Phoenix v Glory

A-League report by Jeremy Ruane
Wellington Phoenix v Perth Glory

Two splendid penalty shoot-out saves by Wellington Phoenix goalkeeper Liam Reddy broke the hearts of Perth Glory at Wellington Regional Stadium on February 21, as the visitors were ousted 4-2 on spot-kicks after two hours of Hyundai A-League play-offs football had resulted in a 1-1 stalemate.

The 24,267-strong crowd - a new record figure for attendees at a non-international football match in New Zealand - were itching to see a Wellington win, knowing that victory would see them back in action on home turf in a fortnight's time, for the visit of Newcastle Jets.

Perth, too, were hoping to secure the same prize, and they made a decidedly aggressive start to proceedings, sturdy tackles galore giving referee Strebre Delovski plenty to keep him occupied during the opening stages of a match.

Amongst the initial incidents was a sixteenth minute penalty claim by the visitors, but Todd Howarth went to ground far too easily after working an opening with Steven McGarry.

The first genuine threat on goal came in the eighteenth minute of the contest, through one of the usual suspects. Wellington's Paul Ifill made light work of two Perth opponents near the left-hand touchline, and dashed into the penalty area, where his progress was halted by Andy Todd's vital covering tackle.

The striker had shot tamely at Perth goalkeeper Tando Velaphi just prior to that, while the visiting custodian looked on in the nineteenth minute as Leo Bertos' desperation to score against one of his former employers resulted in his unleashing a shot which threatened the corner flag more than the goal.

The first save of note by either goalkeeper befell Reddy in the 22nd minute. Ifill - not his best display by a long chalk! - was caught in possession by Scott Neville, who gave his all and then some throughout. He played the ball inside to the hard-working Danny McBreen before racing forward for the return, which enabled him to let fly from the edge of the penalty area.

Reddy smothered this effort, then blocked with his feet seconds afterwards after Neville had muscled his way through three challenges, including that of the outstanding Manny Muscat - he was immense for the home team. Neville then set up an opening for Wayne Srhoj which Wellington captain Andrew Durrante swiftly snuffed out.

After Velaphi and Chris Greenacre had collided - both emerged unscathed, Perth's pressure grew in its intensity, with Chris Coyne squandering a great chance to open the scoring in the 34th minute when his unchallenged header, from another Neville-supplied cross.

Wellington responded by taking the lead with a well-practised move, eight minutes before half-time. Troy Hearfield and Vince Lia worked a one-two which allowed them to bring Jon McKain into play.

He played the ball forward to Ifill, whose deft touch inside allowed Muscat to set off on a surging run prior to fizzing a low cross into the goalmouth. Greenacre was sliding in on cue - 1-0, and over 24,000 fans going ever so slightly potty as a result!

The scorer sent a snapshot fizzing over the crossbar two minutes later, while on the stroke of half-time, Velaphi produced a stunning fingertip save to paw to safety a curling effort from Ifill which was destined for the top far corner of the net.

The resulting corner was snaffled by Velaphi, whose downfield clearance saw McGarry and McKain collide in mid-air. The rebound fell perfectly into the stride of Neville, whose shot was blocked by Durante, off whom the ricocheted into the path of Wayne Srhoj, whose drive was saved well low to his right by Reddy.

Five minutes after the second half commenced, Wellington came desperately close to scoring. Bertos burst forward before slipping the ball to Ifill, who ran around Naum Sekulovski before flighting a cross to the far post where Greenacre was lurking.

Jamie Coyne averted the danger at the expense of a corner, which Bertos delivered with venom. Srhoj's headed clearance landed at the feet of Greenacre, who drilled the ball in towards the penalty spot. Lia let fly with a twelve-yard snapshot which Velaphi did superbly simply to see, let alone save superbly, given it was going like a rocket!

Back came Perth, the offside flag cutting short Srhoj's goal celebrations soon after, before Hearfield headed off the line to deny McBreen, following a Jacob Burns corner in the 56th minute.

