Halfway through a hectic A-League season, it’s time to pause and reflect, as the Football Sack hands out your side’s mid-season report card.

If not for the late exploits of pesky Perth and Sydney’s steel-willed ability to grind out results, Melbourne Victory would’ve been lounging up top on the A-League ladder. Avid Vucks are calling it the best squad in its 14-year stay in the A-League and Musky’s boys are simply living up to their name at this halfway mark.

Victory fans are lucky to be witnessing scenes like this week in, week out. Image credit: Ngau Kai Yan

The football has been good, there’s minimal movements amongst the squad and Keisuke Honda’s just about getting back to full fitness. At 34 goals, they’ve outscored every team in the league at this stage which includes four matches without Ola Toivonen and seven without Honda.

Last season’s Champions were unable to find their footing in their two opening losses against Melbourne City and Perth Glory but Kevin Muscat’s men then embarked on a nine match unbeaten run, the highest tally amongst all A-League teams this season (so far), and were one away from equalling the club’s record of 10. The 2-0 loss to Adelaide United early this year broke their run but Victory wasted no time in getting back to winning ways and are unbeaten in four matches since, including a win in the Big Blue derby.

Areas of excellence

4-1 against Central Coast Mariners. 4-0 against Western Sydney Wanderers. 4-2 and 5-0 against Brisbane Roar. Victory has already scored more goals than the Roar at Suncorp Stadium this season. Toivonen only made his full debut in round five but has already netted nine, just two goals behind top scorers Adam le Fondre and Roy Krishna.

The versatility of Victory’s forwards has seen the attacking quartet of Kosta Barbarouses, James Troisi, Toivonen and Honda operate in various positions across the park. Given their natural ability and their willingness to improve in other positions, it  allowed Muscat to tinker with formations, keeping opponents guessing. The quartet are on the top 10 assist list; no other side has more players. Goals will be the least of Muscat’s worries. Just put them on the pitch and they’ll get the job done.

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Troisi’s and Terry Antonis’ pleasant snub from the Asia Cup left Victory in a better shape to tackle the league’s rather hectic summer fixtures. So far, there has yet to be passengers in Victory’s attacking force and all have been firing on full cylinders week in, week out. Victory can also rely on individual brilliance to tide them over the occasional match where they struggled to churn out results. Be it Antonis’ sweet left peg or Toivonen’s timely positioning, the making of a great side is one with players who can provide incisive moments in the game.

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He might be out of the spotlight for some time now but it’s easy to forget that Honda’s influence on and off the pitch has got the side to where they are now. Honda has either scored or assisted in every game he has started, apart from the round seven win over Adelaide. The Japanese has since brought not only more goals and assists to AAMI Park but also embodies the box-to-box midfielder role. His dissatisfaction even after a 4-0 win compounds his fiery desire to outscore every opponent. No doubt already a force in the dressing room, imagine what scorelines will look like with Honda back in the starting lineup.

Keisuke Honda – A presence on and off the field. Image credit: Ngau Kai Yan

Areas in need of improvement

The thinning squad depth has been a cause for concern since the start of the season. Problems arose after Nicholas Ansell, Georg Niedermeier and Honda picked up injuries in the early weeks of December.

Honda’s absence hit the squad the hardest with Victory copping three wins, a loss and three draws where the playmaker was absent. Two out of those three wins were narrow 2-1 victories (over Western Sydney Wanderers and Newcastle Jets) where both winning goals came after the 84th minute mark. While Leigh Broxham showed his evergreen ability to deputise in the multiple positions he was called upon, here’s a reminder he’s no shape shifter. Josh Hope and Rahmat Akbari have flittered in and out of the starting lineups but has yet to display the level of consistency and quality required at a senior level. Given more game time, Elvis Kamsoba and Anthony Lesiotis could be the extra spark Victory could do with.

