Dwight Yorke did everything possible to get Sydney FC over the line but the home side was undone at the other end of the park as fortune favoured the Central Coast Mariners in a five-goal thriller at a rainswept Aussie Stadium last night.
As the match headed for a face-saving draw, Sydney coach Pierre Littbarski could scarcely believe his eyes when Mariners skipper Noel Spencer snatched a last-gasp winner for the visitors with a goal that summed up the home team's night.
Adam Kwasnik was upended on the edge of the box by Iain Fyfe, and as Spencer hit the free-kick Alvin Ceccoli broke from the wall and fell to the ground. The ball looped off the prostrate Ceccoli and, with goalkeeper Clint Bolton heading the other way, dropped under the crossbar and into the net. With 60 seconds left on the clock, there was no way back for Sydney from there.
After two defeats in a row, Littbarski will clearly have to take stock. Last week he left Yorke on the bench, last night it was the turn of another international - Socceroos striker Sasho Petrovski - to start the game on the sideline as David Zdrilic partnered Yorke up front. The case to include all three of his strikers in the same side is building. Somehow, Sydney need to get all their best players on the park.
Yorke is certainly doing his bit. He laid on one goal and scored another against the Mariners, his equaliser after 70 minutes coming at the end of Sydney's best move of the game. David Carney released Ufuk Talay down the right, and his early ball into the box was a peach. Yorke used the pace of the cross to do the rest.
It seemed the goal would be enough to give the home team a share of the spoils, and a surprisingly good crowd of 15,614 reason for satisfaction. But Central Coast did what they do best - they chased, they ran down lost causes, they put their bodies on the line. The reward came late, but it was worth it. The Mariners have a share of the competition lead, at least until tonight. Few can argued they haven't deserved it.
Certainly, the Mariners are a team written off at peril and again they showed their gritty determination to come from a goal down to lead at half-time. Both goals came from set-pieces and were aided by a Sydney defence as leaky as the skies.
But full credit to the Central Coast for capitalising on their chances. With the words of coach Lawrie McKinna ringing in their ears, the players were clearly determined to seize their opportunities. Last week's wasteful finishing against New Zealand Knights was not to be repeated here.
This was always destined to be a game that would hinge on mistakes, and so it proved. A surface as slick as an ice rink made the first touch so important, and only a few players were good enough to master the ball. After an opening 10 minutes of brawn and little brain, Sydney started to find some cohesion. Unsurprisingly, it was Yorke who was dictating the revival. And this time a player accustomed to applying the finishing touch was happy to play the role of provider.
A pass into the corner of the penalty area favoured Mariners fullback Dean Heffernan, but Yorke used his body expertly to force his opponent off the ball. Riding the challenge, he danced along the byline before his low cross skimmed across the goalmouth and found an alert Andrew Packer, who reacted first to stab the ball home from close range.
McKinna reacted swiftly, and cleverly, to the setback. Wayne O'Sullivan was pushed further forward to add numbers to the midfield, and suddenly the ball was spending more time in the Sydney half of the field. Six minutes later Central Coast were back on level terms.
After a tangle of arms and legs between Sydney skipper Mark Rudan and Tom Pondeljak, referee Peter O'Leary pointed unhesitatingly to the spot. Whether by accident or design, Bolton didn't know who was going to take the penalty - Andre Gumprecht and Stewart Petrie were both positioned on either side of the arc. Petrie suddenly sprinted towards the ball, and Bolton could barely react before his shot was in the back of the net.
If there was an element of misfortune about the first goal, the Mariners' second was inexcusable from Littbarski's perspective. From a throw-in, the Sydney defence stood in a line like Easter Island statues. Pondeljak looped the ball up, O'Sullivan got a touch with his head, and Gumprecht was in space with only Bolton to beat. A firm volley did the rest.