South Melbourne confirmed its hold on top spot with a hard-fought two-one win against chasing Parramatta Power at Bob Jane Stadium on Sunday evening.
In a pulsating game full of high-intensity football, Power netted first on the quarter-hour after a solo effort from Fernando Rech combined with a goalkeeping misjudgment by Eugene Galekovic. South levelled, then took the lead with the aid of two penalties, both comprehensively converted by captain Vaughan Coveny - one each side of the interval.
"I thought the effort the players put in was terrific," said South coach Stuart Munro after the game. "We're getting the best out of these players at the moment."
Following the award of South's first penalty, Power coach Nick Theodorakopoulos was visibly upset on the sideline, leaving his technical area to argue the matter with the assistant referee. His mood hadn't brightened by game's end, giving curt responses to media questions at the after-match press-conference.
He understandably was unwilling to be drawn into commenting about the penalty awards, but he was equally as unforthcoming when asked to comment on other, more benign, aspects of the match.
"We lost the game," he said when asked his views. When asked to identify where his side had lost the game, Theodorakopoulos replied, "On the scoreboard."
An invitation to summarise his side's performance was met with a single word answer: "Fair."
Perhaps realising that his own performance was tending to farcical, he later opened up by saying, "If Mr Lowy is going to have a truly professional competition, then he should have professional officials - full-time."
After a bright and energetic opening from both teams, Rech opened the scoring just after the quarter-hour, with a solo run. Alvin Ceccoli fed him the ball from a quickly taken free-kick deep inside Power's defensive half. South's defenders backed-off the swiftly-moving Brazilian - a strategy always fraught, and this time fatal. When Rech neared the edge of the penalty-area, his shot goalwards seemed less dangerous than it proved. South goalkeeper Eugene Galekovic will be disappointed at his failure to hold the ball as it bounced in the sand in front of him, and into the net.
During the protracted period of Theodorakopoulos' reluctance at the media conference, his only response to Rech's goal was, "It doesn't matter - we lost." But it was proper reward for Power which had shown its attacking hand from the very first moments of the game.
"The players said it bobbled," said Munro of Rech's goal. "It might have been a mistake (by Galekovic), but it would be the first one he's made all season."
South's largest attendance of the campaign was stunned into silence, and took some time for it to become energised again.
Michael Panopoulos brought the crowd back into the contest with a stunning 30 metre drive just after the half-hour which was palmed around the post by Clint Bolton. But the volume increased just a minute later when Ceccoli was adjudged to have handled the ball after a flick forwards by Michael Curcija, conceding a penalty.
"I made comment after the Perth Glory game - the hand-ball in the penalty-box is too big of a grey area," said Munro. "We lost (that) game one-nil with a shot that hit an arm - there was no intention of handling the ball. Coaches are always going to be upset because of it."
Vaughan Coveny converted the spot-kick in regulation fashion.
Power coach Nick Theodorakopoulos was incensed by the decision and vented his anger at the stand-side assistant for several minutes afterwards. The increase in heat also leaked onto the pitch with a ragged period in the following minutes where biting tackles flew.
The game was evenly poised at one-apiece, but neither side was shy in attempting to wrest control and gain the upper hand, although neither team could manufacture a clear-cut scoring opportunity, such was the time and space denied to the team in possession.
It was perhaps foreseeable that in such circumstances, a goal would arise from a set-piece. So it proved when Coveny netted South's second, also from the penalty-spot, this time on the hour after Curcija was upended by Bolton in the box, earning himself a yellow card in the process.
Both teams continued to play all-out football however, with chances being created at a rapid rate. A clever move involving Andre Gumprecht passing wide for Travis Dodd who in turn crossed for Rech to head goalwards was only thwarted at the last by Galekovic, making up for his earlier error.
This was mirrorred within seconds at the other end when Con Boutsianis played a swift one-two with Curcija at the edge of the penalty-area, shooting just wide.
Bolton was compelled to pull off the save of the match, launching himself to tip over a close-range header by Con Boutsianis as the final minutes drew near.
But the scoring had finished, and when the final whistle blew, every player on the park knew they had been involved in an exhausting battle leaving nothing in reserve.
These teams' next meeting will be in the Finals. It should not be missed.