The Central Coast Mariners are pretty crap at the moment, gotta admit that. They spent the whole preseason flirting with Usain Bolt and then he turned down their eventual contract offer because they weren’t going to pay him enough. Yes, the man with zero professional experience in this sport was the bloke who held the leverage in those negotiations.
We’re also talking about a team with two points from their opening seven fixtures this season, the only club yet to win a game. After drawing their first two they’d lost four in a row before popping over to Wellington for this one. And to make matters worse they were already without Ross McCormack and Tommy Oar and this week added Ben Kennedy and Tom Hiariej to that list. So that’s two of their import players, their two best attacking threats, a key dude from their midfield and their starting keeper. Here they came up against a Wellington Phoenix side that had just strung together their best performance for a couple years. Worst omen of all, this is the picture Central Coast’s website led their official match preview with…
Tell me, does that not also look to you like a man who woke up late to find his dog had run away, drove to work through intense traffic only to be told he’d been made redundant, then came home early to discover his wife in bed with the mailman? There is a sadness in those eyes that a young Tom Waits could have written a whole album about.
And that, dear reader, is why we cannot take too many lessons from this victory. Louis Fenton and Sarpreet Singh scored the goals as the Nix won it 2-0. In truth the Mariners had their share of chances but the finishing wasn’t there and Filip Kurto, returning from that concussion absence last week, didn’t really have too many saves to make. 15 shots but only two on target, not the best ratio. The Nix, meanwhile, were aggressive on the attack yet showed great composure for both the goals and if they hadn’t kept flicking those “u up?” texts to the offside flag then it would’ve been plenty more than two.
The first goal came from another of those Mandi strikes from outside the box which are becoming more regular. Hey, if you can hit them then hit them. Mandi’s growing ability to push forward and help influence the attack, especially with winning those half clearances outside the box to sustain pressure in that final third, is getting to be a very useful aspect of the team. That link between the front three and the midfield is super important. It’s one thing lobbing Roy Krishna in over the top but he needs a bit of support once he’s there, which the Nix have started to provide with Sarpreet Singh and Nathan Burns establishing themselves in the lineup.
On this occasion Mandi’s shot took a deflection and the backup keeper could only parry it out in front of him where Louis Fenton had beaten the offside trap and had a simple tap-in to score. Not quite the thunderous strike of his namesake Ferenc Puskas but close enough. Getting Fenton in on the goals is also a massive boost. He’s obviously not there to be a defensive powerhouse so he needs to be getting forward, overlapping the strikers, whipping dangerous balls into the penalty area and generally just being a factor in the attack. I’d say that scoring the opening goal in a game classifies.
The Nix played with a backup keeper last week so we know what that’s like. Adam Pearce wasn’t terrible by any means but on both goals you saw instances where a first choice goalie might have been able to prevent them. His soft palming of the ball to Fenton was one. Then with Singh’s it was how he rushed over so quick, rather than staying big and square, allowing Singh to put his foot on the ball, let him slide past, and slide the ball past him in response. Think of those small moments which might not have made a difference but maybe they did and then think of Oli Sail’s solid efforts against Sydney last week. Looks even more impressive in hindsight.
Singh’s goal came from a really unselfish assist from Roy Krishna. Managed to shrug off Kalifa Cissé (who did not have the best of games exposed to the speed of the Nix attack) and with a clear crack at goal he chose to turn down the 50% option to set up Singh (great awareness just to know he was there and so unmarked in the first place) for the 80% option which Sarpreet then, with that really clever first touch (more great awareness and calm-headedness), turned into a 100% chance.
Krishna had already shanked one excellent shot through on goal and plenty of strikers would look to make personal amends the next chance they got. Not Roy. One more reason to love the bloke – he’s playing absolutely fantastic these last few weeks and a huge relief to see that were no remnants whatsoever of the hammy he got iced last game after his substitution. Ninety tireless minutes for him against CCM, still making the same lung-bursting runs in behind the defence at the end of the game that he was making at the start.
Steven Taylor also had a goal disallowed for being about a lightyear offside. And Nathan Burns once again failed to hit the back of the net despite a few decent looks. With him you felt his best chances were the ones he didn’t even attempt. At least twice he had room to shoot but took the extra touch of a player who’s still too much in his head about the goal drought. He’s playing well aside from the end product so you have to take a holistic approach to the situation and see how he’s improving the side since he returned to the starting team… but it is now 1566 minutes of footy without a goal in his second stint with the club. What would Wayne Gretzky say? You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
Mark Rudan replaced Michal Kopczynski at half-time with Tom Doyle, a pretty clear indication that he wasn’t taking anything for granted. Sounds from the presser like it was Kopa feeling a bit of muscle tightness who made that decision but, at the same time, CCM had had a few too many shots despite the 2-0 lead at HT. So bringing on a better defensive option to keep it tight, knowing that regardless of whether anything dramatic happened at the other end a clean sheet would mean three points... sounds like a worthy strategy. And that’s the way it panned out. Only the second clean sheet of the season, following a 0-0 away to Brissie in game two. Against Newcastle and Sydney the Phoenix took some shine of their wins by conceding late. Against Perth they lost the win altogether by conceding late. Here they stayed steady and secured a first win-to-nil since April 2017, which was 44 A-League games ago. That was also the last time the Nix won back to back games.
And that is why, despite not taking too many lessons from a routine win against the worst team in the comp, there’s still plenty to savour from this one. Because how often does this team get routine wins? It’s a luxury to be able to take these three points in such a non-memorable way. It will be a damned privilege to have to look up the highlights on youtube in a few months’ time to try recall who scored the goals and what happened. These things don’t tend to happen with the Phoenix. This is the first sign of that consistency which Mark Rudan’s been demanding, not settling for one good win but challenging his team to do it again and again and again. Not taking bad teams for granted and putting in professional team performances to ensure the points. Can’t have any complaints after that match.
Next week the Nix are home to Brisbane in another winnable contest. They then have three difficult away games in a row against Melbourne Victory, Adelaide and Western Sydney. Gotta stay grounded and not take this for anything more than what it was: a routine win against a rubbish Central Coast team. But… oh, would you look at that?
Fifth place (results pending)! I’m getting dizzy up here, guys.
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