Wellington Phoenix 1
Sydney FC 0
Some solid goalkeeping, a resolute rearguard and a wasteful opposition saw the Phoenix complete a smash-and-grab raid in Sydney tonight to claim a crucial 1-0 win.
Two straight losses brought Wellington back from the unprecedented heights of second and left them just three points clear of seventh-placed Sydney FC. But a rare Phoenix attack early in the game saw an even rarer Paul Ifill header give the visitors the lead, and it was a lead they wouldn't relinquish despite Sydney's dominance for the next 80 minutes.
Ifill scored in his third straight game against Sydney, but his team-leading sixth goal of the season was only as important as several quality saves from Mark Paston and numerous interventions from the Phoenix defence.
With two wins in Wellington over the Sky Blues already this campaign, the Phoenix swept the season series between the sides for the first time. But this win was by far the most improbable - the Phoenix have lost six games on the trot at Sydney Football Stadium.
Tonight's win came almost two years to the day since Sydney ended the Phoenix's historic playoff run one match short of the grand final, but tonight it was Sydney who suffered a damaging blow. Wellington leapfrog Perth into third place, opening up a crucial buffer between themselves and the sides scrapping for sixth place with just four games left in the regular season.
That was despite a poor first half from the Phoenix, in which they lost possession easily and allowed Sydney to exert authority through a sharp passing game. Sydney's top scorer Bruno Cazarine proved a particular handful, and one early chance required Paston's attention to keep the scores level.
Five minutes later, Ifill succeeded where Cazarine had failed to give the Phoenix a vital lead. An almost identical play saw Ifill ghost past Michael Beauchamp to meet Tony Lochhead's cross and send his header low into the left corner.
The goal appeared to spark Sydney to life, and the Sky Blues enjoyed the better of the first half. Their skilful midfield opened up the Phoenix on a couple of occasions but, thankfully for Wellington, too often Sydney lacked composure in the final third.
One such raid from 22-year-old Joel Chianese brought the game's major talking point, after the winger advanced into Paston's box and attempted to round the Phoenix custodian. Both men went to ground, both argued their case, but referee Peter Green adjudged there to have been no contact and booked the Sydney man for simulation.
Chianese tumbled all too easily but replays appeared to show the faintest of touches, and on another day Sydney could've had a penalty and Paston a red card. Perhaps Green felt he owed Wellington one - he was the man in the middle during that preliminary final in 2010 in which he awarded Sydney's first goal despite an obvious handball by goalscorer Chris Payne.
The first half ended how it started, with Paston denying Sydney a goal from Cazarine's head. Again, it was a free header and, again, Cazarine put it too close to the Phoenix No 1 who saved to send his side to the half with a lead.
The second half opened with a foray forward from the Phoenix which nearly doubled the advantage, as a clever Ifill toe poke went agonisingly past the post.
Andrew Durante's return from a one-week suspension shored up the Phoenix defence, and the captain made his presence felt on the hour mark with an essential intervention to further frustrate Sydney. That proved the catalyst for a sustained period of pressure from the Sky Blues but the breakthrough again failed to come.
The remainder of the half followed a similar script and - somehow - the Phoenix held on, with Beauchamp squandering a golden chance at the death.
Wellington Phoenix 1 (Paul Ifill 13)Sydney FC 0 HT: 0-1