A 10-man Sydney FC used their get-out-of-jail card on Saturday night, scoring a stunning injury-time win over a desperately unlucky Wellington Phoenix at Allianz Stadium.
In a frantic finish, Costa Rica international Kenny Cunningham equalised early in injury time for the visitors with a first-time flick in from a cross. Sky Blue hearts sank with those of the 14,503-strong crowd, who had been on a high since Richard Garcia's strike in the first half cannoned in off goalkeeper Glenn Moss's crossbar to give them a 1-0 half-time lead.g
But, chasing three wins on the trot and aiming to continue their season rescue, Serbian striker Ranko Despotovic announced his arrival in Australia with the winner, a first-time put-in from a Seb Ryall cross with one of the final touches of the match.
It was a memorable win, but it did not hide Sydney FC's disciplinary issues which forced the home side to again do it the hard way after Pedj Bojic was marched in the 73rd minute for his second yellow-card offence. Of the Sky Blues' three consecutive wins, two have been earned with 10 men left standing.
"I'm disappointed with the red card," Sydney FC coach Frank Farina said. "I thought giving him a yellow for the first tackle was harsh in itself. But then, Pedj has got to be careful for the rest of the game. I'm not real happy about it. I'll talk with Pedj about that. You've got to deal with it."
To hold out for so long, concede so late and then sensationally grab back the lead showed the Sky Blues' true grit. But Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick, too, had reason to be proud of his team. "I feel it was an extremely disappointing result, but a very good performance," he said. "I know it doesn't sound right. But I thought our possession play throughout the game was very good, we built up from the back, our balls forward were good.
"In the second half, I thought we were stronger again. Overall, we had enough chances to win that game. We've only got ourselves to blame."
Sydney's win should have been simpler. They were hot favourites with their strong home record, which included a 7-1 thrashing of Wellington in the sides' previous clash. Seven Phoenix players had been involved in internationals in the past week. Yet, the visitors should have gone ahead with Jeremy Brockie's gilt-edged one-on-one chance that the striker belted deep into The Cove instead of the back of the net in the first half.
Sydney FC were poor early, but settled. Not long after Manny Muscat was booked for a deliberate handball and Alessandro Del Piero put the free kick just over the crossbar, the Italian hit the post and the rebound was cleared by Muscat as the vultures tried to pounce.
A minute later, Garcia came in from the right wing and unloaded for the opener. Ali Abbas's skimmer just wide and Del Piero's chest down and shot – saved by Moss in the dying moments of the half – were as close as Sydney came to adding to their lead.
Farina introduced Despotovic in the second half, but when Bojic was marched the effect was immediate, with Vince Lia somehow putting a power header from point-blank range over the crossbar. On 80 minutes, Farina brought on Terry McFlynn for Del Piero, just as the Phoenix came on the charge. Cunningham headed the ball in but was offside. However, he soon managed the equaliser, only for Sydney FC to rise again.