Late winner keeps Victory’s Asian Champions League dream alive

Kawasaki signalled their intentions right from the opening minute as they began to fizz the ball around with a mixture of neat, precise passing and energetic movement with players constantly running off the ball and seeking to find space.

It was always to feet, and rarely into the channels, the Japanese champions able to play their way in and around tight spaces and find the gaps by virtue of their technical ability and slick movement.

It wasn't so much that Victory was poor in those opening 10 minutes: Kevin Muscat's men worked, harried, chased and tried to keep their shape, but they barely saw the ball at all in those opening exchanges when the Japanese side shifted them from side to side and in and out, all the while looking to set up scoring opportunities.

Victory got a warning as early as the second minute when, after a neat build up, Kei Chinen shot just wide.

The same player caused consternation a few minutes later with a fierce drive from distance, which Lawrence Thomas did well to beat away.

Shortly afterwards, the Victory goalkeeper saved his team again when he got a hand to a goal-bound shot from veteran midfielder Yoshito Okubo, flicking the ball on to the bar.

At this early stage, it looked as though it might be a long night for Victory as Kawasaki ran through their repertoire of flicks and one-twos in and around the penalty area.

But credit to the hosts, who weathered that early storm and began to build their way back into the game.

They threatened briefly in the 14th minute when Leroy George got into the penalty area, but he fell over and James Troisi could only blast the ball over the bar.

But Victory could have taken an unlikely lead shortly after, following a near catastrophic mix up between Kawasaki's Brazilian defender Eduardo and goalkeeper Jung Sungryong, who slipped as he attempted to clear the former's back pass. Troisi fastened on to the loose ball and cleverly chipped it goalwards, only to see Kawasaki captain Shogo Taniguchi get back in time to clear off the line.

That incident presaged Victory's best period. Stefan Nigro volleyed just wide, then the same player fired across goal when set up by a Kosta Barbarouses pass.

Besart Berisha headed just wide from Troisi's cross and it looked as though Victory was getting itself into some good positions.

But Kawasaki got back into its groove. Okubu dived in to head just wide, then the midfielder was denied by a Thomas close range save after he had been set up following a cross by Tatsuya Hasegawa and a pass from Chinen.

This game was really opening up now, and despite Kawasaki's technical advantages they were beginning to sit deeper than their coach Toru Oniki might have wanted, with Troisi finding the space to once again fire over and Thomas Deng to try his luck from a distance.

Victory began the second half brightly, Leroy George linking well with Kosta Barbrouses only to direct a shot straight at Sungryong, but James Donachie had to defend smartly at the other end straight after, blocking well to deny Chinen's shooting effort.

Victory was giving a good account of itself against their well-credentialled opponents, just lacking the composure to finish off the opportunities they were beginning to carve out.

It was a similar story at the other end, as Kawasaki's neat approach play got them into some good positions but not quite enough to deliver a knockout blow.

Victory midfielder Terry Antonis' cheeky lob almost caught Sungryong out of position, Berisha looked to be through, only to be flagged for offside, and then looked far from pleased to be replaced by gangling front man Kenny Athiu as Muscat looked for something different up front.

This had become an engrossing contest, and with each minute that passed the tension ratcheted up. Thomas again came to his side's rescue 14 minutes from time when he dived to parry Kentaro Moriya's long-range shot as the visitors pressed to break the deadlock.

Kawasaki thought they had taken the lead in the 83rd minute when substitute Yu Kobayashi headed home from a free kick only for the ''goal'' to be ruled out for offside, while Victory went close immediately after at the other end when substitute Christian Theoharous's cross was almost turned into the Kawasaki goal by a defender.

Theoharous was then upended in the Kawasaki penalty area by Hidemasa Morita but appeals for a spot kick were waved away.

James Donachie headed just wide in a frantic final few minutes as Victory drove forward in search of the winner that looked so unlikely in the opening minutes of this game.

This time, it was Kawasaki holding on and defending grimly in the face of navy blue pressure. They held out, until the very last seconds, when Barbarouses struck.

A dramatic denoument to an excellent evening, and one that sees Kawasaki as good as out.

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Michael Lynch, The Age's expert on soccer, has had extensive experience of high level journalism in the UK and Australia. Michael has covered the Socceroos through Asia, Europe and South America in their past three World Cup campaigns. He has also reported on Grands Prix and top class motor sport from Asia and Europe. He has won several national media awards for both sports and industry journalism.

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