CARLOS Hernandez struck twice to put Melbourne Victory firmly in the driving seat for the A-League premiership after a 2-0 win over North Queensland Fury.
Hernandez took his season's total to 12 with two superb efforts either side of half time, the first from open play, the second from a free kick. The win moves Melbourne, who were without Archie Thompson and Kevin Muscat and lost Matthew Kemp to injury during the game, three points clear on top of the table.
It means that regardless of this weekend's results, a point against Sydney next week will be enough for Melbourne to claim a top-two spot and the double chance that goes with it. However, they may have to win the championship without Kemp, who suffered a serious knee injury and is likely to miss the rest of the season.
It was a bad way to begin the game for Melbourne, with Kemp crashing to the ground inside the first five minutes. He eventually departed on 11 minutes to be replaced by Evan Berger.
That contributed to a muted opening for both teams and things didn't really spark up until the 20th minute when Hernandez crashed a free kick into the bar and followed that up by hitting another one straight at Justin Pasfield. Robbie Fowler was barely in the game in the first half, but on 30 minutes went just over with a free kick.
A concerted period of pressure preceded Melbourne's opening goal on 35 minutes. The goal had a Costa Rican feel about it as a clever through ball from Marvin Angulo found Hernandez on the by-line. Somehow he managed to round Jimmy Downey and his fierce angled shot beat Pasfield at the near post.
Fury had two excellent chances to level before half time. The first fell to Beau Busch who struck his header just wide, while the second was set-up by Fowler. He put Robbie Middleby through one-on-one with Mitch Langerak and an excellent one-handed save from the Victory keeper pushed it on to the post.
Nik Mrdja made his Melbourne debut when he replaced Angulo at the half, while North Queensland brought David Williams on for Downey soon after. The Fury youngster made an immediate impact, just missing an effort with a header.
Mrdja was also making his presence felt, putting Nick Ward and Leigh Broxham through, but neither was able to finish off good chances. Just after the hour, he gave Hernandez a chance from range and he forced an excellent save from a busy Pasfield.
Hernandez didn't squander his next chance. Fury again gave away a free kick in a dangerous area and the Costa Rican's 66th-minute effort from the dead-ball was sublime. He curled it over the wall and into the top corner giving the Fury keeper no chance of saving it.
Melbourne could have been three up when Middleby was cautioned for a tackle on Mrdja which looked only inches from being a penalty. Fowler then missed an excellent chance up the other end which would have given the visitors an unlikely lifeline.
With their season on the line, Fury fought hard and much of the final 10 minutes was spent in their attacking third. Jason Spagnuolo came closest, but his shot was deflected wide as Melbourne's defence held firm. It means North Queensland cannot make the finals and that only pride will be on the line against Gold Coast next week.