair, with Victory dominating possession but failing to make inroads.
But then, Mislav Orcic turned the match on its head in the 25th minute.
The Croatian produced a brilliant free kick – with his teammates providing a screen – that Lawrence Thomas was unable to get clear vision on before it slammed into his bottom left corner.
Muscat’s side could easily have dropped their heads after that sobering crash to earth.
Instead, they threw everything at the Korean outfit and equalised within a minute.
Besart Berisha launched a stinging shot goalward, with Leroy George pouncing on the goalkeeper’s fumbled parry and slotting home the equaliser.
It was the type of response Muscat’s side has struggled to deliver all season.
But just eight minutes later, an unchecked Richard Windbichler rose highest at the near post to head home, in a poor defensive showing from the Victory.
“Windbichler was unchecked to the six yard box, it really needed to be dealt with by Melbourne Victory,” Fox Sports’ Andy Harper said.
“It’s a poor concession, it’s great work by the Austrian to give his team the lead but this is grounds for an enquiry at Melbourne victory.
“Troops amassed at the near post defensively and none present can get a head at the ball.”
Bizarrely, once again, Victory bounced back quickly – once again through the feet of Berisha and George.
This time, George fed the ball to Berisha, who kept his back to goal and teed up the winger to slam home an equaliser.
Twice behind, twice equal.
“I think basically what happened was after both the goals, Melbourne Victory just basically went back at them,” former Socceroo Bosnich said on Fox Sports.
“Looking at the Koreans I don’t think they’re probably used to that, they’re probably used to teams conceding a goal and going to themselves ‘okay, we’ve conceded a goal’, we’ll keep playing (our way).
“But Melbourne Victory just went bang, straight at them and sort of rattled them a little.”
Key to that resurgence had been the ever-excellent George and the recently-criticised Berisha.
“We saw Berisha get involved in the game a bit more and here he does wonderful work there to tee it up for Leroy George, ’keeper left with no chance here. Berisha’s really shown what he’s capable of in this first half for Melbourne Victory,” former Sydney FC player Sasa Ognenovski said on Fox Sports.
“I think what we’ve seen this year from him is he gets in those positions and he tries to turn and wriggle away from a defender.
“He’s lifted his head, he’s seen Leroy George and he’s just laid it off for him – and Leroy George, no mistake from there.”
When Ulsan took the lead a third time, from Orcic’s long-range strike – that really should have been dealt with by Thomas – few would have been surprised to see them keep it.
But on this occasion, lightning struck thrice.
And really, the Korean side had no-one to blame but themselves for this particular stroke of misfortune.
When George floated in a set piece, Rhys Williams was given all the space and time in the world to head home – and he seized the opportunity.
From the third equaliser, Victory looked less like a team about to concede and more like one about to seize all three points.
Muscat even turned to Kenny Athiu off the bench in the 72nd minute – despite a seemingly disgruntled Berisha – with the NPL product offering plenty of excitement, though his first touch at times left plenty to be desired.
Muscat praised Berisha for his fine effort post-match, so strong was his contribution.
“He was involved in absolutely everything for us … he’s involved in the goals, everyone sees, but there was so much work he got through for the team in setting up the way we press,” Muscat said.
“And when we did bring him off, it was just a matter of getting a little bit more press and getting some fresh legs on to press them.
“I thought that brought the tide back in our favour a little bit and we created some chances.”
That included a fine move inside, where Athiu cut the ball back for George, who for once was unable to find the decisive touch in a crowded penalty area.
In the closing minutes, Victory had a chance to seize the lead when exciting youngster Christian Theoharous went on a dashing run, only to run out of space and support.
Having fought back all game, the home side was unable to go on with the comeback and produce the knockout blow.
Ultimately, the game ended a 3-3 draw – arguably a fair result, reflective of the competitiveness shown on the night.
“In the end, to chase down three leads was an outstanding effort and at the end there, we were still pushing, we created some chances at the death there – with Leroy to Jimmy (Troisi) inside to Kenny was a good opportunity,” Muscat told Fox Sports post-match.
“But the reaction from the players when we conceded goals was outstanding tonight. So I’m pleased for them but we would have liked the extra two points.
“We can defend those situations better, there’s no doubt but collectively we’ll take responsibility, we won’t hang anyone out to dry. But I think the reaction from the rest of the group when we made some mistakes tonight was absolutely first class.”
It was a fine way to kick off the mid-week tournament.
Yes, both the defending and goalkeeping from both sides left a bit to be desired.
But the game was exciting, free-flowing and showcased the talents of its biggest names.
It was a spanner in the works Australian football desperately needed this week.
RE-LIVE THE GAME IN OUR BLOG BELOW