Other than for the opening salvos, South Melbourne were rarely stretched in their 2-0 win against Northern Spirit at Bob Jane Stadium on Sunday.
Injuries had depleted the Sydney side to the extent that player-coach and striker Graham Arnold started himself as sweeper rather than in off the bench into the forward line.
"It's been quite difficult getting cohesion. (Robbie) Slater fell out yesterday with a strained hamstring," said Arnold. "Ian Crook's due back any time now, and then once he's back, I'll be back to the bench. It's just too hard playing up front and coaching because you've got your back to the play most of the time and it's hard to communicate from up front."
Michael Curcija scored both goals - the first after 31 minutes when Clarkson had floated in a free-kick from the left. Spirit goalkeeper Paul Henderson left his line to claim it, but was unable to reach it cleanly as defender Mark Rudan and South striker Vaughan Coveny rose for the header in front of him. The ball fell to Curcija whose left foot shot on the turn crashed high into the net.
The free-kick had been given away by Robert Enes just seconds after Enes had himself been cut down by George Goutzioulis. Goutzioulis for his tackle, and then Enes for his, both found themselves booked for their indiscretions.
It had all started so brightly for Spirit. Within ten minutes of the game starting Spirit had several corners which the South defence failed to deal with convincingly. It seemed only a matter of time before the pressure would tell. But somehow South Melbourne dug themselves out of this poor start and gradually worked themselves into the contest.
Rudan had headed over in this early period, and then Luke Casserly shot wide after a Kresimir Marusic backheel set him in space. Marusic later set up Clayton Zane whose shot also went wide.
The play was end-to-end, possibly as the conditions encouraged it - rain early that morning in a typical Melbourne four-seasons day had meant defences were to find their footing perilous and turning fraught.
South Melbourne's first attack of note happened in the 16th minute. Industrious midfielder David Clarkson had a 20 metre shot gathered by Henderson at the second attempt with the avaricious Curcija manacingly bearing down.
Just before the half came the best unconverted chance either side would have all day. In a nine-pass movement begun deep in their own half when Enes intercepted, the ball found its way to Paul Bilokapic on the left just inside the half. Bilokapic sent a short pass to Enes, now in a forward position. Enes had sensed that South's defence was square and that Marusic could be clean through if the right ball was played. The pass was perfect and Marusic had only Michael Petkovic to beat when he let fly his shot. Petkovic's positioning was precise, and he managed to make himself too large for Marusic's shot which cannoned off his legs to safety.
Although the game was well-poised by the end of the half, within nine minutes of the re-start Curcija had converted the penalty that effectively ended the contest. With a Clarkson-Paul Trimboli midfield combination, the ball was worked to Curcija at the edge of the penalty area. As the Olyroo striker was winding up for his shot, Rudan stepped in front tripping him and there could be little debate that the penalty award was just.
The second goal was the signal for Arnold to push himself to the front in an attempt to get some reward, but despite his experience, there was little that could be done to alter the outcome.
Casserly then Zane had the last opportunities of significance for Spirit but there was to be no joy for them on this visit to Melbourne.
The match was Olyroo Tansel Baser's last in Melbourne, and maybe in the Ericsson Cup as his transfer to Turkish side Trabzsonspor will be completed before next week. He leaves at the beginning of January - the latest in a line of Australian talent overseas. The departure of Baser will cause a re-arrangement in South's defence. Baser has recently been playing as sweeper and this week Baser was moved to left-back - a position Fausto De Amicis has usually held. De Amicis took over as sweeper this week. "We did that last week against Adelaide, we played Fausto as sweeper. It's been something I've had at the back of my mind to do for a while, and we were just waiting for the right game to do it. I thought he worked well last week and decided to continue with it, and with Tansel going we've obviously got some decisions to make about who slots in there and who goes to sweeper. I haven't made up my mind, I'm happy with Fausto there at the moment," said South coach Ange Postecoglou after the game.
It is this movement of players from the national league that Spirit coach, and overseas pioneer Graham Arnold puts down to a decline in the standard of the competition. "(The standard of the league is) less than when I left, but that's normal when you consider the player-drain, the amount of players that have gone overseas. The young players are good, it's just that there's a lot of clubs that don't have the patience with them. I've got the patience with mine, and I think you've got to have patience with kids because they're always going to make mistakes."