Wellington Phoenix 2
Newcastle Jets 1
The Wellington Phoenix are back on the march, though this result was far from convincing.
The Phoenix have prevailed 2-1 over the Newcastle Jets, with the visitors extremely unlucky not to take something from the match.
Maybe it's a good sign, as not for the first time this season the Phoenix found a way to get a result, despite not playing particularly well.
They huffed and they puffed against the wooden spooners, but never looked like blowing the Jets away.
Stefan Marinovic made three wonderful saves late on to keep their advantage, one of them a stop of the season contender, and the final five minutes was a desperate rearguard action.
But the Phoenix took their chances, clinically, through Jaushua Sotirio and Ulises Davila and that was the difference, as the Jets could only convert one opportunity, despite creating many more.
It means that the Phoenix will remain in the top four heading into their bye next week, with vital time on the training field needed to iron out the kinks of the last few weeks.
It was a strangely passive start from the Phoenix, as the Jets made most of the running. The Wellington team's modus operandi has been fast starts – especially at home – and they had scored 25 per cent of their goals in the first quarter of their games across this campaign.
But they were tentative and loose with their passing game on Friday night, as the combinations that had worked so well for most of the campaign seemed to break down.
It was hard to reconcile with the recent form of both teams; the Phoenix had only lost one of their last ten games, while the Jets had two victories all season.
And the rivalry had become tremendously one sided; The Phoenix had won 13 of the last sixteen encounters in Wellington, and had scored 13 goals to two in the last four matches between the two teams.
Coach Ufuk Talay brought in Brandon Wilson to replace the suspended midfielder Matti Steinmann while English import David Ball also started for the first time in three weeks. But Ball was stationed on the right, with Davila in the No 10 role behind Hooper. That seemed to unbalance the team; they missed Ball's workrate, especially off the ball, as former Norwich City striker Hooper is more of a penalty box poacher.
That gave the Newcastle plenty of time and space at the back, and that flowed through the rest of their team.
They had nine shots to two in the first half, and on the run of play could have been a couple of goals ahead.
Wide midfielder Jason Hoffman missed the best chance, scooping over from 10 yards, with the goal at his mercy, after the Jets had executed a two on one opportunity. Matthew Millar also went close from range, after Tim Payne was dispossessed on halfway and striker Abdiel Arroyo was a constant threat. But they lacked a finishing touch, evident from a team who were averaging less than a goal a game this season.
For the Phoenix the little passes and touches weren't coming off, Davila couldn't find space, Hooper was isolated and ever reliable Liberato Cacace was off beam with his crosses.
There were moments, but it was mostly a bit of a muddle and far from the high standards witnessed this year.
But everything turned with a substitution, as Sotirio entered the fray early in the second half. His pace made an instant difference, and the former Wanderer was released after some neat interplay from Davila and Hooper, before a crisp finish.
The Phoenix seemed to spark into life, but didn't completely convince and their lead only lasted 13 minutes. The home side dallied on the edge of their area, then seemed to panic when they lost the ball, and Arroyo's finish was unerring, after being first to a ricochet.
To the home side's credit, they responded almost instantly, with Davila finding the corner with a precise strike, after an Alex Rufer shot rebounded into his path.
A fine reaction save from Marinovic kept the Phoenix ahead, before a quite unbelievable reflex stop in the dying minutes, from a full blooded half volley sealed the points.
Wellington Phoenix 2 (J Sotirio 53, U Davila 69)
Newcastle Jets 1 (A Arroyo 66)