Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory kicked off the A-League finals with a bang at Suncorp Stadium, with John Aloisi’s men scoring two late goals to claim a thrilling 2-1 win.

As Brisbane veteran Thomas Broich completed the victory with a stoppage-time strike, it was hard not to feel sorry for Kevin Muscat and his players. They had been desperately close to progressing to the semi-finals, when they took the lead with only four only minutes remaining, and they were also clearly the better team on the night. But despite a brilliant performance, especially over the opening 45 minutes, Victory were unable to take advantage of their many opportunities in front of goal.

Victory press

If there was an aspect of this elimination final that truly shaped the match, it was Victory’s aggressive pressing game. They weren’t prepared to simply sit back and absorb Brisbane’s short-passing game, and instead made a point of harrying the home team high up the pitch. This started off with energetic striker Besart Berisha, who operated in a customarily tenacious manner, applying pressure by sprinting towards the opposition centre-backs.

Berisha was then supported by wingers Fahid Ben Khalfallah and Kosta Barbarouses, with the pair taking up their usual positions between Brisbane’s central defenders and fullbacks. From there they had licence to decide whether to press infield or take the safer option of staying in shape and covering the flanks.

Behind the front three, Victory went man-on-man in midfield. This is another strategy they employ quite frequently, and when combined with a high backline, it allowed the Victory to impose themselves upon the game. In fact, they imposed themselves so completely that they more or less controlled the first half from start to finish.

Brisbane simply couldn’t find an outlet through which they could work the ball forwards, with the likes of Corona, Matt McKay and Dimitri Petratos finding space hard to come by through the centre. Instead of moving the ball seamlessly through midfield, Roar were forced into a slew of long balls and turnovers. There were two examples within the space of 60 seconds, around 26 minutes in, that exemplified this pattern.

To start off with, Brisbane moved the ball through centre-back James Donachie. He scanned his surroundings, but with both Corona and McKay covered, he had to pass back to goalkeeper Jamie Young. The Roar shot-stopper then shifted possession towards the left-hand side, where Corey Brown was set upon by Barbarouses. That led to a hurried punt up the line, something which allowed Victory to regain possession quickly.

Not too much later, once Brisbane had won the ball back, they tried to take a more circuitous route. Instead of going long, Jade North tried to play a short ball into the feet of McKay. Although under heavy pressure, the veteran midfielder attempted to do the same by playing a sharp pass into the feet of Broich. The decision may have been a brave one but, given that Jason Geria had followed Broich all the way into Victory’s attacking half, it probably wasn’t a great one. Gui Finkler also left his man to assist with the intercept, and not long after Melbourne pinched possession, North produced a heavy tackle to halt the progress of Berisha.

This ended in a Brisbane yellow card, and in many ways, these two sequences of play summarised the first half. Victory pressed with intensity and tenacity and, when considered alongside their diligent man-on-man marking in midfield, there was little Brisbane could do to play out from defence.

Muscat’s men dominated possession in the first half, with 58% of the ball, and also enjoyed 10 shots to 0. These numbers were made even more remarkable by the fact that Victory were playing away from home at Suncorp Stadium. Though this was very much due to a cohesive, team-based defensive strategy, Finkler’s ability to limit the impact of Corona was arguably the most important component of the club’s first-half performance.

Finkler v. Corona

Put simply, Corona has become a massive part of the Brisbane line-up. Aloisi even talked of this in the lead-up to the game, saying that, “He’s one player we like to play through because he creates a lot of our play.” This is backed up by his figures for distribution, as with a total of 1,775 passes for the season, no A-League player has attempted more throughout the 2015/16 campaign.

Yet while Aloisi was stressing the Spaniard’s importance to the team, Muscat was looking for a way to stop him and the solution was for Finkler to stick tight to Corona throughout much of the contest. On the rare occasions when the Brazilian playmaker couldn’t get out to Brisbane’s midfield metronome, Berisha filled in for him. From the outset, this was clearly a significant part of Victory’s wider strategy. If they wanted to curtail Brisbane’s passing game then they needed to cut off supply to the source of it, and in general terms, they did that extremely well.

Corona didn’t only see less of the ball due to Finkler’s glue-like tracking, but he was also far less effective when he got it. Whereas the ex-Almeria man typically averages 63 passes per game, here he only managed 45. What’s worse, his usually impressive average of 81% accuracy dwindled to a comparatively low 67%.

This lack of precision is shown in the examples below. Firstly, Finkler’s energetic closing down forces Corona to attempt a rushed flick-on for a teammate, which leads to a loss of possession in the middle of the pitch. Victory then take the opportunity to transition from defence into attack, and although both Daniel Georgievski and Carl Valeri see their shots blocked, this was indicative of the pressure applied to Corona.

