A quality keeper doesn’t always get the opportunity to show their worth. You don’t really want them to, if a keeper’s getting his jersey all muddy then something’s going wrong in front of them. But when a quality keeper does show their worth, then you’re really in for a treat. Filip Kurto hardly touched the ball in the first half against Melbourne City, he was so cruisey he might as well have been a house cat lounging on the back fence. But in the second half he was a panther on the prowl.
Mark Rudan returned to his tried and true with his favourite starting XI: Kurto, Fenton, Taylor, Durante, Doyle, Cacace, Rufer, Mandi, Singh, Williams and Krishna. The first choice line-up. The numero unos. The main men. It meant back to the bench for Cillian Sheridan but he’s got to earn his minutes same as everyone else, particularly coming in midseason, and having him for a boost off the bench is great for the balance of the side.
And anyway, David Williams proved why he deserved that starting gig after just four minutes when he went kapow on a Libby Cacace ball into the area, picking out the top corner with silky magnificence. That’s a bloody difficult finish, you know. He makes it look so easy with such smooth technique but don’t be fooled. Considering that, eighty-six minutes and change later, this moment proved to be the difference… yeah, no overshadowing shall be permitted. Willo’s bought in completely to this Nix project and we’re really seeing the benefit of that with five goals in his last eight games.
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The game in the midweek saw the Nix sleepwalk through the first half and then turn it up in the second only to fail to get that crucial equaliser against Sydney FC. More on that frustrating one over here. This game was just as frustrating in many ways only flipped around the other way. The Nix were the team bossing things in the first half, with Mandi picking out forty yard passes through telekinesis and Cacace having a barnstormer down that left flank. They scored bright and early and were well in control for basically the entire forty-five… only they forgot to score that second goal.
David Williams smashed one over the top. Cacace lifted in a few lovely crosses. Doyle drew a strong save from Eugene Galekovic with a header from a free kick. Lots of corner kicks. Lots of promising passing moves on the edge of the area. Just didn’t put the final touch on anything when they really should have and they needed to against a team this good. As amazing as Kurto was in the second half, that’s how close this team was to not only blowing that fragile lead but going on to lose it too. Don’t really wanna have to rely on that level of bail-out from your keeper in a playoff game.
Still, we got a good glimpse at a much more threatening Phoenix side than in the midweek. That one-dimensional showing was just fullbacks overlapping for crosses into the box which the Sydney defence had no dramas with. Fair play to Sydney, they took away Option A by staying deep and making sure there were no killer through balls available, but the lack of alternatives were a concern. Here they had Sarpreet Singh so no worries. Even when he’s not at his best, the team are much better with him there as a pivot to play around. A facilitator. Those quick, sharp passes that keep a defence on their toes… that’s all Sarpreet. That’s what he offers.
Poor old Melbourne City don’t actually have an available striker at the moment (it’s complicated) and that meant Ritchie De Laet as a makeshift centre forward. In fairness he did score last time he played the Nix so there were worse options. But if anyone felt City were gonna feel sorry for themselves about all that then it would’ve been an uncomfortable wake-up call in the second half. Just like the midweek game only in the inverse. This time it was the Phoenix left holding on to a 1-0 lead.
Which was exactly when Kurto strolled into the club, dark sunglasses on, shirt unbuttoned halfway down, smirking and clicking his fingers at adoring mates, watching the crowd disperse around him in awe. There’s cool. There’s ice-cool. And then there’s Filip Kurto.
Long story short is that The Polish Panther saved the points for the Nix. Chuck in a league average keeper and this’d be 1-1. Chuck in someone below average and it might’ve been three or four goals against ‘em. For Melly City to leave Wellington with nothing was a bit of a stunner considering how much they improved in the second half – and it wasn’t only up top either.
Their defence was incredible, constantly exposed by their necessity to throw players forward for the leveller and yet time after time they were able to keep Roy Krishna from doing any damage on the break. He broke that defensive line on several occasions and they’d push him wider and away from goal. The one time Krishna did properly sneak through the middle, rounding Galekovic in goal, he was then shouldered off the ball by a recovering defender. The absolute tank those fellas showed to keep sprinting back on the counter was immense. Kurto was an undoubted man of the match but Harrison Delbridge and Bart Schenkeveld weren’t too far behind.
Fingernails were chewed down to the bone, seats were shifted in so much they spontaneously combusted, nerves were shredded to the point of institutionalisation and somehow the Phoenix held on to win. They should have been a lot more comfortable than they were at the break. They should also have conceded a couple more than they did after the break. Plenty of flaws in the way they went about it but, end of the day, this was one more example on a growing list of the Welly Nix finding a way to get a result against a better side. Usually they draw these ones. I’m thinking of the infamous Perth game. The last Melly Victory game. Actually the last two Melly Victory games. This time they got the points and if there was some good fortune involved in that then it was skill and preparation that put them in that position to benefit from it. Finally we’ve got a Phoenix team that doesn’t have to play at its best to win matches.
Big deal on the table too. Doesn’t feel like it should be because of the nature of the win but it closes the gap between City and the Nix to just one point, with Adelaide also in that hunt for fourth place. There’s a solid gap between sixth and seventh so merely making the playoffs shouldn’t be the target here – the Nix are playing for top four. It’s achievable and we’re deep enough into the season to admit that our initial expectations, humble as they were, need to be recalibrated.
Although… next week’s gonna be rough because Andrew Durante took one for the team with a late time-wasting yellow card here and he might have taken one for himself at the same time. A cheeky sickie, tell the boss you’ve got a cold when you’ve actually got a hangover. That kinda sickie. The yellow means he’s suspended for the next one and it so happens that next one’s away to top-of-the-table Perth Glory all the way on the other side of the Australian continent. Not for a second accusing Dura of deliberately timing the suspension to miss a particular game like that… but it does feel like something Mark Rudan wouldn’t discourage. Take every advantage. Would imagine we see Dylan Fox in his place (wouldn’t want Doyle and Kopa both in the same back three, not enough CB experience there), although Ryan Lowry has played a couple solid games for the WeeNix and might present a case to the contrary.
I’ll say this: the Nix need to be better if they’re going to consistently win games against other top six sides. Too many wasted chances when they were on top and way waaay waaaaaay too much pressure coming back on them when they weren’t. Full ninety minute performances have been a rarity even over that nine-game unbeaten streak of theirs, and lately they’re having to work way too hard for it with entire halves of subpar quality. But if they’re winning games like this with room to improve then all’s good in the hood.
I’ll also quietly admit that Filip Kurto’s David De Gea impersonation wouldn’t have been possible if the City fellas had struck one of them shots perfectly in the corner of the goal. It does take a hint of imperfect finishing for any keeper to do what Colonel Kurtz just did. Lots went their way for this result and that’s the Phoenix’s fault for not removing chance from the ingredients list when they had the… well, chance.
Which is funny because in the midweek they had two enormous slices of luck go their way with a couple extremely debatable penalty calls… and they still lost. Football can be a funky old game like that.
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