MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Substitute Trent Buhagiar scored a late brace in a three-minute burst to give A-League champions Sydney FC a 3-1 win over Wellington Phoenix on Friday as professional soccer resumed in Australia after a four-month hiatus due to COVID-19.
The fleet-footed Buhagiar struck into an open goal to put the home side 2-1 in front in the 88th minute after goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic charged off his line on a soggy evening at Jubilee Stadium in western Sydney.
Buhagiar sealed the win two minutes later with a neat dink over Marinovic after his first attempt rebounded off the keeper.
“It’s a great feeling coming on, having such a long time off,” Buhagiar said. “It pushes us close to the title.”
Sydney cemented top spot in the league with six rounds to complete before the playoffs, while third-placed Phoenix remain one point ahead of Brisbane Roar.
Australia’s top flight was suspended in March due to COVID-19 and has had a rocky path back to resumption.
A surge in infections in Melbourne meant no matches would be played in Australia’s second largest city and forced the evacuation of three teams to a biosecure hub in New South Wales state last week.
Clusters of infections in Sydney have also popped up in recent days, prompting the league to draw up contingency plans to move the entire competition to northeastern Queensland state.
A crowd of about 1,800 shrugged off anxiety over the virus and braved the rainy conditions to take in an entertaining clash between the champions and the New Zealanders, who have been camped in Australia for a month due to travel restrictions.
Sydney midfielder Luke Brattan tested Marinovic three times in a scoreless opening half before the home side fell 1-0 behind when Reno Piscopo slotted a 66th minute penalty.
Adam Le Fondre levelled for Sydney with a penalty 10 minutes later, however, after a handball decision against Phoenix substitute Ulises Davila.
With the league having decided to suspend the use of the Video Assistant Referee for the rest of the regular season, a number of contentious decisions went unchecked.
Each team had a handball appeal turned down, while the Phoenix had an 84th minute goal disallowed when Davila’s shot deflected off a player who was ruled offside.
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Christian Radnedge