The Wellington Phoenix's A-League playoff hopes are hanging by a thread after a comprehensive 3-1 away defeat by Western Sydney Wanderers. The loss leaves the Phoenix five points adrift of the top six with just four games remaining in the regular season.
As worrying as the all but insurmountable points gap which the loss has created was the limp performance by a Phoenix side who were well aware of the significance of the game. A win would have seen them leapfrog their hosts into the sixth finals spot, allowing them to control their destiny in the last month of the regular season. Instead, their campaign is now in grave danger of prematurely fizzling out in its final weeks.
Not for the first time, Wanderers striker Brendon Santalab was Wellington's tormentor, scoring twice to take his tally to seven goals in his last four matches against the Phoenix. His second - a close-range header just after half-time - gave the home side a three-goal buffer they were never likely to relinquish.
The Phoenix were made to pay for an extremely sluggish start which saw Glen Moss's goal peppered in the opening minutes. The pressure finally told when Argentinean striker Nico Martinez steered in a precise right-footed shot from the edge of the penalty area to open the scoring in the ninth minute.
Makeshift left-back Adam Parkhouse was targeted relentlessly and was unsurprisingly replaced by All Whites fullback Tom Doyle with less than half an hour gone. Just as the Phoenix looked to be gaining some parity, the Wanderers doubled their lead when Santalab scored his first goal, firing a left-footed thunderbolt past Moss, who got a hand to the fierce strike but couldn't keep it out.
Santalab's second, and Western Sydney's third, allowed the Wanderers to spend the second half protecting their lead, comfortably securing the three points which should ensure they, rather than the Phoenix, will enjoy finals football at the end of next month.
Gui Finkler's precise free-kick with fifteen minutes to go reduced the deficit, but in a game of such importance, the Phoenix strike-force was curiously ineffective, fashioning just two further shots on target in the entire contest.
To add to the frown lines of coach Des Buckingham, seven Phoenix players will miss the next game through international duty, testing the depth of the squad ahead of what is now a not-negotiable must-win home game against the Newcastle Jets on Sunday evening.