Socceroos striker Jamie Maclaren registered a brace as Melbourne City staved off a late charge from Sydney FC to end their three-game losing streak with a 3-2 win in the Grand Final rematch at AAMI Park on Tuesday night.
City went three goals ahead early in the second half thanks to an Adrián Luna goal sandwiched between a Maclaren's double. The hosts dominated for an hour of play before Sydney stormed home, scoring twice through Milos Ninkovic and Patrick Wood to make City earn all three points in a shaky end to what was shaping as a routine victory.
City lost 1-0 to Newcastle Jets in Matchweek 7, and after waiting 16 days to return to action Patrick Kisnorbo's side wasted no time in making their intentions clear, pressuring Sydney with a barrage of early attacks and going 1-0 ahead thanks to Maclaren's fourth goal of the campaign.
City attacked the Sky Blues down both flanks and through the centre of the park as they stretched the visitors with quick, sharp passing and an array of dangerous crosses leading to a number of early chances.
One of those chances fell to Luna. The Uruguayan was in the right place at the right time to volley home Craig Noone's dangerous ball into the box from wide after Maclaren's headed attempt on goal fell into his lap unmarked at the back post.
Kosta Barbarouses sent a strike off the crossbar 40 minutes into the contest in a rare reminder to the hosts of Sydney's threat going forward, before the hosts wrestled back the ascendancy and ploughed ahead in the second half.
Andrew Redmayne denied Maclaren a second goal with a stellar stop soon after the resumption of play in the second stanza, but there was nothing the Sky Blues goalkeeper could do to prevent the Socceroos striker getting City's third not long after, thanks to a brilliant Andrew Nabbout assist played through the legs of Joel King for Maclaren to brush home inside the box.
City looked set to put on a complete performance before the Sky Blues pegged one back with 20 minutes to play, benefiting off a double-deflection from an Anthony Caceres cross as substitute Milos Ninkovic ghosted ahead of Tom Glover to poke home Sydney's first of the night.
It seemed a mere consolation goal at the time before Ninkovic set Wood up for a second Sky Blues goal in the 90th-minute, and a City collapse became a genuine possibility. Nuno Reis and Ryan McGowan tangled late in City's defensive box and penalty appeals ensued, but there was no such decision given as the hosts blew a sigh of relief at the sound of the final whistle.
City's intentions were clear from the outset of the contest as the hosts took the ascendancy in an impressive opening 45.
Fuelled by the eagerness to emerge from a 16-day absence from action, City attempted to rapidly shrug off their recent woes and looked a rejuvenated outfit as they pressured Sydney's goal from all angles.
Connor Metcalfe and Rostyn Griffiths threatened with headers from Scott Jamieson crosses in between an opening goal netted by Maclaren, benefitting off a save from Redmayne from Luna's swerving strike to prod the ball home and give the hosts an eighth-minute lead.
City played with width as the ball switched regularly between Nabbout and Noone on the right and left flank respectively. Noone got amongst the action not long after Maclaren's opener, attempting a shot on goal after neat play between Florin Berenguer and Luna which whipped across goal, nicking the post on its way out for a goal kick.
The Sky Blues were under the pump but a brief period of respite came after Luke Brattan fell heavily under pressure from Metcalfe and Berenguer, suffering a head knock which led to his substitution after a five-minute delay in play.
But the pressure wasn't to ease on the Champions. Before long City had a second through Luna who tapped home a Noone cross missed initially by Maclaren in the centre of the box. The Uruguayan stood frozen to the spot momentarily, looking toward the linesman for a flag before celebrating - the City creator had been wasteful in front of goal in recent fixtures, but not this time as he put his side 2-0 up.
The Sky Blues improved late in the second half and Kosta Barbarouses lashed a strike off the crossbar in a warning to City that the visitors would not go down quietly. They would, however, retain their two goal margin to the half-time interval.
City's stranglehold on the contest tightened in the second stanza as the re-energised outfit strived to inflict more damage on the Sky Blues.
Redmayne was at his best to keep Maclaren off the scoresheet for the second time with a save at his near post from the City striker's close-range header. The Sydney stopper was at Maclaren's mercy after Nabbout's looping cross and the resulting header was a good one, but Redmayne's strong left palm dragged the ball away from the target.
Undeterred by Redmayne's handy goalkeeping the pair were at it again not long after, with Nabbout teeing Maclaren up for his second of the night and City's third. Metcalfe's floated through-ball from deep in midfield unleashed Nabbout down the left flank, who sized up Joel King, drove towards the by-line and nutmegged the Sydney left-back to find Maclaren for the first-time finish.
Sydney responded with a triple substitution and not long after Wood and Jordan Swibel used their fresh legs to threaten City's defence. The youthful pair played a one-two before Wood lofted a cross to Swibel who headed over the bar. Down the other end Maclaren and Noone went close with a similar three-pass move which ended in an over-hit Maclaren volley.
Leading by three goals and sniffing a huge home result, a brief City switch-off allowed Ninkovic to get the Sky Blues on the scoresheet.
The Sydney substitute was quickest to read the flight of a Caceres cross which deflected off both Curtis Good and Jamieson on its way into the box. The ball dropped ahead of Glover who couldn't emerge off his line in time to beat Ninkovic to the ball, as the Serbian put Sydney in sight of an unlikely comeback.
Buoyed by Ninkovic's goal the Sky Blues took to the final 20 minutes with intention to cause a massive boil-over at AAMI Park.
And after a 90th-minute goal from Wood, the odds of Steve Corica's side stealing a point became that little bit more likely. It wasn't to be in the end for the Sky Blues, but their well-worked second goal began by McGowan and ended by Wood, helped on by Ninkovic's pass across goal from McGowan's through ball gave the visitors plenty of positivity to focus on provided by their late charge.