After Velaphi had denied Bertos, following good lead-up play involving Ifill and Tim Brown, Perth's increasing probings finally gained their reward in the 66th minute, when Neville was left completely unmarked on the far post, and gleefully headed home Burns' free-kick.

It was a goal the visitors deserved, and they looked more and more likely to go on and win the game inside regulation time, even though there was now an element of caution in evidence across the park, with some subsequently scrappy spells of play resulting.

Both teams came close to clinching victory eight minutes from time. Andrew Durante - another fine display - fed substitute Adrian Caceres, who spotted Brown's surging run and duly supplied the midfielder with the ball, which he unleashed goalwards.

Velaphi smothered his twenty-yarder, and promptly cleared the ball downfield, picking out Neville, whose shot was smothered by Reddy. That brief flurry of end-to-end action got the crowd going again, they, too, having succumbed to the nervousness of the situation - each team's entire season was at stake, lest it be forgotten.

Both teams went close again before the final whistle, Wellington substitute Eugene Dadi appealing in vain for a penalty after Todd appeared to use foul means rather than fair to spirit the ball away from his former team-mate in the area a minute from time.

Perth responded by forcing Reddy to make a flying stoppage time save to his left to thwart a Mile Sterjovski effort, the substitute's shot arising after Ifill had failed to get adequate power behind an attempted headed clearance.

So to extra time, with the scores locked at 1-1. Attempts to alter that status in the additional half-hour were few, willing spirits gradually succumbing to tired legs on both sides of the pitch.

Durante thwarted Neville in the act of shooting three minutes into the spell, after Scott Bulloch had combined with McBreen and Sterjovski. Wellington responded via Lia, whose dipping twenty-five yarder landed on the roof of the net, before the midfielder picked out Caceres wide on the left.

Muscat - a terrific performance - provided a supporting run which his team-mate used to perfection, allowing the Maltese international to dash into the clear on the left inside Perth's penalty area. Shooting was an option, but instead he crossed, over-hitting the ball and extinguishing this 96th minute opening in doing so.

In the 102nd minute, McKain headed a Caceres corner over the crossbar. Two minutes later, the defender's day was done, an ill-timed lunge felling an opponent and earning him his second booking of the game - referee Delovski had no option but to wield the red card, and leave the home team to hang on for the final fifteen minutes with ten tiring men.

The crowd sensed it, and so did Perth, who knew that the game was now theirs for the taking. They came closest to doing so in the 107th minute, Burns' free-kick releasing Bulloch, whose cross to the far post was headed down well by Neville. Reddy's reactions were cat-like, however, and kept Wellington in the contest.

A contest in which both teams were very soon running on empty, the sight of cramp-stricken players the feature of the final ten minutes of the match, the conclusion of which meant the dreaded penalty shoot-out was upon us.

McGarry and Ifill exchanged spot-kicks before Sekulovski stepped up. Reddy saved well low to his left, and, after Durante had netted, dived in the other direction to deny Bulloch with his trailing left boot, as the Perth man looked to drive the ball home down the middle.

That meant Wellington were just two spot-kicks away from victory, and when Brown converted the first of them, the pressure on McBreen to convert was immense. He had toiled tirelessly up front for little reward throughout proceedings, but his cool conversion meant it fell to Caceres to win the game at the expense of his old club.

Over 24,000 fans went ballistic as he sent Velaphi the wrong way from the spot to clinch Wellington's place in the last four of the play-off series, and another sudden death match against Newcastle in a fortnight.

Perth, meanwhile, faced one of the footballing world's longest league trips home, knowing that it would seem even longer than ever, given the outcome of this match. Dave Mitchell's side came so close to progressing, but like five other A-League teams, their season is now over, and they are left to look on as Melbourne Victory, Sydney FC, Newcastle Jets and Wellington Phoenix dispute the championship ring in March.