A few weeks back the Wellington Phoenix played Melbourne City at AAMI Park in Melbourne and they barely looked like scoring on the way to a 2-0 defeat so comfortable that it almost cured my insomnia. A month and a half later they played the Melbourne Victory at the same venue and it might have been their best performance yet. Times are changing pretty fast under Mark Rudan’s leadership.
I say the best performance yet even despite them conceding an equaliser with fifteen minutes left that ended their three-game winning streak. It was far from their best result, the 3-0 win away to Sydney is going to be hard to top in that regard. But this game was way more indicative of what’s going on at the Welly Nix. The Sydney win was lightning in a bottle. It was as stunning as it was unexpected. They then won handily against the two worst teams on the ladder, sweet as, gotta take out the trash on rubbish day (and the Phoenix know this better than anyone because usually that’s them). But after four solid performances in a row there was no way that Melbourne Victory were going to take the Nix lightly. This one was going to happen on honest terms. Away from home against a championship candidate. The real deal, as they say. Nowhere to hide.
And the Nix were absolutely up for it, giving as good as they got and more for a full ninety minutes of rapid and entertaining football. It was a proper old draw. Not a boring stalemate but a game with two teams that dug in for the long haul and ultimately couldn’t be separated. Both teams fancied their ability to make things happen on the counter attack and while there were many crunching tackles and way too many fouls, it wasn’t a dirty game. It was a committed game, a maximum effort game (as you’d expect from two teams coached by Kevin Muscat and Mark Rudan). By the end of it both sides looked exhausted… in fact the Nix were looking exhausted with ten minutes left to play.
If you want to know the difference between this Nix team and previous ones then there are three moments from this game that sum that up. One was when Andy Durante slipped over against a counter attack and let Kosta Barbarouses sprint past him down the right of defence. But Dura hauled himself up, sprinted forty metres to catch up with the speedy All Whites striker, and slid in just in time to block his shot.
Another came with just a minute remaining on the clock and the Phoenix holding on, Filip Kurto had made a sharp save to deny Barbarouses but the ball fell for Terry Antonis who lined up the first time shot and then out of nowhere came Michal Kopczynski sliding in to block him. That’s an effort play if ever you’ve seen one, a substitute putting his body on the line.
Speaking of putting your body on the line, nobody embodied that better than Steven Taylor when he blocked a long range effort with a diving header. I mean… I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before in my life.
As if he wasn’t lovable enough already, aye?
The central defence has been solid most of the season, so no shocker that they were on top form against Melly Vix, same as Filip Kurto in goal who has such good awareness of where his goal is that he can get away with his elaborate dives in the direction of shots that are already flying wide. Dude’s got great hands on the occasions he’s needed to rush out and pluck crosses out of the air plus he just doesn’t seem to make mistakes. Really solid keeper who is already justifying the use of an import spot on a goalie. But what was really impressive here was that middle line of four. And for once the fullbacks were advanced enough that you could really call it a line of four.
Last week was Sarpreet Singh’s big breakout game. He wasn’t as effective here in difficult away conditions but he toiled away. No worries, this was Libby Cacace’s turn to shine. Libby’s had the same rise as Singh. He cracked the top team at around the same time (albeit with less of a chorus demanding his inclusion) and had a similarly sketchy start to the campaign, like all the rest of them. But same as Singh he’s been a fixture in the team since they found their way. And away in Melbourne he just had his best game in a Phoenix jersey, getting forward and being a factor in the final third without abandoning his duties as a defender, always solid in possession and making really dependable decisions. Easy to forget that Cacace and Singh are both still teenagers when they can look so comfortable at this level on their day.
Of course, Cacace’s role out on that left flank is made easier by how well organised the team has become around him. He gets that ball out wide and he’s got three options to pass to, with his favourite being that midfielder square of him that opens up the rest of the field without having to go backwards. Alex Rufer and Mandi have gotten so good at that. Always being there for the simple pass - perfect midfield play in this formation.
Then chuck in Rufer’s defensive enforcer emergence and Mandi’s passing range and we’ve got a lot to work with. At least with Mandi that was expected of him. He’s a Spanish pro who spent time with the Real Madrid academy – it goes without saying that he’d been clever and technically excellent, his case was more about fitness and motivation. However getting Alex Rufer playing at this standard might just be Rudan’s best achievement so far. We’re not even missing Matt Ridenton. Roof’s been outstanding the last few weeks.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t really like the one change that Mark Rudan made to his starting team: David Williams in for Nathan Burns. I get why he did it and David Williams definitely deserved a boost after his match-altering cameo off the bench last week. It’s just that I really liked him in that role, I didn’t see the need to change it (especially not with a limited bench as it is). Nathan Burns might not be scoring goals but he’s playing quite well and freeing up Roy Krishna to do what he does, so maybe it wasn’t a surprise that, a couple dashes in behind the defence aside, this wasn’t Roy’s best game as he tried to revive a partnership with Willo that didn’t look so flash in the first few tries. But then David Williams went and did this (right at the time I was pining for Burnsy to be subbed on) and that’s why Mark Rudan’s getting the big bucks and not me. (SUPPORT TNC ON PATREON!).
A bummer that they didn’t hold on for the win but we got the result that the game deserved and that’s why the performance was so impressive. Melbourne Victory turned up to play. They weren’t helped by a couple injuries along the way but they caused plenty of attacking threat and defended well. This wasn’t a case of catching them off guard. This was the Nix going to one of the best teams out there and matching them on their own turf. Put it simply, it might have only yielded one point but this was the best indication yet that Mark Rudan’s Phoenix team is for real.
The goal they conceded was probably a little overdue by the time Ola Toivonen slipped it into the net. When you only score one then you can’t expect to win, you’re simply a moment of magic or disaster away from 1-1. The Nix were fifteen minutes away from victory against the Victory but it wasn’t like they choked the game away or anything. This result would feel the same if you swapped the timing of the two goals around.
Mark Rudan promised a team that would be tough to beat and what do you know here they are at New Years five games unbeaten and sitting in the top six. Yes they’ve beaten the two bottom teams in that stretch but they’ve also taken five points off the top three in the same run. We’re a long way from the playoffs still at only a third of the way through the season and things can change for the negative as quickly as they have for the positive, so forgive me if I admit this still feels a little like the first act of a Black Mirror episode… but the efficiency with which Mark Rudan has turned this team around is continually astounding.
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