Goal Australia runs the rule over Melbourne Victory's season. Kevin Muscat has done well since inheriting the hot-seat, but they again fell short when it mattered most
In the dugout
Kevin Muscat took over from Ange Postecoglou after just three rounds of the season, accepting a role he surely had long-term designs on but somewhat ahead of schedule. The former Victory captain has acquitted himself well in the top job, guiding the club to fourth on the table and narrowly missing out on a top-two finish. He also orchestrated a commendable AFC Champions League campaign, pulling off good wins over Yokohama F Marinos and holders Guangzhou Evergrande and only failing to progress to the round of 16 on goal difference.
He's made plenty of tough decisions when they've been required, including dropping goalkeepers Nathan Coe and Lawrence Thomas when their poor form demanded it.
Having stuck with the formation and tactics he helped to put in place under Postecoglou, the challenge for Muscat now is to stamp his own mark on the squad. The 40-year-old will be marked harder after having a full off-season to prepare the team in his own image.
Mark Milligan took over as skipper from Adrian Leijer in September after being denied a move to Crystal Palace, responding admirably to that disappointment by handling his increased responsibilities with aplomb. In the last two seasons the 28-year-old has become by far Victory's most important player and a regular for the Socceroos ahead of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
His services were sorely missed during a mid-season layoff following knee surgery, and he demonstrated remarkable endurance as the matches came thick and fast at the conclusion to the season. To his enormous credit, Milligan played down Strebre Delovski's failure to award him a penalty in the dying moments of Victory's 1-0 semi-final loss to Brisbane Roar on Sunday.
It's been a respectable if unspectacular campaign for 'Mr Victory'. Archie Thompson has been a consistent presence, making 22 starts and coming on twice in 29 A-League games, including finals. He also started five of Victory's six ACL games, failing to find the net in Asian competition. Thompson scored nine times in the A-League to match his return from last season and better the seven goals he scored in 2011-12. But at 35, and with his prodigious pace finally beginning to fade, Thompson, out of contract at the end of this season, will not be Victory's domestic marquee next term. And it remains to be seen if he is willing to stay on at a reduced rate and as a squad player.
Former Chile international Pablo Contreras didn't convince us during the first half of the season, and it looked as if Postecoglou's parting gift was to bequeath Muscat a dud on big wages at centre-back. After announcing his decision to retire at the end of the campaign, Contreras slowly settled and began to demonstrate the class we were all assured he possessed. In the last couple of months he was one of Victory's most consistent defenders, barely putting a foot wrong and effecting some brilliant clearances and last-ditch tackles, particularly in the ACL.
Victory saved their best for last at home and abroad this season. The 4-1 win away to Wellington Phoenix in Round 27 was the team at their free-flowing, irrepressible best. Well-taken goals from Archie Thompson, James Troisi and Guilherme Finkler were all a joy to behold, and Mark Milligan's penalty put the game to bed.
But perhaps Victory's best performance of the season came with the 2-0 ACL win at home to reigning champions Guangzhou Evergrande three days later. Milligan opened the scoring in the second minute and after that Muscat's men clung on for dear life, producing an extraordinary rear-guard action to deny the Chinese heavyweights. James Troisi sealed the memorable triumph when he scored in the 90th minute, although the win ultimately proved to be in vain when Victory's failed to score the goal they needed to progress away to Jeonbuk Motors on matchday six.
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The 5-0 Australia Day defeat at home to Sydney FC was the second thrashing in succession by that scoreline after being thumped away to Wellington Phoenix the previous weekend. Such was the hapless nature of the defeat, questions were genuinely being asked about Muscat's suitability for the top job. It's a credit to him and his players that they were able to overcome their bad patch and get to within a game of the grand final, as well as reaching the ACL group stage and impressing in that competition.
Off the field
It's a shame that a season which started on a high with the wildly successful friendly against Liverpool later saw a rift develop between the club and their largest active supporter group, the North Terrace Collective. The NTC staged protests and a walk-out in response to failed talks over increased security measures, making matches at AAMI Park and Etihad Stadium considerably quieter than in recent years, and gifting the title of the A-League's nosiest supporters to Western Sydney's boisterous fans. Hopefully a resolution can be reached that will see the atmosphere at Victory games return to its best next season.
Where to next?
Expect to see a new-look Victory play a different formation spearheaded by Besart Berisha next season. There are sure to be some high-profile departures and adequately replacing those players who do leave, while strengthening in other areas, will be key for Muscat. For all his shrewd recruitment at Brisbane Roar, Postecoglou's forays into the transfer market at Victory left quite a bit to be desired, and Muscat has an opportunity to get one over his mentor by pulling off a few coups ahead of 2014-15.
Another promising campaign comes unstuck right at the end, due to accumulated fatigue and a hefty dose of bad luck. Who Victory bring in (and who they can keep hold of) will determine whether or not they can go one better next season.