Resilient Victory's late heroics edging Popovic closer to a first trophy
It wasn't easy, but Melbourne Victory defeated the Gold Coast Knights in a heated affair that went straight down to the wire at Croatia Sports Centre.
After Cai Tipaldo put the Knights ahead, Victory fought back through Luis Lawrie-Lattanzio.
His excellent finish just after halftime left goalkeeper Joshua Langdon with no chance.
Victory have now made the quarter-final stage of the FFA Cup four times. (Photo FFA Cup Twitter)
But Victory could not capitalise on their red-hot start to the second half, and the match went to extra time.
Young William Wilson - substituted on late for Victory - found space and thumped a curling effort into the top corner in the 96th minute to complete the comeback for the A-League Men side.
Despite winning, the away side made it very tough for themselves by going behind so early on to the NPL Queensland side.
Tony Popovic started to configure a more experienced lineup in extra time, and Melbourne started to dominate the game almost immediately as a result.
Victory players celebrate Lawrie-Lattanzio's equaliser. (Photo via Twitter/FFA Cup)
But Popovic wouldn't have wanted to use the likes of Francesco Margiotta, particularly with the Italian still adapting to the demands of football down under.
With Victory now at the latter stages of the competition, it is challenging to give starters a rest, and it's not the first time their rotation players failed to impress.
Last night was a repeat of Victory's sub-par display against Adelaide City in the round of 32, where they also left it until the 96th minute to secure progression with a penalty from Anthony Leban.
In the play-off round against Perth, they also struggled against a far more inferior side, relying on a close penalty shootout win.
But make no mistake, this result was significant for Popovic's project at Victory.
His side currently sits top of the A-League Men ladder and has booked a place in the cup quarter-finals.
It's a stark contrast from last season, where one disastrous display after another rooted the boys in blue to the bottom of the A-League Men ladder for most of the campaign under Grant Brebner.
Their fans should give all credit to Popovic for steering a sinking ship around in such a short amount of time.
Jai Ingham (left) tussles for possession against Birkan Kirdar (right). (FFA Cup Twitter)
A mix of young players and veterans have contributed to Victory's success this season.
But one significant difference from last season is that Popovic has recruited valuable foreigners.
Furthermore, several players he previously worked with followed him to Victory, making it easier to get his ideas across.
Despite being second best for most of the first half, Victory exposed the Knights' tiring defence late on with quick counter-attacks after absorbing large amounts of pressure for long periods of the game.
Popovic demonstrated a level of professionalism to prioritise progression, despite an extra-time period being unwelcome due to an intense A-League Men schedule ahead.
That determination to win should give Victory fans a sense of hope and excitement about what can be achieved this season.
After what feels like a long time, Victory has a shot at winning their first trophy of the Popovic era.
They have built a newfound resilience this season and one well-suited for cup competitions.
After being 1-0 down at halftime, many would have tipped Brebner's Victory side of 2020-21 to fall in the face of adversity.
But Popovic has changed the culture around a club that was deeply affected by heavy losses, a loss of confidence, and were quickly losing their well-established winning mentality.
The feeling around the club would certainly be more positive now, considering that silverware is finally back on the cards after a couple of trophy-less years.
Only the Central Coast Mariners have booked a spot in the semi-finals.
Considering the bigger picture, Melbourne City, Wellington Phoenix, Sydney FC and Brisbane Roar, all A-League Men sides, remain in the competition.
But Victory will think that they have a brilliant shot at winning their second FFA Cup trophy or at least making the semi-finals.
They face old rivals Adelaide United at Coopers Stadium next Wednesday, a team they already beat 2-1 in the league earlier this month.
The Melbourne Victory squad celebrates qualifying for the quarter-finals. (FFA Cup Twitter)
That tie between Victory and United is the highlight of the last eight.
The Reds are still the defending champions of the FFA Cup from 2019 after the pandemic forced the FA to postpone the 2020-21 competition.
There will be an added will-to-win for both sides with the added impact of another instalment of the Original Rivalry.
Still, the stakes are raised even higher, with an Asian Champions League spot up for grabs this time.
The winner of the FFA Cup will qualify for the play-off rounds of the ACL, but for Victory and Popovic, winning this trophy is about signalling the start of a new era.