Wellington Phoenix 2
Central Coast Mariners 1
Job done for the Wellington Phoenix, though it was a lot harder than it needed to be.
The Phoenix eventually prevailed 2-1 over the Central Coast Mariners on Saturday night, but were hanging on for most of the second half to preserve their long unbeaten streak.
The visitors had only won two of their last 29 games on the road, but pressured the Phoenix into a series of mistakes. The Mariners were the better side in the second half and had decent chances to equalise.
However the Phoenix did enough, and the result consolidates their position in the top six.
It wasn't the performance they were after, with some lacklustre passing in the second half, and they were maybe complacent after springing into a 2-0 lead inside only 30 minutes.
Gary Hooper got his first A-League start and made an instant impact, with a goal after 13 minutes, but much of the credit was due to fellow English import David Ball.
There were a mixed reaction to Ball's signing, given his relatively modest goal scoring record in the English lower leagues, but he has quickly became a vital member of the squad, and a crowd favourite.
Ball's workrate and energy as a striker sets a wonderful example, especially as an overseas player. He's also able to make things happen, as exhibited in the build up to Hooper's strike. Ball dropped deep to receive, turned his man in traffic, and then laid on a perfect pass for Tim Payne, who crossed for Hooper to finish.
Ball then doubled the Phoenix lead with some individual trickery, eluding two players, before threading his shot through a packed area just inside the far post. There was a touch of luck about the goal, but fortune tends to favour hard work.
Ball had two other good chances before halftime, as the Phoenix constantly found space in the final third with their intelligent movement and swift passing.
The home side were dominant, but it wasn't completely one sided. The Mariners rattled the crossbar in the third minute – with Stefan Marinovic beaten – and Tommy Oar produced a wondrous volley from outside the area late in the half, which cannoned off the post.
So it was no surprise when the Mariners scored just before halftime, though coach Ufuk Talay will be disappointed with the manner of the goal.
The Phoenix appeared to switch off momentarily before a corner, allowing extra space for the Mariners, and their angled cross flicked off Luke De Vere's head into his own net, to completely change the complex of the contest.
Ball was forced off early in the second half, which saw Ulises Davila revert to his normal position as a No 10, after the Mexican had been wider in the first half as part of the reshuffle to accommodate Hooper.
The Mariners came back into the match in the second half, and the Phoenix lost some shape as the game stretched out. They were guilty of being too cute with their passing at times, and didn't have the game management Talay would expect. The Mariners got results from their high press, with the Phoenix often losing the ball soon after winning it back.
Daniel De Silva should have scored late on, putting his shot wide from an ideal position, while Davila was denied after being set up by Liberato Cacace.
Wellington Phoenix 2 (G.Hooper 13, D Ball 29)
Central Coast Mariners 1 (L De Vere 47 (og))