Can Victory’s young guns step up to the task? Image credit : Ngau Kai Yan

While they might’ve coped well with their first hurdle in the summer fixture congestion with a mini injury crisis, the lack of defensive/midfield cover apart from Broxham is worrying. Another injury headache during the unforgiving AFC Champions League could introduce a new set of problems for Muscat.

Top Student

A hard worker who got his head down from the start of the season, Terry Antonis has consistently played an active role in the team’s buildup play and has displayed his newfound penchant for goal. “Lefteris Antonis” (as coined by the Vucks) has started in all 15 games for Victory this season and his performances are reflective of a player over the cap.

Alongside Craig Goodwin, Antonis is the only other player amongst the top 10 leaderboard charts for assists, shots and chances created. The former PAOK man has already scored more goals this season than in each of his previous five seasons in the A-League. Of his four goals, three of them came from outside the box.

From playing as a pivoting midfielder beside Honda early in the season, to being Victory’s main outlet of attack in the midfield, Antonis has made leaps and bounds from last season. At just 25-years-old, Antonis might have finally blossomed into a footballer who possesses the fine balance of trade, aptitude,and confidence to take his game to the next level. It’s still a curious wonder why he wasn’t included in Graham Arnold’s preliminary list of 50 players for the Asian Cup.

Class clown

With only three starts (two losses and one win) and three substitute appearances (two draws and a loss), this is shaping up to be a season for Kenny Athiu to forget. Befallen with a lengthy injury spell in round two, he was unable to find his way back into the side with Barbarouses called upon to deputise in the striker role. While many might have foreseen Athiu’s omission for Victory’s other attacking stars, the 26-year-old has yet to realise his role as a “super-sub”.

Athiu has nearly all the characteristics you would look for in someone to throw on in the dying minutes. The target man stands tall at 2.01 m, has showed rugged desire to challenge for balls and clearly has a footballing mind in him. Problem is, Athiu still lacks the spatial awareness and technical know-how when it comes to performing his role on the pitch – essentially limiting his influence. Picking up two yellow cards in six appearances (284 minutes), having a 56.9% passing accuracy in opponents’ half and accomplishing only three shots on target in that timeframe doesn’t shout for much.

More of this in the opponents’ box, please Kenny? Image credit : Ngau Kai Yan

His tidy back heel assist in the winner against Newcastle in round 13 showed us glimpses of what the former Heidelberg United man could do, but more is expected from the back-up striker of the reigning champions of the A-League. With Nicholas Sette (youngster) released, it begs the question if Victory are freeing up another spot to bring in another back-up attacker. Barring more injuries, it is close to impossible for the fan favourite to break into the current starting XI. But Athiu has to seize his cameo outings in the second half of the season, for the sake of his team, and for the sake of his stay at Melbourne Victory.

Outlook

The return of the international trio (Honda, Georg Niedermeier and Raul Baena) will lighten the load off the existing squad and ensure that the collective squad is fully equipped to pounce on slip-ups made by Perth Glory or Sydney FC.

The real challenge for Muscat is looming on the horizon. Image credit : Ngau Kai Yan

However, maximum points has be accumulated in February before the hectic month of March and April where Victory will be jetting about Asia for the AFC Champions League. Bearing in mind that only Sydney FC have guaranteed commitments in Asia (Jets need to navigate two tricky play-offs), Melbourne City and Perth Glory will have all resources available to them when it comes to the business end of the season. It will be telling soon enough if the AFC Champions League will be prioritised over the league but Victory are more or less guaranteed a finals spot.

Having shown sound tactical awareness and the all-round competency to match Muscat’s attacking demands, this juggernaut-esque Melbourne Victory side is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. You might want to check your predictions again, John Kosmina.

Grade : A

Feature image credit: Ngau Kai Yan

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Journalism undergrad at Monash University, Kai is a multimedia journalist covering Melbourne Victory. Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund. Once "stole" Shinji Kagawa's plane ticket.