Western Sydney had started like a house on fire, scoring the opening goal in just the second minute, but slipped to 2-1 down after a perplexing penalty decision gave City a way back into the contest.
Maclaren’s first goal was that 53rd-minute spot kick awarded by referee Chris Beath, who picked out what appeared to be the most marginal of fouls from midfielder Pirmin Schwegler on Denis Genreau. The VAR reviewed it but could not find a reason to overturn it.
You have two eyes. Do you understand the game a bit? F***ing have a look.
Babbel tried to bite his tongue in his post-match press conference but could not hide his frustration, especially after being further pressed for his opinion by reporters.
“It changed the whole game. [Before then] I never had the feeling they can score a goal because the boys defended fantastic,” Babbel said.
“For me, I couldn’t see one chance in the first half. It changed everything. But I promised a big talk with the referees that I’m not saying anything about the referees.
“But you’re not blind, write it down.”
Asked if he thought Genreau took a dive, he said: “You have two eyes. Do you understand the game a bit? F***ing have a look.”
Babbel’s counterpart, Melbourne City coach Erick Mombaerts, refused to offer his opinion on the penalty when asked.
“In our previous game we conceded two penalties – not similar, but I can’t say anything. There is VAR, I’ll let the referee take his decision,” he said.
After the penalty, Maclaren then set up former Sydney FC midfielder Josh Brillante, who finished another sweeping move in the 73rd minute to put the visitors 2-1 ahead.
Seven minutes later, the Wanderers thought they’d done enough to earn a share of the spoils. Marquee man Alexander Meier had only just been sent into the match as a substitute when he headed down a Daniel Georgievski cross into the path of Kwame Yeboah, who fired home his second goal of the night in the 80th minute.
But there was a bitterly disappointing twist in the tail for the home side, who are now winless in their last three games and desperately need to improve the functionality of their midfield if they are to be a force in the A-League this season.
Yeboah started and finished the move that gave the Wanderers the opening goal and a dream start to the match. He chested a ball down for captain Mitchell Duke, who curled a brilliant diagonal ball to the lively Bruce Kamau, waiting on the right edge of the penalty area.
Playing his first match of the season, Kamau smacked it across the box with his first touch, past a flat-footed Scott Galloway and to the back post where a swarming Yeboah was there to tap it in.
An exuberant dancing celebration followed, and although Yeboah was not aware the linesman had raised his flag for offside, a VAR check confirmed it was a legitimate goal and saved him from looking silly.
It was a moment of pure brilliance that kicked off a bright 20-minute period for the Wanderers. They saw less of the ball than Melbourne City, but when they had it, they looked far more dangerous. Markus Babbel’s men were happy to let the visitors have the lion’s share of possession, and aside from a couple of pings on goal that tested Daniel Lopar, they didn’t do much with it.
Kamau, meanwhile, continued to play like a man possessed, bamboozling Scott Jamieson with a back-and-forth dribbling routine in the corner that led to a long-distance effort from Daniel Georgievski, which had to be kept out by a diving Dean Bouzanis.
It was one of the final acts of a mediocre first half of football, but the match exploded into life after the break – just not in the way Wanderers fans would have wanted.
Vince is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.