Yeah alright. Now we’re talking. There were some defensive lapses along the way and the second half was a lot more about consolidation than anything else. The injuries to Roy Krishna and Libby Cacace are ones to be aware of too. But overall that might be the best Wellington Phoenix performance for three full years.
Right from the kickoff they were the hungrier team. There was a fire in the eyes of the lads, they fought harder, ran further, jumped higher, and kicked the ball better than Sydney FC. They pressed high up the field, the two strikers leading the way, and put their hosts under all sorts of pressure in the midfield and then picked on a slow but high line of defence with several clever balls in behind. Roy Krishna cashed in for two extremely similar goals from that strategy, one from a Sarpreet Singh through ball and the other from a Mandi through ball. Steven Taylor added another when Libby Cacace whipped in a stunning left-footed cross and Stevie did what he does best with a powerful header for the third goal. 3-1 was the final score. It was unbelievable. It was almost like a dream. As if we were floating upon the clouds as angels played gentle harp music and bursts of sunlight covered all visible existence.
At times like these it’s important to remember that we’re on a rollercoaster here. This is the up and soon enough we’ll be on our way back down. It’s also important to savour these moments because in football they can be pretty bloody rare. Comprehensive away wins like this are hard to come across, particularly not against the two-time defending premiers. And especially for the Wellington Phoenix.
For one thing this broke an eight game run without a win away from home. It was also just their second away win in 18 games. The three goals scored? That’s as many as they scored in the last eight away games combined. You have to go back to late 2016-17 for the last time they won by multiple goals away from home (3-0 at Melly Victory – Roly Bonevacia got a double). In the last three seasons plus the start of this one the Nix have played 44 away games and this was just their eighth win. Seven draws and 29 defeats. They’ve scored two or more goals in 13 of those games. They’ve scored three or more in only six. So, yeah, this is not something that happens very often. The trick now will be ensuring it happens a whole lot more in the future – consistency is key.
But but but… how did it happen? In a nutshell, they took what they did last week and added to it. The game against Perth was a great example of what the Nix are building towards under Mark Rudan, but they didn’t get the second goal to be sure of it and got stuck trying to hold on to a 1-0. Next thing they’re sitting way too deep. Next thing a silly red card occurs. Next thing they concede and have to settle for a draw. Against Sydney they scored three times in a near-perfect first half and never had to stoop to suck risks.
Of course, this was against Rudes’ old team too. Which is why it’s odd that a team which knows Rudan’s mentality so well would take him for granted like that. There’s no doubt that Sydney FC underestimated the Nix. Results have been stink since that week one victory over Newcastle but that mindset’s ignoring the steady improvements of last week. We already knew that this is a team that doesn’t feel like it needs possession. It’s a team that’s going to play those quick-trigger passes through to its strikers. It’s a team that defends aggressively, that looks to get its wingbacks in advanced position, that can, let’s be honest, sometimes become a little one-dimensional because of all those things.
But Sydney didn’t give them any respect, setting up with a high defensive line and giving Roy Krishna and Nathan Burns all kinds of space to run into. With Alex Brosque in an attacking midfield role they had four legit forwards on the park but they struggled to get the ball to them as the Nix rushed their deeper lines, which dismantled their whole gameplan. They didn’t look like they’d even picked up the scout report from the desk, let alone read the damn thing. These comparative quotes from the two gaffers read rather nicely:
Steve Corica: “They knew what to expect from Wellington – they're very direct, they have pace up front. We showed them that, we explained that to them, but we got caught out way too many times. Defensively it wasn't good enough, and in attack as well. We can't afford to do that.”
Mark Rudan: “Maybe they underestimated us. There was a lot of planning and preparation going into this game... we had a game plan, we wanted to press them high. We worked on the training pitch to open them up exactly the same way. That's where I'm most pleased.”
The old ‘them’ vs ‘us’ wordplay there feels relevant. One coach hanging his team out to dry, the other right there in the trenches along with them.
That’s the only asterisk on this performance, by the way. I’m not convinced that this level of success is possible when the Nix try to enforce it… it might be that they need the oppo to play into their hands at the same time and so far only two teams have done that, combining for their two wins. Also this was another occasion in which they never went behind and had to face that adversity which has killed them every other time it’s happened. Maybe now that they’re scoring a couple goals that won’t be so bad but it’ll take them going behind to find out.
Still, no reason to be sour after that clinic. This was the best that Mandi has played in a Phoenix uniform. He was absolutely fantastic, getting in all the right areas to direct traffic and his pass for the second goal was a marvel. We also got another pair of quality efforts from Libby Cacace and Sarpreet Singh who have responded superbly to being dropped a couple weeks ago. Speaking of dropped, Mitch Nichols played (and scored) for the WeeNix this week having missed the matchday squad altogether. Another example that Rudan doesn’t care about reputations. He’s got a habit of making changes after bad ones and sticking firm after the good ones – the only change from last week’s promising performance was the enforced one of Oli Sail in for the injured Filip Kurto.
It’s hoped that Kurto will only miss the one game. As such Rudan called in a favour with Ante Covic, who lives around the corner from Jubilee Stadium and took up the opportunity to sign on for a few days as a mentor to Oli Sail and an experienced head on the bench. So experienced that at 43 years old he would’ve been the oldest ever A-League player had he gotten onto the paddock. So experienced that he was 25 years old and already playing professionally in Europe when Libby Cacace was born. So experienced that he’s actually two and a half months older than Mark Rudan.
Covic didn’t need to play though, Oli Sail had a solid enough game. The Nix were never going to be able to keep up the rapid nature of that first half for ninety minutes and with a 3-0 lead they thankfully didn’t have to. It was disappointing to see Michael Zullo score with a couple minutes left but it was also a long time coming. You can’t really expect it all your own way against the best regular season team of the last two seasons but even when things weren’t clicking in the second half you never saw the focus drop. Steven Taylor in particular, he was a brick wall. Andy Durante had a great game too, his best in a while, and even Michal Kopczynski (who finished the game in midfield after Dylan Fox was subbed on to relieve him) did decent at the back.
However we’d already seen the defence battling plenty, the number one difference between the last two weeks and the rest of it, other than the confidence that comes from playing well and getting rewards for it, has been the new front trio of Roy Krishna, Nathan Burns and Sarpreet Singh. It feels like the obvious combo but they hadn’t played half an hour together all season before last week. Probably not a coincidence that getting the three best attacking players out there at once has led to the team being able to look like scoring goals finally.
Burns and Singh had been in and out of the team and have been really good the last two weeks in this combination. Really good… but Burns still hasn’t hit the back of the net and Singh’s given the ball away a few too many times without those magical shots from the edge of the area really taking hold either. So good but with plenty of room to improve. Hence Roy Krishna is the bloke who, like a fine Turkish rug, is tying the whole room together.
And that’s why we’ve gotta be a little worried about him leaving the field clutching his hamstring. He left pretty quickly and got some ice on it so fingers crossed it’s just a bit of tightness, there was no reason to risk it. Haven’t heard any news there either which is usually a positive thing. But that moment of forced acknowledgement that Krishna might one day this season miss a game of football was a frightening one. Like, how does this team even function without him? It was a timely Welly Nix version of the Ghost of Christmas Future.
We’re lucky to have that guy, honestly. What a player.
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