Melbourne Victory 1 Western Sydney Wanderers 1
Brendon Santalab scores for the Wanderers. Photo: Getty Images
A dramatic, last-gasp leveller from Brazilian midfielder Gui Finkler's sumptuous free kick gave Melbourne Victory a share of the points in a pulsating 1-1 draw with Western Sydney Wanderers in front of a raucous AAMI Park crowd of more than 22,000 on Saturday night.
Finkler had been brought down by Iacopo La Rocca with just seconds remaining as the visitors grimly defended the slender advantage given them, appropriately enough at this time of the year, by a player nicknamed Santa.
Guilherme Finkler wheels away in celebration after the equaliser. Photo: Getty Images
Finkler dragged himself up and planted a wonderfully struck free kick past Ante Covic's dive to ensure honours were even.
Brendon Santalab, a Wanderers striker, had come off the bench to score with virtually his first touch of the game with 20 minutes to go, and Tony Popovic's side was surely banking the three points and their Christmas bonus before Finkler's tremendous intervention.
What a difference a day makes.
At AAMI Park on Friday night it was possible to hear the players shouts ring through the echoing rows of empty seats as Melbourne Heart and Wellington Phoenix stumbled through an error-prone 90 minutes where both struggled to take their chances in yet another defeat for Heart.
At the same venue just 24 hours later, things couldn't have been any more different.
These sides are close to the top of the table, amongst those jostling for position behind Brisbane Roar, while the Friday protagonists are propping up the ladder.
It would have only taken the casual viewer five minutes to understand why that's the case.
This was a game played with pace and purpose, enthusiasm and gusto, where both sides sought to move the ball quickly and slickly at a high and exciting tempo.
The contests in all areas of the field were intense and hard fought. The Wanderers coach fielded a line-up missing stars such as Shinji Ono and striker Tomi Juric, while he also left winger Youssouf Hersie on the bench: three games in nine days means a veteran like Ono has to be managed carefully, while Juric is only just back from injury.
But that didn't mean they would travel south with anything like an inferiority complex.
As the game unfolded in end-to-end fashion, it was clear that the Wanderers, so often a team that likes to squeeze the life out of opponents, had come to play. It was a stylistic change akin to that of a boxer who normally wins on points through weight of consistent punches deciding to slug it out and trade blows with his opponent instead.
The visitors could have got their noses in front in the 11th minute when Labinot Haliti drew a fine save from Nathan Coe with a header that the goalkeeper fingertipped centimetres over the bar.
The Wanderers were pressing and harrying the Victory midfield, giving them little time to play, and Tahj Minniecon was finding space well for himself, creating an opening to shoot over.
Still, Victory it was that had the clearest chance of the opening half when Kosta Barbarouses' terrific run down the left opened space for him to drive the ball into the Wanderers' penalty area. Covic could only parry and the rebound fell to Connor Pain, but, with the goal gaping, the young striker failed to even get a shot off. It was another to add to the ever-increasing catalogue of horror misses that A-League strikers are compiling this season.
It was end-to-end stuff as Pain linked with Nichols to set up James Troisi, who shot over, while at the other end Minniecon's curling effort flew just over the bar.
Victory's tendency to over elaborate frustrates their supporters no end - cries of ''shoot'' rang out every time they worked the ball to the edge of the area but looked for another pass instead.
They did look to have a reasonable shout for a penalty when Mark Milligan tried his luck from distance, his fiercely struck drive seemingly blocked by the hands of Nikolai Topor-Stanley as it headed for goal.
Referee Peter Green would have none of it then, and he did not blow his whistle shortly afterwards, when Minniecon's shot after a slaloming run appeared to strike Adrian Leijer's hand as it deflected away into safety.
The deadlock was finally broken with 20 minutes to go when Santalab, who had just come off the bench, scored with his first touch. Victory substitute Finkler's misplaced pass was seized upon in midfield by Minniecon, who slid the ball through to the Wanderers striker, who finished under Coe's body.