There’s a lot of hyperbole thrown around in the lead-up to the Melbourne derby – especially as it’s just 15 games and five years old.
To be brutally honest, the Melbourne Victory versus Melbourne City (nee Heart) rivalry pales into insignificance when you compare it to various overseas and historical local derbies.
Before you abuse me for being an Australian football hipster or simply bitter, hear me out – I love the Melbourne derby.
But shouldn’t we understand and look for reasons why it’s fierce? And shouldn’t we question what, other than it enduring, will cause it to grow?
For one, the outcome of Friday night’s semi-final could be a start.
The tackle that spawned real hatred
It was a blow up of epic proportions even for a guy with Kevin Muscat’s track record.
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The 32,321 fans at Docklands Stadium had never seen a more rash or dangerous looking tackle in their lives. The Victory captain lunged over the ball and viciously connected with the knee of Adrian Zahra.
The graphic altercation looked worse thanks to the way Zahra’s body flipped over Muscat. The Heart winger ruptured his ACL and spent more than a year recovering from his opponent’s brain explosion.
To make matters worse, Muscat abused the referee as he received the red card and proceeded to swear and carry on as he left the pitch. He even claimed he got the ball!
While most of the City (Heart) and Victory hatred is really just a whole load of FFA-led, drummed up and essentially staged passion, this unfortunate incident remains the formative event that can justify tension between the clubs.
City fans understandably hate Muscat for the act, his reaction and the consequences on the youthful Zahra.
For Victory fans, Muscat is the current coach, he was a superb on-field player and leader and he has a unique bond with his fans. They’ll always defend him and understandably so.
It’s this passion that defines the derby’s real tension.
The most important derby
Add Friday night’s high-stakes Melbourne derby to the lingering hatred toward Muscat and you finally get a rivalry that stands on its own.
Victory were obviously the best team all year, taking out the Premiers’ Plate by playing their usual attractive style of football. However they did it with a fresh and deadly focal point in Besart Berisha, something they had lacked in recent seasons.
The smart money points to a Victory win and even though City have been impressive in patches, though lacking consistency all year – they’re a huge banana skin for Melbourne’s bigger brother.
City won nine of 27 this season and had a negative goal difference – but somehow sit one ‘home’ win away from a Grand Final spot.
Funny things happen in sport and an upset on Friday night is not out of the question given John van ‘t Schip’s side’s semi-resurgence.
Generously, six of nine teams in the A-League get a finals spot and finishing fifth (instead of sixth as Perth were eliminated due to salary cap breaches) meant City played a bumbling Wellington Phoenix in New Zealand to get to this game.
The Phoenix, who set most of this A-League season alight, fell in an inexplicable heap toward the end and so City playing decent but not sizzling football find themselves one win away from the Grand Final.
Whatever happens – Victory flexing their muscles in the rivalry’s most important game or City causing one of the competition’s biggest upsets – we should see something momentous enough for the Melbourne derby to properly mature.