Victory draws first blood

The return of skipper Kevin Muscat has galvanised Melbourne Victory as the reigning Hyundai A-League champions drew first blood in the two-legged major semi-final against Sydney FC at Etihad Stadium on Thursday night.

The return of skipper Kevin Muscat has galvanised Melbourne Victory as the reigning Hyundai A-League champions drew first blood in the two-legged major semi-final against Sydney FC at Etihad Stadium on Thursday night.

But the Victory still has plenty of work in front of it before it can dream of hosting its third Hyundai A-League grand final in five seasons after Sydney scored a crucial away goal during the first leg.

However the Victory’s 2-1 win gives Ernie Merrick’s team the advantage ahead of the second leg in Sydney on March 7.

In front of almost 18,500 fans Melbourne finally ended its scoring drought against its greatest rival this season and in the process avenged its 2-0 loss to Sydney in the final round of the home-and-away season last weekend.

That win meant Sydney snatched the Premiers’ Plate and a guaranteed place in the 2011 Asian Champions League at the expense of the Victory but Melbourne showed on Thursday night that it will not give up its title of reigning Hyundai A-League champion lightly.

The Victory might have gone into the game on the back of some poor recent form against Sydney and with star players Archie Thompson, Robbie Kruse and Matthew Kemp all injured but inspirational skipper Muscat was back after serving a two-match suspension and his sheer presence immediately made a difference from last week.

And it was Muscat who was at the heart of Melbourne’s two first-half goals and in fact inadvertently was involved in all three goals scored in the opening half including unfortunately Sydney’s reply.

The evergreen Melbourne skipper picked out Victory’s new recruit Nik Mrdja with a superb long ball in the 16th minute before the short-term signing again showed why he has been such a great big-match player for so long.

Mrdja, who scored the winning goal for Perth Glory in the last ever NSL grand final in 2004 and was a member of Central Coast’s 2008 winning grand final team, controlled Muscat’s long ball superbly despite the attention of two Sydney defenders in Stephan Keller and Simon Colosimo.

And once the 31-year-old found space on his left foot, his finish was deadly as he picked the perfect time to score his first goal for his new club.

But unfortunately for Mrdja his night would sour after half-time when he was given a straight red card in the 73rd minute for an errant elbow on Shannon Cole which the Sydney defender certainly appeared to make the most of.

Mrdja will now be suspended for the second leg leaving Melbourne desperately hoping star striker Thompson will recover in time for that match from his foot injury given fellow striker Kruse will miss the entire finals series after suffering an ankle injury following a tackle from Terry McFlynn, who was booed all night on Thursday by the Victory crowd, last week.

However after waiting so long to see their team score against Sydney for the first time this season, jubilant Victory fans did not have to wait long for another.

Muscat was again the architect in the 40th minute with a superb tackle on Alex Brosque setting up a quick counterattack as Nick Ward then found newly-crowned Johnny Warren Medalist Carlos Hernandez in space down the left with another great long pass.

And Hernandez did the rest as he produced a superb, ice-cool finish which nestled in the bottom right hand corner of the Sydney net.

But no sooner did Melbourne gain the two-goal advantage than Sydney pulled a goal back.

This time Brosque did well to get his head to a long ball which he flicked on to veteran John Aloisi.

The former Qantas Socceroos striker, who also scored against Melbourne last week, did well to find space between Grant Brebner and Rody Vargas before unleashing a close-range right-foot shot.

Muscat did his best to block the shot but unfortunately got the final touch as Aloisi’s strike set up a frantic second half.

And Melbourne came so close to immediately restoring its two-goal advantage in the second half when the brilliant Hernandez almost scored what would have been the goal of the season with a freakish volley from the right-hand edge of the penalty box which looked to be heading well wide only to spin back and hit the crossbar with Sydney keeper Clint Bolton well beaten.

It was as close as either side would come to scoring in the second half as Melbourne did enough to ensure it would take a one-goal advantage to Sydney for the second leg.

Melbourne Victory: 2 (Mrdja 16, Hernandez 40)
Sydney FC: 1 (Aloisi 42)
Crowd: 18,453 at Etihad Stadium