CENTRAL Coast Mariners have missed the chance to go 11 points clear at the top after a 1-1 F3 Derby draw with Newcastle Jets in front of 10,904 fans at Bluetongue Stadium on Saturday.
Labinot Haliti struck early as Newcastle coach Gary van Egmond's cunning strategy led to a dominant opening period, but although Troy Hearfield missed a penalty the Mariners were able to set a new club record of 13 games unbeaten thanks to Patrick Zwaanswijk's second-half headed equaliser.
Van Egmond adopted the 3-4-3 shape he had used against Brisbane earlier in the season, perhaps inspired by the success found by Melbourne Heart and Gold Coast with back threes at Bluetongue earlier this campaign.
The change worked a treat as the Mariners struggled to get their usual passing game going, their fluidity also harmed by the loss of wingback Pedj Bojic to suspension.
The Jets took first blood in the 14th minute with a clinical counterattack executed down the flank occupied by the vociferous travelling supporters.
With most of his team-mates in the attacking box following a corner, Brad Porter saw his pass intercepted by Ruben Zadkovich. He fed Jeremy Brockie down the left and the in-form winger's cross was met with an agile volleyed finish on the sprint from Haliti.
The hosts were given a chance to respond 10 minutes later when assistant referee Allyson Flynn flagged for a handball on Nikolai Topor-Stanley as Zwaanswijk fired a header back across goal from a Michael McGlinchey free kick.
Former Jet striker Hearfield took it on himself to take the penalty ahead of regular spot-kick specialist Zwaanswijk but he was made to rue the decision when his tame effort was kept well out by Ben Kennedy, much to the chagrin of coach Graham Arnold on the sideline.
An equaliser would have been harsh on Newcastle given their dominance and Arnold soon switched to a 4-3-3 to pressure Newcastle's back three, but Van Egmond immediately mirrored that shape to maintain his spare man at the back.
The reshuffles did bring about some joy for the hosts but their pressure led to little in terms of clear chances besides a Josh Rose shot on half time that was gathered easily by Kennedy.
Arnold continued the tactical warfare in the second half with a 55th minute double change, introducing Daniel McBreen and Trent Sainsbury and moving to a 4-2-4.
He was finally rewarded on the hour as now-right winger Hearfield got in behind makeshift left back Topor-Stanley, and though his cutback towards Bernie Ibini was cleared by Taylor Regan, the youngster's clearance deflected into the ground and over the bar from Tiago and Zwaanswijk powered a header home from Bozanic's corner.
Van Egmond reacted by inserting more natural left back Sung-Hwan Byun into that slot and the substitute nearly made a dream impact as his cross narrowly evaded a host of attackers charging into Central Coast's area.
The fatigue of a frantic match led to a cagey patch until another substitute, Mariners striker Adam Kwasnik, got onto the end of a long ball but his volley under pressure was straight at Kennedy.
McGlinchey, pushed left in the second half, tricked and turned his way into the box three times in five minutes but while his first two cutbacks led to little, he slipped Rose in the third occasion and after a clever pass Topor-Stanley denied McBreen a certain winner with a key block.