Phoenix v Victory

A-League report by Jeremy Ruane
Wellington Phoenix v Melbourne Victory

A late equaliser from Paul Ifill saw Wellington Phoenix snatch a 2-2 draw from the jaws of Melbourne Victory at a sun-drenched Westpac Stadium on November 27, cheering the 6,475 fans present who had seen the visitors attempt to sit on a 2-1 advantage throughout the second half.

Wellington began the better of the two teams, who were locked together on the Hyundai A-League table in a share of sixth spot at kick-off, Melbourne placed higher by virtue of a better goal difference.

Indeed, the home team's first opportunity saw them spurn a glorious chance. Ifill's fine work on the left allowed him space in which to cross the ball, and a slip by Grant Brebner permitted Tim Brown to nip in behind him and evade the clutches of goalkeeper Michael Petkovic, only to fire into the side-netting from a tight angle in the seventh minute.

Brown was in again seven minutes later, pouncing on an error to send Ifill careering through the inside-right channel. The striker evaded a challenge before letting fly, only for Petkovic to produce a quality save.

Melbourne responded immediately through Archie Thompson, who shot straight at Mark Paston after a solo raid, but Wellington's early pressure wasn't to go unrewarded, and they opened the scoring in the seventeenth minute.

It was a super goal, too. Troy Hearfield played the ball inside to Vince Lia and raced forward in anticipation of a return pass, which came in the form of a header. Hearfield latched onto the ball and dashed inside, only to see Brown take it off his toes and batter it hard and low inside Petkovic's near post from fifteen yards - a clinical finish, and a goal the home team merited to this point.

The wind was swiftly taken from their sails, however. Thompson slipped the dangerous Carlos Hernandez through the inside-left channel straight from the kick-off, but how the Costa Rican contrived to clear the crossbar from the edge of the goal area only he will know - it was certainly a bad miss, and that's putting it mildly!

Hernandez made amends virtually straight away, however. Thompson and Robbie Kruse carved open the left flank patrolled by Wellington's young debutant, James Musa, before finding Melbourne's playmaker up alongside them in support.

Hernandez duly returned the ball to Thompson with a gorgeous pass which begged a finish of matching quality. The A-League's most prolific marksman duly provided it, thrashing his shot beyond Paston and into the bottom far corner of the net to silence the natives and spark off Melbourne's celebrations.

From here until half-time, the visitors strangled the life out of Wellington, supplementing their control of the game with their counter-attacking prowess, with Thompson a highly prominent contributor.

In the 24th minute, he was only denied by Paston's save at his feet, after Brebner had picked him out with a cross-field ball which allowed Thompson to tear down the right and work a one-two with Hernandez en route into the penalty area.

Thirteen minutes later, Thompson thundered down the right once more, Hernandez again his accomplice. The striker this time whipped in a cross which was intended for Kruse's head, but that of Jade North intervened on this occasion to relieve the pressure on the home team.

Five minutes before half-time, Melbourne produced one of the team goals of the season, a sumptuous move involving some fifteen passes in the build-up. At its heart was - who else? - Hernandez, who, at its climax, worked a one-two with Thompson before slipping the overlapping figure of Billy Celeski in down the right.

He steamed onto the pass and whipped in a low cross across the six-yard box which the unmarked figure of Kruse swept home emphatically. Had he missed, Thompson and Marvin Angulo were queuing up behind him to provide the finishing touch to a move which left Wellington's players chasing shadows.

The home team copped a right rev-up from coach Ricki Herbert at half-time, and piled on the pressure in pursuit of an equaliser straight from the resumption. Indeed, within 25 seconds, they could have been on level terms after Ifill had given Melbourne's rearguard problems aplenty in the penalty area before clipping a cross to the far post which parted Brown's hair, so close was he to putting the finishing touch to the attack.

Melbourne responded with a fiftieth minute raid featuring Celeski and Hernandez, who slipped Kruse through the inside-right channel. His low cross was intended to reward Thompson's run, but Paston had other ideas, and smothered the threat.

The visitors carried on from where they left off in the first half, restricting Wellington's play to such an extent that both service-starved wide players, Leo Bertos and Daniel, were replaced before the hour mark. Kevin Muscat was directing operations as only he can … in short, it was an outstanding exhibition of controlling a game, and limiting your opponents to long-range efforts such as Hearfield's 71st minute howitzer.

This missed the target, unlike some of the rugged challenges which referee Peter O'Leary allowed to go unchecked, presumably because the team infringed upon still retained possession in spite of the foul. There were a few crunching tackles going in at times, with Vince Lia, in particular, fortunate to escape without being booked for a late tackle on Brebner which left the midfielder reeling.

Angulo was one of those who wasn't immune from dishing it out when required, and it was he who led a sharp counter-attack down the left fifteen minutes from time, after catching Hearfield in possession.

The flank player stormed downfield before picking out Kruse, who was denied what would surely have been a match-clinching goal by the desperate challenge of Musa, who made a decent fist of his A-League debut while deputising for the suspended Ben Sigmund.

Wellington had to do something special in the time remaining or face up to a third defeat in four home games. Nick Ward and Chris Greenacre had impressed since coming off the bench, but the introduction of Marco Rojas changed the game.

Suddenly, Melbourne's counter-attacking options were reduced, because Wellington had thrown on a youngster who wasn't afraid to take on visiting defenders, and, it must be said, made monkeys of them on at least three occasions before the final whistle.

Cue a grandstand finish, with Wellington piling on the pressure in pursuit of at least an equaliser, if not all three points. Greenacre wriggled through two challenges before presenting Ifill with a chance which he fired straight at Petkovic.

Soon after, concerted pressure around Melbourne's penalty area culminated in Ward rifling an eighteen-yarder at the target which cannoned off Roddy Vargas for a corner, which the shooter delivered onto the head of North, who directed his header straight at Petkovic.

Six minutes from time, Wellington's daring changes paid dividends. Andrew Durante got the better of Hernandez half-way inside the home team's half and surged over half-way before spraying the ball wide to Ifill, some thirty yards out from goal.

Vargas, who had man-marked the striker throughout proceedings, jockeyed this way and that as Ifill took on the challenge of beating his man, getting to the edge of the penalty area before Muscat came across to support his team-mate.

A jink one way, a feint the other, and the subject of Melbourne's defensive lynchpins' attentions was gone from their view, Ifill having skipped clear of both. Leijer's despairing lunge came too late to prevent the striker beating Petkovic all ends up at his near post with a devastating finish - 2-2, and a goal which could well be the catalyst to a revival in Wellington's fortunes for the rest of the campaign.

As it was, they could still have won this match. Another Rojas rampage down the left culminated in Ifill unleashing a volleyed piledriver which felled the unfortunate figure of Leijer - it was top corner-bound otherwise, while both Ward and Brown went close with half-chances in stoppage time. 2-2 it remained, however, a result from which Wellington will take far more than Melbourne, who will look on this as two points dropped.