Melbourne City spurned an opportunity to create space from the pack pursuing them after they were held to a 1-1 draw with Western Sydney Wanderers on Saturday night.
Cancelling out Tate Russell’s 21st minute goal through a 30th minute Jamie Maclaren penalty, City was unable to draw any momentum from their leveller; plodding their way to a share of the spoils despite out possessing their foes 60-40 and outshooting them 16 to six.
The draw leaves City ten points back of top-of-the-table Sydney FC – who drew 0-0 with Perth Glory earlier in the day – and just four points clear third-placed Wellington Phoenix, who have two games in hand.
For the Wanderers, the point means they sit two points adrift of sixth-placed Western United at the conclusion of round 23, with a visit from cross-town foes Sydney FC to look forward to next week.
Teasingly given what was to come, the Wanderers' opener was a sublime piece of play.
Collecting the ball on the left flank, Red and Black captain Mitch Duke launched a pinpoint cross-field ball to the feet of Russel, who’s deft first-time touch went to Nicolai Muller.
Continuing his run, the 20-year-old was then in a perfect position receive the German's return ball and fire inside the near post to record his first-ever A-League goal.
“We give all the players freedom to play football,” Wanderers Coach Jean-Paul de Marigny said post-game.
“The more that [Tate] gets to experience that… I just love it when he’s positive and he’s aggressive. He’s got a lot of qualities and he’s progressing really well. I think he’s come a long way from 18 months ago and it’s really pleasing on the eyes.”
The Wanderers’ defender’s night quickly turned sour, though, when he brought down City winger Craig Noone inside the penalty area after Daniel Lopar parried away a deflected shot from Nathaniel Atkinson.
Replays seemed to show that the youngster was perhaps unlucky to have drawn referee Kate Jacewicz ire, but there wasn’t enough evidence to allow the VAR to overturn the decision before Maclaren fired home from the spot for his 15th goal of the season.
“We had the possession, especially in the first half, but today our tactical decision making was too slow,” City coach Erick Mombaerts said post-game.
“Maybe one or two touches [too many] and so our creativity maybe was not enough to break this defensive block.
“When you face a defensive block like that our combined movement has to be accurate. We need to combine better in the small areas.”
With chances few and far between in what was a frustratingly dour night at AAMI Park, the Wanderers should have taken the lead in the 69th minute – only for Simon Cox to be outhustled at the crucial moment.
Nipping in to intercept an attempted header back to Tom Glover by Curtis Good after the latter was sold into trouble by a woeful attempted back pass from Nathaniel Atkinson, Cox’s subsequent side-footed effort was partially saved by Glover.
The ball sill trickling to the goal line, all the Irish international needed to do to win the game was sprint after it and slide it over the line but he was beaten by a rapidly backtracking Good, who slid across with a tackle on the goal line to knock it to a clearing Harrison Delbridge.