MELBOURNE Victory have pulled off an astounding semi-final boilover in the most dramatic way possible, stunning minor premiers Sydney FC 3-2 in an astonishing extra time thriller to secure their ticket to the A-League grand final.
The Victory will travel to McDonald Jones Stadium to take on the Jets in the big dance next Saturday night.
They should have wrapped it up earlier. The Victory were 15 seconds from the decider, when former Sky Blue Terry Antonis, who had enjoyed an incredible match to that point, turned villain with a calamitous last gasp own goal.
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But in an incredible turn of events, the midfielder became the ultimate hero – with a marvellous run, which started in his own half, down the right wing, marauding into the box before a fortuitous deflection sent the ball into the net.
In the wake of the goal, two dramatic red cards saw Victory assistant coach Jean Paul de Marigny and the club’s goalkeeping coach sent to the stands for entering the field of play and engaging in a melee with Sydney’s David Carney.
It was one of the most phenomenal matches the A-League has ever seen, two own goals, extra-time drama, two red cards and the ultimate atonement tale. It’s the end for Sydney FC, but what a match.
In what became a nightmare final game in charge of the Sky Blues for Graham Arnold, a tactical overhaul from Victory boss Kevin Muscat blunted the hosts’ decorated attack and rendered golden boot winner Bobo as well as Alex Tobin medallist Adrian Mierzejewski largely anonymous.
Further, the pehenomenal work of Carl Valeri and Antonis in midfield crucially won the duel in the centre of the park.
Victory’s back four, who adjusted incredibly well after losing star centre-back Rhys Williams before kick-off, marshalled the league’s top attack admirably.
Although, Williams’ replacement Stegan Nigro, did make the injury look a significant blow after opening the scoring at the wrong end following a horror deflected own goal.
But down the other end, the visitors targeted the right hand side of Sydney’s defence – with Barbarouses exposing Wilkshire due to Mierzejewski’s deficiency in tracking back to help his full back.
First he struck the post with vivacity after being unleashed by Leroy George, “9 out of 10 times Barbarouses scores from that position across the keeper,” remarked Fox Sports’ Robbie Slater.
But shortly after the same strategy paid dividends for the equaliser, with Barbarouses unleashed by a long ball before cutting in and rifling a strike which nestled in the net after a big deflection off Jordy Buijs.
Level at the break, the match was delicately poised – with a big 45 minutes set to decide who would earn the right to meet the Jets in the big dance.
And the Victory were simply the better side out of the sheds. They continued to harry Sydney, pressing to win the ball back and not allowing the usual suspects of the Sky Blue attack to find rhythm through the centre.
That pressure earned them the eventual winner. Josh Brillante was rushed in midfield and forced into a turnover, which was picked up by perennial finals protagonist Besart Berisha who showed exquisite poise to stop, prop and dish up a wonderful ball to hand James Troisi the go ahead goal.
The Socceroo, no stranger to big goals at the Allianz Vis a Vis his Asian Cup winner in 2014, tapped in the easiest of goals – stunning the home side who had never lost a post-season match on their own turf.
Add into that the fact they had won their last seven against the Victory, and this becomes one of the great boilovers in A-League history.
Sydney searched for an equaliser, but the Victory defence held firm. Perhaps their best chance came via a header from Bobo but Lawrence Thomas produced a stunning double save to keep out the aerial effort that looked destined for the top corner as well as the follow up strike from close range.
After that, despite a wave of Sky Blue chances, they never looked likely to score with the Victory on their way to an unlikely grand final appearance.
Ben Warland could have proved himself the hero not once but twice! However the substitute defender, who had replaced an injured Buijs, clattered the cross bar with a volley in stoppage time before missing a golden chance to flick a header past Thomas – his header falling inches wide.
Sydney threw everything forward, and looked like they were gone for all money. But with just seconds on the clock, a Thomas save fell for Mierzejewski who cut back only for Antonis to turn into his own net.
Extra time was perhaps on the cards, considering the finals history between these two sides, but no one could have predicted the sheer madness this match delivered.
The added 30 minutes was an arm wrestle, with chances at either end but it appeared we were set for penalties once again – until Antonis delivered.
What a story against his old club, and he has sent his side into the grand final after almost taking it from them.
As the full time whistle blew, the champions and serial winners were vanquished – their home crowd silenced – as Arnie bid farewell to Allianz Stadium with a rare L beside his side’s name.
Where does this leave his bid to have pieced together the finest A-League side of all time? Not as rosy as where it would have been had they earned a match up with the ultimate fairytale side the Jets, but that question will remain one to be debated for years to come.
“I still say we are” Arnold said in regard to his side being the best ever after the match.
Sydney sorted out by Muscat as a frustrated incoming Socceroos boss exited stage left. But for the Victory, it’s one more week and a performance like this could well see them lift the golden toilet seat next Saturday night.
The Jets await in an unlikely grand final clash that no one could possibly have predicted 12 months ago.
But what a showpiece it will be – and if its anything like either of the semi-finals we’re in for one hell of a ride.
One not to be missed.