It’s been a tale of two Melbourne teams in the new year

What a difference a few days makes.

As Victory boss Kevin Muscat and his players flew in from Wellington on Thursday after a controversial loss to the Phoenix and Melbourne City boss Warren Joyce and his players recovered from their Wednesday flight back from Perth after a good win over the Glory, it was the latter who had cause to smile, the former who had reason to frown.

Last Saturday, Victory fans had plenty of confidence they were poised to mount a strong challenge in the second half of the season.

Having won three games on the spin (including a derby triumph over City and a success against high-riding Newcastle) Victory had leapt to third place on the ladder and overhauled City for the first time this season.

With winnable games coming up – Central Coast Mariners at home and bottom of the table Wellington away a few days later – Victory were set to extend that streak. Or so it seemed.

The converse was true across town. After a promising start for new coach Warren Joyce in which City had won their first four games, they had fallen into a hole.

Tim Cahill had gone, Bruno Fornaroli was still injured and there was doubt about the long-term future of Ross McCormack, who had helped City to those first wins with his dead-ball expertise.

With two very winnable games on their schedule (Wellington at home last Saturday night and Perth Glory away on Tuesday evening) there was enormous pressure on Joyce and his players to arrest the slide.

After three defeats on the spin, including that derby loss to Victory, there was a sense that the second half of the club’s season could be defined by the results of these two games.

Victory spurned leads in both their games, first allowing Central Coast to grab a 1-1 draw in a game played in Geelong and then letting the Phoenix, who could not buy a win, edge past them with two second half goals for a 2-1 triumph in Wellington.

There were mitigating circumstances, particularly in the second fixture, when Rhys Williams, Victory’s top defender, was sent off after eight minutes through a controversial decision by the Video Assistant Referee. Then followed a rare howler by goalkeeper Lawrence Thomas, which gave Wellington an equaliser, the win coming from a Mark Milligan own goal.

Williams will now face his second suspension of the season as Victory try to regroup.

It’s hard to say Muscat’s team is looking to get back on track against Perth Glory this Saturday night, because it’s arguable whether they have ever been on track this season.

Victory have rarely produced soccer of any great moment and often looked short of pace in midfield and conviction up front.

If they could display the sort of aggression and commitment along with the skill they showed in the back-to-back Christmas/new year wins against City and Newcastle, they might have a puncher’s chance of even upsetting Sydney in a one-off game in the finals, assuming they make the play-offs.

But that’s a big if, and the Asian Champions League campaign is due to get underway in February, only adding to their fixture commitments.

City have no such ACL concerns, and there will be a few sighs of relief at Bundoora after those two wins, which once again illustrated how important McCormack is to this team.

They looked bereft of ideas for much of the game against Wellington after falling behind to a surprise Phoenix goal last Saturday night before teenager Daniel Arzani sparked them into life off the bench and McCormack struck with two goals.

And it was the Scotsman who did it again in Perth with a terrific free kick and then a penalty in a 2-0 win.

Two games might not be emblematic of the season, but Joyce will be hoping those results are a harbinger of things to come, beginning with City’s trip to Central Coast on Sunday.

Muscat’s men need to step up – and fast – against Glory to appease a fan base that is becoming more frustrated with each week of this uneven campaign.

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