Youth shows way as Victory hold out Asian giants
Seldom have Victory's fringe players disappointed when lobbed an Asian Champions League bone, and yet again they performed with distinction.
A youthful-looking Victory finished the game with teen debutant Jack Palazzolo and fellow 18-year-old Rahmat Akbari, while a host of fringe players featured throughout in an entertaining 1-1 draw against star-studded Guangzhou Evergrande at AAMI Park.
While Victory's continental hopes may be in tatters, they placed a dent in Evergrande's Asian campaign while giving themselves a shot in the arm a week out from finals.
Victory coach Kevin Muscat praised his players after a four-goal turnaround from the Guangzhou drubbing a fortnight ago.
"It was night and day. A very pleasing night. We didn't turn up (in China),'' Muscat said.
"(There were 11 players) with a real passion and desire. The challenge is laid down for anyone who didn't play tonight to bring that sort of commitment."
The 3000-plus Evergrande contingent were disappointed not to see Asian great Keisuke Honda on the field as Victory made eight changes.
The midfielder headlined the all-star cast watching from the corporate suits, which also included Ola Toivonen, Kosta Barbarouses, James Troisi and Raul Baena.
But as often happens - and not for the first time in Asia - the fringe players collectively stood up when given a chance.
Jai Ingham, who made his first start since November, Josh Hope and Kenny Athiu relished their rare first XI opportunities.
Victory's frailties were exposed as they struggled to play through Evergrande's aggressive high press.
Left-back Corey Brown was cornered and the turnover landed with Paulinho, with the ex Tottenham and Barcelona midfielder's explosive pace on display as he not only caught, but superbly cutback a seemingly lost ball.
Midfielder Huang Bowen was rewarded for a lung-busting run, as he stroked Paulinho's pass into the net.
Undermanned Victory was vulnerable, but they fought and equalised within two minutes.
Athiu drew three Guangzhou defenders and their hashed clearance landed at the feet of Ingham who finished superbly with his first touch.
Terry Antonis, making his first start since the SCG knee injury, played a key role in Victory's recovery, and it was his brilliant ball that almost released Athiu ahead of their goal.
He slipped Athiu through twice late in the game, with Guangzhou's defence successfully scrambling on both occasions, falling the first time after drawing contact from his opponent, although he could have pulled the trigger earlier.
Lawrence Thomas' experience was crucial, as he returned in place of Matt Acton, but Antonis' skill, poise and ability to dribble out of trouble crucially released the pressure valve for Victory, especially when they were under siege in the first half.
Antonis' performance, which included some stunning long-range strikes, earned the praise of Paulinho, who made a bee-line for him to swap shirts.
With confidence perhaps ebbing away after some inconsistent results - and the China drubbing - Muscat and his coaching staff opted for a more conservative 4-5-1.
Evergrande coach Fabio Cannavaro admitted they were far tougher to break down.
"The main difference was that they were very defensive, well organised and didn't give us much space to use,'' Cannavaro said.
As exciting as some of Victory's play was early in the season, the pragmatic approach may have been just what they needed ahead of another finals assault.
As big a positive was the sight of Palazzolo, who shared the pitch with Paulinho and Evergrande superstar Talisca, who is surely on the verge of a maiden Brazil call up.