Wellington Phoenix 3
Central Coast Mariners 1
The Wellington Phoenix have climbed into the top three on football's A-League ladder with a comfortable 3-1 win over cellar dwellers the Central Coast Mariners in Gosford.
First-half strikes from Libby Cacace and Gary Hooper set up the victory and while the Phoenix took their foot noticeably off the pedal in the second half, a third straight win was achieved without unduly furrowing the brow of coach Ufuk Talay.
Ever the perfectionist, Talay may well bemoan a considerable drop in intensity from his side in the second half, but the infliction of an eighth straight defeat on their hapless hosts was never in serious doubt.
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There was also a late scare, with Cacace suffering what appeared to be a hamstring niggle, but he finished the game, which will be a relief for his coach and the team's fans.
The Phoenix barely fired a shot after the break, soaking up all the pressure imposed on them by the Mariners, before hitting them with a 78th minute sucker punch, substitutes Alex Rufer and Josh Sotirio combining to inflate the scoreline and make the points safe.
A late consolation for the Mariners through Brazilian marksman Jair denied the Phoenix a third consecutive clean sheet, something Wellington haven't managed for over a decade. Sotirio had the ball in the net again in added time but the goal was chalked off by an assistant referee's flag for offside.
As has become familiar, Wellington dominated early possession without testing Mariners goalkeeper Mark Birighitti. In fact, the Phoenix's first shot produced their first goal, Ulises Davila playing a sublime slide-rule pass into the path of a marauding Cacace, who didn't break stride and celebrated his 50th A-League appearance with an assured finish.
Englishman Gary Hooper doubled the lead on the half-hour, latching on to a beautifully weighted lob from Reno Piscopo and dinking a lovely finish over the advancing Birighitti to notch his fifth goal of the season.
After a weekend off, Talay named an unchanged starting side, fielding what is now his generally agreed strongest 11, with Hooper and David Ball joined in the front four by Davila and Piscopo. Matti Steinmann and Cameron Devlin were imperious as a defensive midfield pairing, again leaving Rufer cooling his heels on the bench, until he replaced Devlin with 15 minutes remaining.
His impact was instant, though, providing a defence-splitting ball for Sotirio to gallop on to and plant past Birighitti for Wellington's third goal.
The Phoenix now face Melbourne Victory in Wellington next Sunday, the first of three games in eight days, with a rescheduled midweek encounter away at Sydney FC and a visit to the Newcastle Jets to follow.
Wellington Phoenix 3 (Liberato Cacace 18, Gary Hooper 30, Jaushua Sotirio 78)
Central Coast Mariners 1 (Jair 89)