MELBOURNE Victory took a stranglehold on the premiers plate on Sunday night with a rampant 3-0 win over Wellington Phoenix at Westpac Stadium.
Out of sorts for much of the past two months, Victory saved one of its best performances of the season for one of its most important games, outplaying the hosts from start to finish in the top of the table blockbuster.
Kevin Muscat’s men made a huge statement within 35 seconds as Gui Finkler found the back of the net, before an Andrew Durante own goal and a poacher’s finish from Archie Thompson within the space of seven second half minutes sealed the result.
Captain Mark Milligan was central to a dominant midfield display, as the patient visitors controlled possession and territory.
Victory now heads the A-League ladder for the first time since Round 4 and also has a game in hand, giving it the upper hand in the race for top spot.
Wellington, now third after leading the competition by four points a fortnight ago, must regroup after an alarming downturn in form that started with a 3-0 loss at home to Sydney FC last week.
Daniel Georgievski, also impressive, and Milligan both returned to the Victory line-up from international commitments on Sunday night.
Muscat, in his 50th A-League game as coach, resisted the temptation to start Jason Geria (after Olyroos duty) and Kosta Barbarouses (returning from a hamstring injury), but it was selection concerns on the other side of the pitch which helped shape the match.
Phoenix central defender Ben Sigmund (quad) missed his first game of the season, while the suspended Albert Riera and injured Vince Lia (hamstring) left a gaping hole in midfield which Victory exploited
Despite playing away from home, Victory had 69 per cent possession in the first half and had seven shots to two.
It made 332 passes to 150, but such was its eagerness to attack even without the ball, it forced Wellington in to making more long passes - 23-18 - as the defensive press proved too much for the Phoenix to handle.
Wellington’s defence was at sea as Finkler scored his third goal in two games, a turnover in midfield allowing an improved Besart Berisha to charge forward and find the Brazilian in wide open space, and he made no mistake.
That Victory could not make its first half dominance more felt on the scoreboard - Berisha, twice, and Fahid Ben Khalfallah both forced Glen Moss in to making saves - might have made Muscat nervous as Wellington had its brightest five minutes of the match immediately after the break.
But when Berisha’s attempted cutback to Finkler on a counter attack ended in Durante slicing the ball past Moss in to his own net, his nerves would have eased considerably.
And when a first class set play from a 66th minute corner ended with Thompson scoring at the second attempt the match was over