MELBOURNE Victory were plunged into a new striker crisis as Nik Mrdja saw red for an off-the-ball elbow to the face of Shannon Cole in their 2-1 win over Sydney tonight.
Victory now could be without a senior first team striker for the rest of the finals series if Mrdja gets a two match ban or worse from the Match Review Panel when they consider the video of the incident, midway through the second half.
But Melbourne will at least go into the second leg of the major semi final with a one goal advantage after Mrdja opened the scoring and A-League player of the year Carlos Hernandez doubled the lead shortly after.
Sydney pulled back a goal when John Aloisi's scrambled shot cannoned off Victory skipper Kevin Muscat's outstretched leg for an own goal just before half-time.
Tensions reached boiling point when Mrdja was red-carded 18 minutes from time, but the home side held on and go into the second leg on March 7 holding the upper hand.
Sydney, which defeated Melbourne last Sunday to claim the A-League premiership, now has 17 days to turn things around, with a 1-0 home win good enough for the Sky Blues to get straight through to the Grand Final.
After a subdued first 15 minutes which featured few chances for either side, the game burst into life for the home side when Muscat looped in a long ball from deep inside his own half.
Mrdja contested with Simon Colosimo and Stephan Kellar, controlled it superbly and finished well to beat Clint Bolton.
Sydney's first chance at an equaliser came on 25 minutes when Karol Kisel fired from an angle, but Mitch Langerak was equal to the shot.
The Melbourne keeper also kept out Brendan Gan's close-range header, while he nervously looked on as Aloisi side-footed one narrowly wide.
It was another sweeping move which saw Melbourne take a 2-0 lead on 40 minutes.
Nick Ward spotted Hernandez free on the left and threaded a perfect pass for the Costa Rican, who closed in on goal, curling a clever shot around Bolton and into the net.
But Melbourne's buffer lasted less than three minutes when Alex Brosque won a header and directed it to Aloisi.
The veteran striker beat Rody Vargas and Grant Brebner and fired a low shot which deflected off Muscat and past an unlucky Langerak into the net.
Sydney could have been level at half-time but Brosque, who had an excellent opportunity set up for him by Kisel in the final minute, could not beat the advancing Langerak, who did well to block the ball away.
Three minutes into the second half, Hernandez produced an extraordinary shot which almost restored Melbourne's two-goal buffer.
What looked an optimistic shot from the edge of the area, swerved and ducked its way onto the cross bar giving Bolton the fright of his life.
Gan shot wide for Sydney soon after while several promising moves involving Hernandez and Tom Pondeljak ended in frustration for Melbourne.
The game hit a lull before things erupted again after an off-the-ball incident involving Shannon Cole and Mrdja in the 71st minute.
Mrdja's elbow made contact with Cole's face and the Victory striker was given a straight red card.
A minute later, Gan scythed down Muscat from behind and the crowd were incensed when the referee only booked him.
But the tension only served to break up the play late in the match, which suited Melbourne and foiled Sydney's hopes of getting back into the contest.