The Wellington Phoenix have joined the Brisbane Roar at the top of the Isuzu UTE A-League ladder after taking all three points from their drama-filled home opener.
The Phoenix have beaten the Perth Glory 2-1 at Sky Stadium in Wellington, after more heroics from new goalkeeper Alex Paulsen.
Paulsen, man of the match in round one, saved a late penalty to secure the victory, after first Oskar Zawada and then Bozhidar Kraev had scored goals to put the Nix in front.
Main photo: Alex Paulsen … continues his dream start to the season with a match-winning penalty save.
Giancarlo Italiano has become just the third Wellington Phoenix head coach to win his first home match in charge.
“Never in doubt really,” Italiano joked to media post-match. “I don’t know what all the excitement is about!
“It was a great game. I’m very happy for the boys. I thought they put in an unbelievable shift.
“For us, in the context of the season, we don’t know how important that save is, but for now it’s immense because it’s the difference between us being on two points and four points.”
It’s not the first time Paulsen has saved penalties for the Phoenix. His spot-kick heroics secured the Nix a place in the semi-finals of the Australia Cup in early 2022.
“I think penalty saving comes down to confidence and being a confidence ‘keeper,” Italiano said.
“Once you make one or two penalty saves then you have the belief you can save any penalty. AP has got that confidence.
“He’s got that little bit of cockiness…and it puts off the player taking the penalty because he has that at the back of his mind that he actually has to hit it really well to capitalise.”
Giancarlo Italiano labelled Kraev’s goal “exceptional” and believes Zawada showed “great instinct” to score his.
“It shows the class that he has and that’s something he built his whole season on last year. He has the potential to better that this year.
“I’d like us to be a little bit more consistent with the ball to give him those opportunities to score. It’s going to take time.
“Today you could tell we were a little bit more attack-minded and when it worked we made some really good opportunities, but we’re still in our infancy with the way I want to play.
“The only disappointing thing is I’d like to see more fans, but if we keep winning and keep playing a brand of football that is exciting there’s no excuse not to come.”
Italiano made one change to the XI which started the opening round match against Wanderers, with Mohamed Al-Taay replacing David Ball, who has been hampered by pain in his hip. Ball was still fit enough to be named amongst the substitutes, along with academy players Jackson Manuel and Fergus Gillion.
The Phoenix made a dream start, with Zawada giving Wellington the lead just eight minutes into the match. The team’s reigning player of the year pounced on a wayward pass from former teammate Oli Sail and expertly chipped the Glory ‘keeper from 35 yards out.
Right back Tim Payne had a great opportunity to double the Nix’s lead inside a quarter of an hour when he brought down a clever ball from Kraev and drove into the Perth box. Unfortunately, his left-footed effort curled wide of the far post.
Kraev came within inches of making it 2-0 midway through the first half when he rattled the right-hand post after Lukas Kelly-Heald found Kraev in space on the penalty spot after surging forward from left back.
There were a couple of anxious moments for the Phoenix before halftime, with Glory midfielder Jarrod Carluccio narrowly missing the target from close range before Payne was on hand to stop the ball crossing the line after substitute striker David Williams squeezed a shot through Paulsen’s legs.
The Nix made a positive start to the second half but found themselves level a quarter of an hour after halftime when Perth captain Mark Beevers nodded home an Oliver Bozanic free-kick from six yards out.
Giancarlo Italiano made his first change in the 70th minute, bringing on Ben Old in place of club captain Alex Rufer.
Old made an almost immediate impact and helped set up what was ultimately the Phoenix’s match-winner.
He won possession inside the Perth half and Kosta Barbarouses then sprung forward and found Zawada, who delivered a perfectly weighted one-touch pass to Kraev, who expertly finished the free-flowing move.
Academy products Fergus Gillion and Isaac Hughes were soon brought on to make their A-League debuts as Italiano looked to defend the lead.
The Nix, following VAR intervention, gave Perth the chance to equalise from the penalty spot with time almost up on the clock when Kelly-Heald was controversially deemed to have committed a handball in the box.
But up stepped Paulsen, who saved Adam Taggart’s spot kick, diving low to his right.
The Phoenix defended stoutly for the remainder of the 90 and the six minutes of time added on to claim the three points and jump up to the top of the ladder for the time being at least.
The Wellington Phoenix will return to Sky Stadium next Saturday when the club hosts the Brisbane Roar in an A-Leagues double-header.
Game played on Saturday October 28, 2023
Wellington Phoenix 2 (Oskar Zawada 9′, Bozhidar Kraev 74′)
Perth Glory 1 (Mark Beevers 59′)
40. Alex PAULSEN (gk), 3. Finn SURMAN, 4. Scott WOOTTON, 6. Tim PAYNE, 7. Kosta BARBAROUSES (26. Isaac HUGHES 83rd), 9. Oskar ZAWADA, 11. Bozhidar KRAEV, 12. Mohamed AL-TAAY (42. Fergus GILLION 81st), 14. Alex RUFER (c) (8. Ben OLD 70th), 15. Nicholas PENNINGTON, 18. Lukas KELLY-HEALD.
Unused substitutes: 25. Jack DUNCAN (gk), 10. David BALL, 34. Josh RUDLAND, 52. Jackson MANUEL.
1. Oli SAIL (gk), 2. John KOUTROUMBIS, 5. Mark BEEVERS (c), 12. Luke IVANOVIC (, 9. David WILLIAMS 18th), 15. Aleksandar SUSNJAR (19. Trent OSTLER 82nd), 17. Jarrod CARLUCCIO (7. Stefan COLAKOVSKI 46th), 20. Giordano COLLI, 22. Adam TAGGART, 23. Daniel BENNIE (77. Bruce KAMAU 58th), 24. Oliver BOZANIC (3. Jacob MUIR 82nd), 29. Darryl LACHMAN.
Unused substitutes: 13. Cameron COOK (gk), 14. Riley WARLAND.
15. Aleksandar SUSNJAR (Perth Glory) – yellow – 42nd
7. Kosta BARBAROUSES (Wellington Phoenix) – yellow – 45th
7. Stefan COLAKOVSKI (Perth Glory) – yellow – 47th
9. Oskar ZAWADA (Wellington Phoenix) – yellow – 88th