The Central Coast Mariners will head into the finals on a three-game winning streak after dispatching a 10-man Melbourne Heart 2-1.
The Central Coast Mariners will head into the finals on a three-game winning streak after dispatching a 10-man Melbourne Heart 2-1 on Saturday evening in Gosford.
A goal in each half to what was effectively Mariners' second side now sees them turn their attention to two AFC Champions League fixtures before their Hyundai A-League finals campaign begins on April 14.
The decisive moment came in the 34th minute when Heart defender Patrick Gerhardt became the team's third player sent off this season after he used his hand to stop a goal-bound strike from Mile Sterjovski before Daniel McBreen drilled the penalty safely into the net for his 17th goal of the season.
During the interval Heart coach John Aloisi was barred from the sidelines for the second half after he argued about the call with the match officials.
Substitute Mitchell Duke's 63rd-minute goal came after he had been on the ground for only two minutes before the Heart's best player on the night, Richard Garcia, scored ten minutes later.
With the Heart eliminated from playoff contention and the Mariners unable to improve on second place after the Western Sydney Wanderers claimed the Premiers' Plate on Friday, both coaches rung the changes.
Justin Pasfield retained his starting sport despite Mat Ryan's return from Australian duty as Graham Arnold made six outfield changes to a side looking towards their AFC Champions League fixtures against Guizhou Renhe.
This saw Bernie Ibini, John Hutchinson, Nick Montgomery, Josh Rose and Trent Sainsbury all rested and Duke dropped to the bench
First year coach Aloisi had Simon Colosimo return from suspension with Gerhardt back from international duty. Clint Bolton, as captain, and Ben Garrucio were elevated to the starting line-up.
The Mariners dominated possession early but lacked their usual spark in attack.
After a slow start the Heart sprung into action from the 25th minute with Garcia forcing Pasfield into two saves in three minutes.
On the half hour, Heart striker Josip Tadic forced Pasfeld into action again after Mariners midfielder Anthony Caceres turned the ball over.
Shortly after that period of Heart dominance disaster struck with Gerhardt's lapse.
A terrific run from Brad McDonald set-up McBreen who rounded Bolton before a desperate Colosimo saved the ball off the line. The subsequent rebound fell to Sterjovksi before Gerhardt intervened with referee Jared Gillett showing no hesitation in flashing the red card.
As the second half begun it was confirmed Heart coach Aloisi was sent from the bench for dissent after disputing Gerhardt's dismissal.
Both sides lacked vigour in the early stages of the second half until Duke's goal, with only a spate of long-range shots troubling both keepers.
Former Mariner Dylan Macallister feed Garcia in the 73rd minute as the Heart broke their duck, scoring their first goal for 499 minutes outside of Victoria.
After Garcia's goal the Mariners had chances for a third with Duke, McBreen and substitute Adriano Pellegrino all going close.
The end of the regular season sees the Mariners become the first team in Hyundai A-League history to finish in the top two in three successive seasons.
Central Coast Mariners 2 (McBreen 34p, Duke 63) Melbourne Heart 1 (Garcia 73)
Bet365.com Man of the Match: Oliver Bozanic Stepped up in an under-manned Mariners lineup with an assured display, creating chances and putting the Heart defence under constant pressure.
Crowd: 8,271 @ Bluetongue Stadium