Mariners strike late to maintain ALM top-spot battle

Central Coast Mariners are sending the race for the A-League Men premiership right down to the wire after Max Balard’s 93rd-minute strike sealed a 2-1 win over Melbourne City.  

The Mariners looked destined for a frustrating draw at Central Coast Stadium on Tuesday evening, which would have handed the advantage to Wellington Phoenix in the fight to finish top.

But Balard’s well-taken late winner - his first senior goal - ensured the Mariners cut first-placed Phoenix’s lead to just three points with four rounds of the regular season left.

Mariners match-winner Max Balard.
Max Balard's 93rd-minute strike earned three valuable points for the Mariners.

Central Coast and Wellington meet in Gosford on Saturday, with the Mariners able to move top with victory.

"We are delighted with the win and I'm delighted the boys fought right to the end," Mariners boss Mark Jackson said.

"We showed bravery and character. We went down but we still had the character to keep fighting and going back. 

"Right until the end we showed we wanted to go for the three points.

"We don't want to stand still, we want to keep moving forward. That was a big win for us tonight."

The late loss was disastrous for City, who are facing the prospect of missing the finals for the first time in a decade.

The richly resourced Melbourne outfit are four points adrift of sixth-placed Western Sydney.

City really ought to have got something out of the game, but they paid the price for failing to capitalise on a dominant first half.

The fact they didn’t was mainly due to Mariners captain Danny Vukovic.

The goalkeeper denied Tolgay Arslan, Max Caputo and Marin Jakolis - at point-blank range on the stroke of halftime - to leave City with nothing to show for their impressive opening 45 minutes.

Arslan also hit the woodwork, but the German midfielder found the breakthrough in the 50th minute after Caputo dispossessed Brian Kaltak as the Mariners defender attempted to play out from the back.

Caputo stabbed in a cross from the byline and Arslan thumped the ball past Vukovic. 

Danny Vukovic watches Tolgay Arslan's shot hit the net for City.
Danny Vukovic can only look on as Tolgay Arslan's shot hits the back of the net for Melbourne City.

City’s lead was deserved but it lasted less than four minutes before Vicente Fernandez clattered into Mariners winger Christian Theoharous inside the box. 

Angel Torres sent Jamie Young the wrong way with the resultant penalty to register the 12th goal of his first season in the A-League.

"To concede a couple of minutes after we scored ... it's been a trend of our season," City's assistant coach Raffaele Napoli said.

"We dominated and had chances to win the game but unfortunately it wasn't enough.

"We've got four games, we've got to fire up and attack them positively - starting with the derby this weekend."  

City threw on Socceroos Jamie Maclaren, Mathew Leckie and Marco Tilio for the final half an hour but were unable to find a way through.

Balard, however, had no such issue; slaloming his way through the City defence before slotting the ball past Young to keep the Mariners firmly in the running for the premiers' plate.

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