MELBOURNE HEART'S home record might just be the thing that can sneak them into the A-League finals. They did their play-off chances a power of good on Sunday afternoon, seeing off a Sydney side packed with big names by a 3-1 scoreline, the visitors playing the final 35 minutes with 10 men following defender Seb Ryall's dismissal.
A bumper crowd of 13,752 - the biggest crowd Heart has ever attracted at AAMI Park aside from the side's derby clashes with Melbourne Victory - would have left on good terms after watching their inexpensively assembled side put it over the A-League's moneybags club in convincing enough style.
The win lifts Heart into fifth spot on 27 points, the same as Newcastle and Sydney, but they have a superior goal difference.
''Goals have been a concern for us right from the start,'' Sydney FC coach Frank Farina lamented. ''Unfortunately, we have had to change a lot of things in our defensive structure.''
It was a rather cagey opening 30 minutes, although Richard Garcia's run and shot from a Jeremy Walker pass signalled Heart's intent early, while Andrew Redmayne had to dive to stop an Alessandro Del Piero effort from the edge of the penalty area.
Nick Kalmar, outstanding in his last home game against Perth Glory, was in the mood again and he showed good skill to win a free kick on the edge of the Sydney area before bending the ball around the Sky Blues' wall to force a diving save from Vedran Janjetovic.
Heart lifted a gear on the half hour to take control of a game they rarely looked like relinquishing.
Kalmar got on the scoresheet for the second home game in succession when he pounced on a lay back from Jonatan Germano after the Sydney defence failed to deal with a Garcia cross in the 31st minute, lashing a shot past Janjetovic.
Heart doubled their advantage in the 36th minute when the Argentinian Germano, more often a provider, became the finisher. As Eli Babalj worked higher up the pitch the midfielder ran through the centre and on to the striker's through ball, calmly finishing with a shot across the Sydney goalkeeper.
Babalj had the chance to stretch the lead before the interval but couldn't convert, while the always lively Garcia came central for a header that Janjetovic dealt with comfortably.
The complexion of the contest changed irrevocably 10 minutes after the interval, and once again Kalmar played a major role. His pass found Heart winger David Williams, whose run towards goal was only ended with a foul by Ryall.
Referee Alan Milliner quickly reached for a red card and pointed to the spot, and Ryall trudged off with little complaint. Williams added insult to injury by stepping up to slam the spot kick home.
When Joel Griffiths made space for himself by getting between Heart's defenders and shot home on the turn in the 58th minute the nerves would have fluttered in the home end, even though the hosts were only up against 10 men. But they held firm and had the chances to make the win even more convincing.
The Heart supporters held firm too, and went way short of extending the hand of friendship to Lucas Neill.
Not that Neill, a veteran of hundreds of hostile encounters in the English Premiership and the Turkish Super League, would have expected anything else.
Whatever the reasons behind his decision to spurn Heart's advances and sign for Sydney, he knew he would be on the receiving end of insults and catcalls from the crowd.
Of course, his every touch of the ball was booed. It's hard to see him remembering his A-League debut with special fondness.
Farina, however, was pleased with his new acquisition's contribution.
''It was OK for his first game - it was a bit of a baptism of fire for him and I was relatively pleased,'' he said.
Michael Lynch, The Age's expert on soccer, has had extensive experience of high level journalism in the UK and Australia. Michael has covered the Socceroos through Asia, Europe and South America in their past three World Cup campaigns. He has also reported on Grands Prix and top class motor sport from Asia and Europe. He has won several national media awards for both sports and industry journalism.
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