It's been a fascinating season for Melbourne Victory. The mantle of "champions" is indeed a burdensome one to carry. And typically there's only one way for a current champion to go - down.
Victory manager Ernie Merrick is wise enough to understand that to attempt to stand still is in fact a recipe for being carried backwards in the current. So his 2006-07 squad has faced several changes. A number of fringe players out - Lia and Ferrante to Wellington, Sarkies to Adelaide. And, as stated before in these pages, the enforced loss of Fred to DC United.
All eyes, therefore, on the newer-looking combination as they kicked off the season. And stupefyingly, a run of five straight draws. And since then there's been a range of ups and downs. Until yesterday, when there was an almighty down, albeit in the context of a dramatic, traumatic contest.
One of the stand-out games of last season was the 3-3 draw when Central Coast came to Melbourne. And in yesterday's fixture at the deliciously named Blue Tongue stadium in Gosford, the same combatants fought out 90 minutes of similar ingredients to the Telstra Dome blockbuster 12 months back.
The sending off of Victory wing-back Keenan in the 21st minute proved a defining moment for this fixture. For the next hour of play, the visitors, in the same manner as when two players down a year ago at the Dome, played out of their skin. While the Mariners had their moments, hitting the woodwork twice, it was the disadvantaged Victory which produced its best football of the season. Muscat and new boy Pace holding firm at the back, ring-in Vasilevski proving to be a revelation, and the forward trio of Hernandez, Allsopp and Thompson looking as menacing as at any time this year. And the controlled way Victory brought the ball out of defence and into attack was exacting and admirable.
Reward was due, and finally arrived on 77 minutes when Hernandez finished off a concise move. Surely that would be that.
But several of the travelling party were just exhausted by that stage. And that, combined with the mental relaxation and attack-into-defence transition, meant that roles were suddenly reversed, with the Mariners pushing concertedly for an equaliser. It arrived only minutes later through the persistent Petrovski. On a day when new boy John Aloisi seemed plainly ineffective, it was always Petrovski most likely to be incisive.
Worse, much worse, followed for Victory, with Pondeljack finishing off a smart move in the 88th minute to leave Melbourne 2-1 down. And their misery was completed on 90 minutes with Vargas sent off for retaliating on the pesky Petrovski.
So in the space of 13 minutes, the champions forsook the chance to go equal top, instead find themselves sixth, and now with their defensive options decimated face the immediate prospect of a surging Sydney FC . Their backs are now truly against the wall, and require a turnaround of truly championship quality.