With their Australian brethren storming through the cream of Asian football in the previous 24 hours, the pressure was on the Central Coast Mariners to make it a memorable hat-trick on the continent.
While visitors FC Seoul looked good on paper, their nightmare start to the domestic season – six points from eight matches – suggested confidence was low. The opening for the Mariners was there.
A win would have also put Mariners in the box seat to qualify from Group F. But it wasn’t to be, and it happened in the cruellest for circumstances for the 4118 who turned up.
With the match still scoreless late in injury time, Seoul’s Kim Jin-kyu floated in a harmless cross, one met by the shin of Mariners’ captain John Hutchinson.
The ball looped past the helpless Liam Reddy, who had put in another outstanding display between the posts until then.
“The first thing we’ll do when we go into the dressing room after the match is put our arm around 'Hutch' and pick him up,” said coach Phil Moss after the match. “He doesn’t deserve that, but that’s football and sometimes these things happen. I know the strength of his character and he’ll bounce back.”
Instead of a valued point, Central Coast – who went into the clash on top of the group – fall out of the top two completely with one match left to play. Seoul move to eight points, two points clear of the Mariners.
Now Moss’s side will almost certainly have to defeat Japanese side Sanfrecce Hiroshima away next week to qualify for the knockout stages.
Making four changes to the side that dismantled Brisbane Roar 2-0 on Saturday night, Moss had to pick a side capable of competing but with Saturday’s elimination final against Adelaide United firmly in mind.
In another example of their new system, Moss persisted with dropping Nick Montgomery into defence when required, allowing the fullbacks to press much higher. It is a formation they are learning quickly.
Neither side was able to wholly stamp their authority in the early stages, both staying cagey in possession and creating only a handful of opportunities.
It eventually opened up, arguably more for the visitors than the hosts, and they were unlucky to not be ahead following Rafael’s blazing effort in the 20th minute, which spun out after striking the underside of the bar.
Seoul striker Sergio Escudero then unleashed a fierce shot but the naturalised Japanese striker (of Argentine parents who emigrated from Spain) couldn’t keep it down. Kim Chi-woo also sent another decent effort wide.
Still, they couldn’t break through and the Mariners nearly took the lead through the very unlikely source of Brent Griffiths, who ripped a long-range drive that Kim Yong-dae had to stretch to reach.
The second half ambled along until Matt Simon picked up a yellow card for tangling with Kim Ju-young, and keenly protested when Adrian Caceres was pulled up for a questionable free-kick on Cha Du-ri moments later.
That frustration turned to immense relief shortly after as substitute Go Yo-han decided to cut back for Escudero, only stopped by a brilliant intervention from Reddy’s feet.
Seoul were now clearly upping the ante, and Reddy had to be on his toes at all times. The unmarked Yun Il-lok had another attempt from close range but inexplicably headed over.
But as the Koreans pushed, Reddy was good to his name. Yo-han was causing particular trouble and had another one-on-one, which the keeper thwarted again.
However, for all his brilliance on the night, there was nothing Reddy could do about Hutchinson’s very unfortunate winner.