Central Coast Mariners lost a thrilling top of the table clash at Melbourne Victory 2-1 last night. John Hutchinson's breakthrough goal of the Hyundai A-League season shortly after the half hour mark put the Mariners in a strong position, before former Central Coast star Tom Pondeljak and perennial Mariners nemesis Archie Thompson secured all three points for the home side.
Much of the post-match talk focused on Dylan Macallister's goal that wasn't early in the second stanza, though in truth the Victory were deserved winners against a Mariners line up that never genuinely matched their lofty level of performance from recent weeks.
The Mariners will maintain their spot in the Hyundai A-League top four regardless of the outcomes of each of the three remaining matches in Round 12, but now have a sizeable task on their hands in order to successfully negotiate their Premiership defence.
"The first half, Melbourne put us under pressure early - they came at us from the first minute and we probably weathered the storm for the first fifteen, then we began to feel quite comfortable and before going up one nil we had a few chances," said Mariners Football Manager Lawrie McKinna after the match.
"Five minutes later we gave them a chance to get back into it, their goal came from our mistake and we went to the break at one-all a little disappointed because we thought we deserved our lead.
"In the second half we didn't hold possession as well and they pressured us a wee bit better - we were chasing the game after they scored and we didn't keep possession well enough."
Hutchinson's first goal of season four, against his home-state club no less, continued the Mariners' positive returns from set pieces of late - though this was certainly the most unseemly of the lot.
The Morwell-born midfield lynchpin floated a characteristically precise free kick from some 35 metres into a clutter of Mariners and Victory players that somehow evaded the attention of all concerned, including Melbourne custodian Michael Theoklitos.
The visitors' one-goal advantage was an adequate reflection of the first half up to this point, though the response from the home side was swift and clinical.
Mariners Members and supporters have become accustomed to the match winning quality of Pondeljak, whose first Hyundai A-League goal in his new club colours was one of typical quality.
Early in the second half, Macallister looked to have re-established the Mariners' advantage, only to have his soundly taken left footed strike from the fringe of the penalty area disallowed by the flag of the assistant referee.
The Mariners' duly applied pressure on the Melbourne goal for much of the last thirty minutes, with substitutes Nik Mrdja, Andre Gumprecht and Matthew Osman each adding impetus but, unfortunately for the visitors, not the much craved goal scoring touch.
Late in the match, defensive mainstay Pedj Bojic was issued with the only yellow card of the match by referee Strebre Delovski and will consequently miss the Mariners' next fixture having accumulated five cautions to date this season.
The 2-1 result was the Mariners' first loss at the Telstra Dome and only their third of the Hyundai A-League 2008/09 season - one that sets up an intriguing encounter against the resurgent Perth Glory at Members Equity Stadium on Saturday week.
"We came down here and had a go, the effort was there, the fight was there and we always believed - even in the last couple of seconds we thought we could put away a crumb on the edge of the penalty box," said McKinna.
"It's always hard to come here, they are open games with chances at both ends, it would have been nice to get a draw down here but credit to Melbourne, they caused us problems and forced us to change our shape a wee bit.
"We'll be back up for Perth next week, we need to get a win to get back in the mix."