The Wellington Phoenix hung tough with the league-leading Central Coast Mariners at the Cake Tin last night to earn a 1-1 draw but they will need to find another gear if they want to be a title contender this season.
Dani Sanchez's late header gave the Phoenix a point from a contest that they looked out of at times as their approach of using their wide men to knock in plenty of crosses became easy fodder for the Mariners' organised defenders.
Seasoned centre back Patrick Zwaanswijk helped the Central Coast outfit form a near-impenetrable wall on defence and the Phoenix looked far better when their rookies Tyler Boyd and Louis Fenton attacked with the ball at their feet.
It was a delightful delivery from substitute Benjamin Totori that laid on Sanchez's goal but Totori himself also looked more dangerous when he ran at the defence with his dancing shoes on.
When Central Coast keeper Mathew Ryan reviews the tape of the game he won't be happy with his positioning when the Phoenix scored, while Joshua Rose will also wonder how Sanchez was able to beat him in the air.
Earlier, a Daniel McBreen goal just before half-time gave the Mariners a 1-0 lead after the veteran striker, who has played for 10 clubs in a nomadic career, was first to the ball after Phoenix goalkeeper Mark Paston had made a smart save to deny Tomas Rogic.
As the Phoenix searched for an equaliser you struggled to see where the goal was going to come from and despite the threat that Boyd and Fenton posed the side needs a player with a creative streak who can assist Sanchez through the midfield.
The Phoenix were without Paul Ifill who is on the sideline for six weeks due to an ankle injury, which gave Boyd an opportunity to make his first start of the season after 11 appearances from the bench.
Phoenix coach Ricki Herbert was upbeat after the contest and said the game was an indication of what was in store for the club in the future.
He now has a tough selection dilemma on his hands ahead of Thursday's game against the Melbourne Heart in Wellington.
Herbert must decide whether to reinstate Stein Huysegems to his starting line-up after the Belgian was benched for last night's game or leave the 17-year-old Boyd and 19-year-old Fenton to continue to partner Jeremy Brockie in the front three.
Solomon Island international Totori could also come in to the mix after his lively display from the pine against the Mariners and he appears to be growing in confidence.
"It's a tough one but it's probably not a bad one," Herbert said of the selection headache.
"I think from my point of view and whether it's against the Melbourne Heart next week or whether it's in two years, I think the chance to play these young guys is really important and I think they really made a statement so the equation's got harder, the decision's got tougher. But that can only be good for the club. Who would've thought a young kid at 17 would've had such an impact in the league. I think he's been terrific and I think you could compare him to any young boy in the competition."
As for what his men needed to do in the future to find that extra gear, Herbert said their accuracy had to improve.
"Crossing was not at the right level tonight. I thought we got good chances. We got in that front third so many times and I think not only just from general play but from set plays as well. We didn't beat the front man and didn't give ourselves a chance to maybe have a few more chances but at least we are in there. I thought we played attractive football. Everybody wants that and we just keep moving forward so it was a good stake in the ground tonight, a good statement of where we are going and all the hard work that we need to do."
Mariners coach Graham Arnold was pleased to take a point from another trip to Wellington but said Fenton and Boyd were players to watch.
"I was very impressed with their young boys," Arnold said after the game.
"I thought they gave them some mobility and speed at the front and energy and we can see that they're trying to play a different style as well and as I said, we've got to give full credit to the Phoenix, they made it difficult for us."
Central Coast Mariners 1 (Daniel McBreen 44) Wellington Phoenix 1 (Dani Sanchez 83)