Two goals from super sub Gary Hooper were not enough to salvage a point as 10-man Wellington Phoenix fell to a 4-2 defeat to Perth Glory in a game where Tim Payne was harshly sent off.
In their worse defensive performance of the season, the Phoenix conceded four times, including two in three first half minutes, during a night of high drama at HBF Park on Friday.
The result saw the Phoenix (24 points) lose ground on top four rivals Glory (29) and Melbourne City (30), while they have now dropped below Adelaide United on goal differential.
Making matters worse, they will now be without Payne for next week’s crucial clash with second-place City after the right-back was shown a second yellow card for an accidental clip on Glory hero Nicholas D’Agostino.
With first-choice right-back Louis Fenton sidelined with a season-ending shoulder injury, coach Ufuk Talay could ill afford to lose another player in a position where they are light on cover.
But he will be particularly peeved by the nature of Payne’s exit, brandished a second yellow from referee Adam Kersey when much rougher challenges, notably one on Cameron Devlin in the early stages, went unpunished.
D’Agostino looked to launch a promising attack from inside his own half but he was stopped in his tracks when Payne slipped and fouled the 21-year-old.
Stepping in for sidelined star Diego Castro, D’Agostino scored on either side of halftime to push Tony Popovic’s side out to a comfortable 3-0 buffer after Tomislav Mrcela outmuscled Alex Rufer at a corner to break the deadlock.
Glory’s first two goals were scored within a three minute blitz before halftime, D’Agostino picking up where he left off after scoring a stoppage time equaliser against Victory last week.
Despite Payne’s 71st dismissal, Hooper gave the Phoenix a lifeline by scoring a quick-fire double off the bench to re-energise the visitors, who travelled to Perth early in order to acclimatise.
Hooper was dropped for speedster Jaushua Sotirio but made an immediate impact in the second half, proving he could be better suited to a super sub role.
The marquee striker headed in a pin-point cross from Payne for the first goal before turning inside the box and finishing at the near post for the second.
But just when it seemed like the Phoenix could dream of an unlikely draw, Bruno Fornaroli put the game out of their reach with a curling effort in the 90th minute to clinch a valuable win for Glory.
After losing Matti Steinmann on the eve of the match with illness, the Phoenix were dealt a further blow when returning midfielder Reno Piscopo succumb to a suspected hamstring injury, placing him in doubt for next week too.
The result extended Glory’s unbeaten run to nine games while the Phoenix have now lost two of their last three, loosening their grip on the top six.
Perth Glory 4 (Tomislav Mrcela 43′, Nicholas D’Agostino 45+1′, 54′, Bruno Fornaroli 90′) Wellington Phoenix 2 (Gary Hooper 68′, 76′)