It was a subdued and anxious crowd that watched South Melbourne's final game of the season against bottom club Canberra Cosmos and needing a win to keep their quest for league leadership alive. The win eventually came, but it was unconvincing - two defenders having combined to score when Nick Orlic headed in a deep far-post cross sent in by Con Blatsis with just eighteen minutes remaining.
The win guaranteed South either first or more likely second spot after the final round is played next week, and so a Finals game with the winner's prize being a direct path to the Grand Final. Next week South has the bye, and then a further week off before their first Finals game, so there's two weeks to fill in before their next competitive action.
"We'll prepare as we normally do for a Finals Series," said South coach Ange Postecoglou after the game. "We had a week off last year as well, and I've been around long enough in Finals Series to know what's required, and the coaching staff has, and there's enough players who know what's required. I don't think (the break) will do us any harm. We've been preparing for this Finals Series for 28 games."
"We'll just keep things ticking over. We'll play a couple of friendly games. With everyone fit I'd suggest that the competition for places will be pretty keen over the next three weeks."
Blatsis had made a welcome return to South's starting eleven after having missed much of this year's campaign because of a niggling groin and thigh injury.
But the neutral observer would have thought it was Canberra which was the more highly ranked side, at least as far as the endeavour shown during this game.
Tom Sermani has done much for Cosmos since his mid-season take-over, not the least being an inculcation of self-belief amongst the players.
In the opening thirty minutes Canberra had set out to weather the expected South storm and had successfully managed that. It was now time to start to chase South Melbourne, and see if the notoriously fickle Bob Jane support turned against their own players.
Paul Trimboli had set up the best early chance after just five minutes. In a Giggs-esque run from the half-way line he made speedy progress down the left before laying a ball back to Michael Curcija. Cosmos' giant goalkeeper Vilson Knezevic did well to hold the Olyroo's shot.
From then on until the break, Cosmos had at least the same level of control of the match. neither side found space in midfield and David Clarkson played his usual hard-running and ground-covering game to disallow any Cosmos midfielder time to contemplate.
But Cosmos did fashion some scoring chances - just before the half-hour Anthony Magnacca was feed a through-ball only to be prevented at the last by a brave save at his feet by Michael Petkovic.
Goran Lozanovski - whose influence this game was less than is usual - set up Curcija after robbing returning Youth Team player Lindsay Wilson at the half-way line, scampering up the right, then setting a square ball into Curcija's path. Sadly for South and their increasingly nervous support, Curcija's shot was wide.
Cosmos made a bright start to the second half - Magnacca then a spectacular Peter Buljan over-head shot closely followed the re-start.
On the hour, Cosmos had a further two chances arriving within seconds of each other. Gabriel Gonzalez put over after Buljan's cross floated in from the right, then Buljan himself shot over following a run up the left from Wilson.
But South hasn't been league leader for much of the season because of faint hearts, and lack of fight. Even if it took two South players more notable for their chance-stopping than chance-creation Orlic and Blatsis combined to release a sense of relief rather than celebration amongst the home support.
John Anastasiadis who has been introduced late in South's most recent games came off the bench to the joy of the expectant crowd, and did enough in his quarter-match to keep the pressure on Cosmos, even to the extend of almost pushing his way onto the score-sheet with a shot late in the match which went just over.
"They worked hard and made it difficult for us," Postecoglou said. "We needed an early goal to really open them up. We had some chances early on which we didn't take, and once that happens it's always going to be tough."
Canberra coach Tom Sermani was pleased with the Cosmos performance, despite the loss. "I thought in particularly the second half we created a few chances. With just a little more composure in front of goal, and a bit of luck, we may have taken it away."
"But it's always tough to come here and win. The difference between a team at the top is that they keep on going and they get rewarded for their persistence."