Zeljko Babic came to life in the second half and broke a goal drought stretching back into last season to help Sydney United to an undeserved 3-1 scoreline over Melbourne Knights tonight.
Babic, who took his usual pummelling in the first half when he was poorly served by uncommitted team mates, scored one goal and contributed to two others.
United only shone for 20 minutes in the second half and then lost intensity, discipline and shape, giving Knights a consolation goal and the chance to score a couple of others.
Coach Grant Lee was grateful to get away with the three points.
United had an early corner cleared by Andrew Vargas. Following a Vargas free kick the Knights kept applying pressure until Nicholas Marinos hit a half chance over the crossbar.
United then kept possession for a while until David Huxley hit a long, soft shot to keeper Vilson Knezevic.
Stanko Zilic beat Anthony Doumanis (which wouldn't have been too hard since he hurt his foot in an accident shortly before the game). But Huxley played a ball into the Knights penalty area for an offside Anthony Zmire.
The United Boys cheer squad were a little light on wit, making pelican jokes and seagull squawks at the expense of Anthony Pelikan. And they threw in some light-hearted, almost ironic Croatia chants for good measure.
Babic lost out under a high ball to the height advantage of Antun Kovacic and Adrian Leijer.
In the 15th minute Pelikan received a good ball in the left side of the Sydney penalty area and laid back for Daniel Vasilevski who had time but shot over the crossbar.
Leijer put another good ball into the box for Pelikan whose shot on an angle was stopped by Marko Filipovic. From the corner, Liam Reddy came out and took the ball high.
Confident play by Marinos and Rodrigo Vargas gave Andrew Vargas some room to move until he was cleaned up by Labinot Haliti.
United had ten minutes of looking good before it was Knights' turn to have a good spell.
In the 21st minute Pelikan had a low shot on target and Reddy got down to save.
A minute later United responded with Zmire looking to cross but instead shooting just over the crossbar.
Vasilevski was beating Michael Cunico before Cunico fouled him. The free kick, five metres out from the left corner of the United penalty area, came to Kris Trajanovski at the left post. Trajanovski could see glory awaiting him but Mark Rudan threw himself on the ground and blocked the shot.
Back to the other end and Babic was easily robbed by Kovacic.
Doumanis fed Babic but Babic was robbed again, this time by Leijer.
Cunico hit a good cross from the right but Rodrigo Vargas got up over Haliti at the far post.
A crunching tackle by Leijer on Cunico left Cunico down and allowed Leijer to send the ball upfield where Rudan blocked Pelikan.
An attempted long ball by Vasilevski was blocked by Doumanis but won Knights a corner.
In the 35th minute Huxley missed a good opportunity with poor control on the edge of the Knights' penalty area. Then he copped a yellow card for a tackle chasing back on Andrew Vargas.
Haliti had a good run but collapsed injured near the Knights box and Zmire fell over Leijer trying to turn on a ball from Babic.
A Pelikan cross was headed clear by Rudan but Knights soon threatened with a long shot high over the bar.
Andrew Vargas was good holding off Haliti and Zmire went down injured, soon to be replaced by Franco Parisi.
Vasilevski played a good ball into the box for Trajanovski Š offside.
Babic, finally with the ball at his feet, made one of his dangerous runs into the Knights' penalty area and pushed the ball left to Haliti who side-footed the ball high.
Trajanovski hit a fine volley on target after the whistle had blown against him and Babic won a free kick for Leijer pulling him down. Cunico hit it high to Knezevic.
Filipovic blocked Marinos on a ball into the United penalty area and Huxley was pulled up for running over Pelikan who was successfully evading a series of other United tackles. The free kick, just outside the penalty area in front of goal, was organised by Vasilevski, Andrew Marth and Andy Vargas. Vargas backheeled it to Marth whose shot was blocked by Parisi.
Huxley broke through the middle and played right to Parisi who returned the ball left to Filipovic. Filipovic found Cunico further right. Cunico's cross was too long.
Depending how one looked at it, it was a pretty even or pretty boring first half. Huxley was clearly frustrated when the whistle blew. He knew United should have done better. But United had nothing to offer in the final third. On the basis of chances alone, Knights had the better of the half.
United must have got the "where's your commitment" lecture at half time. That, and the replacement of Doumanis with Petar Markovic, lifted them, briefly, to another level.
In the 47th minute Haliti beat Andrew Vargas with a good turn down the left. His cross seemed to fall safely for the Knights but Babic rushed through to push the ball across the line. United were winning and fans in the stand gave the credit to Haliti.
A few minutes later Babic received a yellow card and self-destructively faced up to Kovacic, one and half times his size. There certainly must have been something in United's half time refreshments.
Trajanovski had a half chance header that sent Reddy down to his left. Leijer was good blocking a Haliti cross.
Cunico hit a ripper of a volley over the Knights' crossbar and received approving "good boy" comments from the more senior fans.
In the 56th minute Babic crossed from the right - Babic is at his most dangerous when he gets in behind the defence on that side - perfectly for Cunico. Cunico opted for a lobbing header which at first seemed a mistake; but Knezevic couldn't reach it and United went two-nil up.
Markovic made a great leaping block, won the ball and ran out of defence. Shortly after, he made a magnificent tackle and hit a long ball for Parisi. Parisi had a one-on-one confrontation with Knezevic but the keeper saved well, diving to his left.
Sydney had a corner, though, which came out to Filipovic. Filipovic dummied left and shot with his right foot from 30 metres into the Knights crossbar.
Knights had a low shot that Reddy got down to save and, later, on a corner, headed left of goal.
In the 67th minute Babic showed his experience, running into the left of the box, beating one defender, and shaping to shoot but coolly playing square to Parisi. Parisi put away an easy chance and the home team had a three-nil lead.
A Knights free kick on the left was too high and hard, Parisi on a break shot straight at Knezevic, and Leijer hit a long shot high and going nowhere.
Damon Collina mopped up Pelikan chasing a ball from Vasilevski. Knights got a free kick which Collina headed clear.
Good running by Babic won a corner off Rodrigo Vargas, and Pelikan got a yellow for diving in the United penalty area.
The home side's inexperience started to show. They relaxed and started to make mistakes. Even Rudan. The "red wall" suddenly looked shaky.
Rodrigo Vargas, Marth and Leijer made it hard for Parisi and Babic - either by getting their legs in the way or trapping them offside. But Dean Heffernan created a chance, crossing from the left for Markovic to slam a shot over goal.
In the 83rd minute, after Collina headed a cross out of the United box, Vasilevski struck a curling shot into the top left corner of the Sydney goal.
With United continuing to commit errors, it seemed more Knights goals could come.
Babic, on his own breaking into the left of the Knights box in a United counter attack, beat two players but ran the ball into Knezevic.
On 90 minutes, Vasilevski, again on a United headed clearance, shot just to the right of goal.
Babic threatened on another counter, but Knezevic came out to stop him.
Knights had another free kick from the edge of the area; Trajanovski shot, Rudan headed clear and Trajanovski shot again, to the right of goal.
Pelikan had a shot from the left blocked and Reddy was in the right place to collect a ball bobbling toward goal at the right post.
Then, mercifully for Grant Lee, the whistle blew to end what he called a sloppy, very frustrating game.
He said his players were slow to react in the first but talked about what they needed to do at half time: to deliver quality balls to the strikers, to get them involved in the game. "Suddenly Babic was receiving balls in good areas and using his attributes; not ten metres in the air, not running back toward play with a big gorilla up his bum. He was making runs in behind where they were playing people in channels."
He said it was lovely to see Babic score because he had been working so hard. He thought it was about the first goal he had scored in 20 games.