The Wellington Phoenix have made an encouraging start to the new men’s A-League season, sharing the points with Western Sydney Wanderers in their opening game.
The Phoenix, tipped as wooden spooners by many pundits, held Wanderers, one of the 2023-24 Isuzu UTE A-League title contenders, to a scoreless draw at CommBank Stadium in Sydney.
The match was played in sweltering spring conditions, with the temperature at 30 degrees at kick-off, but the Nix worked hard throughout to secure their first point of the season.
Young goalkeeper Alex Paulsen, who was making just his fourth A-League start and first in 19 months, shone for Wellington, making three big saves, while showing command of his area and calmness playing out from the back.
The Phoenix also defended stoutly and limited Western Sydney’s chances, especially in the second half.
Giancarlo Italiano was satisfied with a draw in his first match as the Wellington Phoenix’s head coach.
“I think we merited the point,” Italiano told media post-match. “For large parts of that game what we wanted to execute came to fruition.
“In terms of defensive effort, I thought we were superb today, especially the way we defended in the box and how we dealt with set pieces.
“I felt we were very well organised, very well structured and they all knew their roles very well. If we can build on that I think it looks promising.”
Italiano wasn’t surprised by Paulsen’s performance in goal.
“Both ‘keepers we have are exceptionally talented.
“I don’t really need to say much to them because they’ve been fighting for the last two and a half months for the number one spot.
“I just encouraged him, wished him good luck and the rest was up to him.”
The Phoenix managed just one shot on target and their play in the final third is a work in progress.
“The heat was a significant factor in the first half and it really sapped the players coming into the second half and it was maybe why we weren’t as effective with the ball in the second.
“It comes down to chemistry and cohesion between the front four. I think that takes time, especially in a new system. It’s not going to work overnight.
“As a collective, those front four still need a bit of time, but once we get it I think we’ll start scoring goals.”
Italiano named one A-League debutant in his first starting XI as head coach, with Lukas Kelly-Heald (18) selected at left back, while he gave Paulsen the nod in goal ahead of the experienced Jack Duncan.
The ’keepers were the stars of the first half. Alex Paulsen made a superb save to deny the impressive Nicolas Milanovic in the sixth minute, acrobatically diving high to his left to keep out the Wanderers midfielder’s curling effort from the edge of the box.
The young Phoenix goalkeeper, who was assured with his feet throughout the match, produced a second top drawer save shortly after half an hour, turning a powerful header from Western Sydney’s new Swedish striker Marcus Antonsson around his right-hand post.
Lawrence Thomas, the reigning A-League men’s ‘keeper of the year, produced a great reflex save of his own in the third minute of first-half stoppage time to deny Nicholas Pennington, who rose to head a pinpoint Kosta Barbarouses into the top corner.
Paulsen pulled off another sharp save early in the second half to keep out a curling effort from Jack Clisby, but after that neither goalkeeper was troubled.
The Phoenix back four was well-marshalled by Scott Wootton and Finn Surman, with Kelly-Heald looking comfortable in his first A-League match.
The Nix substitutes also played key roles, with Mohamed Al-Taay, in his first A-League appearance for the club, and Ben Old working hard and making it difficult for Wanderers to create any goalscoring opportunities.
New Zealand U-20 international Fin Conchie also came on in stoppage time to make his Phoenix debut.
The Wellington Phoenix will return to the capital tomorrow to prepare for their home opener against Perth Glory at Sky Stadium on Saturday evening.
Game played on Sunday October 22, 2023
Western Sydney Wanderers 0
Wellington Phoenix 0
40. Alex PAULSEN (gk), 3. Finn SURMAN, 4. Scott WOOTTON, 6. Tim PAYNE, 7. Kosta BARBAROUSES (5. Fin CONCHIE 90+5), 9. Oskar ZAWADA, 10. David BALL (12. Mohamed AL-TAAY 62nd), 11. Bozhidar KRAEV (8. Ben OLD 73rd), 14. Alex RUFER (c), 15. Nicholas PENNINGTON, 18. Lukas KELLY-HEALD.
Unused substitutes: 25. Jack DUNCAN (gk), 26. Isaac HUGHES, 34. Josh RUDLAND, 48. Charlie BEALE.
Western Sydney Wanderers
20. Lawrence THOMAS (gk), 6. Marcelo (c), 7. Dylan PIERIAS (17. Lachlan BROOK 59th), 9. Marcus ANTONSSON, 13. Tate RUSSELL, 14. Nicolas MILANOVIC (37. Alexander BADOLATO 86th), 19. Jack CLISBY, 21. Jorritt HENDRIX (16. Thomas BEADLING 86th), 25. Josh BRILLANTE, 26. Brandon BORRELLO (35. Zachary SAPSFORD 61st), 33. Alexander BONETIG.
Unused substitutes: 40. Jack GIBSON (gk), 29. Dylan SCICLUNA, 36. Oscar PRIESTMAN.
25. Josh BRILLANTE (Western Sydney Wanderers) – yellow – 70th
14. Nicolas MILANOVIC (Western Sydney Wanderers) – yellow – 83rd
7. Kosta BARBAROUSES (Wellington Phoenix) – yellow – 90+4