Melbourne Heart v Melbourne Victory, Friday 8 October, 7.30pm, AAMI Park (Fox Sports 1)
It has taken six long years, so having to wait an extra week due to the AFL Grand Final replay has hardly been worth worrying about, but finally the Hyundai A-League’s biggest rivalry will be born. The new boys on the block, Melbourne Heart, will be looking to make a statement against their illustrious neighbour, two-time A-League champion Melbourne Victory, who will be aiming for first blood and to show who is boss in this town.
Heart has produced a mixed bag so far this campaign with a couple of excellent home victories, combined with some ordinary defeats on the road. This culminated in their embarrassing 4-0 loss against Brisbane Roar a fortnight ago. It will be intriguing to see how their much-publicised 4-3-3 attacking formation will shape up against the Victory, who are the best exponent of counter-attacking football in the A-League. Goalkeeper Clint Bolton has been in inspired form and will face another tough night against a multi-faceted attack. Victory has struggled to recapture their best form this campaign. Their last three games have ended in goalless draws, which would be of some concern to coach Ernie Merrick. With marquee man Archie Thompson still out with his knee injury, much of the attacking impetus falls to Costa Rican Carlos Hernandez. Hernandez has failed to hit the score sheet so far this season and looks a shadow of the player who won the Johnny Warren Medal last season. But this is the type of game where his talents could prove to be the difference.
Key Players: Melbourne Heart
Josip Skoko – The veteran midfielder has struggled with injury niggles all season, but his 15 years of big-game European experience will come in very handy in the inaugural derby. He will control the tempo of the Heart’s play from his central midfield position and will be integral to the result. I would expect Victory to man mark him very tightly, similar to what Central Coast did successfully earlier in the season with Leigh Broxham likely to be the man to do the job.
Matt Thompson – The jack-of-all-trades utility is likely to face one of his biggest tests tonight. Not only will he be filling in as skipper but he looks set to partner Michael Beauchamp in an unfamiliar central-defensive role. He started slowly this year due to off-season ankle surgery, however in recent weeks he has started to hit good form. If he and Beauchamp can muscle up against the Victory’s talented attack it will go a long way to ensure the Heart come away with the points.
Key Players: Melbourne Victory
Carlos Hernandez – The Costa Rican wizard has been targeted very closely by many teams this season and should expect the same tonight. He has not scored so far this season, but there is a reason why he was named the Johnny Warren Medal winner last season. He is a class act who can create something out of absolutely nothing. If Heart leaves him alone for one second in this match he potentially could carve this game to pieces, either through his beautiful passing, ball control or his long-range shooting. He scored 13 times last year, with just as many assists, and Victory need him fit and firing to win.
Kevin Muscat – The significance of the inclusion of the elder statesman and spiritual leader of the Victory cannot be understated. He has missed the past three weeks with an injured ankle, but as Ernie Merrick admitted earlier in the week there was no way he could have stopped his skipper from playing in this one. His solid leadership will be very important in a game such as this. He is likely to go head-to-head with long time adversary John Aloisi, so be ready for some physicality between the two.
Expect to see plenty of full-blooded tackles right from the start as both sides will be not just aiming for cross-town bragging rights, but to revitalise their seasons as well. Heart has been struggling with a leaking defense, but Victory has certainly not hit top form in attack. There should be plenty of end-to-end action; however both sides may just have to settle for a share of the spoils.
Team News: The Heart has a crisis in defense, with captain Simon Colosimo ruled out with a neck injury, Dean Heffernan suspended, and Brendan Hamill on Young Socceroos duty. However, Michael Beauchamp is back from a two-match ban and is likely to be partnered by stand-in skipper Matt Thompson in the centre of defense, while Josip Skoko will play despite having an ankle niggle. Victory will welcome back inspirational skipper Kevin Muscat from a rolled ankle and Mate Dugandzic from international duty. But, midfielders Grant Brebner and Hernandez will have to pass late fitness tests.
Prediction: Melbourne Heart 2-2 Melbourne Victory
John Takemura is a second-year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University.