Brisbane and Western Sydney Wanderers are locked at the top of a packed A-League ladder, with Melbourne City emerging as frontline contenders entering a mini-finals end to the regular season.
Bling clubs Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory have lost their shine and are battling to make the finals, while Central Coast Mariners – another recent heavyweight – are already certain of finishing last after a 4-0 drubbing at Perth.
With four rounds to go, only three points separate the top four after the Wanderers won 1-0 at Newcastle in Sunday’s only game.
Jaushua Sotirio’s first-half strike earned them maximum points, but left them second on goal difference behind the Roar, who thumped Victory 5-0 in Brisbane on Saturday.
Jamie Maclaren bagged a hat-trick for Brisbane after being overlooked for Socceroos selection earlier in the week.
City followed up last week’s 3-0 home win over Sydney FC by ending Adelaide’s 14-match unbeaten run with a 1-0 away victory over the South Australian club on Friday.
Nick Fitzgerald’s spectacular winner and first goal for City cemented their top-four spot and knocked Adelaide off the top of the ladder.
The results set up another fascinating round next week with the top four teams clashing in two mouth-watering clashes.
City host Roar on Friday night and Western Sydney Wanderers entertain Adelaide the following night.
“At the moment it’s like a mini finals series for everyone because everyone is trying to qualify for the finals and jostle for positions up the ladder so every game is a big game now,” City central defender Alex Wilkinson told AAP on Sunday.
“This one on Friday is obviously going to be a good one for us.
“Our home form lately has been pretty good and if we can manage to beat them, we’ll go pretty close to being on top.”
Andy Keogh netted twice for Perth, who climbed above Victory into fifth.
“We’ve got to take a big deep breath and take a look at ourselves and ask if we gave our best,” Victory coach Kevin Muscat said.
Like Victory, Sydney have little time for soul searching after a chastening loss as they face a midweek Asian Champions League game.
Seventh-placed Sydney’s winless streak stretched to eight with a dismal 3-1 home loss to Wellington, who led 3-0 at halftime.
“The objective is to make the finals,” Sydney’s Senegalese international Jacques Faty said.
“Of course if we play (as we did) in the first half it will be impossible, but obviously I hope we can make it.
“The team you can see how we played in the first half, we don’t have enough confidence.
“Technically and mentally it’s not good, I have to be honest.”
A season-ending ankle injury to influential Serbian playmaker Milos Ninkovic was another unwanted blow for Sydney.
The Mariners suffered a sixth straight loss and their league-worst disciplinary record got even worse after having eight players booked and Mitch Austin and Luis Garcia sent off.
“Our disciplinary record is terrible, it’s indefensible,” Mariners coach Tony Walmsley said.
“Individuals need to recognise when they are on a card they can’t be reckless.”