Melbourne Victory will again trust in youth as they attempt to reach the knock-out rounds of the Asian Champions League (ACL) for the first time.
With Mark Milligan suspended, Gui Finkler ineligible and Tom Rogic still out injured, Victory’s stocks were already depleted for Tuesday’s crunch match with Jeonbuk Motors in South Korea.
But a loaded schedule has finally taken its toll on James Troisi, who will miss his first match of the season, and Pablo Contreras, also left in Melbourne.
Coach Kevin Muscat said the risk of them travelling and playing again was a little bit too great with the club’s A-League semi-final against Brisbane Roar looming on Sunday.
That leaves a core of young guns given the job of going one better than their Victory predecessors by advancing from a group where all four teams are locked on seven points going into their final game.
Nick Ansell (20), Jason Geria (20), Dylan Murnane (19) and Scott Galloway (18) could all be used in defence, while Jesse Makarounas (20), Rashid Mahazi (22) and Jimmy Jeggo (22) are likely starters in midfield.
Connor Pain (20) and Andrew Nabbout (21) will compete for attacking roles with internationals Kosta Barbarouses and Archie Thompson.
Their mission is to win where no Victory side has won before – away in the ACL.
Form is in their favour.
Victory have won their last three games, including a 2-0 win over Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande with many of their youngsters in action.
Goalkeeper Nathan Coe, in his best form since coming to club in 2012, insisted the Victory could fight fatigue and unavailabilities.
“The Guangzhou game was great… when you get good results your confidence grows,” he said.
“We’ve had a busy schedule but I think we’re fit enough to cope with it.”
The ACL group dynamics are barely precedented: all sides on seven points, meaning every side could finish top or bottom.
Muscat knows the only result to guarantee progression to the knock-out rounds is a win.
“There is a buzz in the group at the moment, the games have been coming thick and fast,” he said.
“We’ve had an advantage as we’ve had games that have meant so much for the last five or six weeks.”
“So we know what’s required.”
The fresh-faced side will also leave Muscat with a fresher bunch of experienced players for their A-League semi-final in Brisbane.
The winner of that match can bank an A-League final and ACL qualification for another year, giving them another chance to partake in the annual fixture log-jam.