The Wellington Phoenix have negotiated energy-sapping heat and a desperate defending champion to earn a hard-fought 2-2 A-League draw with Adelaide United.
Returning for the first time to the scene of former coach Ernie Merrick's resignation early last month, the Phoenix held a 2-1 lead until late in the game when significant Adelaide pressure finally became unbearable, substitute Nikola Mileusnic bundling home from close range after Glen Moss had pushed a rasping free-kick from Ben Garrucio against the post.
The pressure had been building on Wellington for some time with the home side dominating the final stages of the contest. Spanish striker Sergio Cirio showed the effect of his weariness by missing a gilt-edged chance to equalise, before defender Iacopo La Rocca slammed a similarly inviting opportunity against the crossbar to the growing frustration of Reds fans. In truth, Mileusnic's equaliser was nothing less than Adelaide deserved.
In roasting temperatures which pushed the mercury to 37 degrees at kick-off and necessitated two drinks-breaks in each half, the home side went ahead after just seven minutes when neat interplay on the edge of the penalty area led to teenaged striker Riley McGree firing home his first A-League goal.
The Phoenix hadn't scored in their previous four matches against Adelaide, drawing one and losing three of those games, but they were level just four minutes later with a goal-of-the-season contender. Fullback Tom Doyle picked up a loose ball wide on the left, moved away from two defenders and beat three more, before unleashing a left-footed pile-driver which flew in off the near post to square the ledger.
The blazing heat contributed to a game of ebbs and flows, with both teams having sustained periods of possession and ironically, the Phoenix's second goal after 37 minutes followed a period of Adelaide dominance. A Phoenix defensive clearance fell in space to Kosta Barbarouses, whose pinpoint pass into the path of Roy Krishna set the Fijian flier free to coolly beat the advancing Eugene Galekovic. Adelaide's protests for offside went unheeded, with replays confirming Krishna had timed his run perfectly and stayed onside by the smallest of margins.
Wellington had two golden opportunities to extend their lead either side of half-time. First Barbarouses rounded Galekovic but couldn't find the angle for a shot on goal and early in the second half he squared a pass across the six-yard box which Roly Bonevacia was inches away from poking home. The Dutchman also saw an effort beaten away by Galekovic shortly afterwards.
Those misses were to prove costly with the Phoenix spending the last quarter of the game on the back foot as Adelaide redoubled their efforts and eventually earned a share of the points in what was an entertaining affair, despite the oppressive conditions.
The result leaves the Phoenix one point outside the top six with ten regular season games remaining. They next face eighth-placed Western Sydney in New Plymouth on Saturday.