A goal from Ben Waine and a return to fitness by Clayton Lewis provided two positives for the Wellington Phoenix as they lost their last regular-season A-League fixture 2-1 to Melbourne City.
The two All Whites helped the Phoenix recover from a poor start to finish strongly.
The reigning champions scored twice in the opening 10 minutes and were cruising to the premiership title. But Ben Waine’s sixth goal of the season early in the second-half brought the Nix back into the match and set up an absorbing final half an hour.
Wellington remain sixth on the ladder and will face third-placed Western United in an elimination final back in Melbourne on Saturday night.
Main photo: Ben Waine … on the Phoenix scoresheet again. File photo: Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.
Ball and Sandovi given a night off
“Off the back of the second-half performance I feel positive, not so much the first-half,” Phoenix head coach Ufuk Talay told media post-game.
“Conceding from two set-pieces is disappointing. Second-half we changed things and the boys came out with a response.
“It was good to have a second-half against Melbourne City the way that we did. It was pretty close to finals football.”
Another positive for the Phoenix was that All White Lewis managed to play the entire second-half, after six weeks on the sidelines with an ankle injury.
“It was very good to get 45 minutes under his belt this evening and you can see the effect that he has when he comes on the park and plays for our team,” Talay said.
He made three changes to the XI which started Thursday night’s 2-1 win over Western Sydney Wanderers.
Academy graduates Riley Bidois and Jackson Manuel were handed their first starts for the club, with veteran striker Gary Hooper also coming into the starting line-up.
David Ball and Gael Sandoval were given the night off, while last Thursday’s match-winner, Reno Piscopo, was named amongst the substitutes.
Double trouble from corners
The Phoenix suffered an early double blow, conceding twice from corners.
Left back Sam Sutton headed into his own net in just the third minute and Melbourne City’s golden boot Jamie Maclaren headed home from close-range seven minutes later.
Wellington’s brightest moment of the first half came in between the two goals when the impressive Ben Old had a shot blocked after playing a neat one-two with Hooper.
City dominated possession and pinned the Nix inside their half for the next half an hour but rarely tested ‘keeper Oli Sail.
Sail made a smart save to deny Andrew Nabbout at his near post in the 28th minute, but otherwise the hosts weren’t able to find the target.
Maclaren rattled Sail’s right-hand post three minutes from halftime and then found the side netting on the opposite side moments later.
City defender Rostyn Griffiths also headed narrowly over the bar from a corner shortly before the break.
Talay tweaked the Phoenix’s shape shortly before halftime, reverting to his preferred 4-2-2-2 formation and moving Waine up front alongside Hooper.
Piscopo and Lewis were introduced at the start of the second-half and had an immediate impact. The Nix became more assured in possession and they had an opportunity five minutes after the break.
Piscopo released Sutton into space down the left flank and the fullback delivered an inch-perfect cross that Old headed over the bar.
Waine finds the net to keep Nix in the game
Waine got Wellington back into the match in the 54th minute when he threaded a shot past Griffiths, across City ‘keeper Thomas Glover and into the back of the net.
Sail ensured the Phoenix kept in touch, parrying away a couple of powerful shots in the 59th and 66th minutes. He was also happy to see Maclaren clatter a shot against his near post 20 minutes from fulltime.
The Nix finished the stronger of the two sides, but they were unable to produce the final telling ball. The closest they came to an equaliser was via a Lewis free-kick in the 88th minute but Glover managed to hold on to the shot.
Melbourne City too held on for the three points to secure the Premiers’ Plate for the second straight season.
The Wellington Phoenix will return to Victoria on Saturday night to play Western United in an elimination final. The winner will advance to a home and away semi-final.
20. Oli SAIL (gk) (c), 4. Scott WOOTTON, 6. Tim PAYNE, 8. Ben OLD (5. James MCGARRY 90+1), 13. Nicholas PENNINGTON, 18. Ben WAINE, 19. Sam SUTTON, 33. Finn SURMAN (16. Louis FENTON 66th), 34. Jackson MANUEL (23. Clayton LEWIS 46th), 36. Riley BIDOIS (10. Reno PISCOPO 46th), 88. Gary HOOPER (43. Oskar VAN HATTUM 85th)
Unused substitutes: 40. Alex PAULSEN (gk), 3. Matthew BOZINOVSKI
1. Thomas GLOVER (gk), 3. Scott JAMIESON (c), 4. Nuno REIS, 5. Rostyn GRIFFITHS, 6. Carl JENKINSON, 7. Mathew LECKIE, 9. Jamie MACLAREN, 15. Andrew NABBOUT (38. Jordan BOS 73rd), 16. Taras GOMULKA, 18. Connor METCALFE, 23. Marco TILIO (17. Stefan COLAKOVSKI 82nd)
Unused substitutes: 33. Matthew SUTTON (gk), 2. Scott GALLOWAY, 14. Tsubasa ENDO, 34 Jordon HALL, 35. Raphael BORGES RODRIGUES
19. Sam SUTTON (Wellington Phoenix) – 3rd own goal
9. Jamie MACLAREN (Melbourne City) – 10th
18. Ben WAINE (Wellington Phoenix) – 54th
15. Andrew NABBOUT (Melbourne City) – yellow – 30th
23. Marco TILIO (Melbourne City) – yellow – 54th
9. Jamie MACLAREN (Melbourne City) – yellow – 57th
10. Reno PISCOPO (Wellington Phoenix) – yellow – 82nd
6. Carl JENKINSON (Melbourne City) – yellow – 83rd
18. Ben WAINE (Wellington Phoenix) – yellow – 90+2
This story is reproduced with the assistance of the Wellington Phoenix.