The Wellington Phoenix moved a step closer to a home berth in the A-League soccer playoffs with a grafting 1-0 win over Gold Coast United at Skilled Park last night.
Ahead 1-0 at halftime courtesy of a Paul Ifill penalty, the Phoenix showed composure under pressure and moved into fourth place on the table with just one round remaining.
Gold Coast, after a patchy start to the season, have hit form at the right time and went into yesterday's game in second place on the table and on a high after toppling competition leaders Melbourne Victory 1-0 last week.
In contrast, the Phoenix's form has looked a little patchy of late, a 1-0 win over Adelaide United following back-to-back losses to Melbourne and Perth Glory. But they did go into the game knowing a playoffs berth was assured after Adelaide United downed Brisbane Roar 2-0 on Saturday, and that a win over Gold Coast would go a long way towards securing a top-four berth and a first-up home match in the playoffs.
Wellington were given something of a reprieve with the absence of uncompromising Gold Coast defender Steve Pantelidis, serving the first match in a five-game suspension for a wayward elbow on Melbourne striker Robbie Kruse last week.
For the Phoenix, striker Eugene Dadi started on the bench, still not 100 per cent after a mid-week ankle injury but Wellington benefited from the return of defensive midfielder Vince Lia after serving a two-week suspension.
It had been a long time since the two teams met, back in October last year, when the Phoenix were nothing short of sublime in overwhelming Gold Coast 6-0. Last night's match could not have provided a greater contrast, Gold Coast making most of the early running before the Phoenix worked their way back into the game.
Wellington keeper Liam Reddy was tested after 12 minutes, but had little trouble covering Michael Thwaite's on -target header. Barely a minute later, an Adrian Caceres long ball into the box found scrambling skipper Andrew Durante on the far post, and only the woodwork kept the Phoenix from an early lead.
The two teams looked like going into the break scoreless, but two minutes into injury time, a clumsy tackle from Gold Coast defender Bas van den Brink on Tim Brown saw referee Matthew Breeze point to the spot and Paul Ifill made no mistake.
The second half saw more of the same, the Durante-marshalled Phoenix defence working overtime to stifle any Gold Coast incursions, as Shane Smeltz's four-week goal-scoring drought continued. Increasingly reduced to long-range speculators, United's best chance with 13 minutes remaining, as a screamer from captain Jason Culina stretched Reddy to the limit.
Dadi, on for Manny Muscat after 66 minutes, came close to extending the Phoenix's lead with eight minutes remaining when he climbed high to head a Chris Greenacre cross a fraction high. Ultimately, it was the Phoenix's defence which held firm, laying a solid base for the crucial win.