Victory create history in stunning ACL success
A brilliant Andrew Nabbout goal has secured a memorable win for Melbourne Victory over Japanese powerhouse Kashima Antlers, catapulting the embattled A-League club into the group stages of the AFC Champions League.
The Socceroos striker smashed home a left-foot effort from the edge of the box nine minutes into the second half in wintry conditions at the Kashima Stadium.
It sealed a first first-ever away win in Asia for the Victory.
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With just two A-League wins in the past two months, boasting a poor record in the competition and up against Japan's most decorated club, the Victory seemed at long odds to advance.
The Aussie side did, however, need a couple of moments of inspiration from goalkeeper Lawrence Thomas after Nabbout had struck nine minutes into the second half.
The Victory will now line-up alongside Chinese runners-up Beijing FC and Thai champions Chiangrai United.
FC Seoul will round out the group after the Koreans comfortably saw off Malaysia's Kedah 4-1 in another play-off match.
The Victory will face Beijing in their group opener on February 11.
Interim Victory coach Carlos Salvachua had his side looking well-organised and relatively comfortable for the opening hour against an opponent still in pre-season.
The Victory started the match brightly and looked comfortable even if it was the home side that had the best sights of goal.
Kashima's Ryuji Izumi forced a strong save from Thomas, before striker Everaldo crashed a towering header against the crossbar on the half-hour mark.
Fellow Brazilian Leo Silva then stabbed a shot wide from near the penalty spot.
Both teams picked up the intensity after the half-time break and Nabbout could have given the Victory the lead, but his speculative effort was impressively tipped away by goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-Tae at full stretch.
The home side's goalkeeper was left helpless, however, as Nabbout's effort from the edge of the penalty area took a looping deflection over his head and into the net.
At the other end, Everaldo was miraculously denied at close-range thanks to some cat-like reflexes from Thomas, while Sho Ito missed a gilt-edged chance to score as the Victory rode their luck against the eight-time Japanese champions.
The Victory defeated Indonesia's Bali United 5-0 in a preliminary play-off match last week, but had previously collected just 11 wins in seven Asian campaigns.
Meanwhile, Sydney FC are set for a massive challenge after Shanghai SIPG eased to a 3-0 victory over Thailand's Buriram United.
The result lifts the big-spending Chinese club into a heavyweight Group H alongside the A-League champions, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Ange Postecoglou's Yokohama F. Marinos.
The Sky Blues and Perth Glory automatically qualified for the group stage as A-League champions and premiers respectively.