Has Victory, A-League recovered a year on from the infamous Christmas Derby?

"A year goes quickly sometimes. We're already at that point," Melbourne Victory boss Tony Popovic said, unable to suppress a contemplative laugh in the aftermath of his side's 3-0 win over Sydney FC last Saturday, a result that temporarily took them top of the A-League Men table. It was the end of a long but successful evening for the coach, ticking off the last of his public-facing commitments for the evening by fronting questions from journalists as the clock approached 10.30 p.m.

The question that had elicited the response, the last of the press conference and one of several on the topic already, wasn't on the Big Blue win, though. Instead, it was on just how he and his side would approach the attention that was set to come their way in the lead-up to this week's Christmas Derby: the traditional pre-Yuletide meeting between Melbourne City and Victory. The game is a tentpole fixture for any A-League season that inevitably carries attention and in which both participants pull out the stops to generate excitement and coverage.

Driven by the atmosphere that emanates from the stands once these games commence, they're frequently fixtures that are frequently played at a higher level of intensity that are wont to produce moments of drama, many of them climactic late goals. The quality of the football can wax and wane, but, importantly, they tend to be enjoyable.

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There was Dario Vidošić's 92nd-minute header to salvage a 1-1 draw in 2018, a year on from Dean Bouzanis' moment of madness to give away a penalty Mark Milligan converted for a 1-0 Victory win in the 95th minute. Thomas Sorensen turned into a brick wall to a 2-1 win in 2015, 12 months on from a 90th-minute header from Erik Paartalu secured City the first derby win of the CFG era. And, of course, there was Archie Thompson's chip that went in off the underside of the crossbar to down Melbourne Heart 2-1 in 2012.

It's supposed to be a fixture in which the teams put their best foot forward; a game that elicits pride for those part of two of the league's biggest and most successful clubs, one that shows what the league can accomplish when those involved play for something greater than the result, and one that helps forge much-needed history, tribalism, and tradition. It doesn't match the Sydney Derby for feeling, but it's the closest City and Victory get.

At least, that's what it's meant to be.

After the 2022 edition of the Christmas Derby, it carries a new legacy. One that has taken those momentous moments and cast them in its shadow. Popovic was being peppered with a greater volume of questions than normal on Saturday because this year's Derby will mark the first since his club was cast as the villains in one of the most infamous moments in Australian football history. An evening that even with the benefit of a year still, in some ways, defies proper comprehension; a fixture abandoned in the 22nd minute and forced into 110 days of bizarre hibernation after Victory supporters violently stormed the field.

"You could feel a lot of anger in the crowd," Victory keeper Paul Izzo recalled to ESPN. "It wasn't like the normal kind of passionate noise that fans make, you could feel there was a lot of frustration and something was going to boil over. And yeah, unfortunately, the scenes that happened and they took place."

Per Victoria Police, approximately 150 individuals entered the AAMI Park surface on that fateful evening, its defining image still Tom Glover, bleeding from the face after being hit by a metal bucket, being dragged off the field by backup keeper Matt Sutton as goalkeeping coach Mike van Houten and defender Curtis Good got between he and an onrushing Victory supporter as orange flare smoke enveloping the scene and players evacuated, surrendering the field to the chaotic rabble.

At the time, it felt like the bedrock of Australian football had been hit, a new nadir reached in a week that had already plumbed the depths after the league's disastrous decision to sign a three-year deal to sell its Grand Finals to Sydney. City and Victory fans had been planning on joining other supporter groups in staging a walk-out protest in the 20th minute of that evening, only for their demonstration to be hijacked by a selfish, moronic element that set the cause of all supporters back and ensured that the league's thoughts of a compromise, being discussed in the lead into the game, were quickly shelved.

Just over a fortnight prior, Australia had almost taken eventual world champions Argentina to extra time in the round of 16 at the World Cup. But now the eyes of the footballing world were turned upon Australia for all the wrong reasons, the latest batch of much-vaunted momentum that the game loves to proclaim in ashes, lost in a haze of smoke and crushed under the foot of those that had poured over the barricades.

"It was disappointing, for sure," Bruno Fornaroli told ESPN. "I think that was the feeling inside the changeroom and around the club, because that's not the game that we want. We want to grow as a club and as a league. And we don't want that. We have to do better."

Even 12 months on, it's an evening whose ramifications still linger and one that all involved would rather forget -- City declined requests from ESPN to make individuals present that day available for interview. Just last week, Alex Agelopoulos, the pitch invader who hurled the metal bucket that injured Glover and referee Alex King, had his jail term overturned on appeal by the Victorian County Court.

Victory's already parlous finances lost "millions" as a result and, while none at the club would go on the record to blame the evening for their eventual 11th-placed finish, the destabilising effect it had on the team was plain to see. Sum up Victory's 2022-23 and you'd describe a turgid, uninspiring side, only kept alive by the mediocrity of the sides around them on the table, drifting through the season in front of mostly empty stands, dominated by tarps.

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"It was difficult," said Fornaroli. "Victory have the best supporters in the league. You can really feel their support when you play here at AAMI Park.

"To lose them after that, of course it affected the team, the club; the energy was different."

Depressing. And yet if you're a City or Victory fan, especially if you're the latter, you're still probably looking forward to this weekend. Because despite its new, unwanted chapter, the Christmas Derby still has a chance to mean something, to try to move past Glover's bloody face and find a new Thompson, Paartalu, or Vidošić. It has the potential to define seasons for the right reasons, to vanquish demons rather than birthing them and to breathe life into teams rather than strangling them. To be what it should be. Popovic is right, a year does go quickly.

The Grand Final deal that provided the kindling for the spark that evening has been reversed and Victory heads to AAMI Park this weekend second on the A-League Men's table, the only side in the league yet to taste defeat in the 2023-24 campaign. Against Sydney FC, Daniel Arzani, Zinédine Machach, and Fornaroli scored amidst a decisive display of counter-attacking football that felt a world away from the efforts put forth last season, which almost felt like it'd violate the Geneva Convention if you tried to make someone watch it.

"I always say the face of the person that wins is different from the face of the person who loses," Victory skipper Roderick Miranda told ESPN. "We are still undefeated.

"But the most important thing is everybody feels as a family inside. Everybody's willing to die for each other, metaphorically. Everybody's willing to put their body on the line for each other. That's the most important thing.

"Everybody's important."

City's air of invincibility, meanwhile, has slipped this campaign and sacking Rado Vidošić after just two league games, and replacing him with Aurelio Vidmar hasn't augured an instant turnaround. Triumph for Victory can and probably will be fashioned into a narrative of a giant, cast down from its perch by an upstart challenger, seizing upon a moment of weakness to reclaim their mantle. What would be an upset win for City, conversely, could be fashioned into a potential turning point, drawing a clear line in the sand in the season's biggest game and reminding the old guard that the past is the past, and the future remains City blue.

For a league that has struggled to reach fans and engage them with the emotions, history, authenticity and storylines, games like Saturday are critical. Last year gave them a reason to stay away. This year, the task of bringing them back continues.