The Welly Nix’s Unbeaten Streak Endures After A Breathless Ninety Minutes In Melbourne

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Tell you what, amongst everything else that was a just remarkably entertaining game of football. Six goals, with late drama and heaps to discuss. Plenty of tactical nuance and a liquorice all-sorts of frantic and enthralling football. Melbourne Victory vs Wellington Phoenix… all that was missing was the extra time at the end of it to sort us out. Can’t look too far ahead in this league so forecasting any kind of semi-final would be ludicrous… but the Wellington Phoenix are competing with sides like Melbourne Victory, sides whose seasons depend on winning the whole damn thing. The dream is alive and well.

Mark Rudan’s starting team was the same XI that began the opening game of the season, that portentous 2-1 win over Newcastle Jets. Oh how the times have changed. The three points came scrappily that day, catching last season’s beaten finalists on an off day. The squad felt stretched and unconvincing. These days the points seem to flow like fine wine down the throat of a Grecian God (albeit with none of the carefree entitlement that image suggests – these buggers work hard for their money) and every single player in that eleven is in top form. Many of them in career-best form. Can’t speak for the imports obviously but Sarpreet Singh, Libby Cacace, Louis Fenton, Alex Rufer… Roy Krishna for damn sure… are playing at a level beyond what anyone thought capable a few months back.

A rapid start saw Roy Krishna test out the gloves of Lawrence Thomas in goal with an early header and the Nix, away from home against the defending champs, were looking sharp. Or at least they were right up until they weren’t because this is a bloody excellent team they were playing and a momentary lapse can be a killer. It was Andy Durante who did it, rushing out of defence as he so often does but failing to win the ball… which was played out wide to Kosta Barbarouses and Dura could never make up the ground on Ola Toivonen’s run, with the Swede delicately chipping over Filip Kurto for the fifth minute lead. For a split second it looked like it was too delicate and that Steven Taylor might hack it off the line but, alas, no beans. Stevie’s got a million positive aspects to his game but pace is not one of them. And that lack of pace at the back which is the one glaring flaw no matter who’s playing in the back three was exposed plenty of times but guys like Kosta, Toivonen, James Troisi and an array of attacking subs.

Back in those early days of the season the Nix were mud when they conceded first. Heads dropped and eyes got a little teary. It was like one goal down it’s only going to get worse from here. Nowadays they’ve proved over and over again that they’ll keep battling from anywhere and it only took two minutes before Louis Fenton skipped down behind the defence and squared for David Williams to level. Not the most alert defending from Thomas Deng (who had some superb moments, particularly in the second half), to be fair, but more quality from Fenton in the attacking third. He was probably the last of the crew to arrive at the maximum form party but that’s only because he likes to make a fashionably late entrance.

The other thing about this Nix team is that Roy Krishna is playing like a young Pele got into the kava bowl. They can be pragmatic, they can be a bit exuberant in the tackle (which is a euphemism… but not in that way), they can still be a bit silly at times too… but with Krishna playing as well as this they are always going to be exciting to watch. Between him and Kosta Barbarouses, who scored a hatty midweek and was a real handful all game here, we might have just witnessed the two in-form strikers of the A-League at the mo’ (and neither of them is Australian!). Krishna for sure because after some quick feet earned a penalty in the 20th min, which he dutifully smashed down the middle to score, he then popped up with another on the rebound in the 28th to make it three games in a row with a double. Never happened before in the A-League. Three braces… a triple-double. Just call him the Russell Westbrook of the Pacific.

And this, let me remind you, was with Cillian Sheridan still sitting on the bench. Mr Sherry the Shepherd/Sheriff did eventually get a run in the second half after Williams pulled up sore, by then the Nix were hanging on a bit after Troisi had polished of a sweet move to make it 3-2 on 55 mins. The home side had a big crowd on their side and they weren’t holding back. Surging forward they made life difficult for Louis Fenton and Libby Cacace in particular, looking to get in behind the fullbacks as the Nix had in the first half. With each side trying to crowd the middle it was those flanks where the vulnerabilities lay. About three times Tom Doyle tried to cash in his Take One For The Team card with professional fouls but it took him until the third time to actually pull it off and get the yellow card. He was then pretty promptly subbed off… sitting on a yellow with Kosta Barbarouses sprinting at you is hardly ideal and Dylan Fox, to his credit, came in and won header after header.

Sheridan had one moment to shine however Deng made a magical sliding block to deny him. Still the Nix didn’t sit back. They didn’t have to either because in the middle of the park they had Alex Rufer fresh from a week off and intent on winning every single tackle he attempted. I’m gonna assume he didn’t actually hit that perfect strike-rate but I’m bloody stumped if I can remember a challenge he didn’t win. Honestly, the strides that bloke has taken this season have been unbelievable. If there’s a most improved award given out at the end of the term then he’s at the top of a very crowded list for the Welly Nix. The way he uses his body to shield the ball, the cheeky bits of skill that come from having come up as an attacking player, the positional discipline that he’s picked up so swiftly, the physicality he brings to every act (you never see him pushed around anymore, never). Dude’s a marvel and he had to trial just to earn this contract. Sarpreet Singh’s form has been immense (not his best game here, granted) but he was showing these signs a year ago. Alex Rufer was not. Alex Rufer is Mark Rudan’s finest project.

Michal Kopczynski also came on to spare Mandi of his defensive duties and give him a rest after a couple weeks on the sideline. Nobody knocks the ball around better than Mandi in this team but as a midfielder he’s not so polished out of possession. Kopa is more of a scrapper so fair enough. Perhaps the subs came a little late though, as the Victory turned the screws looking for that equaliser. Eventually they found it too. Kosta Barbarouses breaking hearts back in his old stomping ground.

And yet this didn’t really feel like two points dropped. The Nix were 3-1 up and conceded the leveller in the 88th minute but it was one of those games where it always felt like a goal was coming and no lead was safe unless you kept adding to it. The Nix certainly didn’t shut up shop… but they also got pretty thoroughly forced onto the back foot in that second half. And fair play where it oughta be – the Victory scored three lovely goals. Hence a point in Melbourne still feels like a point earned. It feels like a fair point on the basis of the game as a whole… and to be able to say that after a trip away to the defending champs would have been unthinkable before the season.

I dunno, I’m just so impressed at how many of these dudes are firing all at once. Roy Krishna is a legit golden boot contender and that Johnny Warren Medal would look nice around his neck too if he keeps this up, just quietly. Alex Rufer was remarkable and eight months ago I’d have given you better odds on him leaving the club than staying. Andrew Durante hasn’t played this well in years. I could go on and on but what’s the point?

The only fella who hasn’t drunk from Mark’s Secret Stuff yet seems to be Nathan Burns, who was conspicuous by his absence from that team sheet. With Mitch Nichols gone there really isn’t anywhere left to hide for Burnsy… who had been playing quite well but wasn’t getting the goals to show for it. David Williams came in and did get the goals. Now Cillian Sheridan has pushed him further down the pecking order. Tough one.

This unbeaten streak won’t last forever. It’s up to nine games now but in the next week they host both Sydney FC and Melbourne City before travelling to Perth Glory in the first week of February. Eventually they’re going to lose one and it’ll probably sting. But if you haven’t seen enough over the last nine games to believe in this side as a legit top six team than may I suggest you try stepping off the bus? Still ages to go and anything could happen. But there’s no more need for negativity on this ride.

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