Melbourne Victory's resilience defined a chaotic A-League Women's season

Lia Privitelli gave the obligatory winning captain's speech, thanking opponents, the league, sponsors, staff, and teammates.

Like many vice-captains thrust into the top job through extraordinary circumstances, she saved her final remarks for the woman she replaced, Kayla Morrison.

Privitelli invited her onto the stage to share in the moment of lifting the A-League Women's trophy Melbourne Victory had just won after defeating Sydney FC 2-1. She placed her winner's medal around Morrison's neck as the American wiped away tears, her neon orange fingernails even more vibrant against the navy blue tracksuit.

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Together, the duo carted the trophy over to their waiting Victory teammates and hoisted it up in front of those who stuck around from the 5,027-strong crowd. It was raining in Sydney once again, but those of a Victory persuasion didn't care. What they'd just done was beyond belief.

It's at this point that the tape should be paused and rewound. In order to understand the magnitude of what Victory had just achieved, the magnitude of what Victory has had to overcome must be understood.

Post-match, Victory coach Jeff Hopkins -- now the most successful ALW coach in history -- said that the win wasn't pretty. It was said almost as an admission, a recognition of what had transpired.

It wasn't a pretty game in what hasn't been a pretty season for Melbourne Victory. And yet, it is their name engraved on the ALW trophy.

Preseason, Victory's prospects looked good. Their potential downfall? A lack of defenders. The thought was that this weak spot would reveal itself due to international call-ups. Instead, it manifested itself 39 minutes into the season when Morrison -- the newly appointed captain for the season whose calmness and solidity in the heart of defence became a cornerstone of Victory's entire setup -- ruptured an ACL. Replacing Morrison became the first bump in the road for this Victory side. Her absence and its knock on effects showed themselves in Victory's opening results.

Goals followed the team wherever they went but not always into the net the team would've liked. The 2-1 Melbourne Derby win had a 5-1 defeat as a follow up. Ditto their 3-2 win over Brisbane Roar and 4-2 loss to the same side. Victory were chaos personified. And in this most chaotic season, their next bump in the road emerged.

Across January game after ALW game was postponed due to COVID cases within clubs, and Victory wasn't immune. The thing about COVID was that it didn't present a one-and-done kind of obstacle. Clubs had no control over the health of their opponents. At times it didn't matter if your squad was ready to go if your opponents weren't healthy enough to play.

Flexibility and adaptability became even more paramount.

Beyond just postponed games, for the players who had contracted and recovered from COVID, next came playing through that recovery. Alex Chidiac made no secret in her comeback game of how difficult she found it. Post-game she described feeling gassed after only 20 minutes.

COVID then created the next bump in the road for Victory which would resemble more of a mountain.

Those COVID postponements had added up. And while some clubs needed to only add a midweek game to their schedule, Victory would play seven games -- or half a season -- in 23 days.

Victory's results in the seven matches in three weeks told the tale perfectly. The first three games were three straight wins, the effects of the logjam not yet being felt.

A 2-2 draw against Sydney FC in the middle week in the middle of the suburbs revealed plenty. There were the first indications that Victory were tired, needing two second-half goals to snag a point. Sydney were dominant but Victory managed to get something out of the match. The chaotic nature of the game would also ultimately prove to be great foreshadowing for the eventual Grand Final.

Victory's last five games of the season weren't exactly confidence-inducing. The team suffered defeats to Perth Glory and Adelaide United. The draw with Sydney was also accompanied by two draws with Canberra United.

The final one, on the last day of the season, against Canberra, saw Victory need a point to confirm a finals spot. By this stage they had lost Amy Jackson for a couple of weeks, the frenzy catching up with her. In more positive news, they regained Melina Ayres for the first time all season with the striker making a cameo off the bench.

Once again, it was Victory's opponents who had multiple chances to score and, in doing so, they would have helped Perth Glory to an unlikely finals berth. Stifling humidity in Melbourne made Victory's battle-worn players even more lethargic. Somehow, Victory held on.

