The Wellington Phoenix's playoff hopes have taken a hit, and things are about to get even tougher.
The Phoenix came into the clash against Western Sydney Wanderers knowing a win would put them inside the top six, but instead a 3-1 defeat has dropped them back into eighth on the A-League ladder.
With nine games to go, the Phoenix have time on their side, but a trip to the undefeated Sydney FC looms on Thursday as the start of three straight games against top four sides.
A victory over an inconsistent Western Sydney side would have set the tone for the difficult stretch, but they couldn't match the attacking power of Brendon Santalab and Nicolas Martinez as Wanderers were well worth their three points.
Santalab was heavily involved from the early stages, having the ball in the back of the net in 13th minute, but his legitimate goal was ruled out for an imaginary offside by the assistant referee.
Eight minutes later nobody could deny him.
The impressive Martinez received a pass and turned Jacob Tratt with a swift swivel in the middle of the park, before feeding Santalab who fired a shot past Phoenix custodian Glen Moss.
The Phoenix hadn't come from behind to win all season, and while they had Wanderers scrambling defensively on occasion, they had the favour returned with interest as they were peppered by quick-flowing attacks.
Whenever the Phoenix strung together a spell of attacking pressure, Western Sydney countered, and that trait gave them a 2-0 lead early in the second spell as the combination of Santalab and Martinez struck again.
Once more, Tratt was exploited, playing Santalab onside before he squared to Martinez to chip past Moss and extend the lead.
The Phoenix's defence has been much improved this season, but their display was poor as they conceded a third goal for the first time since October.
A slip in the corner allowed Terry Antonis to fire a low cross to Santalab, who grabbed his second with a powerful strike from close range.
A Shane Smeltz penalty brought him his 90th A-League goal, the second most in competition history, but his night was soured with a second yellow card to get his marching orders and dash any hope of an improbable comeback.
Western Sydney Wanderers 3 (Santalab 2, Martinez)
Wellington Phoenix 1 (Smeltz)