South Melbourne met the challenge of Brisbane Strikers - themselves fighting for a Finals position - with a solid 3-0 win at Bob Jane on Sunday.
The visiting Strikers were hampered by a red-card to Steve Laybutt just before half-time following his earning of a second caution - the first for a tackle on Vaughan Coveny, the second on Goran Lozanovski.
Lozanovski was to be tightly marked throughout his 63 minutes on the park, but he still managed to mount runs and crosses the Strikers' defence found difficult to deal with.
Strikers had started brightly, as a side with Finals hopes of its own might be expected to do. Andy Harper was making off-the ball movements which stretched the South back-line, and created space for Chay Hews, Casey Wehrman, and even Chris Zoricich to launch goal-attempts. Hews' 12th minute shot was blocked by a combination of Fausto De Amicis - who had another of his confident displays at the back - and Michael Petkovic, steady in goal throughout the season.
Midway through the half, first South, then Brisbane had their best chances yet to score. Lozanovski had managed to torment the Strikers' left side and crossed in that curling goal-keeper luring way which has become his trademark. The ball looped over Clint Bolton to Coveny beyond the far post but the tall Kiwi was blocked by Zoricich and the chance vanished.
Within seconds, it was Brisbane's turn. Harper's cross from the right fell neatly for Stuart McLaren, forcing Petkovic into a deflecting save.
Robert Liparoti was forced to leave the field for lengthy treatment after a clash of heads which caused his left eye to swell before he was assisted off the park. It was clear he was not fit to return, and George Goutzioulis came on as his replacement.
Shortly after, came the seven minutes in which this game's destiny was determined.
Coveny was making yet another run into a shooting position when he was fouled by Glenn Gwynne 20 metres out. This is the range Lozanovski claims, and with the departure of Con Boutsianis, now has no rival. His shot went in low to Bolton's right for the opening goal in the 38th minute.
Steve Laybutt then made that fateful tackle and knew his fate as soon as he heard the whistle. Strikers would therefore be one goal down, and one man short for the full second half - and whatever time remained before the first had ended. "I thought the red card was a disgrace," said Strikers' coach John Kosmina after the game. "He won the ball. It was a fair tackle."
But what was bad news for Strikers, got worse with the conceding of a second goal in a manner likely to be included in many blooper compilation tapes.
A South attack had meekly petered out when the ball went too far for anyone but the Strikers' sweeper who played a regulation ball back to Bolton. Under no challenge, and with the nearest South player - Curcija - 20 metres away and wide to Bolton's right, Bolton shaped to kick the ball forward.
It skewed off the side of Bolton's boot right into the path of the startled Curcija, who should be given marks for his ability to collect himself when his receipt of the ball in those circumstances would have been the least likely outcome. Curcija took a step, then looped the ball into the unguarded net for South's second.
As the whistle blew to end the half, Bolton's despair was palpable. Gwynne approached in an attempt to console the distraught keeper as they trudged off.
Brisbane came out in the second half as fired up as in the first. For a time, it was difficult to reconcile it was they who were a player short, such was the ease by which they seemed to find a spare player when in possession. Sean Cranney, on as a substitute late in the first half, had two chances within two minutes of the restart.
But South withstood the storm, and introduced John Anastasiadis - who had turned the Glory midweek game following his entry as a substitute - to eager anticipation with fifteen minutes remaining.
Just four minutes later Anastasiadis had worked his magic to extend South's lead. Curcija had sent through a ball which Anastasiadis seems to prefer, and allowed him to run at the defence. He turned as he was tightly marked, and the ball seemed to stick underfoot, but he managed to send a lay-back in Coveny's direction. Coveny blasted home from 15 metres to end the scoring and cement the victory.
South coach Ange Postecoglou was relieved to have come through the two games during the week with six points added to his team's tally. "I'm delighted, considering the week we've had. A big game on Wednesday night which everyone was pumped for, and there was the danger of a let-down today when we could have let a team get under our guard."