For weeks, Victory had not been able to play at anywhere near their best. Their entire second half of the regular season was more akin to a season of Survivor than a season of ALW. Whether it be dragging or limping or plodding, there wasn't any great buzz around Melbourne Victory. So how did the players make it through those three weeks?

"Honestly, a lot of us didn't," Chidiac told ESPN. "And I think that probably wasn't spoken about enough. The injuries that popped up, on top of that, we had a pretty big COVID outbreak before this happened. A lot of us were still recovering from COVID, and the effects of that and then having to play all those matches. So we've really been struggling and you see it in the performances.

"We're barely able to move when we're running. And it's all of us, and you can't pin it down on a couple of people having a bad performance because it has nothing to do with the football side of things. We're all just so physically gone. We've given everything in all these matches. And it has been really difficult. But I guess in saying that it's made us stronger as a team."

Victory's season could have just as easily ended at the final game of the regular season. They entered the finals with no real momentum, and very little buzz. Sitting in fourth, Victory would need to win three times against the three teams above them on the ladder, in what were technically three away games.

But with rest in their legs, resilience in spades, and an opportunity to finally focus on tactics rather than recovery, Victory began to string the wins together.

They defeated Adelaide 2-1 at Coopers Stadium, and then Melbourne City 3-1 at AAMI Park in the first-ever ALW Melbourne Derby final. The team was able to defend with solidity and attack with purpose. With third and second place on the table crossed off the list, all that was left was premiers Sydney FC.

No team has any right to win any given game. But the case Sydney FC had put forward was compelling and polished. They had lost only once all season and conceded only six goals across 14 regular season games.

They had by almost every conceivable measure done things right.

When you throw in last year's Grand Final and the disappointment Sydney felt, as well as the staggering statistic that for all of the Sky Blues' consistency in making Grand Finals, particularly over the last five seasons, the team only had one trophy to show for their dominance. Everything felt geared towards a Sky Blue win.

Ante Juric's side were by no means going to die wondering. Just as they dominated the teams' regular season meeting, Sydney came out firing in what was a breathless start.

Mackenzie Hawkesby, Nat Tobin, Remy Siemsen, and Princess Ibini all had chances in the opening half. Victory keeper Casey Dumont was called into action repeatedly.

In much the same way that Jada Whyman's best-on-ground award in the 2021 Grand Final told the story of the whole 120 minutes in the smallest amount of information possible, so too did Dumont's eventual player-of-the-match gong.

Dumont looked like she had been through the wars, and she had. In Sunday's Grand Final alone, she was unwell in the week leading up, copped a hip to the ribs from Charlize Rule, felt lightheaded near half-time, and spent the break trying to get her blood sugar back up.

Yet she was able to deny Sydney's myriad attacks with smart saves down low and fingertip interventions over her head.

It told the story of her season and her career as well. Dumont watched last season's decider from the stands, recovering from a torn Achilles which could have ended her career. She endured a lacerated liver and a torn ACL on Matildas debut. This season she was one of the unlucky Victory's players to contract COVID, missing a game as she recovered.

Her relentlessness and ability to simply continue are astounding. Hopkins gave credit to her post-game, remembering the 16-year-old he gave a debut to in the inaugural W-League season who was now the three-time ALW championship winner sitting beside him.

Neither Jackson's headed opener nor Catherine Zimmerman's stinging shot for Victory's second goal was particularly well-worked. They were scrappy, dogged, desperate goals, capitalising on missed clearances and pure chaos.

These goals summed up Victory's season. It wouldn't have been a Melbourne game without a little more chaos. Cortnee Vine's poacher's goal got Sydney back into the contest, and Victory continued to hold on all the way through the second half and injury time to claim a most unlikely victory.

The football wasn't necessarily memorable, but the story is unforgettable. Victory outlasted the competition, outsmarted their opponents, held on white-knuckled, and made it to the summit.

Time after time this season, the competition had heaped chaos upon the team in navy and so, with weeks of experience now, Victory thrived in the chaos, no longer floundering in it but flourishing.