Then, about 34 minutes in, Corona receives a pass in Brisbane’s attacking half. Finkler again rushes to harry him, and the man known as ‘El Mago’ responds with yet another uncharacteristically sloppy piece of distribution, this time squeezing the ball out of bounds.

Even when Corona found a bit of freedom, a bit of room in which to manoeuvre, the inferred pressure was such that he squandered possession with surprising regularity. His usually calm and composed passing game had deserted him, and this was arguably the biggest reason behind Brisbane’s early struggles.

Second half

Brisbane needed to improve after the interval, but they had to wait a little while in order to do it. This was down to Victory, who continued to dominate the game up until about the 70th minute. Again, their pressing was the key to their success, and 63 minutes into the match, it probably should have seen them take the lead.

Here, the Melbourne-based side deployed some tight marking in midfield, which again forced Brisbane to pass back to Young. The goalkeeper then launched the ball in the direction of Broich, who was now out on the right-hand side, but Georgievski’s leap took him over the top of the German. He headed the ball down to Berisha, who quickly moved it onto Barbarouses. The New Zealander retained the momentum of the move by crossing from the left-hand side. His stabbed pass was a good one, too, as it found Ben Khalfallah in the goalmouth. The Tunisian’s subsequent volley probably should’ve put Victory ahead, but after blazing it wide, the tide started to turn.

Victory were tiring. Their high-energy pressing game had enabled them to control proceedings up until that point, but having failed to take advantage of it by way of hitting the scoreboard, they were now unable to retain the same intensity. They looked a little leggy. Their fouling was no longer due to the aggression of their pressing, but simply down to fatigue. This offered Brisbane an avenue through which to get back into the game.

By now Henrique had entered the fray, having replaced right-winger Tommy Oar, and this forced a minor reshuffle. Broich went over to the right while the Brazilian took his place on the left, and these tweaks had the desired effect. Broich would often drop short, looking to come towards the ball, and his direct opponent, Georgievski, would follow. This left space in behind along Brisbane’s right-hand side, and Dimitri Petratos was all too happy to make use of it.

Playing in central midfield but regularly darting down the right, as he often does, Petratos started to have an impact. He created a decent chance in the 68th minute, after Georgievski moved upfield in order to contest an aerial duel. In contrast to the example above, however, where the Victory fullback generated an attack by winning a header, this time he misjudged the flight of the ball. It then spilt out the back, and Petratos ran onto it. He made his way along the touchline, and after seeing Henrique in space, he slid a ball towards the edge of the area. The “Slippery Fish” latched onto it and took a shot, but it lacked the punch to beat Victory’s goalkeeper Lawrence Thomas.

Nonetheless, the right wing would prove to be important. Victory were soon reduced to 10 men, following Jason Geria’s second yellow for a sloppy challenge, and though Berisha gave the club a 1-0 lead soon after, they were always going to find it hard to keep Brisbane at bay.

As it turned out, Roar would equalise within a minute of Victory’s goal, and it would come down the right. Broich dropped deep and took possession on the wing. Georgievski naturally tracked him into that position, which meant Melbourne’s left-back zone had been vacated. Broich soon found Jamie Maclaren making a run into that channel, and because Petratos had made his customary move into the space behind Broich and Georgievski, the centre-forward was able to lay the ball into his path.

Now with plenty of time to deliver his cross, Petratos hit a hard, low ball into the near post. McKay slipped in ahead of Mathieu Delpierre to turn it home, and again, Brisbane’s ability to manipulate the right-hand side had created the opening.

Only minutes later, Barbarouses would produce another tired Victory tackle to hand Brisbane a free-kick on the edge of the area. Corona’s set-piece would then be saved by Thomas, and from the subsequent corner, the Spaniard would whip in the game’s defining ball. Broich would rise above the opposition defenders to score a rare headed goal, and through this stoppage-time strike, Brisbane Roar would progress to the semi-finals in spectacular circumstances.

Conclusion

Victory midfielder Oliver Bozanic described the loss as “very hard for us to take,” and given the way that he and his teammates controlled much of the game, his assessment hardly came as a surprise. On the back of an energetic defensive display, Melbourne not only stopped Brisbane from imposing their short-passing game but also created a number of excellent opportunities.

One of the problems with pressing, however, relates to fatigue later in the match, and having failed to take advantage of their extended period of dominance, a leggy 10-man Victory simply couldn’t see out the 90 minutes. Brisbane capitalised on this, improving in the latter stages to complete a dramatic comeback. It may not have been their best performance, with McKay even describing his team as “pretty average throughout,” but with a semi-final against Western Sydney Wanderers awaiting them, they’ll nonetheless be looking to take that late momentum into next weekend.

More generally, though, this was an overwhelmingly positive spectacle for the A-League. The two teams kicked off the post-season in style, producing a frenzied finish in front of over 20,000 fans. Hopefully, the rest of the finals series will be just as exciting.