The Wellington Phoenix have continued their remarkable record in Auckland, going top of the men’s A-League ladder.
The Phoenix beat three-time premiers Melbourne City 1-0 at Go Media Stadium Mt Smart in Auckland, courtesy of Bozhidar Kraev’s 48th-minute goal and more goalkeeping heroics from Alex Paulsen.
Main photo: Bozhidar Kraev’s latest goal celebration after his winner.
The young ‘keeper made a string of top-class saves, including denying Socceroos striker Jamie Maclaren from the penalty spot.
Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano was measured in his praise of his goalkeeper.
“I wasn’t expecting him to save it,” Italiano told media post-match. “It was great. It was overall a very good performance from AP.
“It was a commendable performance because he’s come across from the other side of the world.
“He’s had a great experience with the All Whites and sometimes young players can get a little bit ahead of themselves.
“We had a conversation before the game to stay grounded and stick to what he’s done over the last couple of months to get him in this position and not rest on his laurels and he did that today.”
The Nix have now only been beaten once in 17 matches in Tāmaki Makaurau and have moved two points clear at the top of the table.
“I’m very proud of everyone’s performance,” Italiano said. “I thought they defended diligently and the whole 90 minutes they were switched on.
“It was a little bit chaotic at the end, but the intent was great. I thought everyone did really well.
“The only criticism I would say in the second half we maybe scored a little bit too early and our mindset went to defending the lead as opposed to just finishing them off because I thought we had heaps of opportunity to counter.”
It is also the Phoenix’s first win over City since February 2020, with the competition heavyweights unbeaten in their past seven meetings with Wellington.
“It’s great for the club. I didn’t realise it was so long.
“They’re a quality team, with quality players and a very good club. Once Aurelio gets his rhythm going and gets his players back, they’re going to be a very good team so for us it’s a great result.”
Oskar Zawada left out through injury
Giancarlo Italiano was forced to make one change to his starting XI with David Ball replacing the injured Oskar Zawada up front. All Whites Tim Payne, Finn Surman and Paulsen were included in the side little over 24 hours after returning from international duty in Europe, while Jack Duncan, Fin Conchie, Oskar van Hattum and Matthew Sheridan were brought on to the bench.
Ball came close to making a dream start to his 100th A-League match when he slipped in behind the visitors’ defence inside the opening minute. Unfortunately for him and the Phoenix he was unable to beat City ‘keeper Jamie Young, who made a sharp save down to his left.
City midfielder Tolgay Arslan came within inches of opening the scoring himself in the 10th minute when he volleyed narrowly wide from the edge of the area.
Forward Marin Jakolis also forced a strong save from Paulsen a handful of minutes later after Jakolis cut into the left-hand side of his box.
Wellington however looked the more dangerous of the two sides in the first half and were able to block the majority of the visitors’ shots.
Kosta Barbarouses had arguably the Phoenix’s best chance of the first 45 shortly before the half hour mark when Ball found him free in the box from eight yards out. But Barbarouses slipped just as he was about to shoot and City were able to clear the danger.
The experienced forward almost made up for his missed chance 10 minutes later when he reacted quickly to Young being off his line, but the ‘keeper got back in time to make a fine save to keep out Barbarouses’ shot from nestling in the bottom corner.
Paulsen was relatively unemployed down the other end of the pitch but he had to make a sharp save of his own in the 41st minute to keep out a dangerous free-kick from Hamza Sakhi that looked destined for the top left-hand corner of his goal.
Kraev put Wellington in front just two minutes into the second half when he finished a free-flowing Phoenix attack. Mo Al-Taay slipped Ball in behind the City back four and then the milestone man picked out Kraev, who swept home into an open net.
There was some doubt whether the Bulgarian was offside but the video assistant referee deemed he wasn’t and the goal stood.
Kraev forced Young into a spectacular save shortly after the restart but this time he was ruled to be offside.
The Nix were fortunate to not concede in the 57th minute when Paulsen and Lukas Kelly-Heald played pinball on their own line, and Wellington’s ‘keeper made a couple of good saves to his left and right to keep out long-range shots from the visitors.
Paulsen was the hero 16 minutes from fulltime when he saved his second penalty of the season, denying Maclaren from the spot by tipping his spot kick on to the post.
City had been awarded a penalty after Kraev was deemed to have committed a foul in the box as he tracked back to try and stop a counterattack.
Barbarouses came close to sealing the three points in second half stoppage time but Jamie Young pulled off a spectacular save to push his long-range effort over the bar.
It was fitting that Alex Paulsen ensured the Nix would hold on for the win when he saved a near point-blank header from City substitute Terry Antonis.
The Wellington Phoenix will return to the capital to prepare for their sixth-round match against Western United in Ballarat next Saturday.
Game played on Saturday November 25, 2023
Wellington Phoenix 1 (Bozhidar Kraev 48′)
Melbourne City 0
40. Alex PAULSEN (gk), 3. Finn SURMAN, 4. Scott WOOTTON, 6. Tim PAYNE, 7. Kosta BARBAROUSES, 10. David BALL (5. Fin CONCHIE 79th), 11. Bozhidar KRAEV, 12. Mohamed AL-TAAY (8. Ben OLD 68th), 14. Alex RUFER (c), 15. Nicholas PENNINGTON (43. Matt SHERIDAN 89th), 18. Lukas KELLY-HEALD (19. Sam SUTTON 68th).
Unused substitutes: 25. Jack DUNCAN (gk), 24. Oskar VAN HATTUM, 26. Isaac HUGHES.
1. Jamie YOUNG (gk), 6. Steven UGARKOVIC, 8. Hamza SAKHI (17. Terry ANTONIS 78th), 9. Jamie MACLAREN (c), 10. Tolgay ARSLAN (21. Alessandro LOPANE 64th), 11. Leonardo NATEL (46. Benjamin MAZZEO 64th), 16. Aziz BEHICH, 22. Curtis GOOD, 25. Callum TALBOT (2. Scott GALLOWAY 78th), 26. Samuel SOUPRAYEN, 44. Marin JAKOLIS (38. Harry POLITIDIS ).
Unused substitutes: 33. Patrick BEACH (gk), 18. Jordon HALL.
22. Curtis GOOD (Melbourne City) – yellow – 67th
11. Bozhidar KRAEV (Wellington Phoenix) – yellow – 72nd