Sydney FC's chance of progressing past the Asian Champions League group stage hangs in the balance after suffering a 2-0 defeat at home to Japanese giants, Kashima Antlers.
Two moments of elementary defending blighted an otherwise well-drilled display for the Sky Blues, who were punished by a clinical Kashima side at Allianz Stadium on Wednesday. A lapse of marking in the first half and another from a set piece in the 87th minute left Sydney's hopes in tatters, languishing at the bottom of the table with one point in their group at the halfway point of the stage.
For the first time in two years, about a thousand fans didn't wait for the end of a Sydney FC match, with a mass exodus minutes before the final whistle. The exodus was indicative of dwindling hopes that the Australian champions will reach the second round and the sucker punch that was Wednesday night's result.
If their performance against Shanghai a fortnight ago was their best of the season, according to coach Graham Arnold, then this began as perhaps their most mature. They were disciplined in their defensive shape, calm on the ball and aggressively chastised Kashima's creative outlets in the midfield.
Even when fullback Michael Zullo was forced off the field in the 22nd minute, after injuring his hamstring on his comeback from injury, Sydney FC kept their stern structure. They didn't seek to outplay Kashima - a side technically superior - instead deploying a clear game plan to contain and strike on the break. However, the heat map of the first half told the story. The centre of the field was scorched red, while Kashima's box was cold, with barely a footprint.
For all the organisation in defence and in the middle of the park, a distinct lack of pace up front left Kashima goalkeeper Sogahata Hitoshi with little to do.
It was because of their impressive structure that Sydney FC coach Graham Arnold was so furious going into the break behind, after conceding in such careless fashion minutes earlier. Japanese international Shoma Doi was left unmarked in the middle of the box to turn a wayward shot into the net without a Sydney player in metres.
Chasing the game, the Sky Blues emerged with more purpose after the break but still struggled to create clear-cut opportunities on goal. Adrian Mierzejewski forced Sogahata into action with a powerful free-kick from distance 10 minutes after the restart. Mierzejewski was again denied a goal from distance when his fierce shot from the edge of the area was deflected agonisingly wide of the target.
The introduction of Bobo in place of Matt Simon promised a less direct approach on goal and immediately their attack clicked into gear and became more fluid. An exchange between David Carney and Alex Brosque ripped Kashima's defence wide open and a free shot on goal for Mierzejewski. The Polish star lunged to fire a right-footed shot on target but Sogahata produced a stunning save to deny Sydney's attacking midfielder.
Although not required in the first half, the 38-year-old former Japan international became one of the busiest on the field and was all that kept Kashima's lead in tact in the 66th minute. Sydney's chances arrived as Mierzejewski sprung into life and the fleet-footed midfielder came close to drawing level when he roamed into the box to place a shot into the far corner of the net. However, he was to be denied again by an astute Sogahata.
Sydney's faint hopes of an equaliser were dashed minutes before full-time when Naomichi Ueda was left unmarked at the back post from a corner, heading into a near-empty net to consolidate top spot for Kashima with a 2-0 win.