Sydney FC are on the verge of making the last 16 of the Asian Champions League for the first time in club history, with Milos Ninkovic inflicting a 1-0 defeat on South Korean side Pohang Steelers.
As they fizzle to the end of an underwhelming A-League season, having surrendered a finals spot via 11 straight winless games, the Sky Blues have been desperate to make amends in the Asian tournament.
Although the football did not reach great heights, the result lifts Graham Arnold’s side five points clear at the top of Group H, but that gap could shorten slightly depending on how the Urawa Red Diamonds fare against Guangzhou Evergrande in Japan.
Should Urawa win, Sydney will need possibly just one more point with two group games remaining against the Japanese heavyweights at home in two weeks and then struggling reigning Asian champions Evergrande away early next month.
At Allianz Stadium on Tuesday night, neither side was convincing in front of a sparse crowd.
Even with Sydney’s defence seemingly on holiday for periods, the visitors never looked like threatening.
There was not a shot on target from either team in a bland first half, more defined by physical encounters than it was quality football.
Andrew Hoole copped his second yellow card of the tournament, meaning he will be suspended for the next match.
Sydney’s best chance came in the 45th minute, when Ninkovic threaded a ball through to Carney, who spooned it over the top of the crossbar.
But whatever Arnold said to his players during the break gave them the kick they needed.
Just over five minutes into the second stanza, Brandon O’Neill took possession at the halfway mark and embarked in a clever one-two with Hoole, who flicked a pass inside to Ninkovic — undoubtedly the standout of Sydney’s five foreigners this season.
With three Pohang defenders advancing, albeit unconvincingly, the Serbian playmaker managed to thread the ball through a glimmer of space and past goalkeeper Kim Jin-young into the far corner of the net.
Late on, as the South Koreans embarked on a small attacking surge, in-form defender Matt Jurman even took a rare shot on goal with a rocket that flew straight into Kim’s face.
The shocked gloveman regained enough composure to make two fine reflex saves in injury time when Sydney substitute George Blackwood struck from point blank and O’Neill had another go with the scraps.