Melbourne City FC's hopes of closing the gap on the Hyundai A-League top two suffered a setback in controversial circumstances, after Michael Valkanis' side fell to a 2-1 defeat against Melbourne Victory in the Melbourne Derby on Saturday night.
After a tense and scrappy first half, the match sprung to life after the break in front of over 35,000 fans at Etihad Stadium.
The action started just after the hour-mark when Marco Rojas won a penalty for Victory, only for Dean Bouzanis to guess correctly and deny Besart Berisha from the penalty spot with a brilliant low save.
City edged in-front seven minutes later as Neil Kilkenny fired home a cutback from Fernando Brandan in off the leg of Alan Baro and the post for his first A-League goal.
Berisha atoned for his earlier miss to equalise for Victory with six minutes remaining, before the turnaround was complete in controversial circumstances when Manny Muscat netted an own goal, despite the linesman flagging for offside.
The Melbourne Derby is usually a highly-charged affair, yet with both sides hardly entering the final meeting of the regular season in earth shattering form, the result was an opening half devoid of the usual flair and creativity one would expect.
But the typical venom and vigour was present right from the get-go, with a crunching challenge from Alen Baro on Ivan Franjic setting the tone for a feisty opening to proceedings.
The first real chance of note fell to Victory, as Rojas latched on to a long ball from Oliver Bozanic, lobbed the onrushing Dean Bouzanis, but landed the ball on the roof of the net.
City had legitimate claims for a penalty waved away in the 15th minute when Fernando Brandan was clattered from behind by Jason Geria, who rode his luck in the early stages with a few forceful challenges.
The linesman’s flag was next to deny City the opening goal as Bruno Fornaroli wheeled away in celebration after heading neatly past Lawrence Thomas, but the Uruguayan was marginally offside.
Victory had the best chance of the half seconds before the interval as Berisha was only a whisker away from turning home a dangerous cross, but the ball flashed past the Albanian before he could bury the chance.
For what the first half lacked in entertainment, the second half duly provided. Bouzanis had to be alert to cling onto two chances from James Troisi and Fahid Ben Khalfallah, as the contest began to open up.
Fornaroli, who was afforded little space throughout the evening, demonstrated just how dangerous he can be when given room to move as City threatened up the other end.
The Uruguayan danced past Geria before offloading to Brattan, who swivelled on to his left foot and fired a powerful effort which was brilliantly palmed over the bar by Lawrence Thomas.
Brattan nearly caught Thomas off his line with a wicked free kick moments later, but handed Victory a golden chance to open the scoring from the spot when penalised for bringing down Rojas in the area.
It was Bouzanis to the rescue, however, as the City goalkeeper kept his nerve, guessed correctly and palmed away Berisha’s penalty with a strong right hand.
The match had completely changed from the first half as momentum shifted from one side to the other, until City took the ascendency with the go-ahead goal in the 70th minute.
A lovely piece of play saw Fernando square back expertly to Kilkenny, who found the back of the net with a shot that deflected off Baro, off the post, and into the back of the net.
City were in the ascendency as Brattan went wide with a shot that had Thomas scrambling, only for Berisha to turn home Rojas’ cutback to put Victory back on level terms with six minutes remaining.
Moments after equalising, Victory had scored after the ball deflected off Muscat and into the back of the net, but the linesman had raised his flag for offside.
Tempers flared as both sides pleaded their case – with Tim Cahill receiving a contentious red card while getting ready to come on as a substitute - but the goal stood as City fell to defeat in highly controversial circumstances.
Valkanis’ side will aim to return to the winners list when Melbourne City takes on Brisbane Roar at AAMI Park on Saturday 11 February.
Hyundai A-League – Round 18
Saturday 4 February 2017
Melbourne Victory 2 (Besart BERISHA 84', Manny MUSCAT [OG]' 86')
Melbourne City FC 1 (Alen BARO [OG] 70')
Kick-off time: 7:50pm (AEDT)
Venue: Etihad Stadium, Melbourne
Referee: Chris Beath