Sydney FC have left themselves an Asian Champions League (ACL) mountain to climb after suffering a 2-0 home defeat to J-League powerhouse Kashima Antlers.
The well-drilled Group H leaders were too much for the Sky Blues, who left Allianz Stadium on Wednesday night with a single point from three games.
Two defensive lapses allowed Shoma Doi and Naomichi Ueda to seal a result compounded for the hosts by Michael Zullo's aggravated injury and Brandon O'Neill's suspension for the return fixture in Japan.
The win lifts Kashima to seven points and leaves Sydney dead last, though Wednesday's 1-1 draw between Suwon Bluewings (four points) and Shanghai Shenhua (three points) gives Graham Arnold's side hope a round-of-16 appearance is not yet completely lost.
"We conceded two very sloppy goals from set pieces," Arnold said.
"We probably had the two biggest moments in the game to score. When you take those big moments, it's a totally different game."
With Milos Ninkovic out of the squad due to a hamstring problem, suffered in Saturday's loss at Newcastle, and Bobo relegated to the bench with a back complaint, Matt Simon led the attack with David Carney and regulars Alex Brosque and Adrian Mierzejewski.
What Sydney lacked in pace, the team - at least initially - made up for in defensive fortitude, and the opening exchanges were as tight as Michael Zullo's hamstring before he pulled up limp in the 24th minute.
Luke Wilkshire was shifted promptly to left-back and Paulo Retre introduced at right-back, just in time for Kashima to break the deadlock on 40 minutes.
Doi was left unmarked in the box to sidefoot his shot past a stranded Andrew Redmayne after Yuma Suzuki's miscued effort from a corner found his teammate.
Ryota Nagaki was lucky to get away with a late tackle just before halftime that left Brandon O'Neill struggling and triggered heated words down the tunnel.
Ironically, O'Neill received his second yellow card of the tournament for a challenge on Atsutaka Nakamura after the break.
But something in Sydney sparked and, with Bobo replacing Simon, Mierzejewski started to pepper the visitors' goal.
Kashima goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata, who'd had little to do until that point, made several top-shelf saves to keep the hosts at bay.
His best stopped a would-be Mierzejewski equaliser when Carney played in Brosque and the skipper squared to the Polish attacker.
But the Antlers sealed the win three minutes from time when Ueda headed home after Shuto Yamamoto flicked on a corner.
"We played with great intensity and controlled the game very well," Antlers coach Go Oiwa said.
"Everyone on the pitch deserves applause."
Australian Associated Press