Victory's South American Kiwi gains praise

IT HAPPENED shortly after Marco Rojas dropped his shoulder, accelerated from the left flank of the pitch, cut past his marker and let fly a powerful drive, which gave Mark Birighitti in the Newcastle goal no chance.

After 33 minutes Melbourne Victory had taken the lead against the Jets and the praise for Rojas, the New Zealand international with the South American name, went into overdrive.

The online editor of specialist soccer magazine Four Four Two, Kevin Airs, tweeted: ''Rojas - the A-League's Messi. There, I said it …''

He merely stated in print an audacious, if tongue-in-cheek, simile that many others had begun to contemplate.

By the end of a pulsating game, in which Rojas scored a second, spectacular goal that guaranteed his side the points in a 3-2 triumph, the twittersphere was awash with comments suffixed by the hashtag #KiwiMessi.

Rojas is small of stature and slight of build, and he is of South American origin - his antecedents are Chilean - so the comparison with Messi can at least be drawn on those grounds, even if the competition in which he plays, the A-League, is barely on the same planet as La Liga.

But if he maintains his rate of improvement then there is no telling where the 21-year-old's career can take him.

He has had a lot of international exposure for one so young, as he has been a full international since his teens. While the All Whites these days dominate Oceania the way the Socceroos used to against opposition that rarely stretches them, there is an upside. New Zealand does, as a result of its easy qualifying path, get to play in high-profile competitions such as the Confederations Cup and the Olympics, which guarantees a kid like Rojas invaluable experience against top opposition and puts him before scouts from overseas clubs.

That he will leave Australia seems inevitable but he would be wise to resist any temptation offered in the European transfer window in January and instead complete his education under Victory coach Ange Postecoglou.

The transformation in Rojas has been remarkable this season. Last year, when Melbourne Victory was a club in crisis - it had three coaches in a year and never seemed to cope with the attention focused on it by the arrival of Harry Kewell - Rojas looked like a serial underachiever.

This season he has blossomed in a way his supporters always believed he would, given the right environment. He looks confident and assertive, full of self belief and is playing accordingly.

He moves from both flanks and sometimes drifts into the centre, his touch and technique giving him the ability to run at defenders and torment them with his change of direction and pace. In the past he seemed to go missing when the heat came into the match, now he skips the challenges and dances over tackles.

He has become a keystone of the Victory frontline - a four-pronged attack along with Archie Thompson, Gui Finkler and Marcos Flores - that looks threatening every time it has possession. Postecoglou has given him support and self belief and set up the team in a structure that gives him the chance to express himself.

''A lot of it is down to him,'' Postecoglou said on Friday. ''He worked fairly hard in the pre-season. He's a talented player, we've all seen that. It's hard for me to comment on last year. People ask me about that, but I wasn't here and you don't know the circumstances. Maybe for young players you need to go through that tougher period to make them stronger.

''But since I've been here, he's been fantastic in terms of his work ethic. He wants to learn and he's still got improvement in him, I think. He can still get better and the beauty of it is he'll rock up to training looking to do that.''

Rojas has had the plaudits of the home fans all season - unlike teammate Leigh Broxham.

But the diminutive Broxham has never given up on himself and reaped a reward on Friday night when the midfielder played as a makeshift central defender in the absence of Adrian Leijer and Mark Milligan.

The crowd even chanted his name after he cleared the ball off the line to prevent a certain Newcastle goal - an experience this unsung player has rarely had in his seven seasons with Victory.

Postecoglou paid tribute to his contribution and his importance to the club.

''He was great. That was obviously our problem position this week but, to Leigh's credit, I told him and he was, 'Yep, no problem' and jumped straight into it.

''He's a valuable player in our set-up and his value goes beyond his abilities as a player. He's been at this club for a very long time and you need people like that at your club. He's seen the highs and the lows and he's very much part of the fabric of the culture of this club and we need to keep people like that around. Every day he rolls up to training and works his socks off. He's a valuable member of what we do.''

This story Victory's South American Kiwi gains praise first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.