‘Tis the season for gratitude and jollity. ‘Tis the season for celebration. ‘Tis the season for generosity. There was plenty of generosity from the Brisbane Roar last night which led to some Wellington Phoenix celebrations which led to all sorts of gratitude and jollity. Where’s that eggnog, my mate? ‘Tis the season, after all.
When Henrique equalised in first half injury time, I’ll admit I didn’t accept that development with the most zen-like countenance. The Nix had been really good until that moment, they’d been the team playing all the football. From the opening moments when Louis Fenton twice skipped past All Whites right back competitor Dane Ingham the tone had been set. Roy Krishna had a yarn with the ref about a potential penalty. Lots of really high energy stuff, knocking the ball around nicely in possession for once and working space to swing the ball into the box. The only issue was that they weren’t creating the out and out chances to make that dominance count where it mattered.
They did get one. Tommy Doyle with the long throw, straight out of the Anthony Hudson coaching manual, and Steven Taylor celebrated the looping header that floated over his ex-England U20 teammate Jaime Young (if you’re a follower of English footy then take a peek at some of these names, yowza)… but what actually happened was that the defender in front of him and the defender behind both got touches on it instead of him. A tinny way to take the lead but one which came about through pressure and intensity so fair enough. Only, don’t wanna be Jerry No-Fun here but…
… tell me that’s not a foul throw. Dude lifts his foot. WHERE’S YOUR PRECIOUS VAR HERE, AUSTRALIAN FOOTBALL!? (You can’t actually tell from the screenshot but I believe the video backs up my Zapruder-eque claim).
Which is why a sloppy goal conceded in injury time was such a kick in the nads. They worked so hard to take a narrow lead which, with more incision, might’ve already been two, and then coughed it up on the brink of the break. Somebody didn’t track the runner into the box, Alex Rufer by the looks of it, and bang there’s your 1-1. It’s exactly the kind of negative moment that the Nix have not reacted well to all season. Their last three games of (mostly) excellent footy has seen them face a little adversity but only a little bit. This was a situation they haven’t really dealt with yet, at least not with eleven men on the park.
So imagine the surprise when the Phoenix came out in the second half and were absolutely sublime. The main man was Sarpreet Singh, the level he played at was untouchable. Like, literally untouchable. They couldn’t touch him. He was gliding past defenders, nutmegging suckers for fun. There has been some exaggeration since then about just how good he was, I mean he was running on grass not walking on water… but for sure this could be the beginning of something beautiful if he can keep that up (relative to the Wellington Phoenix, that is). When Sarpreet Singh’s on form he makes it look so bloody easy and against Brisbane he could’ve been carrying a hot cup of tea the whole time and not spilled a drop.
But even with the step up in performance we still needed that goal to show for it so with just under an hour played, on came David Williams for Nathan Burns. The Krishna/Burns/Singh combo has been the baseline of all the quality the Nix have provided in attack this season so breaking it up was a risk, even if Burns hadn’t been up to much (other than one brief flash of genius when he waxed a defender in the first half to get into the box but another bloke stepped over in cover when his touch was too heavy). Williams, to his credit, has toiled away determinedly whenever he’s been out there… but he also hasn’t really done much else.
Until now. David Williams changed this game. He gave the Nix a bit more physicality and structure up front to complement the elusive speed and skill already there and that was all it took. His rasping shot in the 67th minute almost snuck past Young in goal but the keeps was able to parry it into the ground and away to safety, we’re talking like a centimetre lower to the ground and that shot was in. And then then in the 75th we got some Sarpreet magic skipping past defenders at will and – eureka! - Avraam Papadopoulos (who had been credited with the OG) finally came up with a way to stop him, rushing out and clattering him to the ground. But the ball rolled nicely for Williams who took a pop first time and scored a brilliant goal.
Two minutes later Roy Krishna made it 3-1 from the spot after Young had spilled a corner kick and then rugby tackled Tom Doyle. Big props to the ref there because so often you see that given as a free kick for the keeper, obstruction or whatever, but he’d already dropped the ball. He’d made the mistake which led to the collision. That ain’t Doyle’s fault. Love that call. Roy’s finish was cool as a kid on Christmas is not.
But wait, there was more. Order now and you’ll get a fourth goal for free! Sarpreet Singh got his massively deserved strike, second in two games, near the end when he whipped in a free kick on the right edge of the penalty area and the wall for some reason ducked under it. It almost feels like something the Phoenix might have been guilty of in recent times. The standing-in-a-defensive-wall version of handing in a half-arsed essay because, what’s the point, you were going to fail anyway, why bother? Parting like the red sea, to use a religiously appropriate simile. Parting like the buttons from your shirt after Christmas lunch to use a secularly appropriate simile. Take your pick, my gurus all preach inclusion.
Here are some things that a 4-1 victory means:
The Nix are four games unbeaten in a row for the first time since New Year’s Day of 2017 (three draws and a win)
The Nix have now won three games in a row for the first time since March 2015 (when they won four in a row and were undefeated in six games, part of a run of just two defeats in 5 games).
The Nix have scored four goals at home for the first time since November 2017 and just the third time in the last 43 home games.
The Nix will be in the top six as you sit down for dinner on Xmas Day.
What’s so impressive about Mark Rudan’s time so far is that even though it hasn’t been a smooth ride there have been signs of development with almost every subsequent game. Not just overall but with individual players too. Sarpreet has gotten better and better since getting dropped for that one game. Nathan Burns still isn’t scoring goals (more on that here) but he’s giving Roy Krishna plenty of help. Alex Rufer’s now played more minutes this season than his entire Phoenix career previously. Andy Durante is looking as good as he has in two years.
Tell you what, the best one at the moment has been Mandi. The more minutes he gets in his legs (remember he’s coming back from a serious injury) the sharper he looks. His passing range is crazy right now. Really helping to expand the field when the Nix have the ball (not as sure of him in defensive areas yet but that’s where Rufer is at his best). And of course the bigger picture is coming together too, game by game. Starting with a sharp keeper, then a strong defence, then a midfield who can do a few things, then the attack started battling, then the midfield joined in on attack, then the wingbacks started becoming factors… yeah, right on.
It gets tougher. The next three games are away to Melbourne Victory, Adelaide and Western Sydney all in a row. The last two games have been against the two worst teams and they proceeded to display exactly why in those particular contests. That’ll be the next test. They’ve shown they can do this consistently against crap teams, now to do what they did to Sydney a few more times… umm, good luck with that. One more reason to take things one game at a time.
Ah but how good were those last fifteen minutes against Brissie? How good was Sarpreet Singh? How good is it that Roy Krishna is only two goals off the top of the golden boot standings? How good is it taking ten points from the last four games? How good is it that Mark Rudan let us open our first Christmas present a couple days early? It truly is the most wonderful time of the year, I finally understand what Frank Sinatra was singing about all those years ago.
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Keep cool but care, Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays