A lethargic start and a crucial second-half error last night saw the Wellington Phoenix fall to a third loss in four A-League games, going down 3-1 to Sydney FC at Allianz Stadium.
The home side scored twice in a ridiculously lop-sided first half-hour and added a third early in the second period after a first ever goal from Alex Rodriguez had given the Phoenix hope of an unlikely upset.
On a pitch bordering on unacceptable, having been churned up by
the Sydney leg of the Sevens World Series last weekend, the chasm in class between the unbeaten league leaders and the struggling Phoenix was painfully evident from the opening whistle.
With less than three minutes gone, Sydney were ahead, skipper Alex Brosque galloping down the left before his perfectly weighted cross was headed home by Rhyan Grant.
The contrast between the two teams could hardly have been starker. The home side was completely untroubled in the opening exchanges, with goalkeeper Danny Vukovic practically unemployed.
At the other end, wave after wave of attack rained down on the Phoenix rearguard and it was no surprise when Sydney's lead was doubled with a sublime team goal.
The Sky Blues strung together five first-time passes before Brazilian striker Bobo headed home his eighth goal of the season.
Such was the comprehensiveness of Sydney's dominance that Wellington's foothold back in the game came as a complete surprise. Vukovic turned away a fierce header from Roy Krishna, but Rodriguez deflected the resulting corner in at the near post to notch his first Phoenix goal in his 64th appearance. Kosta Barbarouses fired narrowly wide shortly afterwards to put Sydney on notice; the Phoenix had finally woken up.
In his 200th A-League game, keeper Glen Moss kept the halftime margin to a manageable level, making superb saves in quick succession from Filip Holosko and Josh Brillante.
After a bright start to the second half, a Phoenix blunder handed back the ascendancy. A wayward pass in the defensive third from Rodriguez was seized on by outstanding Serb Milos Ninkovic, who threaded a precise shot inside the far post to restore the two-goal buffer.
The Phoenix were subsequently unable to fashion any clearcut chances against a Sydney side now 12 points clear at the top of the table after a nineteenth unbeaten match.
Wellington could be four points adrift of the top-six playoff places by the end of the weekend, depending on other results.
To add to Wellington's woes, Gui Finkler and Andrew Durante will miss next weekend's home clash with Melbourne City after picking up their fifth bookings of the season.
Michael McGlinchey was replaced at halftime with what looked to be a recurrence of a troublesome knee injury.