Soccer: Red-hot rookie lights fire under Phoenix

By Terry Maddaford

Youngster Marcos Rojas has impressed for the Phoenix. Photo / Getty Images
Youngster Marcos Rojas has impressed for the Phoenix. Photo / Getty Images

Ricki Herbert and the Wellington Phoenix must move quickly to secure livewire Marcos Rojas' long-term future with the club.

After what the local youngster showed in his first run on start for the Hyundai A-League franchise, it is a sure bet the scouts will come knocking for the young man who arrived at the club on a scholarship promoted by the supporters' club Yellow Fever.

Mindful of what happened when Costa (now Kosta) Barbarouses slipped away and become a star at Brisbane Roar, the Phoenix must keep Rojas on their books. And the field.

Displaying the youthful exuberance of a kid let loose in a candy store, Rojas took to the task of providing width and pace in a re-jigged 4-4-2 line-up with all the confidence of a seasoned pro, playing a hand in all three goals that earned the Phoenix a 3-0 halftime lead en route to an eventual 4-0 win over the Newcastle Jets at Westpac Stadium on Saturday night.

Rojas treated the 6053 fans to 80 minutes of non-stop effort and enthusiasm to show he surely belongs at this level.

To say the victory - the second-biggest by the Wellington club (after last season's 6-0 romp over Gold Coast United at the same ground) - was against the odds was stating the obvious.

Without inspirational captain Andrew Durante, who is suspended, and injured Tony Lochhead, Mark Paston and Nick Ward and with star striker Paul Ifill stretchered off with a knee injury inside 10 minutes, Herbert was going to need something special. He got it.

Against a team who rarely gives up goals in the opening 45 minutes, the Phoenix bagged three. The Jets have conceded just 16 goals - the equal best defensive record in the league.

On the other hand, the Phoenix have leaked 34 (only Perth, with 36, are worse). Yet on this occasion it was the defence - without lynchpin Durante - that also stood tall.

The central pairing of Jade North and Ben Sigmund was outstanding. North, who has taken time in juggling international and club commitments, led by example and took Sigmund with him. Goalkeeper Danny Vukovic, back in the starting line-up for his sixth start of the season had a comfortable ride but still pulled off a couple of telling saves.

Those three goals, scored by stand-in captain Tim Brown - who became the club's most capped player with his 75th appearance - Rojas and Chris Greenacre (on early to replace Ifill), between the 18th and 40th minutes came as the Phoenix produced their best 45-minute spell of the season.

Dylan Macallister, set up by Brown, added a fourth just before time to ensure plenty of Christmas cheer for the barechested Yellow Fever fans.

Herbert was happy he can now go to next week's away fixture against the Fury in Townsville with play-offs hopes still very much alive.

"It was important that we won, that was the crucial thing," said Herbert. "It's the best we've played all year."

Like the Phoenix, the Jets, who went into the game on the back of a seven-match unbeaten streak, were below full strength with a number of players, including inspirational captain Ljubo Milicevic, missing through suspension.

Jets coach Branko Culina turned to his bench at the start of the second half but chances remained few and far between for the visitors.

"Obviously we weren't good enough but we've had a good run," said Culina. "It was a bit of a hiccup but we'll bounce back."

"We missed a lot of players and don't forget we played a very hard game on Wednesday. We've travelled 11 hours to get here on a Saturday, the scheduling is just ... but you can't blame that alone."

The Jets are back in Wellington again next month for the week-25 clash on January 30.

- NZ Herald

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