Lia Privitelli embodies Melbourne Victory's fight to reach A-League Women Grand Final

Lia Privitelli wasn't supposed to lead Melbourne Victory against Sydney FC in this year's A-League Women Grand Final on March 27. Looking at the squad assembled at AAMI Park, one could argue that initial plans might not have even had her in the starting XI. And when one considers the hurdles she has had to overcome to even get here, an argument could be made that she shouldn't really be playing at all.

Yet Privitelli is still playing football. She is going to start for Victory in this year's decider, and when she does the 27-year-old will be captaining the only ALW club she has ever known.

"As a leader, she epitomises what we're about, our team culture," Victory coach Jeff Hopkins told ESPN. "She's team first, puts everything else and everyone else before her. Which is a real trait in a leader that I really admire. I think all the girls definitely look up to her. I can't speak highly enough of her."

Coming into 2021-22, Privitelli's role appeared to be first reserve and spot starter; the versatile veteran who would never complain, be a strong dressing-room presence, play any position and, no matter the circumstances, leave everything on the pitch.

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It was a responsibility she'd filled with aplomb in years past -- only Amy Jackson and Mindy Barbieri have more appearances for Victory in the current squad -- and with Kyra Cooney-Cross, Melina Ayres, Catherine Zimmerman and, eventually, Alex Chidiac on hand to provide attacking impetus, it wasn't an unfair assumption. Her ability to slot in at the back in a pinch also took on a greater significance when captain Kayla Morrison went down with an ACL injury in round one; Privitelli assumed the captaincy and started at left-back three times. When Victory feared that Polly Doran had been suspended for Sunday's game, it was Privitelli who was pencilled in to start at right-back.

While her form, like that of her teammates, suffered during Victory's arduous regular season in which they effectively played half their campaign in a month, she stood up to be counted when it mattered -- easily recording the most starts, minutes, and goals of any season in her ALW career as her side progressed to a second successive ALW decider.

"A lot of people have forgotten that we lost our captain [Morrison] in the first game this year," Hopkins said. "[Morrison has] been around the place and been great but you need a leader out on the field and Lia's been that person. I'm not sure if she realises how important she's been."

Fittingly, unaware of Hopkins' praise, Privitelli played down her role as stand-in skipper.

"I still don't really see myself as captain," she told ESPN. "I see Kayla as still having a really massive role. I'm just the person who wears the armband and does the toss on game day."

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Privitelli first joined Victory in 2016-17 -- a campaign that, in hindsight, was massively important to the trajectory for the club but, at the time, was a bit of a nightmare. Hopkins' first year in charge and only the second that Victory ran the program after previously delegating these responsibilities to Football Victoria (the side had been stripped for parts after Melbourne City's entrance to the competition the year prior), ended with a second-straight wooden spoon.

Many words have been written on the recovery as Hopkins oversaw a reformation project with a heavy local focus and shrewd international recruiting that saw the club lift an ALW premiership in 2018-19 and a championship in 2020-21, and become the first ALW club to represent Australia in Asia when Victory competed in the 2019 AFC Women's Club Championship.

But less have been penned on the path that Privitelli has taken. There have been familiar obstacles facing ALW players, such as a lack of full-time programs (albeit Privitelli's love for NPLW side and junior club FC Bulleen Lions may run as deep as her love for Victory) but also one of a major concussion and maddeningly frequent injuries that have robbed Australian football of a player with a significantly higher ceiling.

"It's been one hell of a journey," Privitelli reflected. "I can't thank Jeff enough for the opportunity he gave me back then. He's really helped develop me not only as a player but as a person as well. We've come a long way. Victory has just supported us so, so much this year. It's been fantastic to see the support we've got and it's hard to look past everything that they've done for us in the results we're getting."

A health and physical education teacher, Privitelli takes junior health and PE to students from grade seven to nine, teaches a Year 12 class, and is one of the school's Year 8 coordinators. With Victory's ALW side training early in the morning, she heads straight into work from the paddock -- with Hopkins and his staff working around her professional schedule during the madcap run home.

As a teenager, she was diagnosed with Femoroacetabular Impingement (extra bone growing along one or both of the bones that form the hip joint), and torn Ligamentum Teres and Labrum in both her hips; she required surgery that not only forced her into months of arduous rehab but also shortened her height by four centimetres and permanently changed her gait. Two years ago, she had further surgery on her hips, the benefits of which she says have helped her strong form in the seasons since. For his part, Hopkins recalled how Privitelli finished seasons strongly throughout her time in ALW only to sustain injuries while playing NPLW that reset her momentum.

"[Privitelli's mother] definitely told me quite a few times 'Lia, I think this year is it'," Privitelli laughed. "I just wanted to prove to people that they can go through some pretty rough times but as long as you put your mind to it you can always get back. I didn't ever want to give it up."

But all the challenges, the arduous periods of rehab, and the long progression back to full fitness, haven't robbed Privitelli of her competitive mindset; anyone who takes even a cursory glance at Privitelli in action is instantly made aware of her competitiveness and dogged determination. One can't hide aggression like that. Perhaps because she has had to legitimately confront the question of continuing her career on more than one occasion, her approach more often than not resembles that of a player in their last ever game.

In Victory's clash with Sydney at City Vista Reserve earlier this season -- the last time this year's Grand Finalists met -- her presence after being substituted on at half-time (it was the last game in which Hopkins opted not to start her) helped to set the scene for Victory, who were dominated by the Sky Blues throughout the opening stages, to stage a furious comeback after going down 2-0. Haranguing poor Ally Green to within an inch of her life, Privitelli dragged the score back to 2-1 in the 68th minute and sparked her side to find a leveller through Zimmerman in the 92nd minute.

"She's in the form of her life at the moment," Hopkins said. "She's so dangerous. She understands her game a little bit better now. She understands that she needs to get outside players, get the ball in behind and be really positive."

Both teammates and, especially, opponents recognise Victory's stand-in skipper as a player who, more often than not, thrives on the pressure and spotlight of the big games; she has scored in both of Victory's finals this season, and provided another assist. She also has a number of NPLW season-defining performances at Bulleen under her belt.

Just don't try to single her out for praise in her earshot.

"This is about far more than one person or a stand-in captain," Privitelli said. "This is a team effort. Players, coaches, support staff. This will be massive for our club. We often get written off as the underdog so it would mean nothing more than being able to win that trophy with my teammates and coaching staff."