Muangthong United’s hopes of qualifying for the AFC Champions League group stage were ended on Saturday following a 2-1 defeat to Melbourne Victory at Kardinia Park.
It was the Thai Premier League giants who had taken the lead in the 22nd minute in bizarre fashion; Mario Gjurovski scoring after his corner has sailed straight in at the near post.
But two minutes before the hour mark, James Troisi equalised with a thumping header before Victory went on to claim the win thanks to Leigh Broxham’s deflected drive in the 84th minute.
The result means the A-League outfit will play in Asia’s premier club competition for the first time since 2011, ensuring Australia will have three representatives along with Central Coast Mariners and Western Sydney Wanderers.
As expected, with home advantage and significantly more match practice than their opponents, it was Victory who started the brighter of the two sides.
The first clear opening nearly came after eight minutes when Tom Rogic’s left-wing cross was headed by Mark Milligan towards the unmarked Kosta Barbarouses, but Suriya Sangmui made an important header to clear the danger.
A minute later, Rogic had an excellent chance when the Twin Qilins failed to clear the resultant corner, only for him to somehow could only send his free header wide of the far corner.
To their credit, Muangthong did look to attack when they did gain possession and Teerasil Dangda nearly produced a moment of magic in the 11th minute; breaking free with a fantastic burst of pace only to fire wide after Scott Galloway applied enough pressure to put him off his stride.
The hosts continued to dominate proceedings though and were constantly threatening with their fast breaks forward, and they were only denied more clear-cut opportunities by some last-ditch defending from the opposition.
Troisi was next to threaten for Victory in the 18th minute when he raced onto Barbarouses’ neat through-pass, but Witsanusak Kaewruang did well to keep his low drive out with his foot.
But just four minutes later, it was the Twin Qilins who took the lead when Mario Gjurovski, lining up a corner, profited from a lapse in concentration by Melbourne keeper Nathan Coe and his defenders; curling the ball straight in at the near post.
Stunned at falling behind, Kevin Muscat’s looked to produce a reply and Barbarouses did well in the 39th minute to burst past his man and cut the ball back for Troisi, but Piyaphon Phanichakul was alert to the danger and slid in to deflect his shot over.
Right on the stroke of halftime, the hosts were handed a golden opportunity to equalise when Archie Thompson won a penalty after being tripped inside the area.
Curiously, it was captain Milligan, who only just returned from injury, who stepped up and he could only watch on in horror as Witsanusak produced a fantastic save to keep out his spot-kick.
Things could have gotten even worse for Victory two minutes into the second half when Teerasil looked set to double the visitors’ lead after racing onto Datsakorn Thonglao’s glorious through-pass, only for Coe to deny him.
Seven minutes later, the Melbourne custodian made another splendid save; diving at full stretch to tip wide Gjurovski’s blistering volley after good work in the build-up by Teerasil.
And in the 58th minute, the hosts made the most of Coe’s good work when they finally found the equaliser after Galloway – running onto Broxham’s layoff – whipped in a beautiful cross into the box, where Troisi had broken free after his late run went unnoticed and proceeded to send a firm header into the back of the net.
Yet Victory so nearly allowed their opponents to reclaim the lead three minutes after the hour mark when Jay Bothroyd burst past their static defence and latched onto Suriya Sangmui’s pass, only to shoot straight at Coe.
As the game entered its closing stages, both sides begin to look more adventurous in their search for the winner but Troisi, apart from his goal, continued to waste chances as he fired wide with only Witsanusak to beat in the 74th minute.
Both keepers then made good saves in the 82nd minute; Coe punching clear a rasping 25-yard drive from Thitipan Puangchan, before Witsanusak reacted well to push wide a curling effort from Thompson after the hosts pushed forward on the counter.
From the resultant corner, the Muangthong custodian made another brilliant save to deny Milligan, who had met a nod-back with a firm header from ten yards that looked destined for the top corner.
Nonetheless, there was little he could do to prevent Victory from finally taking the lead a minute later after Broxham met a clearance header on the edge of the box with a ferocious left-footed drive and Thitipan, in a bid to bravely head it clear, could only help the ball past his own goalkeeper.
The hosts could have made sure of the result as the clock ticked over into injury-time as Troisi broke free inside the area after a lovely reverse ball by Rogic, only to be denied by Witsanusak from point-blank range.
However, when Muangthong were reduced to ten men moments later after Datsakorn lost his cool and headbutted Broxham, Victory were left with the simple task of playing out time to seal their progress to the Champions League group stage.
Melbourne Victory: Nathan Coe, Scott Galloway, Nick Ansell, Pablo Contreras, Adama Traore, Mark Milligan, Leigh Broxham, Tom Rogic, Kosta Barbarouses (Andrew Nabbout 65’), James Troisi, Archie Thompson.
Muangthong United: Witsanusak Kaewruang, Piyaphon Phanichakul, Todsapol Lated, Suriya Sangmui, Thitipan Puangchan, Datsakorn Thonglao, Anuwat Inyin (Jay Bothroyd 55’), Sarawut Masuk, Mario Gjurovski (Wuttichai Tathong 81’), Milan Bubalo, Teerasil Dangda.