Newcastle Jets showed plenty of spirit but it wasn't enough to prevent the struggling club from going down 2-1 to high flyers Sydney FC at McDonald Jones Stadium on Friday night.
Four days after Ernie Merrick had his contract terminated for the side's lack of fight in a 4-0 loss to Melbourne Victory, the Jets pushed the defending champions to the limit.
They had the better of the second half, but couldn't find an equaliser.
Abdiel Arroyo hit the crossbar, while Dimi Petratos, Jason Hoffman, Steven Ugarkovic and replacement Kaine Sheppard all had chances.
"I thought the effort was excellent," caretaker coach Craig Deans said. "You could not say there was a player out there who didn't put 100 per cent in right to the end. There were lots of positive but we wanted to get something out of the game and we didn't do it."
In the end, two clinical finishes by Adam Le Fondre (13th minute) and Kosta Barbarouses (36th) were the difference.
Steven Ugarkovic produced a piece of quality to equalise after 22 minutes, but again the Jets' inability to concert chances proved costly.
The home side fired 14 shots to Sydney's four and had 50% of possession.
"We need to defend better," Deans said. "We had a short turnaround week, we worked a little bit on defensive organisation and how to try and counteract what Sydney were going to do. It's difficult. Sydney are a very good team. They are smart enough to play the game on the run a little bit. With the two goal, a lack of communication was probably our downfall.
"With the ball we were comfortable in possession, we got into dangerous areas and we had enough shots and crosses to cause a lot of trouble for Sydney. It is a matter of being clinical and taking them. That is a work in progress."
The loss leaves the Jets rooted to the bottom of the ladder on nine points.
League leaders Sydney entered the clash 22 points ahead of the hosts and the difference in confidence was clear.
Sydney coach Steve Corica had agreed that the his side was put under enormous pressure in the second half but praised the way the defence held strong.
"The Jets pushed numbers forward and put balls into the box but we dealt with it," he said. "They had the chance that hit the crossbar in the second half. We defended deep but well.
"Newcastle are a good team and probably deserve to be a little bit higher than what they are. They have been leaking goals a little but they are obviously trying to fix that. They have attacking weapons and especially in the second half put us under pressure but we dealt with it nicely."
There were encouraging signs for the Jets in an entertaining opening first half only for their frailties in defence to resurface and go to the break down 2-1.
Arroyo returned from a six-week lay-off with a hamstring injury to lead the attack as interim coach Craig Deans reverted to a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Petratos shrugged off a groin niggle to start in the No.10 role and rookies Angus Thurgate and Pat Langlois dropped back to the bench.
The Jets could have taken the lead inside four minutes. Matt Millar burst down the right and delivered a cross for Arroyo who couldn't beat Andrew Redmayne with his header.
The Jets' resistance lasted 13 minutes. Joel King dispossessed Nick Fitzgerald near halfway and released Milos Ninkovic.
He fed Barbarouses who cut a square ball for Le Fondre to stab home.
The home side were in need of a lift and Steve Ugarkovic provided it with a stunning strike in the 22nd minute. He received a pass on the edge of the box, shifted the ball to his right and curled a shot inside the right post.
Ugarkovic's piece of brilliance was matched by Ninkovic in the 36th minute. The sublime Serbian, with little space to work on the byline, threaded a ball through the legs of Ben Kantarovski and into the path of Barbarouses who slipped between two defenders for a tap-in.
Arroyo, who was lively, thought he had equalised eight minutes after the break when he crunched a shot from 10 metres which hit the underside of the crossbar and rebounded into the field of play.
* NEWCASTLE'S deferred W-League clash with Adelaide will be played at McDonald Jones Stadium on Saturday, February 1, from 7.30pm.